Sunday, September 22, 2019

Are there evil people or only evil acts?

“I can guarantee that someone in the world thinks you are evil. Do you eat meat? Do you work in banking? Do you have a child out of wedlock? You will find that things that seem normal to you don't seem normal to others, and might even be utterly reprehensible. Perhaps we are all evil. Or, perhaps none of us are.”

– Julia Shaw, Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

Earlier this month, Science magazine and Fondation Ipsen co-sponsored a webinar on Impulses, intent, and the science of evil. “Can research into humankind’s most destructive inclinations help us become better people?”

It's freely available on demand. Let the controversy commence...

Are There Evil People or Only Evil Acts?

Moderator (Sean Sanders, Ph.D. Science/AAAS):  “... How do we define evil? ... Are there evil people or only evil acts?”

In brief, Dr. Abigail Marsh said no, there are absolutely not evil people; Dr. David Brucato mostly agreed with that; and Dr. Michael Stone gave an elaborate example using an offensive term ("gay pedophile" – as if anyone would refer to a male pedophile who targets little girls as a "straight pedophile").

Dr. Marsh was not amused...

More detail below.

Michael Stone, M.D. Columbia University:  [I'm skipping his first response on etymology and religion.]

Abigail Marsh, Ph.D. Georgetown University:  “... I don't think it's ever appropriate to refer to a person as evil. Actions are certainly evil and some people are highly predisposed to keep committing evil actions, but evil does has this very supernatural connotation.

Um, and like so many supernatural ideas, I think the concept of evil is pulled in whenever we have trouble understanding why someone would do such a thing, right, we talk about evil spirits or forces because it's so difficult to understand, um, for most people why anybody would be driven to do something to cause people pain and suffering for no reason. Um... but there is an explanation, we may not know what it is yet, but there is an explanation for these behaviors, and so uh... but the use of the word 'evil' doesn't get us any closer to understanding that. It leaves us in this supernatural rut rather than thinking of these behaviors as things that do have unfortunately human motivations .. but that are not the totality of the person. Evil is a very essentialist term as well. It assumes this sort of homogeneity within the person which is not usually true.” [I'm biased in this direction.]

Gary Brucato, Ph.D. Columbia University:  [after the moderator has implied that Stone & Brucato's book suggests that although rare, there are truly evil people.]  “...... What we have to clarify is that rarely, even in the most egregious repeat offenders, do you see somebody that from dusk to dawn is committing acts that are considered evil.  ... [I'll note here that Dr. Marsh is subtly nodding her head.]

Dr. Stone:  “Therefore there are a very very small number of people ... who do evil things as it were from the minute they wake up in the morning until they go to sleep at night. The one who comes closest to mind is the one I interviewed for the Discovery channel program some years ago and that was uh David Paul Brown his real name, who then changed his name when he was in prison the first time to Benjamin Nathaniel Bar-Jonah [actually, it was Nathaniel Benjamin Levi Bar-Jonah] who was a gay pedophile [sic] who would seduce boys coming out of a theater and then try to capture them if he could and kill them and so on. Some of them escaped and managed to identify him.1 [He was imprisoned and then released] ... OK. So. Out in Montana, he dressed as a policeman with a fake badge... and would seduce little boys ... coming out of a school ... he would ... kill them, eat part of the boy ... [more details about cannibalism] ... He had thousands of pictures of boys and on the walls making up very bad comments and puns as if uh uh some young kid as if that were a Chinese menu item, on a menu, some young kid.” [other sources say girls were among the victims]. He could be counted on, one of the few people I know of, who was evil day in and day out. That's very rare...”

Dr. Stone seems amused...

Dr. Marsh looks dejected

Labels Don't Get Us Anywhere

Moderator:  “... I feel this disgust and you know repulsion uh thinking about this. And so I'm assuming that this is what drives people to label someone as evil. Um and I wonder if that label is useful. You know if we look at maybe the children that you Abby are doing your research with um if you see these inclinations is it helpful to put labels on them and where does that get us you know scientifically and and in terms of treatment?

