Monday, April 6, 2015

Choice, Sickness, and Evil. Some thoughts on clinical and moral language.

There are monsters among us. 

A pilot, depressive and narcissistic, learns that his flying for Germanwings will be curtailed by his medical condition. His problematic eyesight will end his career and kill his dream of captaining for Lufthansa. He enters history in suicide and mass murder.  

An impressionable teenager, enthralled by his powerful older brother, absorbed in Islamic ideology and grievance, plants a homemade bomb in the midst of the crowd at the Boston Marathon. He walks away and triggers the fuse.

Why, even with a complexity of mitigating factors: medical, psychological, religious, familial, and cultural, do I think these men are evil. Why, as a clinician and scientist, do I employ this ancient concept? Why not reduce evil to sickness? In short, evil is a moral concept, sickness is a clinical  concept, and I need moral language to express my utter outrage and indignation.  

I don't think evil is in us. Evil is not a substance. Nor do I see evil as something requiring theology. Gods and demons have nothing intrinsically to do with it. Evil is determined by the choice finally made. Saying that a choice is evil is to pass moral judgment, to engage in a Degradation Ceremony. Given what I hold most dear, and acting as a representative of my community,  I may have reason to pass such judgment. I do this when the values violated are so significant that someone who can willingly and knowingly engage in such a violation is acting as someone alien to my community. In these circumstances, I have reason to speak of monsters. 

Do I understand the behavior of these men to be a byproduct of psychiatric illness, ideology, personal weakness, or social grudge? If the devil didn’t make them do it, if it wasn’t because of their depression, their ideology, or their big brother, then what did? What made them do it? The answer is nothing made them do it. They did it. Their behavior can be understandable, even unsurprising, without it being caused by anything. An excuse or a mitigating factor is not a cause.

Insisting on questions of causality distorts our understanding of why people behave. We become confused when we reduce our understanding of behavior, no matter how problematic or strange, to causal explanation. If it was caused, can I truly be blamed? If it was caused, what choice did I actually have? Is it enough to say, "I’m depraved on account I’m deprived?" Better to recognize some people have their reasons, twisted and evil.  Reasons aren't causal. A person weighs their reasons. Reasons for or against a course of action are weighed against other reasons.  The reasons that prevail indicate the character of the actor. 

Still, when I think about Tsarnaev and Lubitz clinically, I wonder about narcissistic personality disorders, psychopathy, and depression. I wonder if they felt intense anger and shame evoked by loss, fear, and grievance.  They may have suffered. They may have been subjected to indoctrination. I accept these potential facts as part of my understanding.

Nonetheless, to me, these are evil men.

Simply put, both morally and clinically, these two are persons who perpetrated evil. Persons are agents, and unless unconscious or under utter coercion, are deliberate actors whose choices reflect their personalities. In the cases in question, evidence points to considerable planning and forethought:  Bombs built and planted for maximum destruction; locked cockpit doors researched, cries ignored, and autopilots set to increase descent and speed.

But I would call these men evil even if what they did was unplanned, spur of the moment, and under extreme duress.

Why? I see no absence of a final choice. From the perspectives of these men, I believe they thought their behavior was self-justified. That’s why they’re evil.  Are the circumstances that evoked or justified their deeds important? Of course, similar to the fact that adversity does not tend to bring out the best in us, but makes us mean. Could I argue that under enough stress, hardship, depression, and despair, all of us are capable of evil? I could but I won’t, since the empirical evidence differs. We don’t all make such choices even in the worst of times. We don’t have it in us and this shows when push comes to shove by the values we actually enact.

Or I could simply say no; some of us, many of us, do not have an option to act with wanton, murderous intent and disregard for others. That option is simply not available, not a possibility given our character. When a Deliberate Action reflects wanton, malicious or murderous intent with disregard for the lives it effects, it's a Paradigm Case of what I call evil. Violence, terrible and lethal, is not inherently evil given this paradigm. The soldier who kills within the rules of engagement or the police officer who shoots with proper recognition of the restrictions for lethal force does not fulfill the paradigm. (As a paradigm case, there is, however, a place for ambiguity and disagreement: the resistance fighter, violently acting to liberate his community, may seem righteous to some, evil to others. This may boil down to how one views the legitimacy of the communities in question and which side you're on. And, at day's end, we may have reason to label an entire community evil given its wanton, murderous intent: There are nazis with final solutions.) 

Evil is not self-defense, nor is it a necessity. It's a name for a choice. 

Choice is constrained by the options available. And options are limited by belief and circumstance. But short of utter and complete delusion or coercion, there is always the option to reconsider, resist, desist, refrain, or refuse at whatever cost. Choice is mitigated by circumstance but behavior does not follow from circumstance but from the personal characteristics of the actor in the circumstance.

