I’ve often wondered why some people choose evil. We all have the free will to choose good over evil even when greed, power, hatred, and the need for self-importance tempt us to choose evil. Some individuals resist the temptations and others do not. What are the distinguishing factors that lead some toward evil and others toward righteousness?
Fear is a motivation that causes many to resist evil temptations. If we believe in religion or a higher power, the fear of punishment ensures that we will choose good over evil. For some, evil is not even considered as an option. It is simply out of the question. On the other hand, if certain individuals do not believe in God or eternal life, the present becomes more important than an uncertain future. The benefits offered by greed and power offer immediate gains that can be rationalized as self-interest.
The ones who are overcome by evil do not consider self-interest bad. They ignore the people who are hurt by their actions and they do not think it is their “job” to consider the needs or feelings of others. They do not believe that we are all connected and they are incapable of empathy. The welfare of their neighbors is unimportant and irrelevant. Self-interest is often exaggerated by viewing the self as superior to others. They intentionally say things that they know will cause pain.
Some evil people are driven by hatred and revenge. They believe these emotions cannot be controlled and they often see themselves as victims of injustice. If they believe that the world “owes” them something, they feel justified in hurting others. They see it as retribution instead of evil.
Some people wonder why God “allows” the presence of evil in this world – wasn’t the messiah supposed to put an end to evil? Yet, God does not allow evil or disallow it; He only gives us free will. Scott Peck refers to evil as a “failed experiment.” If we view our Creator like a scientist, then an evil soul is an experiment that has “room for improvement…and we have as much to learn from failed experiments as from successful ones.”
In fact, the people who are tempted by evil have the greatest opportunity for transformation; and many believe that in the “eyes” of our Creator, a transformation is more sacred than a person who has been righteous his entire life. In The Way, Michael Berg tells the following story: Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov was a very righteous man. One day he happened to have a conversation with a very evil person. Rabbi Yitzchak considered the man and said, ‘I envy you.’ The evil man, knowing the rabbi’s reputation, laughed, ‘why would you possibly envy me?’ And the rabbi replied, ‘Because if you change, you have more potential to reveal the Light of the Creator than I do.”
Evil intentions live in a person’s soul. They thrive and grow and eventually have a life of their own. These people feel controlled by evil and do not think they have the power to overcome negativity. They rationalize their actions through excuses -- society, their parents, and the inherent inequities of the world are to blame. They are unable to take responsibility for their actions and are too weak to change. In this case, they feel that evil chooses them.
Evil people fail to realize that they are creating a personal hell. Bitterness, negativity and hatred are not emotions that make us happy. The people who live with these emotions may feel power by achieving unethical victories and their wealth may increase -- but they must live with their own unhappiness even if it remains unrecognized. As a result of their immorality, they lose friends and others do not trust them. Unfortunately, these people have never realized that true happiness is based on our relationships with others; not on power, greed or wealth.
We all know right from wrong and our conscience never sets us free. Even if evil people don’t recognize their personal hell, their guilt still haunts them (unless they do not have a conscience). It appears in their dreams and their unhappiness subliminally affects every action and emotion. As they approach death, they realize that all their “accomplishments” were in vein. When they are lying on their deathbed, the money and power are worthless. They finally realize the value of all the relationships that were lost and they simply feel alone and unfulfilled. We all need to feel that we contributed something positive to this world. If our achievements help us at someone else’s expense, we have done nothing worthwhile -- if we help others to become better people, we have done more than our share. Since like attracts like, evil people tend to spend time with others who are similar to themselves. They don’t help others evolve; instead, they provide encouragement for a downward spiral that leads to the abyss of negativity.
Evil people do not actually recognize their own evil. They would never classify themselves as bad people. Every action and thought has a reason and they believe their actions are appropriately justified. Yet, they can never really love anyone but themselves. Without love, life has no purpose. They can create purpose through their work, but eventually they know that external events are never enough. The initial thrill dies and they feed their evil by hurting others. Their hatred becomes their substitute for love.
Some evil people rape, kill and steal but these actions are not always done by people who are evil. According to Scott Peck, “During my career as a psychiatrist, I spent some time working in prisons with convicted criminals. While many think that the problem of evil is confined to those who are locked up, seldom have I experienced inmates as truly evil people. Obviously they are destructive, and usually repeatedly so. But there is a kind of randomness to their destructiveness. Moreover, although they generally deny responsibility for their evil deeds, there is still a quality of openness to their wickedness.” Scott Peck believes that the truly evil usually reside outside of jail. In the Road Less Traveled and Beyond, he cites an example of a boy who committed suicide with a .22 rifle. The younger brother felt responsible for his brother’s death because of brotherly feuds and disagreements -- he just didn’t understand the reasons for the suicide. He began judging himself as evil and his parents did nothing to try to explain the suicide or to relieve the younger brother of his guilt. He was also not taken to a therapist. At Christmas, this boy’s “big” present was the gun that had killed his brother, which sent a chilling message to the young child, and he began to feel more responsible for his brother’s suicide. He couldn’t help wondering why his parents had given him the gun – were they implying that he deserved the same fate? His parents committed an atrocity by giving him this gun but they did not believe the action was evil. Although these people acted with extreme evil, they never considered themselves evil people.
