Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty

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by Roy F. Baumeister

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Why is there evil, and what can scientific research tell us about the origins and persistence of evil behavior? Considering evil from the unusual perspective of the perpetrator, Baumeister asks, How do ordinary people find themselves beating their wives? Murdering rival gang members? Torturing political prisoners? Betraying their colleagues to the secret police?

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Why is there evil, and what can scientific research tell us about the origins and persistence of evil behavior? Considering evil from the unusual perspective of the perpetrator, Baumeister asks, How do ordinary people find themselves beating their wives? Murdering rival gang members? Torturing political prisoners? Betraying their colleagues to the secret police? Why do cycles of revenge so often escalate?

Baumeister casts new light on these issues as he examines the gap between the victim's viewpoint and that of the perpetrator, and also the roots of evil behavior, from egotism and revenge to idealism and sadism. A fascinating study of one of humankind's oldest problems, Evil has profound implications for the way we conduct our lives and govern our society.

Editorial Reviews

Scientific American
...[A] worthy synthesis for both victims who want to know why and for policymakers who need to know what to do.
Dallas Morning News
He challenges the view that drug use accounts for violence in America and explains how idealism and faith get corrupted into license to do evil.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this open-minded, provocative, unsettling inquiry into the causes of evil, Baumeister rejects the entrenched view that low self-esteem causes violence and aggression. On the contrary, he argues, violent or evil people tend to have highly favorable opinions of themselves, and cross the line to commit immoral, hurtful acts when they feel their egotism is threatened by others. Among the root causes of evil he identifies are ambition, desire for power or wealth, misplaced idealistic adherence to a creed or doctrine and sadistic pleasure. He applies this framework, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, to an analysis of diverse evils: murder, rape, street crime, war, petty cruelty, emotional abuse, wife beating, government repression, racial and ethnic hatreds. A social psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, Baumeister believes that evil grows and spreads when cultures stop restraining individuals' angry, violent impulses-a process abetted by desensitization, yearnings for revenge, group conformity and inadequate socialization or upbringing. His rewarding study challenges-and complements-traditional, religion-based views of evil with a humanistic perspective. Author tour. (Nov.)
Scientific American
...[A] worthy synthesis for both victims who want to know why and for policymakers who need to know what to do.

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Inside Human Violence and Cruelty

By Roy F. Baumeister

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1999 W. H. Freeman and Company
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-563-0


The Question of Evil, and the Answers

Why is there evil? The question has bedeviled humanity for centuries. If there were a single, simple answer, we probably would have had it long ago. So we need not only to look for an answer but also to understand why the question has persisted despite the efforts of many wise men and women to answer it.

Evil usually enters the world unrecognized by the people who open the door and let it in. Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil. Evil exists primarily in the eye of the beholder, especially in the eye of the victim. If there were no victims, there would be no evil. True, there are victimless crimes (for example, many traffic violations), and presumably victimless sins, but they exist as marginal categories of something that is defined mainly by the doing of harm. Try to imagine a society in which nobody ever did anything that had any sort of bad effect on anyone else. What would the police have to do? Would there even be police?

If victimization is the essence of evil, then the question of evil is a victim's question. Perpetrators, after all, do not need to search for explanations of what they have done. And bystanders are merely curious orsympathetic. It is the victims who are driven to ask, why did this happen? Why did those soldiers shoot my family? Why did that woman plant a bomb on that bus? Why did those boys beat me up? Why did my grandfather force me to have sex with him? As a general pattern, suffering stimulates a quest for meaningful explanation. The idea that suffering is random, inevitable, and meaningless has never been satisfactory to most people, and victims desire specific explanations. Evil is a partial explanation, and many victims can be satisfied (at least for a while) by concluding that their attackers were evil. But in the long run, evil needs to be explained, too.

Evil challenges some of our most basic and important assumptions about the world, and so the question of why there is evil goes to the heart of the human being's place in the universe. The great thinker St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the existence of evil in the world is the single greatest obstacle to Christian faith and doctrine. In other words, nothing undermines the Christian belief in God more than the existence of evil. If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can God allow evil to happen?

