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DigitalBlue's avatar

Can an "evil" person be mentally sound?

Asked by DigitalBlue (6456 points ) July 27th, 2012

Whenever there is a high profile case, like the Aurora shooting, I find myself frustrated by the discussion of the criminal’s mental state. Is he crazy or is he evil? I have a hard time distinguishing between the two (not to suggest that I believe all mental illness makes people do bad things), but is it possible for someone in the right frame of mind, or someone with a healthy psyche, to blow up buildings or shoot up a schoolhouse full of children?
The atrocities committed by these high profile murderers often leads to discussions about how evil and demented these people must be, because their crimes are so heinous and appear to be absent of empathy – but is that not because something has misfired in the brain?

People who suffer from severe mental illness are three times more likely to end up in prison than in a hospital, and the most recent statistics that I could quickly grab say that at least half of the people in US prisons suffer from mental health problems (higher for women, at 73%.)

Often we jump to describe these actions as “sick” or even so far as to describe the killer as “sick,” but we do not treat them as if they are sick. The masses gather up their imaginary torches and pitchforks and rally to fry ‘em, which is an emotional response that I can understand – but is it right?

Is the legal definition of insanity sufficient?

Is having a grasp that what you’re doing is wrong as cut and dry as it needs to be?

Is “evil” in the “soul” or in the brain?

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34 Answers

poisonedantidote's avatar

I would argue that “evil” requires a sound mind. Evil is cold, cunning and premeditated. Evil is not only fully aware of the consequences, harm and devastation it causes, but also feeds on said harm and devastation.

If I choke a kid to death because I am crazy and I have voices that wont let me sleep telling me to do it, it makes me insane.

If i choke a kid to death because I think I would enjoy the look of grief on the parents face, and that it would be cool to do ‘for the lulz’, and plan to do it and do, then I am evil.

At least that is how I look at it.

The problem is that this is all totally subjective. For example, many would argue that Hitler was evil, but I see him more as insane. On the other hand, Myra Hindley I would see as evil. This is just because of what I believe motivated these people to do what they did.

To argue my point even further, I would perhaps use my self as an example.

I am fairly smart, I have not been certified as crazy, and I try to do good. However, under certain conditions I would be capable of evil. – For example, if someone killed my mother and I knew who did it, I would intentionally try to calm down, and stop the police from knowing who did it, just so I could plan my own revenge. When the time came, my revenge would be cold and calculating, and I would do what I would do in a calm and informed manner, knowing all the consequences and aware of what I was doing to the person. Few would probably call it insane, many would call it evil.

DaphneT's avatar

Yes, I think so. It seems to me that evil is the practice of dispensing pain and fear, hate and discontent with intention to reap a personal benefit. Someone with such intention can recognize the societal definitions of good and evil and will choose not to let such definitions interfere with their accumulation of personal benefits.

A person who practices evil is considered abnormal by the majority of society, especially those on the receiving end. We label that abnormal person sick based on our belief that a normal person would not do such things because they do not want to experience such things.

Sick means that something is not right with the physical or emotional system. Such as when you eat the wrong thing and throw up, you’re described as sick, or when your sinuses become stuffed up, you’re said to be sick. Sick in the head is used to describe someone who displays evil. Crazy is the more specific term for sick in the head, and the definitions of sane and insane are the legal terms for the general parlance. Which term you use depends on the maturity and literacy of your audience.

We, as a society, want to eradicate physical sicknesses that are contagious, such as Cholera, H1N1 or AIDS because the spread of such contagions immobilizes or destroys a society.

Evil falls into the contagion category. Rather like the Plague. We know that shooting rats removes or contains pestilence. Since we don’t know a lot about how the mind works and no one really has a scientific explanation for the soul, eradication of that type of contagion has usually been as swift and as terminal as possible.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Wow, you two scare the hell out of me. But that sums it up pretty well.

wundayatta's avatar

No. There is something wrong with “evil” people, whatever they are. People who choose to try to get ahead by hurting others are evil, although that particular form of evilness is actually praised in the US. Those people tend to make lots of money and that seems to redeem them in the eyes of many.

