A Few Thoughts On Human Malice

"Good people are rarely suspicious: they cannot imagine others doing the things they themselves are incapable of doing; usually they accept the undramatic solution as the correct one, and let matters rest there. Then too, the normal are inclined to visualize the [psychopath] as one who's as monstrous in appearance as he is in mind, which is about as far from the truth as one could well get...These monsters of real life usually looked and behaved in a more normal manner than their actually normal brothers and sisters; they presented a more convincing picture of virtue than virtue presented of itself -- just as the wax rosebud or the plastic peach seemed more perfect to the eye, more what the mind thought a rosebud or a peach should be, than the imperfect original from which it had been modelled."

-- William March, The Bad Seed, quoted in Robert Hare, Without Conscience

Why do people do reprehensible things? What accounts for the sort of malice one reads about in the news every day? Homicides and extreme violence, for instance, but also acts of deviousness and treachery, as when we learn that whole state apparatuses -- surveillance apparatuses -- have been built for the purpose of destroying people's privacy, stealing every last intimate detail of their life, in effect usurping the role of God in achieving a kind of omniscience over them. Or acts of thievery, unscrupulous business practices, rape and spousal battery. Why do the alarm bells of conscience go off in some heads but not in others?

Perhaps the question is unanswerable, requiring as it does the input of an array of academic disciplines and leading eventually to a profusion of equally plausible interpretations, none necessarily towering over the others.

In the last century philosophers and psychotherapists have offered insights into the subject. The following is but a tiny sampling of viewpoints:

I. Psychopathy: the absence of a conscience, of empathy

II. Sadism is motivated by the wish to know another's deep secret

III. An existential account of violence

I. Psychopathy: the absence of a conscience, of empathy

The passages here have been excerpted from Robert Hare, Without Conscience (New York: The Guilford Press, 1993) pp.1-3, 6, 34, 38, 125. Dr. Hare is one of the leading experts in the world on the subject of psychopathy. He is Professor, Emeritus, of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

"Several years ago two graduate students and I submitted a paper to a scientific journal. The paper described an experiment in which we had used a biomedical recorder to monitor electrical activity in the brains of several groups of adult men while they performed a language task. This activity was traced on chart paper as a series of waves, referred to as an electroencephalogram (EEG). The editor returned our paper with his apologies. His reason, he told us: 'Frankly, we found some of the brain wave patterns depicted in the paper very odd. Those EEGs couldn't have come from real people.'

"Some of the brain wave recordings were indeed odd, but we hadn't gathered them from aliens and we certainly hadn't made them up. We had obtained them from a class of individuals found in every race, culture, society, and walk of life. Everybody has met these people, been deceived and manipulated by them, and forced to live with or repair the damage they have wrought. These often charming -- but always deadly -- individuals have a clinical name: psychopaths. Their hallmark is a stunning lack of conscience; their game is self-gratification at the other person's expense. Many spend time in prison, but many do not. All take far more than they give...

"The most obvious expressions of psychopathy -- but by no means the only ones -- involve flagrant criminal violation of society's rules. Not surprisingly, many psychopaths are criminals, but many others remain out of prison, using their charm and chameleonlike abilities to cut a wide swath through society and leaving a wake of ruined lives behind them.

"Together, these pieces of the puzzle form an image of a self-centered, callous, and remorseless person profoundly lacking in empathy and the ability to form warm emotional relationships with others, a person who functions without the restraints of conscience. If you think about it, you will realize that what is missing in this picture are the very qualities that allow human beings to live in social harmony.

"It is not a pretty picture, and some express doubt that such people exist. To dispel this doubt you need only consider the more dramatic examples of psychopathy that have been increasing in our society in recent years. Dozens of books, movies, and television programs, and hundreds of newspaper articles and headlines, tell the story. Psychopaths make up a significant portion of the people the media describe -- serial killers, rapists, thieves, swindlers, con men, wife beaters, white-collar criminals, hype-prone stock promoters and 'boiler-room' operators, child abusers, gang members, disbarred lawyers, drug barons, professional gamblers, members of organized crime, doctors who've lost their licenses, terrorists, cult leaders, mercenaries, and unscrupulous businesspeople."

Characteristics of Psychopaths:

"A deeply disturbing inability to care about the pain and suffering experienced by others -- in short, a complete lack of empathy, the prerequisite for love."

"What makes psychopaths different from all others is the remarkable ease with which they lie, the pervasiveness of their deception, and the callousness with which they carry it out.”