Keep in mind: persons are agents, actors able to observe and critique their actions. There is no way around this if personal responsibility has any real meaning. Responsibility involves accountability for the choice actually made. This cannot be divorced from the personal characteristics of the actor who makes the choice.

Clinical language is appropriate when the goal is to avoid the moralistic stance of blame and to facilitate empathy. We appeal to clinical language when we examine the personal history of the character in question. This can help our understanding. It provides the mitigating facts. It facilitates psychotherapy, disclosure, and confession. We use clinical language to explore a performance under the guise of not being judgmental.

But at times judgment is called for. Clinical and moral language may cover the same performance but with different intent and significance.  Moral language is appropriate when blame is at stake and where agency is treated as irreducibly given. Moral language is employed when we judge a person's place in our community. We employ concepts such as evil when we make the judgment that a person's actions reveal they are not, and perhaps never were, one of us in good standing.   

Personal characteristics revealed in an evil act are the characteristics we associate with monsters.  

This is what moral language serves: It identifies evil, it isolates the monsters. The morality of those making this judgment appears in how they act toward those they identify as such. This includes their disposition to use such language. Isolating a monster is not the same as killing a monster. Identifying evil behavior is not the same as reducing the actor to someone essentially evil. 

In the comment section below, Tony Putman points out the danger of seeing a single act as demonstrating character. He also asks me to consider the dangerous consequence of the label "monster". Part of my response was developed earlier in "A Jury of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's Peers".  In the dialog below, Tony, Greg Colvin, Clarke Stone, and Phillip Cartwright offer an unfolding and clarifying  confrontation, identify problematic implications, and build an understanding, at least for me. I follow up my response with On the identification of monsters and evil. Further reflection on clinical and moral language.

On the nature of Degradation Ceremonies, deserved or not, I have written The Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life.  


  1. Not long ago I discovered that a friend here in town is a monster. I had a poster on my Facebook wall calling for Cheney's prosecution. My friend came around and gave me a hard time about it. The conversation ended with:
    Greg: I cannot even comprehend your position, Billy. I've been tortured. It's pure fucking evil.
    Billy: Well I've had friends killed by pure fucking evil, so good luck with that.

    So we're not friends any more. And I'm left to wonder how such monsters can feel morally righteous about disdaining the entirety of the Law, the clear teachings of the man they claim as their Saviour, and simple human decency. And I'm left to wonder how many more such monsters there are among my friends. (Statistically, a majority of Americans support torture.) Or are you not a monster until you actually torture someone?

  2. I think you've missed the target here, Wynn. I agree that behaviors are chosen, not caused; a moral perspective is required and cannot be subsumed in the clinical or any other; there is no inherent need here for gods or demons. Some acts are necessarily appraised as evil -- even monstrous -- and the individuals whose acts they are are both accountable and responsible (unless there is clear evidence of actual incapacity to understand the consequences of what one was doing.)

    But to characterize a person as evil or monstrous -- to say this act reflects their true character -- requires an observed pattern of actions, not just one, no matter how heinous. Is the teenager planting the IED in Iraq that killed Billy's friends a monster? How about the Marine who shoots that teenager after the bomb goes off? And are they the same as the people who routinely capture and torture their enemies? The moral appraisal "monster" as applied to a person is weighty indeed and not the same as "monstrous" applied to behavior. As Charlie Kantor has pointed out, we call people "monsters" to put them outside the realm of human consideration; the well-known admonition is "Kill all monsters!"

    Is that really what you're after here?

    1. Tony, I think you are making a key point about significance. Is one behavior enough or do we need a pattern of behaviors to make the judgment that an act is the evil deed of a monster? I think it depends. It would ordinarily require a pattern of behavior to make the judgment I am writing about, but as you wrote, some deeds may be horrendous enough to serve as reason enough to make the judgment in question. The Marathon bombing and the Germanwings deliberate crash qualify in my eyes. These are deeds I think cannot be forgiven and require the degradation that the concept "monster" evokes. These are actions that place the perpetrator outside of my valued communities. These perpetrators are persons, yes, but the sort of person who is no longer one of us. The degradation deeming them "monsters" fits the evil they did. The horror they caused is significant enough not to grant them the benefit of the doubt that would allow the possibility of a pattern to emerge. It's a matter of significance and risk.