Then there are those who hurt others out of a sense that they are some kind of avenging angel. In other words, that the people they hurt or kill deserve it in some way, or that it is payback for pains the killer suffered in their life. Those people are also not mentally sound.

Neither of these groups of people has a sense of solidarity with others. They don’t see themselves as needing the cooperation of others, or of deserving to belong to the group. They seem themselves as heroes or antiheroes who does what they do on their own. This is a form of sickness, in my opinion. However, I don’t know if it is curable. It is possible that people can be retrained so they understand and act as if they are members of a community, but I am not sure. They may need to be separated from society, so that they can not hurt others.

What is the difference of seeing pathology as sickness vs seeing it as evil? Evil is, I think, seen as something innate, while sickness is seen as something curable. If a person is innately evil, there is nothing to do to rehabilitate them. So we lock them up forever, or we kill them. However, if they are sick, then it isn’t fair to lock them up forever or kill them. It is more humane to try to cure them, so they can participate normally in society again.

The problem is that there is always uncertainty. If a person is mentally ill, could the get ill again? If we let them out of prison, might they go bad again and hurt people again? Indeed, isn’t it more likely that they will hurt people again, compared to others?

The other problem that seems to bother people is the idea that someone might be pretending to be mentally ill in order to get out of jail eventually. I don’t really see any difference between this problem and the certitude of rehabilitation problem.

If a person hurts others due to mental illness, that is not or should not be a “get out of jail free” card. A person needs to be treated and to demonstrate they are better for a period of years before I would have any confidence that they might be able to stay healthy for the rest of their lives. I would not feel comfortable letting someone out of jail without seeing a lot of evidence that they had changed.

Of course, people mistrust the mental health profession because we see these killers and see all the interviews with people who knew them and they all say they can’t believe the person they knew did this. If people can hide their illness so effectively, then how can you ever know if they are cured?

There is no certainty. And it is almost impossible to ascertain a probability. So letting people out of jail is really a leap of faith. And that’s what bothers so many, who think it is just safer to impose the death penalty. But somehow, they don’t like imposing the death penalty for illness, so they have to convince themselves that a person is evil, not sick, in order to impose the death penalty.

I don’t have that problem, because I don’t believe in the death penalty for anything. I do believe in life sentences. I do believe that at a certain point, if only due to age, it will no longer make sense to keep someone in prison. I also believe in rehabilitation, but I would have to rely on people with expertise to tell me when a person is cured enough to get out.

Having personally experienced mental illness and having behaved violently (although most people here would laugh to hear me say what I did was violence—it was in my book) when I was ill, I know how illness can change how you think and behave. I did something I had never done before and I am 95% confident I will never do it again. If what I did was murder, would 95% confidence be enough for anyone to let me out of jail?

Of course, what I did was to spank my child. Once. Now will you let me out of jail with a promise I’ll never do it again? Of course you will, because it isn’t even illegal. But when I did it, I knew something was wrong with me because I had never behaved that way in my life before. I instantly walked out the door of my house and walked around aimlessly for hours, trying to calm down. That, more than anything else, seemed to scare my family the most.

But my point is that mental illness does change the way you behave. It is possible to recognize that your behavior is changed. It is possible to seek treatment and to get better and to minimize the risk of such an even ever occurring again. This is true whether it is spanking or murder. However, since the consequences of murder are so much bigger, we generally feel we need to be much more confident about a person being cured before we let them out.

Yet, we leave that to experts, who make mistakes. And some people don’t want to do that. So if they can find a way to justify a permanent solution, they’ll take it, I think. If they can say someone is faking mental illness, they can justify a diagnosis of evil, and justify the death penalty, which, if ever executed, would mean they never have to think about the danger this person represents again.

bookish1's avatar

@poisonedantidote: Why do you think Hitler was insane rather than evil? Every decision he took fit coherently within the context of his execrable worldview. To save the ‘German people’, the only people worthy of empathy, he had to destroy some groups of people, and enslave others. (Except he did not view these other groups as human, of course). It sounds rather like the definition of “evil” that you gave.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Yes. There’s actually quite a bit of work done on the banality of evil.

