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PLEASE LABEL EACH SECTION ! : The Problem with Evil Doesn’t have to be long, your opinion, and engaging so that other people can read and create a discussion.Part 1:The novel raises several important questions for us. One of the most disturbing is the question of how a parent (Christine) should react when confronted with the knowledge that her/his child kills without regret.Many of the other characters also invite analysis. If we think of good and evil as a continuum, where should we place Christine, Rhoda, Monica, Emory, Leroy, the Fern sisters, and the Daigles?Place these characters on the continuum of good and evil. Explain the criteria you used to place each character or pair of characters and support your ranking with references to specific passages.As you engage in a conversation, examine the reasons that allow us to understand the different placements for the characters to explore how evidence can be interpreted differently depending on the assumptions we make.Part 2: In the follow-up posts, engage in a discussion of how Jen Baker’s article helps us to understand the different approaches to classifying the characters. What do Baker’s contributions allow us to consider about the novel’s conflicts and individual characters? Of course as always, be sure to respond to the contributions others are making to your original post.


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The Recurrence of an Illusion:
The Concept of “Evil” in
Forensic Psychiatry
James L. Knoll, IV, MD
The author notes an increased interest in the concept of “evil” in the fields of psychiatry and psychology. In
particular, there is some interest in defining and testifying about evil. It is argued that evil can never be scientifically
defined because it is an illusory moral concept, it does not exist in nature, and its origins and connotations are
inextricably linked to religion and mythology. Any attempt to study violent or deviant behavior under the rubric
of this term will be fraught with bias and moralistic judgments. Embracing the term “evil” into the lexicon and
practice of psychiatry will contribute to the stigmatization of mental illness, diminish the credibility of forensic
psychiatry, and corrupt forensic treatment efforts.
J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 36:105–16, 2008
Our commitment to this research is inspired by our confidence that we will assist the recognition and appreciation
of goodness through the delineation of evil . . .—The Depravity Scale1
It is always possible to bind together a considerable number
of people in love, so long as there are other people left over
to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.—Sigmund Freud (Ref. 2, p 61)
Interest in evil is growing. The psychological and
psychiatric literature reflects steadily increasing attention to the concept of evil over the past two decades. Medline and PubMed searches using the
phrases “the concept of evil in forensic psychiatry”
and “evil and psychiatry” revealed significantly more
relevant publications beginning in the early to mid
1990s than before this period. Although most of the
relevant publications are from the field of social psychology, there has also been a growing interest in the
field of psychiatry. Articles by Drs. Simon3 and Welner4 in this journal have debated whether forensic
psychiatrists should define and testify about evil.
While Simon cautions about the subjective moral
judgment involved, Welner believes that “defining
evil is only the latest frontier where psychiatry . . .
will bring light out of darkness” (Ref. 4, p 421).
Dr. Knoll is Associate Professor and Director of Forensic Psychiatry,
Department of Psychiatry, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY. Address correspondence to: James L. Knoll, IV, MD, SUNY
Upstate Medical University, 750 East Adams Street, Syracuse, NY
13210. E-mail: [email protected]
Nevertheless, attempts by behavioral science to
define evil as though it were an objective and quantifiable concept are inherently flawed. Since evil is a
subjective moral concept with inextricable ties to religious thought, it cannot be measured by psychiatric
science. Moreover, there does not appear to be any
significant need to define or use the term “evil,” as
forensic psychiatry already has working concepts describing deviant behavior that is harmful to others.
Testifying about illusory moral concepts may ultimately diminish our credibility as forensic scientists.
Further, embracing “evil” as a legitimate psychiatric
concept can have a detrimental effect on forensic
treatment efforts. The purpose of this article is to
argue against the acceptance of the term “evil” into
the lexicon and practice of forensic psychiatry.
The Illusion of “Evil”
Evil is an entirely subjective concept created by
humans, and there is nothing inherently evil in nature or the universe. Primitive cultures believed that
natural calamities were manifestations of evil. It was
in this way that humanity first began to personify
adverse circumstances or tragedy so that they could
attempt to master attendant anxiety. Yet in the formal structure of evolutionary theory and natural selection, there is no designation for evil.5 The relentless and often brutal manner of natural selection may
Volume 36, Number 1, 2008
The Concept of Evil
dispose us to a belief in so-called natural evil, while
the reality is that this is nothing more than our own
subjective interpretation. Further, our own interpretations are invariably ambiguous, culture-bound,
and likely to evolve over time.