    2. And your point about the admonition "Kill all monsters" is a useful cautionary reminder. As much as I would personally feel satisfaction in the destruction of these "monsters", I don't want to live in a society that supports my primitive desires. Calling someone a monster is part of that desire but one that the society should not implement. I wrote about this here:

  3. I think there are two points here. The first is the one made by Tony above about characteristic acts rather than one-off acts. To say that someone is a monster would typically suggest a pattern of behaviour. A monstrous act does't (it would seem) automatically make its author a monster, any more than a stupid act means its author is a stupid person (for even very clever people can be stupid on occasion). However, you could argue that some acts are so bad that they make the agent a monster no matter what sort of behaviour comes before or after. Still, there's something odd about that. To say that someone is a monster is to locate evil as an intrinsic part of them. It's not just that they did something monstrous; they are monstrous. This designation draws a line under them, as it were, so far as their moral value is concerned. As such, it withdraws the possibility of future reformation and redemption in your eyes,

    That thought leads onto the second point: what is the effect of calling someone a monster (rather than just "bad" or "immoral")? Are there especial consequences which come with the ascription, or does it just equate to something like "really, really bad"? For the term "monster" suggests an attitude towards something not human - someone who has shown through his acts that he does not deserve the status of a "person" and all that goes with it.

    Would you say that was part of your categorisation? The potential consequences of a "yes" are somewhat disturbing.

    1. Phillip, I've been amending and editing this post in response to comments that directly address the danger of misusing moral language. You have added to my need for revision and clarification. I am using monster as an "inhumanly cruel, wicked person" but I cannot avoid the connotation that it appears I am placing such a person outside of humanity. I do not mean to do so. Instead, as I have revised above, I am placing such a person outside of my valued communities. And, as I pointed out above, a single act is not reason enough to identify a fundamental feature of character, but it may be reason enough not to risk being wrong. So the act in question must be truly horrendous.

      I am ambivalent about dropping the word "monster". There are clearly too many ways it can go wrong yet it is satisfying as locating something about the person that is fundamentally alien to what I can feel full kinship with. "Monster" is a degrading term and meant as such. I am looking for a concept that places such a person within the world of "persons and our ways" yet who can or has acted in utter disregard for the sanctity of being a human in the community of other humans. Got a better word?

    2. Would it be fair to say, then, that you'd use "monstrous" to denote an action you find beyond your understanding (in a way that many immoral acts are not), but which you wouldn't want to place outside the realm of moral judgement by classing it as "insane" (in a clinical sense)?

      That's fair enough, I suppose, but if nothing hinges on it in terms of consequences (as opposed to an aesthetic sense of aptness) then it's hard to see how it matters very much. You might wish to designate an act as "monstrous"; someone else might prefer "disgusting". But if the perpetrator is going to be treated in the same way in either case then nobody's going to be too fussed about which word is chosen. Likewise, it's all well and good to say you are placing the perpetrator "outside of my valued communities" but what does that actually mean - ie, what are the consequences?

      We primarily make moral judgements for a reason. It is part of an activity. And an integral part of that activity is deciding how to treat the person accused of an immoral act. All too often philosophical moral discussions seem to suppose it's just a matter of finding the most accurate (or apt) description - as if what happened after that was neither here nor there. But the criterion of accuracy is internally linked to the potential outcomes (for example, the punishment meted out to the perpetrator). And if all you're saying is that people in such cases should get a longer jail sentence then it's hard to see how that's moving them outside valued communities. For "moving them outside valued communities" surely implies a category distinction rather than "the same, only more so"?

    3. On the idea of a single act being enough—and without any attempt to cheapen the discussion—here is a little speculative fiction dialog from *Doctor Who*. In this exchange, "Davros" has created a completely amoral fighting creature called a "Dalek". The Doctor would like to find out if this creation stems from conditions of war or if it is part of Davros's character.

      Doctor Who: It's not the machines, it's the minds of the creatures inside them. Minds that you created. They are totally evil.
      Davros: Evil? No. No, I will not accept that. They are conditioned simply to survive. They can survive only by becoming the dominant species. When all other life forms are suppressed, when the Daleks are the supreme rulers of the universe, then you will have peace. Wars will end. They are the power not of evil, but of good.
      Doctor Who: Davros, if you had created a virus in your laboratory, something contagious and infectious that killed on contact, a virus that would destroy all other forms of life, would you allow its use?
      Davros: It is an interesting conjecture.
      Doctor Who: Would you do it?
      Davros: The only living thing, a microscopic organism reigning supreme... A fascinating idea.
      Doctor Who: But would you do it?
      Davros: Yes... Yes...
      [raises hand as if holding the metaphorical capsule between thumb and forefingers]
      Davros: To hold in my hand a capsule that contains such power, to know that life and death on such a scale was my choice... To know that the tiny pressure of my thumb, enough to break the glass, would end everything... Yes, I would do it! That power would set me up above the gods! AND THROUGH THE DALEKS, I SHALL HAVE THAT POWER!

      A single act, clearly monstrous. The imaginary act is probably within our power now, so perhaps less speculative fiction than we might want.