“Evil” is sort of a vague term, as is “mentally sound” outside of the legal system. But if you’re asking if you can look at a specific act someone did – like, the Aurora shooting – and know that they are or could be diagnosed with a mental disorder, then yeah, people without mental disorders can commit evil acts. In fact, people with mental disorders are actually 10x more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. Which is actually why I’ve heard a good amount of mental health activists really tensing up at the idea of responding to this shooting by simply taking more rights away from those with mental disorders.

@DaphneT Just FYI, “crazy” is not a term that is ever defined within the mental health community, and most tend to regard it as an ableist slur, though sometimes an ableist slur that can be reclaimed by those who have mental disorders.

wundayatta's avatar

Yah! Me think crazy = good thing! When creative, fer sure!

LittleLemon's avatar

If you’ll excuse me getting off-topic, I do believe reform is possible. I think it has to happen early, however. That isn’t to say that this particular girl will not have hiccups as time goes on. How you manage stress and anger in your life so that it won’t turn into evil acts is a matter of willpower and treatment.

But then, if one is plagued by evil thoughts and does not commit them, are they still considered evil?

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@LittleLemon I like your last sentence. That’s interesting to consider thoughts versus actions.

Symbeline's avatar

To me, evil is someone who is conscious of their acts, and goes ahead with something that hurts, in any way, someone, or several people. It doesn’t matter if they enjoy it, do it to solve a problem, or to further their needs. If they know that something is generally seen as wrong, and utilize some factors in their environment in order to skullfuck their fellow man, then that makes them the closest to evil that I can think of.
Of course good and evil are subjective, and we’re all terrorists in the eyes of other terrorists. Hitler thought he was doing good, as far as I know, while terrorists who blow shit up think they’re doing good. America is seen as evil by other countries, while America thinks it’s good. Whether one truly is or not, the intent and the knowledge behind the action is what I think matters. I don’t think mental illness can always be used to get someone out of being ’‘evil’’. You have to be smart to be evil, and a lot of people with mental disorders are quite intelligent, and more than cognizant of their surroundings. Take the dude who did the Tuscon shooting; I denno how smart that guy was, but he plead insanity. However, authorities found that he did some research on his computer about the death penalty before the shooting, so he knew what he was doing, whether he really thinks the number 18 is actually 6 or not.

Like @poisonedantidote said, if I kill a kid because voices told me too, I’m living an irrational existence that doesn’t reflect the reality of the society I’m in. But if I just believe that kid deserves to die, I may still be irrational with my reasoning, but if I hide the body after, I know why I’m hiding it. Mental illness can go a long way with this I think, and I don’t know enough about it to make a real educated post on that matter.

But take a serial killer for example. A lot of them know that killing is wrong, at least by social standards. Some, however, feel no empathy, and only hide the evidence or the bodies because they don’t want to get caught. But killing in itself they don’t see as morally wrong, and is something they take with a casual approach. Much like I might throw out the garbage when it’s full, they’ll dispose of a person if that person is perceived as a problem by them, for example. Is having no empathy evil? Should they be labeled as insane because their sense of empathy and morality is all warped? I mean, they still knew what they were doing enough to hide bodies and evidence, even if they feel nothing…It would be so damn easier if this stuff was absolute.

I hate to be depressing and lacking faith in mankind, but I also don’t think it’s very hard to be evil. I bet there’s a lot of mentally sound people who are/could be evil, but don’t go through with it because of the social restraints most of us find ourselves held back by. I’d hate to see what Mr. Everyone would do if they had the power to do whatever it is they wished. On the other hand, a lot of evil folks get around the system and do their evil deeds anyway, so perhaps my faith in mankind should be reevaluated, since I guess most people just want to live in peace, anyway.
And I totally went off the subject here.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Now we can all be scared. GA

Aethelflaed's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe I’m scared that you weren’t scared before.

ucme's avatar

I don’t know that they can, an individual considered to be mentally stable can certainly be prone to evil acts depending on their circumstances/environment.
The two seem to be incompatible, it’s an interesting equation.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@Aethelflaed The first two were scary, Symbeline was beyond scary.

