Do Evil People Know That They're Evil?

09/23/2014 12:40 EDT | Updated 11/23/2014 05:59 EST

In my last post, I raised the issue of how we are to understand the thought processes of those who act in a manner which we would define as evil. Do such individuals also perceive themselves as doing evil or, perhaps, not -- even believing that they are actually doing good? If the answer is in the affirmative, how can we explain how such people undertake such actions knowing full well they are evil? If the answer is no, what does this say about the human ability to perceive or define evil - even our own ability to grasp this concept -- if different people can arrive at such different conclusions?

We came to the realization that it may be possible for an individual such as the common criminal to recognize that his/her behaviour is wrong yet still adopt this behaviour nonetheless. Base human drives and emotions may still be at work causing such an individual to act in this, effectively self-serving, manner albeit still perceiving it to be corrupt. This is also the realm of the psychopath and sociopath. Such a perception would maintain, though, some shared frame of reference that would allow us a way to proceed within a certain framework -- even yielding the possibility of rehabilitation because we can find some common reference point. After all, the idea of good is still basically shared by such a criminal even as he/she may have acted contrary to it. Could such an approach, though, explain the self-perception of a Hitler?

We thus maintained that there must also be the possibility that some individuals -- even as they act in a manner which we would define as evil -- perceive themselves as not doing evil - even seeing themselves as doing good. The first question obviously is: how is this possible? The second question, though -- which is the more practical one -- is how to then proceed? The challenge is that, since there is no common starting point, there is not really the possibility of adopting the same process as one would do with the common criminal. To proceed as one would with the common criminal, in fact, could just cause more harm.

A problem is that there is a major chasm in frame of reference. This person is thinking differently than the way you or I are thinking, with different perceived conclusions and objectives. There is a fundamental difference in not only the 'ethical' conclusions but in the very process by which these decisions are reached. The challenge we face with such organizations as ISIS is reflective of this. I found myself disturbed upon hearing British Prime Minister Cameron referring to these individuals, effectively, as not being religious -- calling them, rather, 'monsters' -- essentially comparing them to any other criminals. Recognizing them as religious, however, is essential to dealing with them for it informs us that they have a totally different 'frame of reference' and process for the determination of right and wrong. Their definition of good and evil is not only inherently different but their very determination of these concepts is different. Without this recognition, one really can't make any proper determination of what to do.

When we refer to someone as being religious, what we are usually assuming is that this person abides by general ethical standards that would be similar to the rational system of natural morality -- being religious simply being an assertion of the belief that this system came from God. This, however, is not the true, inherent meaning of the term. Being religious simply means that the person follows a religion -- which means that the person accepts the direction of the deity in which he/she believes, as presented through the religion by which he/she abides. Who is to say, though, that this 'deity' maintains the same ethical standards as would be defined by natural morality? Pagans, for example, could also be defined as very religious even as they offered their child sacrifices. Their 'morality' comes from a different, outside, non-rational standard as presented to them by their pagan theology -- and this could be, and often was, different than the ethical perspective of natural morality. A belief in monotheism does not necessarily have to yield different results. In not recognizing this, one would miss a fundamental aspect in defining someone as 'religious'.

The fact is that for such a 'religious' person, what they determine to be ethical comes from a system that may be totally independent from other systems. This can make dialogue effectively impossible for there is no point of connection. What these people accept as right or wrong is solely what the 'deity' in which they believe defines as right or wrong. Other considerations in this regard are irrelevant. How could such people do such acts of evil for do not these people recognize that they are doing evil? The answer is that they may even actually feel, within their personal perspective, that an act is wrong -- but what their religion then tells them is that this feeling is, in itself, wrong. The direction from their 'deity' is, thus, that what they feel to be wrong is actually right, and what they feel to be right is actually wrong. And the essential requirement of the deity is to adopt such directions as their only standard, at the expense of their own perceptions. The result is, again, no common point of dialogue with others outside their system. It is like talking in one language to someone who does not understand even a word of this language.

The practical question is then: how to proceed? What is important to further recognize is that the self-interest that would be part of the common criminal's perspective may also not be present in such a person. The criminal is motivated by benefit and if the behaviour he/she assumed, contrary to his/her ethical perspective, will now not yield such benefit, he/she would gladly abandon it. The criminal can thus be somewhat easily defeated by meeting negative consequences. This is not necessarily so for such a religious individual for, in the same way this person can forego his/her rational ethical considerations, he/she could forego rational concerns of self-interest or preservation. How to proceed? The key is not to presume. The battle may extend further than you may wish or expect.

The challenge is that we assume that all human beings share an ethical language. The fact is that they do not -- and in a variety of different ways, from disagreeing over ethical and moral conclusions to disagreeing over the very process of how to arrive at such conclusions. The fact is that not recognizing this can yield very tragic results.