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Evil: Inside Human Cruelty and Violence by Roy F. Baumeister


     If you’re looking for a treatise on a variety of evils of action and inaction--greed, corruption, and self-satisfied ignorance among many--look elsewhere. Roy F. Baumeister defines evil as unwarranted violence. More to evil exists than violence, though murder, genocide, and other cruelties were and are widespread. Baumeister includes the gory specifics.


     Baumeister explores the mental states common among those committing horrible acts. Some individuals focus only on concrete, technical details while blocking moral considerations from their minds. Some figure "Just do it. Why ask why?" Others, he suggests, lack inner restraint, often because they live in cultures that teach the hydraulic theory--the idea that humans cannot or should not control themselves because "pressure" builds up inside them and exploding is the way to release the pressure. The hydraulic theory is nonsense. Calming oneself down, distracting oneself, and numerous other methods dissipate pressures. One can even live with anger and not resort to evil. Plenty of angry people never resort to unjustified violence. They put their anger into more productive pursuits.


     The "only following orders" excuse, he writes, is common throughout history. Many individuals feel guilt and distress at committing their first evil but become desensitized the more they commit them. Alcohol commonly lowers distress and inhibitions. Hate and resentment are sometimes found. The failure to weigh long-term moral claims is extremely common.


     Baumeister argues that evil individuals rarely think of reasons to control themselves. Better individuals sometimes think evil thoughts but they offer themselves counterarguments and move on with their lives. He offers a great explanation of high and stable self-esteem versus high and unstable self-esteem.

Individuals with high, unstable, threatened self-esteem are extremely dangerous. Honor is often big with them. Small insults or perceived insults set them off. Criminals often see themselves as superstars, no matter how little they have accomplished in their lives. They believe the world owes them, even though they do little to deserve much. Psychopaths see others as suckers who exist merely to serve their own ends.


     In the world according to perpetrators one or more of the following applies:

·        The victims deserved it.

·        No other alternatives existed.

·        Perpetrators are the real victims. The world persecutes them.

·        Not much harm was done.

·        Self-control was impossible.

·        Control of consequences was impossible.

·        The results were harmful, but something else was at fault.

·        Other causes deserve most or all of the blame.

·        The innocuous actions of others were really attacks.

·        Random revenge or arbitrary group revenge are proper avenues of action.

·        Recent wrongs should be considered ancient history.

·        The evil was a rare mistake, not part of a pattern.

·        Psychological or medical problems deserve all the blame.

·        Bad things accidentally happened along the way while pragmatic and technical matters were addressed.

·        Any self-justification is a good justification.


     Individuals with low self-esteem and high, stable self-esteem are rarely dangerous. They care little whether someone insults them or blame themselves for the insult. They do not respond to ego threats with murder.


     Sadism, he claims, is rare and acquired gradually. Smiling perpetrators may smile out of nervousness, embarrassment or to break the tension. The sadistic laugh popular in entertainment is uncommon in real life. Inhibitions against killing are strong even when the killing is justified. During World War II, one-fourth of U.S. soldiers would not shoot at enemies. Baumeister argues that the completely innocent victim and random, senseless violence are sometimes myths. Perpetrators have targets, and there are reasons they choose those targets. One important point he makes: Perpetrators see silence by outsiders as implied consent. Evildoers are surprised by how easily they get away with violence. The evil or banality of those who acquiesce does not get much space in this work though.


    When groups are involved, there is a diffusion of responsibility excuse. Individuals excuse themselves because they believe everyone else does it. There is also a division of labor excuse. Evil consequences do not appear so bad in the minds of many if you are only a tiny or distant part of evil.


     Other common causes of evil include:

·        Mob violence.

·        Keeping those affected clueless.

·        Misinterpreting ambiguous words or actions or both.

·        Giving deliberately ambiguous instructions to maintain innocence while some underling does the evil.

·        Failing to object in strong moral language, which gives the impression that vile actions are acceptable

·        Making only practical objections. Purely practical objections imply moral acceptability.


     Weaknesses of this book include poor and confusing use of moral terms such as evil, virtue, and character. The author is better at exploring the motives of violence than explaining other causes. His discussion of means and ends is a mess. Non-situational issues and factors do not get much attention in this work.


     Baumeister does not offer much of an evil prevention plan. The admiration that many have for evildoers and the resulting consequences of that admiration does not get much attention here, specifically those who see evil as primarily a form of vicarious amusement. Many claims are mistaken: "Guilt is better for the community and worse for the individual, and so they [Americans] detest guilt." Guilt is better for the innocent and the larger number of individuals. A culture that disparages guilt is a great threat to individuals. And so is a culture that emphasizes misplaced guilt.


    Much of this is important, albeit not surprising:

·        Wrong doers think they are doing good or that they are somehow justified.

·        Almost no one sees herself as evil.

·        Individuals form groups and create group conflicts even for trivial reasons and even when doing so is mutually destructive.

·        Evil rarely shows up with bared teeth and a growl.

·        Humans are very flexible and often arbitrary in targeting empathy, compassion and indignancy.

·        Complete and only fault and complete and only innocence are ever-attractive labels to apply.

·        Having only one reason is not enough to act or not act.

·        People often look for one flaw in an argument, then try to use that as an excuse to ignore or discredit the whole thing. (Many, for example, argue that television addiction is spurious therefore arguments against television can be ignored.

·        Some individuals you think are motivated by conscious venom may be acting out of unthinking reflex.


     The author's judgments of good and bad are based too much on moral psychology. Certain motives are associated with some moral and immoral acts. These motives are sometimes relevant to judging the goodness or badness of acts. But this work overemphasizes the weight that should be assigned to motives and underemphasizes the weight that should be given to consequences and non-motive principles.


     One atrocious part of the book: The phrase evil is in the "eye of the beholder" in trying to explain the idea that evildoers think they have not done much harm while victims suffer enormous psychological harm. Evildoers think: Big deal you lost a ring or a tooth. Victims think: I lost privacy, security, respect, family heirlooms and so on. The problem: Use of the "eye of the beholder" phrase to describe the difference in beliefs creates moral relativistism related confusions. Evil is not in the eye of the beholder. It exists independent of beholders.


     One common pattern in evil is misguided idealism. Misguided idealists:

·        Use almost any means to justify the end.

·        Use almost any end to justify the means.

·        Believe evil actions are good actions.

·        Believe good motives absolve everything else.


    This work sometimes takes the position that as long as motives are not hate filled or not directly harmful, the person should not be judged evil. But actions can be judged evil whether the motives are kindly, sadistic, ambivalent, indifferent or whatever. All it takes is bad, careless moral reasoning about principles and consequences combined with the wrong actions. Deontological and consequential considerations are barely covered in Evil, nor does the author delve into the spread of evil ideologies and the role of ideology in evil.


    In general Baumeister argues for the importance of guilt and use of reasons in controlling unjustified violence. Recommended. Book review by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009.

431p (H) 1997


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