More recently, studies by social scientists have emphasized that most people in modern Western society go through life with strong positive beliefs that the world is basically a nice place in which to live, that life is mostly fair, and that they are good people who deserve to have good things happen to them. Moreover, these beliefs are a valuable aid to happy, healthy functioning. But suffering and victimization undermine these beliefs and make it hard to go on living happily or effectively in society. Indeed, the direct and practical effects of some trauma or crime are often relatively minor, whereas the psychological effects go on indefinitely. The body may recover from rape or robbery rather quickly, but the psychological scars can last for many years. A characteristic of these scars is that the victims lose faith in their basic beliefs about the world as fair and benevolent or even in themselves as good people. Thus, evil strikes at people's fundamental beliefs.

Questions beginning with "Why ..." can be answered in several ways. One way is to describe a reasoned or intentional purpose that evil actions serve, on the assumption that the actions are taken to serve this purpose. Another is to explain them in moral terms. Yet another is to explain their causes. Many written works have dealt with the question of why evil exists in theological terms; these works tend to emphasize the possible function of evil in the cosmos and the divine reason for permitting it to exist.

This book will try to give a causal answer. The mode of explanation will not be theological or moral but scientific — more precisely, I will use the approach of social science. I will not try to defend or justify the existence of evil but merely to explain how it happens to come into the world. How evil enters the world is a question with three parts. First, how do the particular events come to happen? Second, what leads people to perceive events as evil? Third, because it will soon become apparent that people's perceptions of evil often differ greatly from the reality, what accounts for the wide gap between the perceptions and the reality of evil?

A Brush with Evil

There wasn't much time. She was hungry, but her flight would be boarding soon. Sometimes flights just worked out so that you got nothing to eat all day, and she really wanted something. As luck would have it, there was a small place open near her gate. She stood in line and bought a bag of chips and a diet cola.

But all the tables in the small airport cafeteria were full. There was not a single free table. She'd have to share with somebody who already had one.

She spotted a likely prospect: a reasonably well dressed man sitting by himself at a small table, reading a paper. Certainly he would not mind if she sat at one of the empty seats at his table and quietly ate her snack.

She sat down. They briefly made eye contact; he seemed to nod slightly and then went back to his paper. She was nervous for no apparent reason. She busied herself with her snack. She set down her diet cola, unwrapped the straw, inserted it in the slot, and had her first sip. Then another. Then she had a chip.

When her mouth crunched on the first chip, the man suddenly looked up from his newspaper. He looked angry, intent, alert, vaguely dangerous. He fixed his eyes on hers, violent, like a predator seeing prey. And then, amazingly, he slowly reached out his hand into her bag of chips, extracted one, brought it to his mouth, and ate it!

Her heart began to beat rapidly. A crazy impulse told her to flee, abandon her food to this man and save herself. She took another drink and then made herself take another chip from her bag and eat it. He glared at her, motionless. It was a hostile, evil glare. What had at first struck her as a calm, middle-aged gentleman now appeared as a dangerous individual, capable of unknown things. As she finished chewing her chip, he reached out and took another himself. Now she knew he was not just helping himself one time, as if to say she owed him a chip for sitting at his table. Now he was totally outside the bounds of normal etiquette between strangers. What sort of person was this?

They finished the bag, not speaking a single word but intently taking turns drawing chips. He looked at her the whole time; she didn't know whether to meet his gaze or to look away, so she alternated. She took big gulps of her drink. Soon it was nearly gone and the bag was nearly empty, too. She had had enough. She stood up, nodded, looked away from him, picked up her bags, and walked quickly out of the place. She got to her gate a few minutes early and sat in the waiting area, heart pounding, still unable to grasp what had just happened, what manner of creature she had just encountered. What sort of people just help themselves to a stranger's food in a restaurant?

She learned the answer sooner than she expected. They called passengers to board the plane, and she got right in line. When she came to the front of the line, she reached into her bag for her ticket. It was there, and next to it was her bag of chips. Somehow, when she paid for the snack, she had put her chips into her flight bag, and at the table she and the mysterious stranger had shared his chips, not hers. She herself was the sort of person who just helped herself to a stranger's food in a restaurant.

This minor story illustrates that evil is in the eye of the beholder. For a while, the woman saw the face of the man sitting across from her as evil. In retrospect, there was no reason to think there was anything evil about him. When she believed herself to be the victim, she saw him as evil. In this case it was a mistake, an illusion. Indeed, the man probably saw her as evil, at least mildly so. He was eating and reading, and a stranger sat down uninvited at his table and helped herself to his food. In any case, though, if there was evil present at that table, it was not glimpsed by the perpetrators. It was only recognized by the victims. This discrepancy is very common, even with genuine and serious evil.