    4. On the topic of using the word "monster", remember that it's a critique. A critique points out a phenomenon and how it went wrong or right. Since this is a negative critique, the formation is "phenomenon X + failure". For example, "inciting to riot" is a form of "free speech + doing it wrong". "Monster" is "moral autonomy + doing it wrong + failing the worst you can think of". We have reasons not to dig into that. For comparison: Wynn, when I pointed out to you "fun" was "some phenomenon + really good" and asked what the phenomenon was, you said it was fun to think of it as fun, and you didn't want to go any further.

      As for someone exiting the human realm and being treated inhumanly because they themselves were inhuman, that's why we have the law. As Philip notes, you might find an act monstrous, someone else only disgusting. The law is a social practice we have created to equalize that disagreement. The law is a way to ask, "What's the phenomenon in question?" and also ask "How severe was the failure?" Even on that, we have seen fit to set limits: no cruel or unusual punishment. Not all governments agree on that matter.

      Finally, calling something "monstrous" is something we do. We have our own reasons to do it (or not). We would expect to find it satisfying sometimes, even as we find cussing someone out satisfying sometimes—even though both are degradations, something we try to avoid. We might use it to signal to others how violated we feel (as we do with a good cussing out).

    5. Clarke,

      You're right that the law as we have it (in both the US and Europe) is a factor here. It robs words like "evil" of their consequential force sine it doesn't recognise them as legal categories. At the same time, in common usage, such words retain a slight emotional potency left over from past ages. (It's similar with words such as "heretic" and "blasphemy".)

      If someone says "That's not just bad, it's evil" we certainly know what they're getting at - it's suggesting an attitude of non-tolerance towards the perpetrator. But in most cases "non-tolerance" will only mean something like handing them over to the law as opposed to tutting and looking the other way.Whatever fierce retributional urges we feel, we forego them because we're signed up to the idea that the law should deal with such things rather than vigilante justice. And at that point the question of evil drops out of consideration because the law doesn't recognise it as a significant category. That's one reason why people often feel the law is unsatisfactory; its justice is too impersonal and mechanistic. What they want is "human justice" which, perhaps ironically, is a rather more brutal and bloody affair (endless Hollywood movies are based on this clash).

      So the fact that words like "evil" and "monster" are still meaningful is interesting. It suggests we feel slightly trapped between two conflicting pictures of humanity. On the one hand, our "official" culture (as represented by the law) sees people as either "bad" or "mad", and we are more or less signed up to this as a just way of dealing with things. Yet we also persist in feeling the need for a third category which is not quite either "bad" or "mad". We want to say that some people are evil.

      However, so long as we are content to let the law operate as it does (and there are very good practical reasons to do so), the designation of "evil" will be robbed of genuine significance and will remain largely a rhetorical affair.

  4. I wouldn't want Billy to die, so I don't mean monster that strongly. But what do I call a person who repeatedly supports the evil actions of others and reviles me for not doing the same? More important, how do I treat him? I live in a small town in a small county. We play music in the same clubs, eat in the same restaurants, hike the same trails. If we were to cross paths I would need to leave quickly, as under that sort of stress my tremor gets so bad I fall down. And his particular beliefs make me nauseous. So I will call him ignorant and disgusting, despite his many good traits. Unfortunately, that applies to almost half of our adult population.

  5. Wynn -- This is much improved, and the comments have been thought-provoking. I suggest you are still missing an important point. You say: " I am looking for a concept that places such a person within the world of "persons and our ways" yet who can or has acted in utter disregard for the sanctity of being a human in the community of other humans." You are correct in saying you are placing this person outside your communities, and you speak with authority as a member of those communities. But you are asserting the existence of an "uber-community" if you will -- the community of other humans -- and there is no such thing. There is no privileged community that has access to the truth -- moral or otherwise -- by contrast with any community which has access to the truth as we know it to be. Like it or not, the Boston bomber's community sees what he did as a moral act -- and while you can always say "Well, they're wrong and we're right", they have the same move available and neither has access to the REAL truth (or else both have access to the real truth, and the truths differ.) I deal extensively with this in my paper "When Worlds Collide: The source of intractable value problems".

    1. Yes, and this is where Tsarnaev and Lubitz differ. There are those who celebrate the Tsarnaev brothers acts as expressing and advancing their interests. I have not heard of those who righteously praised Lubitz. Here's where having a paradigm case of "evil" helps if it contains reference to community.

  6. Since the body of these comments informs, expands, corrects, and confronts what I am struggling to understand, may I have permission to reformat them as a dialog after the main entry? It would be a gift for readers to see a rational dialog about these thorny themes. It certainly has helped me.

    I continue my response in the next blog entry.

    1. My comments are public. Use them as you will.