Home > Books I have read recently > Evil from the eyes of the beholder

Evil from the eyes of the beholder

September 21, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Joker“Evil exists primarily in the eyes of the beholder, especially in the eye of the victim,” says Roy F. Baumeister in his book, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. He goes on to say that we must have victims if we are to have evil and that victims are the first ones to spot evil.  However, in this book he suggests that if we are to truly understand evil,  the perception of the perpetrators should be considered.  Thus, he tries to dispassionately look at evil largely from the perspective of the perpetrators of evil in order to understand it. Although there are a few individuals who enjoy evil, Baumeister says the “myth of pure evil,” is largely borne on the wings of movies and tv and has skewed our understanding of evil.

I have had this book on my bookshelf to read a few years but picked it up  after trying unsuccessfully to understand the recent rescue of Jaycee Dugard who had been held captive for 18 years by Philip Garrido and his wife.

Baumeister does not deny evil at all.  But, he says there are four major causes of evil. First–greed, lust, ambition: evil as a means to an end; second–evil coming out of etotism and revenge; third–evil arising out of idealism; fourth is the pursuit of sadistic pleasure.

Some interesting points

  • “Villains, bullies, criminals, killers and other evildoers have high self-esteem. . . Violence results when a person’s favorable image of self is questioned or impugned by someone else.” 376
  • “Noble ends are often seen as justifying violent means. . . When the perpetrators are driven by idealism, the victims do not get much mercy.” 377
  • “Most observations of killers, torturers, rapists, and similar evildoers indicate that only about 5 or 6 percent of perpetrators actually get enjoyment out of inflicting harm. 377
  • “Evil or violent tendencies are met with strong restraining forces, most of which can be conveniently categorized as self-control. . . The immediate, proximal cause of violence is the collapse of these inner restraining forces.” 263
  • “Severe violence is typically the product of a process of escalation. . . Once evil gains a foothold, it seems very capable of growing and flourishing.” 283
  • Baumeister has a very interesting discussion on the controversial topic of “desensitization”, which he says may lead to the escalation of aggression.” 285 ff
  • Evil is the inflicting of harm or suffering on other human beings.  Guilt is the distress that comes from hurting other human beings.  Guild is thus an inherent, perennial problem for evildoers. . . must find some way to free themselves from of guilt, lest they end up feeling bad. Most people are not immune to guilt. 305ff
  • Perpetrators of evil rely upon the inaction of the innocent by-standers. 342-370

In his conclusion, Baumeister offers the following compelling words.

Understanding how people commit evil acts is one important key to appreciating the human condition, and it may even hold some helpful clues on how to control human violence. 386

He says understanding is not enough–action must also be taken.

I also hope that the reader will make the effort to resume a moral condemnation of these terrible acts.  To do so requires returning to consider the victim’s perspective.  The victim’s perspective had to be surpressed for the sake of this book because it hampers understanding of the perpetrator.  But the victim’s pespective is essential for making a moral judgment on the perpetrator.   It is a mistake to let moral condemnation interfer with trying to understand–but it would be a bigger mistake to let that understanding, once it has been attained, interfere with moral condemnation. 387

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