Against the Diagnosis of Evil: A Response to M. Scott Peck

Sara Ellenbogen
January 15

In People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, M. Scott Peck claims that the term “evil” applies to human beings and not merely to human behavior. He argues that evil is a sickness and should be considered a psychiatric diagnosis. Yet he insists that it is also a condition for which those afflicted with it are blameworthy and accountable. As he remarks “[i]n labeling certain human beings as evil, I am making an obviously severely critical value judgment”(1983, p.10). He goes on to say that “it is…itself evil to…refrain from making moral judgments” (1983, p.255) and to call for a judgemental and confrontational mode of treating those he considers evil.

Peck’s remarks are both troubling and puzzling. They are troubling because the injunction to judge others as evil flies in the face of the intuition most of us have that there is a moral imperative to be charitable. We think that judging people charitably is desirable, even obligatory, partly because as we want to be given the benefit of the doubt, we think that we should likewise extend it to others. In addition, it can be – and has been – argued that judging people charitably is necessary if we are to be able to read reason into their behavior and, thus, to understand them. And to whatever degree that we, as clinicians, fail to understand our clients it will be that much more difficult for us to empathize with them and, ultimately, to conduct successful interventions.

Moreover, even leaving aside the implications of calling people evil, Peck’s argument that we should do so – his account of what it is to be evil – seems intuitively problematic. To call someone evil is to imply that he is blameworthy or accountable. This, in turn, is to imply that he acts freely, i.e., that his behavior is undetermined. But if evil is a sickness – a sickness that makes a person behave in an evil way – then this sickness would seem to determine the person’s behavior. And in that case he would not be blameworthy and so could not accurately be called “evil”. So it would seem that the term “evil” cannot be both a term of opprobrium and a term that refers to a kind of sickness.

My aims in this paper are twofold. I first examine Peck’s account of what it is to be evil and I challenge the notion that the term applies to those who meet his criteria for using it. I then argue that it is incumbent on us, for both pragmatic and ethical reasons, to refrain from judging as evil those who engage in evil behavior. We should instead adopt a methodology of compassion and limit ourselves to judging their actions.

What is it for a person to be evil? For Peck, to be evil is to be afflicted with a personality disorder whose symptoms include but go beyond those associated with malignant narcissism. Peck – who bases his discussion of narcissism on the work of Erik Fromm rather than on the DSM -- claims that one of the disorder’s central features is an unwillingness to submit one’s will to ideals that go beyond one’s private needs and desires. Whereas mentally healthy people submit their wills to the demands of their conscience, those who Peck calls “evil” do not. As he remarks, “in the conflict between their guilt and their will, it is their guilt that must go and their will that must win” (1983, p.78).

In addition to their willfulness, narcissists exhibit a need to see themselves as perfect. They cannot tolerate a sense of guilt, i.e., as Peck says, they are unwilling to bear the burden of being displeasing to themselves. Thus, when their willfulness leads them to do what they believe to be wrong, they seek to escape from the feeling of guilt by hiding from themselves through rationalization, resistance to self-scrutiny and self-criticism, and other self-deceptive strategies. Thus, by evading guilt, they allow themselves to commit evil, and so Peck remarks, “[e]vil originates in an effort to escape guilt. The problem is not a defect of conscience, but an attempt to deny conscience its due. We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves.” (1983, p.76) “The evil are people of the lie”(1983, p.66). In other words, since hiding from ourselves leads us to do evil, narcissists, by virtue of habitually engaging in this hiding, are taken to be evil themselves.