The word evil has very ancient origins. It is “emotionally loaded, morally judgmental, full of brimstone and fire” (Ref. 6, p. 338). When evil is used to
define an individual, it has a strongly damning consequence. The word evil inescapably invokes religious and mythological mind-sets, which were responsible for its origin.7 It summons the
supernatural, the mystic, and the esoteric. Labeling
someone as evil suggests that he or she is beyond
redemption. Defining someone as evil also suggests
that the person is permanently beyond human understanding, a sentiment that is contrary to scientific
principles. Perhaps the most objective conclusion
one could reach about evil is that it is a term associated with considerable linguistic ambiguity, with
various meanings to different people.8
At best, the label evil is a mere subjective abstraction.9 Indeed, having it remain so obscured may
serve a useful psychological purpose, that of disavowing any similarity with ourselves. When confronted
with a group of “others,” history has shown our natural proclivity for falling into the trap of projection,
which allows us to demonize our “enemies.” Further
confounding the concept of evil is the conundrum:
Evil from whose perspective? The victim’s perspective? The perpetrator’s? The layperson’s? All will be
different, and all will simply consist of that individual’s subjective conception of how evil is portrayed.
Biases and distortions can be expected to be the rule
and not the exception. As Baumeister10 notes, the
victim’s perspective is essential for a moral evaluation
of the evil acts, but is ruinous for a causal understanding of them.
Ultimately, viewing evil as a distinct or quantifiable concept is an illusion. The real causes of violent
or harmful behavior are always different from the
way people think of evil, because it is myth and illusion that provide the definition. Baumeister10 has
termed this the “myth of pure evil,” and notes, “the
face of evil is no one’s real face—it is always a false
image that is imposed or projected on the opponent”
(Ref. 10, p 62). In contrast, what is not illusory is
man’s history of feeling justified in committing
atrocities against individuals who are labeled evil.
Herein lies one of the strongest cautions against em106
bracing a subjective moral concept and portraying it
as science within the misplaced certainty of religious
morality. To the best of our current and limited
knowledge, people are led to commit acts of intentional harm by a complex interaction of biological,
psychological, and social forces in concert with situational variables. One set of factors affects and is
affected by the others and very likely cannot stand on
its own. Behavioral science has made efforts to study
objectively each of these factors, mostly in a reductionistic approach. In any individual case, the forensic psychiatrist must objectively weave them together
in an accurate, coherent narrative.
Before embracing an emotionally laden and morally judgmental term such as evil as a scientific concept, it is important to consider first whether doing
so will advance our understanding of deviant or violent behavior. Second, we must consider whether forensic psychiatrists will be able to remove biased
moral connotations of the term, particularly in the
courtroom, so that ethical and objective testimony is
proffered. This will be a difficult, if not impossible
challenge, given the inherent predisposition of some
courts to work in the opposite direction, as Gilligan
has noted:
There were times in the courtroom and prisons in which I
did my work when I felt as though I had somehow been
transported . . . back into the Middle Ages, when people
still thought that evil (like its mythical embodiment and
namesake, the devil) was an objective thing that actually
existed independently of our subjective feelings and
thoughts, rather than a word we all too often use to rationalize, justify, and conceal, from ourselves and others, our
own violence toward those we hate and wish to punish [Ref.
11, p 14].
Resurrecting the Witches’ Hammer
An ancient reaction to fear, distress, and calamity
has been to rely on religion. “When cause and cure
are unknown, magic and religion supply welcome
hope” (Ref. 12, p 453). In biblical times, mental
illness was seen as the opposite of what was “good.”
During the Middle Ages, most progress in medical
science was severely squelched. The Christian
church, consumed with superstition and demonic
possession, rode herd on the diagnosis and treatment
of mental illness. During the Renaissance, an obsession with evil in the form of witches became prominent. The official practice guidelines on detecting
witches, the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), assisted in-
The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
quisitors in finding evil lurking amid women, the
socially disenfranchised, and the mentally ill.13
The witch-hunting of the 15th and 16th centuries
serves as a fascinating and sobering example of an
official recognition of a hitherto unknown form of
deviance.14 Once the crime of witchcraft was officially recognized, serious problems developed in providing “proof ” and legal restraints to the hysteria.
