Trump described the shooting in Las Vegas as “an act of pure evil.” It is a trite phrase, typical of a man with the working vocabulary of a 6-year-old, and yet a phrase with subtle implications that leads one to think that someone else, someone with a better grasp of the language, might have suggested it to him.
Many people believe that “evil” is a noun, as well as an adjective. They believe that evil exists, on its own, as some sort of cosmic force that plays a crucial role in the real world. This view was most famously adopted by a religion called Manichaeism, a faith that spread worldwide in the third to sixth century C.E. and rivaled Christianity in popularity until, in the West, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and immediately took action to persecute and eventually destroy its rival.
Manichaeism taught that the world is the product of two creative forces, one that is dark, material and evil, the other light, spiritual and good. All of creation reflects this duality. In each human being, there is a mixture of good and evil, and therefore each of us is a battlefield upon which these forces struggle with one another.
Christianity officially rejects this view, insisting that God is the only creator, and is good, and that evil is not an existent thing, but simply the absence of good. Nonetheless, Christianity has never been able to explain satisfactorily the persistence of evil in the world, and, at least within popular Christianity, a belief in the reality of evil has persisted to this day. The doctrine of original sin testifies to that. And original sin was, of course, itself the result of Satan’s temptation of Eve, and Satan, the evil one, the eternal enemy of God and the good, will be with us until the last judgment.
What relevance does this doctrine of evil have to the incident in Las Vegas? Simply this, that those who believe that evil is part of the fabric of the world also believe that it, just like the poor, will always be with us. This belief engenders a fatalistic view of life according to which talk about things like outlawing the devices that turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones, or keeping track of people who create large private arsenals, is pointless. Evil is inevitable, no matter how we try to prevent it. It’s not like disease, for which we think we can, if we put our minds to it, find a cure. Evil is beyond our power to prevent or control.
But Trump has also said that the shooter was “sick.” What if evil is, in fact, a sickness? That happens to be the view of a well-known psychiatrist and writer, M. Scott Peck, the author of “The Road Less Traveled,” (1978) and “People of the Lie.” (1983). Peck is a Christian writer, openly so, which perhaps explains his willingness to talk about “evil” people, rather than just sick ones.
Peck believes that evil people suffer from a particular type of mental illness. They are destructive and sinful, yet it is not so much the magnitude of their sinning, but the consistency of it, that identifies them.
They cannot face their own faults, so they make every effort “to obtain and maintain an image of high respectability.” They “consider themselves above reproach [and therefore] must lash out at anyone who does reproach them.” They have an “excessive intolerance to criticism” and engage in “consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior.” In so doing, they “sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection.” They are incapable of empathy.
These evil people are, Peck observes, often extraordinarily willful, and that willfulness is “always accompanied by a lust for power,” with the consequence that “the evil are more likely than most to politically aggrandize themselves.”
They lie constantly, but in a real sense, those lies are “designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves.” Which is to say that they are consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt, and they deceive others as a consequence of their own self-deception.
Peck sums up his view this way: “The essential psychological problem of human evil, I believe, is a particular variety of narcissism.” Sometimes narcissism is relatively harmless; sometimes it is what psychiatrists call “malignant.” Malignant narcissism is often accompanied by other pathological conditions such as paranoia and anti-social behavior. It is this kind of narcissism that Peck wishes to define as “evil” in humans.
It is tempting to applaud Peck for trying to give a new meaning to the word “evil.” Certainly his account of the suffering inflicted by narcissistic people upon others is compelling, and timely as well, since we now, as a nation, are confronted with, and endangered by, a president that a great many practicing psychologists have identified as a malignant narcissist.
But Peck’s attempt at redefinition is unsuccessful. For one thing, no one chooses to be mentally ill, and evil, in its traditional sense, is always intentional. More to the point, the word “evil” clings tenaciously to its past. It is really at home only in fictional worlds: fairy tales, comic books, Star Wars films, horror stories, religions. Its only use in the real world is to arouse and direct hatred, to label individuals and groups as villainous and irredeemable, to dehumanize them and make killing them acceptable. It’s always been the word for the enemy, for the heretic. In the real world, the word feels right only in slogans, which always invoke an imaginary, simplistic realm of comforting, black-or-white certainties.
In short, the word “evil” does not belong in civilized conversation. Its use should be restricted to circumstances under which it cannot be taken seriously, story-telling around the campfire, for example, or remarks from the pulpit.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.