Dr. Marsh:  “I don't think it gets us anywhere, it's one of the many reasons I wouldn't ever refer to that term uh to call a human being evil. Um... the children I work with didn't make a choice to have the personalities they do or to have the life experiences that have led them to the place that they are and instead we know that psychopathy — again this condition of having very low levels of remorse and caring and compassion for other people has all the hallmarks of a mental illness — has a strong heritability component, having negative life experiences causes the prognosis to get worse, there are very clear characteristic brain and cognitive changes. It looks like any other psychological disorder in these key ways and so calling people who are affected by this condition evil is not helping us to develop treatments to try to improve their prognosis and to try to improve the odds that they won't go on to do things that affect the rest of us negatively. Um because what I what it does is calling someone evil robs us of the ability to view someone compassionately.”

It's Nearly Impossible to Predict...

Moderator: Do we all have the propensity to do evil deeds?

Dr. Marsh:  “...[regarding] 'horrible and unpredicted' acts, shooting up dozens of innocent people ... I think that when acts like that are so unpredictable, it often leads us to draw the incorrect conclusion, I guess anybody is capable of an act of evil so serious because if we can't predict who it can be, I guess it can be anybody. Um it is true that it is very hard to predict accurately who will engage in acts of significant violence like that especially when dealing with young men in whom various psychological disorders may be emerging for the first time that contribute to those actions. But it's absolutely not the case that everybody is capable of actions like that...”

Prevention, Not Prediction

This brings us to my previous post on a proposal to predict mass shootings via Apple Watches, Fitbits, Amazon Echo, Google Home and AI, and how this effort would be futile (not to mention horribly intrusive and stigmatizing). But we wouldn't want to anger the NRA, now would we?

An FBI study on pre-attack behaviors of 63 active shooters in the US found that only 25% had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness (only three of whom were diagnosed with a psychotic disorder).

A Department of Defense report on Predicting Violent Behavior says:
There is no panacea for stopping all targeted violence. Attempting to balance risks, benefits, and costs, the Task Force found that prevention as opposed to prediction should be the Department's goal. Good options exist in the near term for mitigating violence by intervening in the progression of violent ideation to violent behavior.
It should seem obvious that...

Dr. Stone: “'s much more easy to get rid of the weaponry that allows these things to happen than it is to do psychotherapy, particularly on people with psychopathic tendencies who are not very amenable to psychotherapy anyway...”

Most Americans favor stricter gun control, and many of us think that our lax gun control laws are the greatest insanity, as are the politicians who refuse to do anything about it.

Further Reading

Aggression Detectors: The Unproven, Invasive Surveillance Technology Schools Are Using to Monitor Students

Trump's claims and what experts say about mental illness and mass shootings

Ivanka Trump to Head New Agency of Precrime

Predicting Mass Shootings via Intrusive Surveillance and Scapegoating of the Mentally Ill

No news from the hypothetical HARPA organization (Health Advanced Research Projects Agency) or the Suzanne Wright Foundation since the initial Washington Post report on their joint proposal for project SAFE HOME — “Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes.”


1 I had initially included more of the gory details, then decided a truncated version was better.

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At September 22, 2019 6:50 PM, Blogger Superkuh said...

>most americans favor

Luckily we live in a representative republic where the majority doesn't have the ability to infringe upon the rights of minorities. If urban populations in the USA don't want firearms then they can stay in their cities where they're already effectively banned. Leave the vast majority of the rest of the country alone. The mores and norms sensible to dense urban populations simply shouldn't be applied outside dense urban areas.

At September 23, 2019 10:16 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

It should be obvious (and unfortunate) that the majority does infringe on the rights of minorities in many other realms. States' rights are often a matter of ideology: suitable at some times but not others, depending on who holds the majority vote in Congress.