What are we to make of this line of reasoning? First of all, we should note that it presupposes the view that exhibiting narcissistic qualities is a freely chosen behavior rather than a determined behavior. It may be that “hiding from himself” causes the narcissist to behave in ways that are evil. It does not follow that this “hiding behavior” makes him evil – in the sense in which Peck uses the term when he says that in labeling certain people as evil, he is making a “severely critical value judgment”. For the narcissist to be evil in this sense, it would have to be shown that he was accountable for exhibiting the narcissistic qualities that Peck mentions. And to show that he was accountable, it would have to be shown that exhibiting narcissistic qualities was something within the narcissist’s control. The question, then, is,“ Are defensiveness, resistance to self-scrutiny and self-criticism, etc. mental habits which are within our control?” The answer may be, “not for everybody” for the capacity to overcome these habits is acquired, and not everyone has the opportunity to acquire what they need to overcome them.

Let us examine the quality of being resistant to self-scrutiny and self-criticism. Someone will be able to subject himself to self-scrutiny and self-criticism – and thus to entertain the thought that he has erred – only to the degree to which he is secure. In other words, an agent will only be able to tolerate a sense of having done wrong or having faults if he sees himself as fundamentally acceptable in spite of his imperfections. For self-scrutiny and self-criticism require that we, as Peck says, bear the burden of being displeasing to ourselves. And an agent will only be able to bear the burden of being displeasing to himself on a given occasion if he sees himself as fundamentally good – and sees his shortcomings as occasions for correction rather than for condemnation. The insecure person who fears that she is unacceptable will be unwilling to risk engaging in self-scrutiny and self-criticism. For since she does not see herself as good, she fears what she would uncover through an examination of conscience. Or to put the point another way, her sense of being in general unacceptable makes it impossible for her bear to be displeasing to herself on particular occasions.

How is this sense of being unacceptable acquired? One plausible answer is that it is acquired through relationships. For we come to see ourselves as

worthy of respect and acceptance when we receive these messages from others. The insecure person, then, may not have had the type of relationships that foster a sense of being worthy of respect and acceptance; she may, for example, have had relationships with people who judged her harshly; she may have been labeled “evil” on the occasions on which she engaged in wrong-doing. What is clear in any case is that she has not had the experience of being unconditionally accepted. And because she has not, she is unable to engage in sincere self-scrutiny and self-criticism. Thus, the insecure person is what Thomas Nagel would call “morally unlucky”: she is narcissistic, but she has not had the opportunity to become otherwise, that is, her narcissism is, as Nagel puts it, “largely a matter of constitutive bad fortune” (1976). She might be called “bad” in the sense in which Arthur Danto uses the term when he says that, for Neitzsche, “bad people are like bad eggs…it’s not their fault that they are bad”(1980, p.159). But to be bad in this sense is obviously quite different from being evil in Peck’s sense. The narcissist cannot be called evil, despite habitually engaging in evil behavior, because she is not blameworthy and accountable.

Another way of putting this point is that the narcissist is not evil because his narcissism results in moral blindness. Here one is reminded of Socrates’ arguments in the Gorgias that people are not inherently evil but may choose to do evil out ignorance. As he notes, “no one voluntarily does wrong, but…all who do wrong do so against their own will” (1961, p. 292); “the soul in the opposite condition to the temperate is…foolish and undisciplined” (1961, p. 289). Socrates held that such ignorance could be dispelled through philosophical inquiry; contemporary therapists hope that it can be dispelled through counseling. Yet, as Socrates recognized, there are people who are incurable, i.e., whose ignorance cannot be dispelled, because their resistance to constructive change is too great. One example of such a person is the Nazi Alfred Rosenberg whose fictionalized relationship with a psychiatrist Irvin Yalom depicts in his novel, The Spinoza Problem.

