Week 1: What is evil?

Evil or evil activities surround ourselves in the world we live today. Due to this there is extensive literature known for analyzing this concept deeply, three of those titles are the Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo, Evil: inside human violence and cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister and The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen. Despite the literature, this is still not a topic openly spoken about throughout the world. This blog will work to explore evil as demonstrated in these novels and in a course called the Psychology of Evil. A major question explored during seminar was what is evil and how can researchers operationalize this concept? The Lucifer effect exceptionally summarizes evil as when someone or an organization intentionally acts in ways that harm, belittle, dehumanize an individual. In my opinion evil can also occur to animals through abuse and to our Earth as well. Ruining the beautiful Earth is unjust and to the eye of the beholder or myself I think ruining it could be considered an evil act. However that is a topic for another day. Also, to me evil is a concept that is subjective in the sense that context and circumstance is crucial to the possibility of evil.

There is not one proper way to operationalize evil. Mainly, this can be done in research by looking at other variables that are related to evil acts being committed. For instance, empathy, impulsivity, past history of violence, and level of remorse are all ways to potentially operationalize evil. The main thing I learned this week was that evil is a highly diverse topic which needs to be explored thoroughly as we need to work to understand evil if there is any hope to achieve a world with less evil acts or at the very least with a diverse understanding of concepts of evil.

Simon Baron-Cohen worked to describe evil with respect to empathy. This week of readings was important for me in advancing my views on evil. Sometimes we wish to have a humanitarian view on evil and that there are two sides, good and evil, however, there is a grey area. It is humbling to know that under certain circumstances good people can commit evil acts. The link below is to an article that examines and entertains the idea of society being split between good and evil, this idea is interesting, and prominent in religion and literature, however, rather unrealistic. Baumeister incorporated the notion of the eye of the beholder where evil is a subjective concept where it is based on the judgement of others. For example, a perpetrator may believe they have been treated wrongly and are the victim making their acts justified and not evil, while the victim considers the wrongdoing evil as it greatly influences them and typically in a negative way.

This article also relates to the eye of the beholder as evil is only communicated in terms of subjectivity and through the judgement of others. Furthermore, this article outlines a key issue where individuals attempt to divide people into good and evil, however the division is actually more grey, rather than black and white as most people think. Webster and Saucier (2015) questioned whether beliefs and judgement influences punishing criminal perpetrators, further investigating the issue of the subjectivity of good and evil. As expected, stereotypically evil perpetrators were punished more due to beliefs in demonization and dehumanization where they believed the criminal was evil and threatening (Webster and Saucier, 2015).

The two forms of media demonstrate that there is importance in knowing all the facts in situations and understanding context to determine which acts deserve more punishment. Furthermore, the media tells us we should eliminate bias when making decisions about what is evil.

Thank you for reading my first blog post on the psychology of evil! Here is the link of the Webster and Saucier article for further readings! https://www-sciencedirect-com.proxy1.lib.trentu.ca/science/article/pii/S0191886914005431


Webster, R. J., & Saucier, D. A. (2015). Demons are everywhere: the effects of belief in pure evil, demonization, and retribution on punishing criminal perpetrators. Personality and Individual Differences, 74, 72-77.

3 thoughts on “Week 1: What is evil?”

  1. Hi Alexis,

    The question of why do we as humans divide things into good and evil? Or, from a religious perspective, is this sinful? Growing up with a heavily influenced education, having attended Catholic schools my whole pre-post secondary career. I was taught from a young age that the goal of your actions was to not sin, to contribute to the greater good. While I am grateful I had the influence to guide me to think through my actions, I sometimes struggled with why everything had to be good or bad? In catholicism, they preach that Jesus died for our sins and that no human other than a newborn baby, if free of corruption. So, that’s why we go to confession to help purify ourselves and have God forgive us for our sins.

    However, when I was in elementary school, which was located beside a church. We would have monthly confirmations, and every time, I would always struggle to think of what I needed to ask to be forgiven for. So the priest would guide me by suggesting, could I have done this? or this? Then eventually we would have a rough list of what I needed to repent for. Anyway, that while probably was intended to make me feel cleansed and to be more mindful of my action, always just made me feel silly. I would be saying Hail Mary’s and asking God to forgive me because I should have been more helpful around the house to my parents? Was that really a sin? It wasn’t like I intended to hurt anyone. Why did all my actions have to be divided into good or bad? sin or not? Surely, some of them could have just been neutral actions or in a grey area?

    This is why I really enjoyed your post because I related to it and that is the reason I am taking this course, to discover why do we need to label things as evil or not and how do we decide.


  2. Hi Alexis!

    I enjoyed reading your post and seeing your perspective on evil. You stated some ideas that I never thought of, like how evil can be done to the earth. I was only thinking about evil in the sense of bad things being done to other people, groups, or organizations. I agree with what you said though, and it helped expand my perspective on what evil could be.

    It was interesting to me when you said “under certain circumstances good people can commit evil acts”. I guess I don’t see people as being good or bad inherently, but what arguably makes us lean more towards one end of the moral spectrum is our choices. As well, I think defining someone as good versus bad can be subjective; is it the amount of evil and good acts that we tally up to decide, or is it the magnitude of the evil and good acts that count (could one incredibly heinous act make a person evil even if they’ve committed far more good acts)?

    In terms of the article by Webster and Saucier (2015), I personally believe that our beliefs and judgements do influence punishing perpetrators of crime. As much as we try to reduce bias in the courtroom, it is impossible to completely eliminate. Furthermore, our laws are written and passed by people just like us, who have their own values and ideals. This inevitably influences what type of legislation they write and pass, which influences the charges and sentences that can be handed down to someone. As well, the spirit in which the law is written can be interpreted slightly or even largely differently between different peace officers, lawyers, and judges.

    The article you chose also reminded me of a discussion I had previously in my Forensic Psychology class. My professor stated that remorse is not necessarily related to recidivism, but that remorse, or lack thereof, is a factor that influences sentencing. It seems to me that we as a society value remorse and view it as a mitigating factor of evil acts. We seem to also believe that if someone is remorseful, then they are less likely to commit the same evil act again. However, I don’t think that is always true. Sometimes people have a problem with a specific person, and they feel like an evil act against them is just and would balance things out. Therefore, they may not be remorseful, but also would not have the desire to re-offend if they view things as being “even”.


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