KNOWITALL's avatar

I’ve known evil people that were completely sane. Pedophiles are a good example.

wundayatta's avatar

@Symbeline There is evidence from some psychology experiments that if people believe they can get away with causing pain to others, they will. I don’t remember the details, but it had to do with having a button to press that supposedly gave someone a shock. So your point about people being “evil” given opportunity has scientific research to back it up.

Personally, I don’t think the term “evil” is very useful. I think we should be thinking in terms of practical goals. In this case, preventing further harm. I don’t think the issue of revenge or punishment is relevant. I think a lot of people get angry because they think the perp might escape punishment. I think that is a very shortsighted view.

Punishment doesn’t help anything. The people are dead. We can’t bring them back. All we can do is prevent the perp from killing again. That means protecting ourselves from him. We can lock him up. We could kill him. If we lock him up, we can never let him out or let him out if he will not cause harm again.

Big if.

If we see prison as protecting society from bad guys, will our attitude about prison conditions change? The current justification for prison conditions is that we need to punish people. So prison must be a form of hell. But if we don’t care about punishment, what we need from prison is cost-effective protection from the bad guys. We don’t have to make their lives that bad.

A lot of people, though, believe in punishment. Not sure why. It’s not to rehabilitate the person. So what is the point?

Aethelflaed's avatar

@wundayatta You would be talking about the Milgram Experiment.

DigitalBlue's avatar

Pedophilia doesn’t feel like something that a healthy brain comes up with, to me, either. I don’t think of pedophiles as “sane.”

I guess it isn’t whether or not it is some type of clinical insanity, but that it seems to me that it indicates that something in the brain has gone haywire. For example, psychopaths lack empathy, but we know why human beings are empathic. If a psychopath’s neurons aren’t firing properly, doesn’t that make their brain “sick?” I’m not suggesting that every person to commit mass murder, or other violent, atrocious crime, is psychopathic… but would we, as a society, even count that as an explanation?

Bilbo123's avatar

No. Bilbo gave the ring to Gandalf.

KNOWITALL's avatar

To me pedophilia, wife/child/animal abusers, etc…are all sane yet do it anyway. By sane, I mean able to fulfill the daily job, and perform other normal functions. Obviously they’re not ‘right’, but I’d judge them as sane.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@DigitalBlue There’s no such thing as clinical insanity; insanity is a legal term for deciding if someone should go to prison or a psychiatric facility that mental health experts can weigh in on but is ultimately decided by a judge. And we don’t really know why pedophilia happens; though it’s worth pointing out that not all pedophiles molest children, and not all child molesters molest because they find the children hot. Many molest because children are just really easy victims.

The down side to the argument that psychopaths’ neurons aren’t firing correctly is that’s it’s really a neurotypical argument. The same could be said of those with autism, bipolar, depression, ADHD, dyslexia, many mental disorders… even homosexuality. It also depends on how you define what “firing correctly” is, because evolution isn’t really some great, intelligent master plan that we can divine, so much as biology fumbling around in the dark half-asleep trying to get to the bathroom but stubbing its toe and stepping on the dog on the way there. Well, that, and that currently psychopathy is not a recognized disorder, so who constitutes a psychopath is a matter of great debate.

augustlan's avatar

I basically agree with you, @DigitalBlue. While they may not be insane, I feel like there has to be something wrong in the brains of people who commit evil acts.

Aethelflaed's avatar

I always feel like the tendency to simply blame any bad act on the perpetrator being a psychopath is an attempt to relieve society of any culpability. That way, it’s never our failure to teach them what to do and what not to do, through media and values and our actions when others breech those values, nor is it our fault that we failed to provide the social resources that would allow most to meet our societal goals.