Another example of misunderstood evil was related to me by a close friend. His mother gave birth to him but due to the embarrassment that she was not married; my friend was raised by his grandparents until he was five years old. When he asked his grandparents where he came from, they told him that they found him in a trashcan. He spent the first five years of his life believing that his natural parents threw him away. To this day, he has severe problems with self-esteem. When I asked him whether his grandparents loved him, he replied, “Yes, they loved me, they gave me presents all the time.” He could not disassociate materialism from affection. He further told me that his parents and grandparents continued to tell him that he would never succeed at anything. He loved being a drummer but he was told that he was too fat to be a drummer. Due to evil words and severe condemnation, he grew up believing that he was never good enough, that love was represented through material possessions and that he must have done something horrible to cause his parents to throw him away. Unfortunately, these types of evil actions happen more often than we think.
Most of us would say that we have never met anyone who was truly evil because evil is often hard to recognize. Evil hides in intentions that are hidden from others. The most evil people we know may also appear to be the kindest. The act of kindness can be used as a way to manipulate or to take advantage of others. Even if we discover the evil acts, we justify it as an aberration or we blame ourselves. We just don’t want to believe that some people in our lives are truly evil.
History often exposes evil people, but at the time, these leaders were not considered evil at all. The Germans loved Hitler; they gave their lives for him; and the children sang songs to praise him. Even Osama Bin Laden’s followers do not think he is evil – they just believe he is effectively supporting their beliefs. During the Holy Crusades and the Inquisition, the leaders were considered sacred, instead of evil.
Extreme insecurity that results in sadism or narcissism often leads to the presence of evil in very different ways. Sadists are evil because they classify other individuals as “inferior” and they receive fulfillment when these “inferior” people suffer (either psychologically or physically). They purposely hurt others in a never-ending pursuit to convince themselves of their superiority. In essence, they simply make themselves feel more important by putting others down. Relative to other people, they find their own “greatness.” They disguise their self-hatred and subconscious feelings of inadequacy by convincing themselves that others are beneath them. Their evil is expressed through hatred, anger, criticism, abuse, prejudice and violence. It is a belligerent, barbaric form of evil where they are the aggressors.
Narcissists live in a world that is monopolized by their own interests and concerns. These are the people who talk about themselves and their problems incessantly. Since their world revolves around only them, others are insignificant and thus, others’ interests are irrelevant. Narcissists usually express evil by manipulating others for their own gain or avoidance, rather than through overt aggression. Others are seen as pawns who can be used or sacrificed to accomplish the narcissists’ goals. Narcissists overcompensate for their subconscious self-hatred through an inflated ego and by believing that other people are inconsequential or unimportant. Relative to their inflated view of “self,” they find their own “greatness.” Their lives are ruled by fantasies and false perceptions of self-importance. Narcissists express a more sophisticated form of evil and often they see themselves as victims. The following chart summarizes the similarities and differences of sadism and narcissism.
The evil expressed through Nazism incorporated both narcissism and sadism. Narcissistic tendencies made the Nazis believe that Aryans were vastly superior and other races were either inconsequential or inferior. Undoubtedly, Nazis had an obsessively inflated view of their self-importance. At the same time, sadism was expressed through psychotic supremacy attitudes that were ingrained in their psyches as they embraced their condescending beliefs that others were beneath them. Their sadism led to the mass prejudice and humiliation of the Jews and the overt aggression, brutality and murder in the concentration camps. Jews were seen as sub-human, which made the Nazis believe in their exaggerated importance; and the degradation of Jews made them feel better about themselves. The German people probably weren’t narcissistic or sadistic. They were simply a battered society that had lost confidence in themselves after World War I. They needed to increase their feelings of self-importance and the narcissism of Nazism allowed them to do this. Many leaders on the other hand, were probably narcissists or sadists; depending on what position they held. The sadists ended up controlling the concentration camps and their sadistic tendencies were unleashed on millions of “inferior” people. Many of the camp commanders and SS officers received great pleasure from humiliating and brutalizing the inmates. On the other hand, the narcissists probably ended up leading military units. Their inflated views of self-worth allowed them to believe in their superiority, which enhanced the capabilities of the armed forces. Hitler was both a narcissist and a sadist so he appealed to both types of personalities. The combination of accepted narcissism and sadism led to a presence of evil that was unprecedented on this planet.