The opinion poll on gun control found a consensus on stricter background checks and opposition to a complete ban on handguns. But the majority did favor a ban on semi-automatic weapons.

"The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey finds that 89 percent of Americans favor expanded background checks for gun purchasers; 76 percent support "red flag" laws to identify dangerous persons and deny them guns, and 75 percent favor a voluntary buyback program in which the government would purchase firearms from current owners. Sixty-two percent of Americans favor a ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons.

Only 25 percent support banning the sale of handguns. Forty-six percent of Americans say someone in their household owns a gun.

Surely, violent psychopaths should not be allowed to purchase firearms?

Putting mass shootings aside for now, the suicide rate is highest in states with high rates of gun ownership, like Montana.

At September 23, 2019 6:43 PM, Blogger Superkuh said...

> Surely, violent psychopaths should not be allowed to purchase firearms?

Why make this argument when your entire blog undercuts it? You know as well as I that there'll be no effective system of prediction of violent psychopaths until after they're violent. The pitfalls of such a system are obvious and many. Even if it were accurate enough to be justifiable there are serious moral and ethical issues with violating rights before any criminal behavior has occurred. It would not be like conspiracy where evidence of intent would have to exist.

So no, violent psychopaths would probably be stopped by the existing background check system having already committed a violent crime in order to be labeled as such. Otherwise they're just people.

It does seem like a popular way to commit suicide in areas where there is a government ban on suicide.

Luckily the rate of firearm murders these days in the USA is vastly lower than it was in the 1980s and further back. It dropped off in the 90s and has stayed relatively low ever since regardless of increased news media coverage of events.

At September 23, 2019 11:06 PM, Anonymous David J. Littleboy said...

I suppose throwing cheap shots at ivory-tower academics isn't nice, but, regarding whether or not there are "evil" people out there, it crosses my mind that it's unlikely that any of these academics has ever met any of the folks who were chanting anti-Semitic slogans at Charlottesville. (Oops. Yuck. I just remembered the US corporate executive expat who told me Japan was a great expat gig because you could fly to Thailand cheaply for weekends (wink wink).) It's nice to live a protected life. But there are some seriously un-nice folks out there. (I remember seeing a white skinhead attack an elderly black couple in Boston's "Combat Zone". A car full of younger black guys stepped in to stop it. Said zone was between my house and Chinatown, and my father walked through it every day for lunch in the last few years of his life. It terrified me every time I went home to visit.)

There's nothing lucky about the number of firearm murders in the US: Our murder rate is roughly 15 times that in Japan*, and firearms account for about 2/3 of it.

*: From eyeballing the chart at

At September 25, 2019 10:40 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Superkuh -- Yes, you're exactly right. I realize that statement was incongruous for violent psychopaths who have never been detected before (I was being extreme). Would have been much better to say something like, "Surely, convicted perpetrators of domestic violence should not be allowed to purchase firearms." Background checks only work for someone who has a background to check. Threats of committing violent acts (whether at school/work/home or on social media) should be a red flag too.

At September 25, 2019 10:48 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

David J. Littleboy - What sort of program (if any) could rehabilitate the Charlottesville mob? I think it's easier to separate "evil acts" from "evil people" if there's a chance to intervene, as with children.

And somehow, world maps showing murder rates & gun ownership don't seem to change anyone's mind...

At September 26, 2019 6:46 AM, Anonymous David J. Littleboy said...

Hmm. I'd guess that the Charlottesville mob folks don't want to be rehabilitated.

So I don't have a solution. Certainly some number of such folks figure out on their own that they were wrong, but forcing such "figuring out" on people would probably be counterproductive.

On guns, though, pretty much everyone's mind actually has been changed. The problem is that people don't vote on that and the gun nuts are louder than we are, so the Repugs are fine with blocking sensible legislation. Heck, even something as obvious as banning cigarette sales (one of the most amazingly defective products ever sold; here in Japan cancer is the main cause of death and 40% of cancers in men are due to cigarettes) isn't possible. Go figure.


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