In fall 2001, I taught a sociology class at WVU-Tech. The semester had barely started when the 9/11 terrorist attacks shook the world.
That prompted me to look at the social science of how and why people can be cruel to each other. A good resource was social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister’s 1997 study, “Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.”
According to Baumeister, “Evil requires the deliberate actions of one person, the suffering of another, and the perception or judgment of either the second person or an observer. Very few people see their own actions as evil ...”
Since evil is largely in the eye of the beholder, victims and perpetrators have vastly different perspectives on it. For the latter, it’s usually “not that big a deal,” while to the victim it’s a huge deal. Baumeister calls this difference the “magnitude gap,” and it’s one reason why acts of revenge are often out of proportion to the original offense. Violence is often a spiral, not a cycle.
One thing that keeps us from understanding evil and dealing with it is what he calls “the myth of pure evil,” which we pick up from sources such as myths, comic books, action movies, etc.
According to this, evil involves the intentional infliction of harm for the pleasure of doing it. Victims are all innocent and good, and perpetrators are all evil. Evil is always “the other, the enemy, the outsider, the out-group.”
One problem with this is that, in any given war or conflict, both sides see each other in terms of the myth. Perpetrators usually see themselves as victims.
According to Baumeister, “the myth of pure evil conceals the reciprocal causality of violence. By doing so, it probably increases the violence. The myth of pure evil depicts innocent victims fighting against gratuitously wicked, sadistic enemies. The myth encourages people to believe that they are good and will remain good no matter what, even if they perpetrate severe harm on their opponents. Thus, the myth of pure evil confers a kind of moral immunity on people who believe in it ... belief in the myth is itself one recipe for evil, because it allows people to justify violent and oppressive actions. It allows evil to masquerade as good.”
Baumeister identified four types of evil: instrumental, egotism/revenge, idealism and sadism. Fortunately, sadism — cruelty for the fun of it — is the rarest form. Most people don’t enjoy inflicting harm on others, although it gets easier with repetition. It appears to be an acquired taste, with some of the same mechanisms of addiction.
Far more common is instrumental evil, i.e., doing harm to gain other ends, such as money or power. Examples could include killing or hurting someone for money, organized crime, a government that mistreats people to keep power, etc.
His view of egotism and revenge challenges common assumptions. It’s often asserted that harm is committed by people with low self-esteem. He suggests, rather, that many violent individuals, groups, political movements and countries have high but fragile self-esteem and lash out violently whenever this is challenged:
“The people (or groups or countries) most prone to violence are the ones who are most susceptible to ego threats, especially those who have inflated, exalted opinions of themselves or whose normally high self-esteem does occasionally take a nosedive.”
Wounded egotism usually seeks a revenge that is entirely out of proportion to the original offense.
Then there’s the violence of idealism and true believers. As Bob Dylan said, “you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.” When people think they are on the side of good and their enemies are evil, they feel morally justified in using extreme violence and cruelty.
“Human nature inclines people to align themselves in groups that square off against each other, each group seeing itself as good and the other as bad. Group competition can evolve into brutal conflict in which each side sincerely sees itself as the good guys who need to take strong measures to defeat the forces of evil that oppose them.”
Evil doesn’t generally appear all at once in fully developed form. It starts with a loss of self- or social control. “Many instances of profound evil begin with a small, ambiguous act that crosses a fuzzy line and then escalates gradually into even greater levels of violence.”
For example, the Ku Klux Klan began with a group of bored young men seeking amusement by mischief and practical jokes. The Nazi holocaust came at the end of a long progression of gradually escalating abuses. Often, Nazi leaders would pause at each stage to gauge world reaction before escalating violence.
Groups can be especially dangerous, because, in them, “evil escalates as the members bring out one another’s worst impulses, lose track of individual responsibility and reinforce one another’s wavering faith in the broad justifications for what they are doing.”
There’s no magic bullet to make evil go away, but understanding it is a good first step, and Baumeister’s work is a good place to start. He argues that bystanders can have a huge effect and “a responsibility to protest evil, because it will grow unchecked if they do not ... the victims of evil and violence depend on bystanders to bear witness to what is happening and take a stand against it. It is the only way.”