Rosenberg, an ideologue and self-styled philosopher, apparently acquired his belief in anti-Semitic doctrine under the influence of Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s racist book, Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which Rosenberg read as a high school student. In the novel, his teacher and headmaster, upon finding themselves unable to convince him of the falseness of his beliefs, speculate about the reasons for his enthusiasm for the book. They theorize that the doctrine of racial superiority appeals to him because of his feelings of inadequacy. Apparently, he comes from a loveless home and is unpopular with his classmates, who mock him. When he re-encounters a childhood friend, the psychiatrist Friedrich Pfister, he is encouraged by Pfister’s inviting manner to confide in him his continuing loneliness; later, wishing to change himself in order to alleviate his isolation, he engages Pfister’s services as a psychiatrist. Despite his aversion to anti-Semitism, Pfister agrees to work with him because he hopes that he can make him more moral and help him to address the irrationality of his anti-Semitism. Yet all of Pfister’s efforts prove unsuccessful: in the beginning of their relationship, Pfister tells Rosenberg that his Jew hatred must have psychological or philosophical roots and urges him to explore the logical base of his beliefs; Rosenberg replies that to subject such obvious conclusions to philosophical inquiry is like analyzing why you love beer or sugar. Later, Pfister asks Rosenberg what his evidence is that the Aryan race is superior; Rosenberg replies that his blood feelings are his evidence, that true Aryans trust their passions. Finally, Pfister urges Rosenberg to look at the human implications of the Nazis’ proposals; Rosenberg then terminates his relationship with Pfister and denounces him.

Yalom’s novel raises the question of whether those who, like the fictionalized Rosenberg, refuse all help in dispelling their ignorance are not more culpable for choosing to do evil. I would argue that, contrary to first impressions, they are not. In order for an agent to be said to be refusing help in dispelling his ignorance, he must perceive himself to be in need of such help, i.e., he must be, on some level, aware of his ignorance. But Rosenberg is not in the space of being able to question his convictions; his beliefs are unshakable – he thinks that it is Pfister who is unaware of the facts and in need of enlightenment. Thus, he appears almost constitutionally incapable of “taking in” what Pfister is saying. One plausible explanation for this inability is that his need to feel superior renders him incapable of recognizing any defect in his reasoning or his character; this is evidenced by the fact that he attributes his fellow party members’ dislike of him to their envy of his superior intellect rather than to his own behavior. Why is his need to feel superior so great? Pfister suggests, citing Alfred Adler, that it is because he needs to compensate for his feelings of inferiority, feelings that originally arose from his unpopularity during his childhood and are reinforced by his isolation in later life. Rosenberg’s need to feel superior prevents him from being able to examine either himself or the doctrines to which he adheres and so he appears tragic or pathetic rather than evil. In other words, it seems more accurate to say that he cannot change rather than that he will not change, i.e., that he consciously resists change. Because of his sense of superiority, which seems to have arisen from his experiences of ostracism, he is doomed to moral blindness and thus commits evil acts.

Some may object to such a charitable interpretation by arguing that Nazis and others who commit evil acts at least have evil intentions and are evil in virtue of having such intentions. But the reply to this objection must be that in order to be said to have an evil intention, an agent must conceive of what he intends to do as evil. And those who commit evil actions – where “doing evil” is taken to mean “deliberately harming others” – do not believe that in so acting, they are doing something wrong. For those who do evil are experiencing anger or contempt. And in these states, they conceive misguided beliefs that their intended acts are justified and correct – i.e., that they are morally right.

Let us first consider acts motivated by anger. Anger springs from the belief that one has been wronged, i..e., deliberately harmed or offended. And those who are in the grip of such a belief are prone to conceive sincere albeit false beliefs about how they should respond to the objects of their anger. Often they believe that justice demands that those who have wronged them be punished; that it is not right that they should “get away with it.”

What underlies this type of reasoning may be the notion, articulated by Hegel, that someone who wrongs another has asserted his superiority over the other and that the effect of punishment is to deny what the wrong doer has asserted. Since asserting superiority over another is unacceptable, Hegel held that punishment is necessary and justified. No doubt all of us who believe we have been wronged feel that the transgressor lacks respect for us and has conveyed his sense of superiority through his actions. The fact that we all think this way may seem to suggest that we are all narcissistic. But the difference between narcissists and others is that, for most of us, the impulse to take revenge is tempered by other thoughts, e.g., that a decent and dignified person would not take revenge, that doing so would compromise us. Narcissists are unmoved by these considerations because their heightened insecurity makes them more vulnerable to perceived assertions of superiority than the rest of us are; they react with more rage and the rage that they feel affects their judgment. And so when they feel wronged, they believe, with Hegel, that punishment is necessary and justified, and they avenge themselves thinking that they are doing something right.