The woman herself was the one who acted outrageously, yet she was horrified that anyone would do such a thing as take someone else's food in an airport. The challenge of this book is to understand how perpetrators come to do things that others see as evil. In this case, it was an honest mistake and an accident, but most of the world's evil cannot be explained away so easily.

Had you asked the woman if she would ever take a stranger's food in an airport restaurant, she probably would have said no. The same response is likely to be elicited by almost any hypothetical question about evil. Would you obey orders to kill innocent civilians? Would you help torture someone? Would you stand by passively while the secret police hauled your neighbors off to concentration camps? Most people say no. But when such events actually happen, the reality is quite different.

Understanding evil begins with the realization that we ourselves are capable of doing many of these things. Ordinary, normal people have done a great many evil things, and sometimes the majority of those present have acquiesced. To understand evil, we must set aside the comfortable belief that we would never do anything wrong. Instead, we must begin to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to do such things? Assume that it would be possible.

The airport story hints at two core aspects of evil. The first is the infliction of harm by one person on another. In this case, of course, the harm was quite trivial — the deprivation of a few potato chips. In most cases worthy of being called evil, the victim has far more at stake. The second aspect is chaos — the violation of the friendly, orderly, comprehensible world. The woman was not upset over the loss of a few potato chips. She was upset because what was happening seemed utterly outside her conception of how decent people interact with one another. She felt that she had encountered a creature alien to her world.

Next, let us tackle the question of what is to be called evil.

What Is Evil?

At one point my wife and I discussed the possibility of adopting a child. Ever since my experience of living in a foreign country with a local family, I have been enthusiastic about diversity in families. My wife and I discovered that we both favored adopting a black child. We are both white, highly educated, and financially comfortable, and we thought we could give a child a very good head start in life. We thought that bringing up a privileged, well-educated black child might be of more value to society than rearing a privileged, well-educated white one.

Fortunately, our discussions of adoption never moved beyond vague speculation. I say "fortunately" because to many people it would have been supremely evil for us to adopt a black child. Indeed, the National Association of Black Social Workers declared that the adoption of black babies by white parents is a form of genocide. My wife and I would have been led by our seemingly innocent idealism into such an atrocity. We thought of it as lavishing love and a few advantages on a child who might turn out to help society and heal racial differences. Some people, though, would regard us as no different from the folks who stand out in the blood-stained and foul-smelling fields, holding machine guns or machetes, methodically killing long lines of people simply because of the ethnic group to which they belong.

I am not saying that I agree with the opinion that interracial adoption is a form of genocide; in fact, if national policy were up to me, I would make it the norm (in all combinations) rather than the exception. But again, evil is in the eye of the beholder. I might think of what I was doing as acceptable and even positively good, but in this I would be no different from many other agents of genocide who think they are making the world a better place. Evil is but rarely found in the perpetrator's own self-image. It is far more commonly found in the judgments of others.

The reliance on judgments by others is essential. Indeed, if we limited our examination of evil to acts that perpetrators themselves acknowledge as evil, there would be hardly any such acts to examine. For example, Frederick Treesh, a spree killer, was captured after a shoot-out with police in August 1994. During the previous two weeks, he had carried out several bank and store robberies and armed carjackings. He did not think he had done anything so bad: "Other than the two we killed, the two we wounded, the woman we pistol-whipped and the light bulbs we stuck in people's mouths, we didn't really hurt anybody." Or consider the act of raping an 11-year-old girl, which most people would regard as evil. Such a rape was committed recently by a 14-year-old boy, whose lawyer saw no evil: "They were two kids with nothing better to do. They don't have cable TV, what do you do?"

There is wide variation in the use and definition of the word evil. Even more precise terms such as genocide have very different meanings. For the National Association of Black Social Workers, genocide meant white parents adopting black children. The Reverend Al Page used the term to condemn the University of Virginia's plan to develop a residential neighborhood. By such criteria, genocides are everywhere. In contrast, Alain Destexhe, the secretary-general of the international service organization Doctors Without Borders, wrote in 1994 that only three events in the twentieth century counted as true genocides according to the official United Nations definition: the Ottoman Turks' massacre of the Armenians in 1915–1917, the Nazi Germans' campaign against Jews during the Second World War, and the efforts by Hutu extremists to exterminate the Tutsi in Rwanda during the 1990s. Destexhe specifically criticized "the growing use of the term 'genocide' without proper regard for its true meaning."