This type of narcissism and sadism was not exclusive to Nazi Germany or far off times. In the 1960’s, Blacks were humiliated, taunted and murdered due to the same type of narcissism and sadism. Charles Manson was also an extreme narcissist and pathological sadist. His followers were vulnerable to his brainwashing because Manson’s form of narcissism alleviated their own insecurities. There were many similarities between Manson and Hitler; thus, it is not surprising that Charles Manson was obsessed with reading literature about Hitler. Similar manipulation tactics were used to instigate some of the most evil acts ever witnessed in the 20th century.
It is difficult to disassociate narcissism from sadism because they are very similar. Some people are exclusively narcissists but most sadists have narcissistic tendencies. In other words, narcissists can believe that they are the center of the world without receiving pleasure from other people’s suffering. They are more concerned that their own gratification is ensured. Other people do not have to be harmed to achieve their objectives (unless they get in the way or are needed for certain aspirations). However, sadism usually starts with narcissism because deriving pleasure from others’ suffering is accompanied by an attitude of supremacy and an inflated ego. This form of narcissism is then followed by the need to put others down to obtain continuous feelings of superiority (like a drug addict who must continually feed an addiction). The continuum extends from there. Eventually, the harmful insults may be exacerbated to include taunting, humiliation, degradation, abuse (psychological and physical) and violence. Extreme evil occurs when narcissism and sadism are fully integrated together.
Many narcissists and sadists still live in the world today and individuals who are similar to the “evil Nazis” are living respectable lives in a more humane society. Their evil tendencies cannot erupt into brutality because there is not an accepted outlet for expression. In modern society, their evil is more subtle and their aggression is more subverted. Yet, they are still among us and under the right conditions, the sadism and narcissism can transform itself into massive cruelty and extreme evil.
All of us have committed evil acts because we are not perfect. At what point is the deed distinguished from a person’s character? If someone commits 100 evil acts, is this person evil? Or does it take 1,000 evil acts to define an evil character? Actually, the number is misleading; the person who does 100 things wrong could also do 10,000 things right. Evil is a state of mind, not an external evaluation. Some evil people do not do anything that is blatantly wrong. Their intentions are cruel and they end up hurting people’s feelings beyond repair. Their rationalization for the pain is that a person chooses to be hurt; words cannot cause pain if they are ignored. The key question is whether the person wants to help or harm others. Evil people desire harm.
Some people seem to be born evil. Even as children, they commit evil acts that shock and horrify their parents and friends. People who believe in reincarnation explain this condition as a character trait that was developed in previous lives. If the reincarnated soul is comfortable with evil, he or she is likely to repeat it.
The conundrum is not why someone chooses evil over good because the temptations for evil present themselves continually. The real question is why the majority chooses good over evil when it is clearly the harder path. People who are good do not believe that it is difficult to do the right thing. They understand that pleasure and happiness are derived by helping others. They choose to reject evil because they could never live with themselves or the guilt. At the end of the day, we answer to no one except ourselves. If we cannot live with our actions, we cannot live at all. Other individuals are “good” because they believe in karma. Positive actions “erase” negative ones and they believe that the positive energy will eventually come back to them. Furthermore, many of these people believe in an afterlife. They know that no action remains hidden from the universe. They could not face their guides or creator if they were uncomfortable with their behavior on earth. We can create our own hells in the afterlife and these people do not want to go to a self-created state of misery and regret.
I have often wondered whether many people who refrain from killing would murder if there were no laws. Do people avoid murder because they are afraid of the legal consequences of getting caught or do they avoid it because they know it is wrong? I think the answer is a mixture of both. In a state of anarchy, many “righteous” citizens would murder for hatred, revenge or greed. If they knew there would be no earthly consequences for their actions, they may choose to kill. Others could never kill a human being even without a legal system. These people believe that the consequences for their actions are more comprehensive than lawyers, courtrooms and jails. These people will do the right thing without a law requiring them to do so. We all must live with ourselves and we should never do anything that we aren’t proud of. If we fail from time to time, we have to be committed to change. At the end of the day, we need to be able to look in the mirror and be happy with the person we’ve become.
None of us are free from evil. We only have the power to resist it or to feel remorse when we succumb to its power. We also need to know how to recognize evil in others. Statements about hatred and revenge are obvious clues. We need to distance ourselves from these negative emotions because they can become attached to us even if we don’t desire it. I’ve been around extremely negative people and I find that my body physically reacts to the contaminated energy. This is a form of “people pollution.” I find myself backing away from them subconsciously and limiting contact to a minimum. My arguments against hatred and revenge are ignored by these people, so I know that I can do nothing to change them. Yet, we can feel compassion for their internal suffering and for the conditions they are creating for continual unhappiness. We can even pray that something or someone will convince them to be positive about life. The battle against evil has to be fought through positive examples. If others see us resisting evil, then maybe they can do the same.