The powerful legal and religious emphasis on the
reality of witchcraft helped to reinforce the legitimacy of the trials, in addition to the public’s belief
that there was evil afoot. It has been theorized that
the English government’s systematic efforts for dealing with witchcraft served as a form of repressive
deviance management. In addition, one of the benefits to church and state of the witch-hunting hysteria was that it effectively shifted public attention
away from growing demands for more equitable redistribution of wealth.15
In retrospect, evil (in the form of witches) was
nothing more than what the English legal system
claimed that it was. Those who were found to be
witches were often ill equipped and powerless to fend
off this creative label of deviance. Once the definition
of witchcraft was officially accepted, very little could
be done to prevent or limit the system’s abuse of the
term. As a result, large populations of “deviant”
witches were discovered, particularly among vulnerable lower-class groups, which, in turn, fostered the
growth of an “industry” revolving around the detection, prosecution, and punishment of witches. The
industry included the proliferation of “rackets,” and
entrepreneurs seeking to profit from its operation.14
The development of a profit-making deviance industry was perpetuated in cyclic fashion. The more
rigorous the detection efforts, the higher the rates of
deviance appeared to be, which then justified the use
of more extreme measures of detection. However, it
was well observed that forces other than economic
ones had vested interests in defining and controlling
deviance. Political, religious, and psychological interests have also been cited as playing significant
roles.14 One of the lessons from the witchcraft hysteria in England was that once a definition of deviance has been officially sanctioned, the potential for
abuse becomes virtually unlimited.
While the example of witchcraft is one of an entirely invented form of deviance, it is the process of
stigmatization and repressive control that merits
present-day consideration. It requires no stretch of
the imagination to consider how more modern notions of evil might be creatively imputed to those
who are unable to ward off its powerful moralistic
connotations. Indeed, it is hubris to conclude that we
are beyond such societal dynamics, even today.
Given the right setting and circumstances, a regressive return to a variety of analogous behaviors is distinctly within our repertoire of responses.
Consider the example of present-day Russia. The
unstable environment of post-Soviet society has been
characterized by drastic social changes and societal
insecurity. A therapist working in a boarding school
for teens reported a startling return to the practices of
various superstitions and witch persecution.16 The
witch persecution was described as providing a socially sanctioned outlet for repressed anger, anxiety,
and frustration. Exposing a witch among their peers
helped them explain daily misfortunes and reaffirmed the boundaries between good and bad parts of
the group.
It is not difficult to comprehend how witch-hunting provides a way to personify and master life’s misfortunes in a socially sanctioned manner. It may be
less obvious why some 15th- and 16th-century
witchcraft theorists pursued their cause with such
zealous passion. At that point in history, orthodox
Catholicism was feeling pressure from naturalist philosophers and skeptics. These groups spurred a
movement toward empirical validation and the notion that only matter exists.17 In this context, the zeal
with which Kramer and Sprenger13 penned The Malleus can be seen as a desperate attempt to prove the
existence of God and the legitimacy of the sacraments. Without proof that the devil and true evil
exist, there can be no proof that God exists (Nullus
deus sine diablo). Thus, the proof that witches existed
helped to explain evil in the world, in addition to
comforting those whose faith was challenged by science and the suffering inherent in life.
It is a sobering fact that in the present day, more
than 40 percent of Americans believe in demons,
devils, and other superstitious concepts.18 Beliefs in
evil as an objective force can be observed among
many ordinary citizens. For example, individuals are
quite ready to believe that Hitler’s personality or aura
of evil can spread into his sweater, causing them to
refuse to wear it.19,20 This is but one example of the
tendency toward magical thinking in which material
objects come to be seen as symbolic representations.
Indeed, the distinction for many between the laws of
Volume 36, Number 1, 2008
The Concept of Evil
magical thinking and reality is dangerously ambiguous.21 At the present time, there do not appear to be
any strong indicators that such thinking would be
changed by attempts to “measure” or better define
evil, even assuming that such attempts would provide
meaningful results.