Others commit evil acts not out of anger but out of contempt. Or, to put the point another way, they do evil to others because they consider them inferior. Thus, they think that it is right that the objects of their contempt should be treated as inferior or be accorded an inferior status (compare Aristotle’s thought that slavery is natural). Contempt is what is behind enslavement, torture, genocide, and, on a smaller scale, bullying. It springs from a lack of empathy, i.e., from an inability to recognize the objects of our contempt as fully human. Some psychologists have argued that the lack of empathy has neurological causes. If this is right, then the contemptuous person’s inability to feel empathy is not something within his control. He is bad, but only in the sense in which Arthur Danto uses the term when he says that bad people are like bad eggs.

A therapist with a philosophical bent will try to alter such a client’s evil behavior by challenging the beliefs behind the behavior. To this end, she will rehearse arguments designed to convince him of the wrongness of the view that there are circumstances under which deliberately harming others can be right. If she succeeds in convincing the narcissistic client, she may see a change in his behavior. But what she will have changed is his reasoning; she will have corrected his false beliefs and changed the arguments he accepts from unsound to sound. She will not have altered his character; she will not have changed it from evil to “not evil”. For the narcissist has never had an evil character; rather, he has been in the grip of mistaken beliefs which have determined his behavior.

I have argued that the narcissist’s evil behavior is determined – determined by his limitations which, in turn, often result from the quality of his earlier relationships. If this view is correct, what implications does it have for how a clinician should treat such a person? One thing that follows is that if a clinician is to be of help, she must refrain from thinking of such a client as evil. If narcissism results from insecurity, which in turn results from not being accepted, then providing unconditional acceptance is surely the only way in which a clinician can heal the narcissist of his narcissism. Unless the narcissist feels secure, he will respond defensively to being corrected, which will hinder his ability to change. To say that the clinician must unconditionally accept the narcissist is not, of course, to say that she should accept his evil behavior. But it does mean that she should refrain from making moral judgments about his character. It has become a truism that therapy can be effective only if the clinician exhibits positive regard for the client -- a client needs to trust a clinician and in order to trust her, he must feel accepted by her. And a clinician will be unable to manifest acceptance or positive regard for a client to the degree that she regards him as evil. For if she judges a client as evil, she will feel that she is justified in hating him. For when Brentano argued that “good” means “correct to love” and “bad” means “correct to hate”(2009), he demonstrated the objectivity which we attribute to our value judgments. As Peck remarks, “Evil people are easy to hate”(1983, p.9).1And though he argues at the end of the book that the way to heal the evil is to love them, he says elsewhere – somewhat inconsistently with his final remarks -- that a therapist’s negative counter-transference toward an evil client – i.e. the therapist’s feeling of revulsion – is an appropriate response, given the nature of the client. Peck’s remark on the appropriateness of hating the evil unwittingly shows the impossibility of carrying out his injunction to love them. As long as we think of people as “evil” or “bad”, we think of them as people whom, as Brentano put it, it is “correct to hate”.

How do we treat people we deem it correct to hate? Not with acceptance or respect but with disdain -- which is to say that we treat them as though they were less fully human than we consider ourselves to be. And how do clients respond to being so treated? Not with trust but rather with anger. And, thus, when we read a case study from People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, we find a client whom Peck confronts with her evil recoiling from him defensively and shunning therapy with him retorting, “…how can you work with me if you think I’m evil…you don’t really care for me.”(1983, p.175).