If it is that hard to agree on what genocide is, it is even harder to find a definition of evil that will satisfy everyone. Many people will see the term evil as too grandiose or as referring to mystical, supernatural, or otherwise esoteric phenomena. The term has an air of anachronism, especially as belief in Satan fades from our culture. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, people hardly use the word evil anymore in everyday conversation. When they do, they are often mocked, as happened recently when the general manager of the Montreal Expos baseball team was quoted as saying that professional baseball has come under the control of Satan. When these comments attracted broad attention and he was asked to elaborate, he said that "the forces of evil and darkness have a major influence on society — and baseball is a microcosm of society." Several scholars, however, have called for more serious usage of the term and more willingness to recognize evil as such.

Even less grandiose terms such as bad are fraught with multiple and conflicting meanings. Over the past two decades, bad has gradually acquired the connotation of a compliment and hence means good in some sense. Thus, one might describe a saxophone solo as "bad" and mean it as admiring praise. Similarly, students at the University of Arkansas like to wear T-shirts with pictures of a giant pig and the inscription "We bad." This is not a statement of low collective self-esteem or loyalty to Satan. The pig is the sports teams' mascot, and the "We bad" message is a boastful assertion of intimidating superiority over rivals.

In this book, I will use a broad, inclusive definition of evil. The one major restriction is that we are concerned here with evil acts by human beings. Some people might wish to regard such phenomena as earthquakes and epidemics as evil, but explaining how natural disasters occur is outside the purview of the social sciences. This work is concerned with human evil. It may be useful to consider occasional examples or findings that involve nonhuman perpetrators, but only insofar as they help to shed light on human ones. The most common and familiar form of human evil is violence, and that will be emphasized, although other forms of human evil such as oppression and petty cruelty will also be considered.

If I were approaching this work as a philosopher or a theologian, it would be of consummate importance to produce a very compelling and elegant definition of evil, a definition that would be sufficient to decide every possible case. Precise conceptual definitions are the stock-in-trade of philosophers. This book, however, is a work of social science, and science can work with fuzzy sets and gray areas. To explain the causes and processes of evil, it is sufficient to identify the main, prototypical cases.


Excerpted from Evil by Roy F. Baumeister. Copyright © 1999 W. H. Freeman and Company. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Russell G. Green
Blending material from history, literature, philosophy, and anthropology, Baumeister has skillfully presented a picture of the nature of the evil that people do, a picture often at odds with popular and mythological ones. -- (Russell G. Geen, Curators Professor of Psychology,University of Missouri)
Brad J. Bushman
This is the most important work I have read on the nature of evil. -- (Brad J. Bushman, Iowa State University)
Craig Etcheson
I once met a man who commanded a squad that executed some 10,000 men, women, and children with axes and hoes. Today that man is a humble farmer. I have often wondered what he dreams. Baumeister helps us to see into the dreams of such perpetrators and, indeed, into our own darkest dreams. -- (Craig Etcheson, Ph.D.Manager, Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University)

Meet the Author

Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., holds the E. B. Smith Professorship in Liberal Arts at Case Western Reserve University. Since receiving his doctorate in social psychology from Princeton University, he has received numerous fellowships and awards. He has published nearly 150 scientific works and is cited in numerous sources in the popular media. Baumeister has authored or co-authored nine other books, including Losing Control: How and Why Self-Regulation Fails and Meanings of Life. He lives on the shores of the Great Lakes.

Dr. Aaron T. Beck, M.D., the Father of Cognitive Therapy, is University Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and President of The Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy. He is the author and co-author of twelve books and over 350 articles and chapters.

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Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is no point in me repeating what others have said... it would be almost word for word, because I do agree what the people who came before me wrote... To immediately dismiss this book as insensitive would be wrong. To call it bad would be wrong. This book is what society needs... and too often, there is an imbalance between what happens to the victim and what happens to the perpetrator... while I do not condone what the perpetrator has done, I still do not condone what people do to the perpetrator... which is demonizing in many senses... And this book has things in it which support my point of view, which is why I am extremely grateful that I got it as a gift from a great friend.