"Psychopaths often come across as arrogant, shameless braggarts -- self-assured, opinionated, domineering, and cocky. They love to have power and control over others and seem unable to believe that other people have valid opinions different from theirs. They appear charismatic or 'electrifying' to some people."

"Key symptoms: glib and superficial, egocentric and grandiose, lack of remorse or guilt, lack of empathy, deceitful and manipulative, shallow emotions."

II. Sadism is motivated by the wish to know another's deep secret

"The basic need to fuse with another person so as to transcend the prison of one's separateness is closely related to another specifically human desire, that to know the 'secret of man.' While life in its merely biological aspects is a miracle and a secret, man in his human aspects is an unfathomable secret to himself -- and to his fellow man. We know ourselves, and yet even with all the efforts we may make, we do not know ourselves. We know our fellow man, and yet we do not know him, because we are not a thing, and our fellow man is not a thing. The further we reach into the depth of our being, or someone else's being, the more the goal of knowledge eludes us. Yet we cannot help desiring to penetrate into the secret of man's soul, into the innermost nucleus which is 'he'.

"There is one way, a desperate one, to know the secret: it is that of complete power over another person; the power which makes him do what we want, feel what we want, think what we want; which transforms him into a thing, our thing, our posession. The ultimate degree of this attempt to know lies in the extremes of sadism, the desire and ability to make a human being suffer; to torture him, to force him to betray his secret in his suffering. In this craving for penetrating man's secret, his and hence our own, lies an essential motivation for the depth and intensity of cruelty and destructiveness. In a very succinct way this idea has been expressed by Isaac Babel. He quotes a fellow officer in the Russian civil war, who has just stamped his former master to death, as saying: 'With shooting -- I'll put it this way -- with shooting you'll never get at the soul, to where it is in a fellow and how it shows itself. But I don't spare myself, and I've more than once trampled an enemy for over an hour. You see, I want to get to know what life really is, what life's like down our way'...

"The other path to knowing 'the secret' is love. Love is active penetration of the other person, in which my desire to know is stilled by union. In the act of fusion I know you, I know myself, I know everybody -- and I 'know' nothing. I know in the only way knowledge of that which is alive is possible for man -- by experience of union -- not by any knowledge our thought can give. Sadism is motivated by the wish to know the secret, yet I remain as ignorant as I was before. I have torn the other being apart limb from limb, yet all I have done is to destroy him. Love is the only way of knowledge, which in the act of union answers my quest. In the act of loving, of giving myself, in the act of penetrating the other person, I find myself, I discover myself, I discover us both, I discover man."

– Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Perennial Library, 1956), pp.24-26.

III. An existential account of violence

Marshall McLuhan once observed that violence has something to do with an absence or lack of identity. The violent act is a form of self-assertion, defining and demonstrative. A surplus of being -- rage and fury -- wells up to do battle with the inward enemy nothingness. In some individuals the realization of not knowing who they "really" or "ultimately" are doesn't pose a problem: somehow they can get by quite well by fully accepting the uncertainties and contingencies of life. Self-doubt doesn't threaten or bother them. They do not require a peremptory morality or rigid boundaries to be whoever they are or to fend off a perceived threat. They do not need to marshal their ontological energies against a certain "them".

For others the void leads to the building up of what is sometimes referred to as a negative identity. Here ego-consciousness develops over time as a hostile reaction to otherness. The 'other' is seen as guilty, inferior, threatening, or bad -- in short, an enemy to be despised or vanquished. A Manichaean identity is developed which defines the native as honorable/good and the foreign as suspicious/bad. One may not know who he is or what he stands for, but he knows what he isn't, he knows what he hates, and that knowledge is sufficient to sustain him.

It has been said that it is very hard to hate somebody up close rather than far away. Hatred is borne of distance. Encounters create the opportunity for mutual self-revelation, which produces a "he's not all that bad a guy after all" thawing effect. People often wonder why there is so much violence in the United States, and here may lie the clue. In the U.S. lives and destinies do not really come into contact with one another. Everybody is shuttered up, consigned to his or her own vocational compartment, fantastically incurious to the experiences and feelings of others, and in any case divorced from a communal or public space that would add another dimension to private ontologies. "A loss of a sense of belonging" is how C. Wright Mills described it way back in 1954: “…between the state and the economy on the one hand, and the family and the small community on the other, we find no intermediate associations in which we feel secure and with which we feel powerful. There is little live political struggle. Instead, there is administration above, and the political vacuum below."

Might some violence be a reaction to this external nothingness, a protest against a world emptied of humane contact and intelligent political association?