Paradox25's avatar

My answer is going to be the same as my post on this similar thread. Our society loves to label and categorize people who do bad things to others. Our society is so obessed with labels and scapegoats that we mistakenly assume that most people who commit evil acts must suffer from some type of antisocial personality or mental disorder, when history has repeatedly proven that this is not the case. Perhaps the term evil can be considered subjective itself, but entire societies can be evil, as well as groups of people. People who love their families, countries, cultures, race, ideologies, religions, etc can also do very evil things to others. Not all evil people are psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists, mentally ill, insane, etc.

Pandora's avatar

@poisonedantidote I wouldn’t call revenge evil or crazy, I would call it evil if you seeked out the murders mother and tortured and murdered his parent to exact your revenge. Than that could go either crazy or evil. I would probably call that evil, since the mother is innocent of his crimes.
But in a case such as that, I would probably have to go with evil, but not insane. But it would have to rely on how long since the emotional conflict and how long have they been planning the whole thing. Also, did they have opportunity to hurt the person directly but decided to take the attack in a more personal way. Momentary insanity with revenge would mean they wanted to hurt the person in question directly. You don’t have to be insane to think like a crazy person. You just have to be pretty smart in understanding how people tick. Evil is when you use it to your benefit by hurting someone else. Usually just means you lack compassion for anyone outside of yourself. But I’ve met people who are cold who still think murder would be immoral.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Relevant article from The New Yorker: What Do We Mean By Evil. I was going to copy in the best parts, but then that turned out to be about half of it, so just go read it.

lloydbird's avatar

I’ve said it before and….....etc.

There is no such thing as “Evil”. There are only different degrees of ‘Wrong’.

Right cannot be, without the propensity for Wrong being extant.

So, for example, the ‘wrong’ that @poisonedantidote would inflict upon the hypothethical killer of his beloved Mom would become ‘right’ and not evil. Or justifiable at least.

The killings at Aurora, very, very wrong.

DaphneT's avatar

@Aethelflaed I only meant to suggest that these words carry connotations and a degree of explicitness that is granted to the word by its usage and level of simplicity. I wouldn’t use the word insane with an 8 year old, I’d use the word sick. In general conversation with the untrained I wouldn’t sweat the definitions of these words because I want them to ask and seek that information. What kind of world do you live in that everyone knows every word within its legal and technical definition and only uses the words in that context?

Aethelflaed's avatar

@DaphneT Not everyone does, that’s why it was meant to be just an FYI, but yeah, they’ve all watched enough Law and Order to know that insane is a legal definition, and that calling someone “crazy” is not gonna fly. It’s like the bare minimum for being a mental health rights ally.

Ron_C's avatar

Sure, look at Cheney or Rumsfeld, they are perfectly sane and uniformly evil

Mr_Paradox's avatar

Evil is cold and calculated. Evil is when someone plans to do something horendous for fun. That sort of person most definatly has a screw lose, but they are not “crazy”, “insane”, or “mentally ill”. The are not mentally sound, but they are not mentally ill. They are not insane or sane. They are an anomoly. An insane persons acts would make no sense whatsoever to anyone but him. An evil persons acts would be connected, calculated, and meticulously planned to the “T”. The Joker was evil. He planned everything. It may not look like it, but everything he did led him to that final showdown with Batman. It was all planned. The Aurora shooter was insane. There was no rhyme or reason. He didn’t have a meticulous plan. He just ACTED. They only planning an insane person makes is “obtain weapons, set place, kill.” That“s it. No endgame, no real plan, just action.

Nuts's avatar

The main issue to be recognized in these cases is, of course, the psychosis. In psychosis it is very hard to deal with the world around, because one is hallucinating and what seems as not normal to other people, is totally appropriate and normal reaction in one’s world of hallucinations made up by his mind involuntary.

So .. it is a hell of a difference if someone was killing because he felt angry or hated the victim for some reason .. or – in psychosis – if the murderer was for months terrorized by the victim (the psychotic murderer might think the victim wanted to hurt him, but really it was not true [called delusion]).

The simplistic difference between “normal” murderer and the “sick” one is – a person in psychosis (or other serious mental illness) is mostly killing in self-defense (from his point of view).

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