By contrast, when we read a recent biography of defense attorney Clarence Darrow, we find his clients Nathan Leopold and Dick Loeb reacting with respect, gratitude, and the beginnings of remorse to Darrow’s compassionate speech in their defense – a speech in which Darrow refrains from judging them but rather seeks to understand them13. It seems, then, that acceptance is a necessary condition for helping a habitual wrong-doer to change.

It is not, of course, always a sufficient condition. There are those who will ultimately prove incurable. But since we cannot know that this will turn out to be the case, it surely behooves us to persevere in treating them with respect and acceptance in case it should turn out to be effective. Socrates remarks in the Gorgias that the incurable are eternally punished in Hades so that they may serve as an example and a warning to new arrivals whose wickedness is curable. Here we have advanced beyond Socrates for we do not institutionalize the criminally insane so that their incarceration may serve these purposes. We could advance still further by consistently treating them with the respect and acceptance that rehabilitation requires. If we wish to help those who do evil, we must refrain from judging them as evil on pain of rendering ourselves incapable of providing them with what they need.

We can make the further point that judging others as evil undermines our ability to help them by hindering us from understanding them. For to think of someone as evil is to think of them as “other than ourselves”, i.e., as having an alien nature. And as Donald Davidson and, more recently, Karen Armstrong have argued, we can understand someone only if we interpret him charitably, i.e., only if we assume that his behavior can be made sense of, that he shares the same basic human nature that we do. For only if we employ the principle of charity in interpreting another’s behavior will we take into account the context in which it took place and imagine ourselves, in similar circumstances, feeling them same. As Armstrong remarks, “The principle of charity and the science of compassion are…crucial to any attempt to understand discourse…that initially seem[s] baffling, distressing, and alien [for they enable us to] see where people are coming from. In this way, we can broaden our perspective and ‘make place for the other’. We can ignore this compassionate imperative only if we do not wish to understand other people – an ethically problematic position.”(2011, p.139).

I have argued that interpreting people charitably is valuable on pragmatic grounds: it enables us to help those who habitually do evil to change. I would now like to suggest that, independently of this consideration, judging people charitably is something that we should do anyway. That is, if we wish to be moral and ethical, we will refrain from judging others as evil. Persons, as Kant argues, have intrinsic dignity; respect for persons is a duty. And Rawls expands on Kant’s notion and argues that there is a right to respect. Without it, we cannot develop the self-respect which we need in order to flourish. Just as a just society is one that promotes the conditions under which its individual members can feel respected, so a just individual is one who treats others with respect. And one part of treating others with respect involves extending to them the benefit of the doubt. Accordingly, someone in Rawls’ original position, choosing how she would be treated from behind a veil of ignorance as to what her character would be – i.e., someone who did not know whether she would be one of Nagel’s morally unlucky – would choose to be judged charitably. She would want her wrong actions to be treated as mistakes – mistakes for which she should be corrected, to be sure, but not as necessary indicators of her character, not as necessary indicators of who she was and who she would continue to be. For respect is incompatible with the judgment that someone has an inherently evil character. Therefore, we should therefore refrain from applying the term “evil” to those who commit evil actions; we should reserve the term for their behaviors.


Armstrong, Karen, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Knopf: 2011)

Brentano, Franz, On the Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong (New York: Routledge, 2009)

Danto, Arthur, Nietzsche as Philosopher (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980)

Davidson, Donald, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: 1984)

Farrell, John A., Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (Random House: 2011)

Hamilton, Edith and Cairns, Huntington, eds, The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton University Press: 1961)

Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Harper and Row: 1964)

Nagel, Thomas, “Moral Luck” from Philosophy: Basic Readings, ed. Nigel Warburton (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 162. Reprinted from Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1979), pp.24-38. Originally published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. L, 1976.

Peck, M. Scott, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (Simon and Schuster: 1983)

Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press: 1971)

Yalom, Irvin, The Spinoza Problem (Basic Books: 2012)


This article was originally published in Philosophical Practice: Journal of the APPA, Volume 8, Number 1, March 2013, 1142 -- 1148. Reproduced here by permission of the APPA.

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