The Resurgence of Evil as a Concept in
Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology
Over the past two decades, an explicit emphasis
on evil has been developed by several respected social
psychologists.10,22–25 However, even in these scientific contexts, the term is used inconsistently. More
importantly, use of the term does not escape vagueness and biased connotations. Also, over the past several decades, there have been quite reasonable advances in the areas of neuroscience, psychology, and
sociology that begin to address, in a scientific manner, the problem of violent and/or deviant behavior.
Thus, one may be inclined to wonder why some
forensic mental health professionals are “raising the
spectre of some demonic force at work,” despite its
regressive implications (Ref. 26, p 114). Indeed,
might it not be irresponsible, given the fixed connotations of the term, its implications of untreatability
and, dare I say it, the need for extermination? Then
why do we find ourselves conjuring evil and summoning demons?
Let us approach this question by examining Welner’s proclamation that legal relevance demands that
we define and standardize evil. For the sake of this
discussion, let us assume that what he alleges is true
and that forensic psychiatrists across the country are
experiencing pressure in the form of such demands
from the justice system. Let us not stop here, but next
explore what forces might be at play in stimulating
the justice system to make these demands. Both the
legal and forensic mental health literature inform us
that we are in the midst of a punitive era of criminal
justice.27,28 Rehabilitative efforts have been pruned
away like so much dead wood. The number of incarcerated individuals in this country at the end of 2005
reached a record high at approximately 2.2 million,29
and there are no signs that the trend will reverse itself.
Keeping the prevailing emphasis on punishment
in mind, it is possible to discern some of the hypothetical pressures on forensic mental health professionals, vis-à-vis the justice system, to identify and
root out evil. The societal forces at play in the evolu108
tion from the rehabilitative era to the punitive era
have been discussed elsewhere, and I shall not repeat
them here.30,31 What is of immediate interest are the
forces that may be perpetuating society’s demands
and, in turn, the justice system’s demands to focus on
evil. For example, could there be other social forces at
play beyond fear of predation and desire for
It has been suggested that the United States may
be in the midst of a moral panic, where radical measures are seen as reasonable and reassuring options.32,33 This is of little surprise during a period in
which the politics of crime have been driven by fearinducing appeals to common-sense punitiveness.34
Such appeals have the allure of reducing the complex
to a simple battle between good and evil. Thus, anxieties about moral relativism are concretely allayed.
Adding to the urgency of the moral panic, Chessick35
has noted that Western civilization may currently be
in its Alexandrian phase, a phase in which greed,
flexible morals, and populist standards reach their
zenith.35 Chessick believes that “insatiable greed has
produced an explosive situation in our time” (Ref.
35, p 548). He references the growing discrepancy
between rich and poor,36 the U.S. demand for Saudi
oil, and corruption among some of our country’s
biggest corporations (e.g., Enron). What disturbs
Chessick is the direction in which all this is heading
and the implications of impending upheaval and social change.
In times of trouble, societies tend to stiffen and
enforce conformity. Typically, strenuous efforts are
made to root out the elements of “sin” and “vice.”
Encouraged by leadership, society is transformed
into a metaphorical Spartan fist, as it prepares to steel
itself against threat or chaos.37 Fear and anxiety further drive the contraction of societal attitudes and a
return to earlier, more familiar practices. In such
times, if an illusion of a “handle” by which to control
a problem is produced, it is often grasped with ferocity. At the base of the handle is often the idea of an
evil foe. The term evil can then be used as a floating
signifier, invoked for the purposes of “othering”
(Ref. 38, p 184). Once invoked, the term can be used
as a banner in which to wrap one’s cause that will be
connoted routinely with goodness. History has
shown that we “invent banners and clutch at them”
due to our “hunger for believable words that dress life
in convincing meaning” (Ref. 39, p 142). Such
meaning often comes from “the sublime joy of heroic
The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law
triumph over evil” for which we are willing to kill
lavishly (Ref. 39, p 141). This is but one example of
how all of our heroic attempts to eradicate evil have
the paradoxical effect of bringing more evil into the
Our evolutionary heritage as moral animals compels us (ideally via fair and just means) to identify and
punish the immoral. But we appear to have great
difficulty with this task, as we are “a species splendid
in [our] array of moral equipment, tragic in [our]
propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in [our] constitutional ignorance of the misuse” (Ref. 41, p 42).
When threats to safety and survival become a prominent feature in society, the attendant terror is managed by reinforcing well-wo …
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