More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
A Question of Evil
Psychology Today, Sep/Oct 2002

Top experts?Albert Ellis, Elizabeth Radcliffe and Philip Zimbardo?weigh in on everyday questions: Are some people really evil?

Albert Ellis, Ph.D., President, Albert Ellis Institute

No, we cannot accurately say that some people are essentially evil. Even those who commit many immoral acts would have to do so all the time to be evil people. As Alfred Korzybski wrote in 1933, calling anyone an evil person is to falsely overgeneralize and to completely damn her or him for some evil acts. Invariably, the Hitlers and the Ted Bundys of the world, who steadily commit some of the worst crimes, also do a number of good and kind deeds. And some "bad people," like St. Augustine when young, later achieve sainthood. Humans are fallible?and changeable.​
Elizabeth Radcliffe, Ph.D., Executive Director, The American Philosophical Association

Throughout human history, it is obvious that there are evil people. The philosopher Rousseau thought society corrupts people, who are naturally good. However, I believe that we develop good or evil characters through our choices. While individual dispositions and environmental factors influence our choices, we can only make sense of our lives by rising above these features. We develop vices, or virtues, by choosing. The more lies we tell, the easier it becomes; and demeaning others becomes easier the more we disrespect them. Those who develop a habit of choosing badly may lose all sense of the good, and this is what we call an evil character.​
Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., President, American Psychological Association

It is easy to identify individuals who willfully degrade and destroy other human beings as "evil." Starting with the Biblical characterization of Lucifer as God's favorite angel transformed into the dark force of the devil and cast into hell, scores of evildoers fill history's hall of shame. In recent times, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and many others stand out as mass murderers. However, as a social psychologist I prefer to identify situational conditions that can facilitate or seduce good people into becoming perpetrators of evil, such as adherence to destructive ideologies, rules, roles, uniforms, group norms, along with processes of dehumanization, deindividuation and moral disengagement.​
Random thoughts...

When Philip Zimbardo speaks of "situational conditions that can facilitate or seduce good people into becoming perpetrators of evil," he appears to be implying, (essentially), that it is not helpful to label individuals as "evil."

While I would agree with this assertion, I find it interesting that in the very midst of responding to the question of inherent evil, he appears to presuppose that people may in fact be inherently good prior to the onslaught of his aforementioned "situational conditions".

In a similar vein, Albert Ellis informs us that even Hitler was kind to his dog and therefore cannot be classified as evil since one would have to commit "immoral acts... all the time" to achieve such a dubious distinction.

Even the most casual observer can quickly ascertain that it is no more possible to commit immoral acts all of the time then it is to commit moral acts all of the time hence the question of good and evil, (in such absolutist terms), becomes redundant.

The only other option, (aside from throwing the baby out with the bath water), would seem to be to adopt a relativist approach as in the legal remedy of a preponderance of evidence.

In other words, the question becomes is any given individual more or less inclined toward moral or immoral acts over a given period of time?

In the final analysis, I would suggest that the question of inherency may well be totally inadequate for this type of discussion.


I believe there are people who are inherently evil, unconscionable, and sociopathic. However, I only want at this time to insert what I hope will be a humorous anecdote, something that reflects the perceptions of a young man barely out of high school. The name has been changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty? hmmm...)

In my diary, in about my second year in college, I wrote:

"I once believed that Ron Rogers is a basically good human being with a few character defects that he will eventually overcome. I now believe that Ron Rogers is a basically bad human being with a few redeeming qualities that he will eventually lose."


I believe some people are evil. I have worked in prisons, had experiences with a workplace psychopath (diagnosed). To quote Robert Hare "Without Concience" (also the title of his book). Some people lack this basic human quality. Even when these people without concience appear to do good I believe it is manipulation to "appear" to be good.

Good people or people with a concience can do what appears to be evil though there are often reasons as to why this happens eg a crime of passion etc. They will also struggle with the guilt afterwards. Evil people do not suffer the guilt.

Psychopathy is showing on brain scans now though still in the experimental phase. There are sructural differences in the brains of psychopaths. The research seems to indicate that this is genetic. Perhaps this structural difference will be seen as a deformity of some sort. Then are they really responsible? Their behaviours are also life long and only improve to save themselves trouble.

I think the problem with this argument is do they choose to be evil or not. If their brains are different perhaps there is no choice for them at all and asking questions re the morality of evil are pointless.

Though the brain is very plastic and using particular areas of the brain will increase the size and activity of the areas used. If these people chose to use concience perhaps a concience would develop? The morality question seems to revolve around choice of behaviour and intent of behaviour. If they are capable of choice then this is truly evil.

The only thing I know is I like to keep these people out of my life. They do such damage and often irreparable damage and they are not all in prison (unfortunately). A human being without a concience is a truly dangerous thing.



I agree complete with Cindylo.

The fact that Hitler loved his dog is not a sign that he had any good in him. Everybody loves their dog. Anyone's going to love someone who loves you. Jesus even said so. (Luke 6:32-34, if you can cut through the biblical language--he said it better than I would.) It's easy to be good to someone who's completely devoted to you, such as your dog, or a groupie if you're a rock star, or a follower if you're a sociopathic leader like Hitler. It's easy for even a basically bad guy to be kind to an adoring daughter whom he adores, or a loyal henchman, or perhaps a mother or father in certain cultures. That doesn't make him good, if he feels no guilt over his evil actions.

We all do bad things from time to time--some of us lots of the time, either out of human weakness, or foolishness, or inability to resist a particularly strong temptation or compulsion, or all of the above. A good person will feel guilty over what s(he) did, once s(he) senses that what s(he) did was wrong. And that type of guilt, I believe, is a good thing, because it keeps us from becoming completely evil, completely unconscionable. The people who don't experience guilt after doing something wrong (and there are plenty of them) are the ones I worry about.
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