It’s a word that gets tossed about a lot, defined more or less by what the person using it considers terribly wrong and/or immoral. It’s also dismissed as a logical way of looking at deeds that harm others by some who prefer to find social or psychological explanations—or who prefer the idea some people aren’t like the rest of us. Still others just apply it to anyone they don’t like.
Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty was written in 1997, right around the time the term “superpredators” was coined as part of the effort by the current President and his predecessor Bill Clinton that ended in the US having the highest number of people incarcerated in the world. When I first realized how little I understood current events, it was one of the first books I bought to expand my knowledge base. It was the constant labeling of Donald Trump and anyone who supported him as “evil” that led me to finish reading it.
“Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil,” Dr. Baumgartner notes on the first page of chapter 1. Indeed, he goes on to suggest, if it weren’t for their victims’ suffering, evil might not even be a social construct.
In what follows, he provides a compelling amount of evidence that even sociopaths aren’t “born evil”, although they may be more susceptible to doing evil deeds for reasons of their personal psychology. In essence, he says, it’s the deeds that are evil, because they cause suffering. But can the case be made that those who intentionally choose to cause suffering are themselves evil?
Violence perpetrated on others, he writes, boils down to a lack of self-control. That self-control is why all of us don’t do evil things. Yet given the proper circumstances, even those who have excellent self-control may lose it—and cause harm.
This is an important book not just because it provides a cogent and well-supported argument that adds a needed level to sanity in a culture that increasingly labels people permanently “evil” for a single misdeed decades in their past. It’s also presented in a way that doesn’t require a degree in clinical psychology to understand. For those reasons I recommend anyone struggling to make sense of why we seem to live in a world full of genocide and mass shootings and police brutality find a copy as soon as possible.