Why Evil? How Perpetrators Think

I wanted to return to this question of evil that I picked up in some of my earlier posts.  (Towards a Unified Theory of Evil, Madness in our Midst.)

I agree with Hannah Arendt—harming others is against our basic natures.  Otherwise, murder would be a lot more common than it is and no one would have turned my phone in after I left it on the bus two weeks ago.  Temptation, for most of us, is a small voice.  The big voice is to do right.

Consequently, we don’t very often find ourselves wiping out whole communities, murdering our own children, or torturing prisoners.  When evil occurs, witnesses are usually shocked and appalled—as if they’ve seen something unusual.  Because it is unusual.

Christopher Allen Carlson, convicted of abusing his 3 young grandsons during a 27 mile hike through the Grand Canyon without food or water, claimed he was “toughening them up.” Source: Indianapolis State Police/AP Photos.

According to Ervin Staub, evil on that scale isn’t commonplace because harming others hurts us.  Like other human experiences, the pain of the victim is somewhat contagious; we feel empathic distress when we see the intense suffering of others. If we aren’t powerful enough or brave enough to help, we feel guilty on top of that.  So, harming others is painful and unpleasant for us, and that makes causing harm difficult.  There are inhibiting factors that first need to be overcome.

Namely, we need to either diminish our empathic distress or guilt or both.  What I’ve noticed throughout my life is that the strategies people use in order to accomplish these two aims are remarkably similar to one another—even in very dissimilar situations and often regardless of the scale of the harm being done.  People justify a single incident of assault in ways strikingly similar to the ways nations justify genocide.  We suppress our capacities for empathy and for discerning between good and evil in only a small number of ways.

Female relatives of 12-year-old schoolboy Ayoub Asalya, grieve during his funeral in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip
Picture: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images. Israel nearly justifies air strikes on Palestinian targets (which generally strike civilians) as retaliation for Palestinian aggression.

Blaming the victim is one such strategy: Conscience usually allows for punishment of an individual who has transgressed the rules of society.  Many perpetrators exaggerate or fabricate the transgressions of their victims, or construct rules known only to themselves so that they believe that the victim has broken them.

In the mind of perpetrators, their crimes then become not crimes, but justice.  Lack of conscience can masquerade as a distorted conscience.  There are still rules.  Just the wrong ones.

Society also allows us to harm those we don’t consider to be human.  It is okay for me to chop up a piece of wood to make a table.  It is not acceptable for me to chop up a human being and construct a table that way.  Tbe closer I come to imagining a human being as a piece of wood, the more easily I can evade my conscience in order to harm that person.

Animals seem to lie along a continuum.  Worms, for example, are okay to jam live onto fishing hooks and then submerge completely in water.  I doubt very much that most of us would be comfortable doing that to a gorilla.  Regardless, exploitation of animals for valuable products is usually seen as acceptable by most people; it is not universally considered wrong to slaughter and eat animals as long is it is done relatively humanely.  However, torturing them is.

Avram and Emanuel Rosenthal wearing Stars of David in the Kovno ghetto. Labeling began the process of dehumanizing Jews during the Third Reich. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Thinking of a person as an animal usually starts that process towards the slippery slope of harm.  And many perpetrators do this, mentally placing victims outside of the realm of what they consider to be human.  The Nazis most famously and tragically utilized this method during the Holocaust.  Racial slurs continue to rely on this strategy.

These are mainly examples of failures of conscience, although these distorted ways of thinking allow us to feel less empathy for victims as well.  However, we can also diminish the impact of empathy on ourselves by refusing to see or acknowledge the harm to the victim.

Perpetrators often do this, refusing to see the harm they are causing even when it is clearly visible to see.  So, a rape victim doesn’t mean it when she says no.  The abused child is crying to be manipulative when he is in real emotional and mental pain.  The beaten spouse is being dramatic and overly emotional.  None of them are in real pain.  Except they are.

I find failures of empathy more disturbing than failures of conscience, even though they are linked and lead to the same ends.  Perhaps empathy is closer to the heart of what it means to be human in my mind–or even just what it means to be alive and a part of the world.  Given the right techniques, it isn’t that hard to warp a person’s conscience into supporting a set of rules that are deeply inhuman.  But it takes only the smallest fragment of a conscience to understand that inflicting suffering is wrong.  Even my cat doesn’t hurt me when she bites.


Arendt, H. (1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil.  New York: Penguin.

Burton, Connor.  (2012, June 14).  ABC News.  Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/US/grandpa-christopher-carlson-27-months-jail-grand-canyon/story?id=16570399#.UGEfyI2PUqg

Staub, E.  (1992).  The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Telegraph. (2012, September 25.)  Israel Air Strikes and Gaza and Palestinian Rocket Strikes. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/9138976/Israeli-air-strikes-on-Gaza-and-Palestinian-rocket-attacks.html?frame=2165818

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  http://www.ushmm.org/holocaust/


One thought on “Why Evil? How Perpetrators Think

  1. gavinpandion March 20, 2013 / 6:26 pm

    “I find failures of empathy more disturbing than failures of conscience, even though they are linked and lead to the same ends.”

    I feel the same way. I developed a blog entry just about pain-silencing dynamics to address some of this, narrowing the focus down to the way bystanders reflexively minimize the physical pain experienced by others, in a variety of unthinking ways. Empathy may be the stronger force when compared with outright cruelty, but we also seem to have a lot of built-in techniques for modulating the level of empathy and compassion that we offer to others, perhaps to avoid being too easily emotionally overwhelmed.

    This is the entry on pain-silencing, drawing mostly on ideas from a book by Elaine Scarry that uses torture technique as a case in point but also looks at medical pain skepticism and the phenomenology of pain as an important topic in studying the structure of metaphors in literature ranging from the Bible to the writings of Karl Marx.


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