Human Violence and Cruelty
R F Baumeister, W H Freeman and Co, 1996
The Heart of Darkness
Buried deep in the human psyche is a conviction that evil
forces, powerful and subtle beyond our understanding, pervade human
society. These hidden spectres seem to spring without warning into
horrible life in individuals, groups and nations from time to time. When
pure evil takes hold, businessmen cheat and steal, sadists do terrible
deeds, governments oppress their citizens and nations slaughter each
Throughout its history Christianity has perceived the life, death and
resurrection of Jesus as a unique event which has, as it were, put the
powers of evil on the defensive and promised an end to this tenuous and
elusive source of human suffering. Perhaps it is this belief which had
fuelled the hope of some that we are, however falteringly and slowly,
moving upwards on a ladder of perfection - that some time in the future
our descendants will rest easy as the conspiracy of evil withers away in
the face of sheer goodness. Perhaps, they say, then we will see the
"kingdom of God".
The problem with this hopeful outlook is a rising perception,
unbearably sharpened in the 20th century, that instead of drawing near,
God's kingdom seems to be receding with every so-called advance of
Western "civilisation." Never before has humankind witnessed
so great a slaughter of innocents as in the years following 1900.
As Baumeister points out, during that century we witnessed only 26
days of peace - and that calculation takes no account of internal
repression and cruelty by governments. Apart from the massive slaughter
of the wars there has been genocide on a huge scale.
Meanwhile, it seems that the fabric of many societies is constantly
under threat from mindless violence of many sorts - private armies,
powerful mafia, street gangs and the like. In South Africa some 65
murders are committed every day. Africa as a continent is wracked by
civil strife, civil war, AIDS and starvation. Even though they account
for a tiny proportion of deaths in Western nations, it seems as though
paedophiles, serial killers and other sadists secretly prowl our streets
for opportunities to satisfy their cruel lusts.
Is it surprising that we tend to think of the powers of evil invading
our lives, secretly working out ways of tormenting humankind, and
bringing fear and insecurity ever nearer to the ordinary person who
desires only to lead an ordinary life? Witness the many conspiracy
theories which have surfaced in this century.
The Myth of Pure Evil
Is evil a real if hidden force? Baumeister thinks not and
advances what seem to me sound if not irrefutable arguments to support
A natural bias towards empathy has resulted in an almost universal
identification of evil from the victim's perspective. This book produces
many examples of events which if one sets out to be even-handed cease
to appear intrinsically evil. Few if any perpetrators ever do an
"evil" deed without good reason - from their viewpoint. Very,
very few groups or individuals "name themselves in positive
affirmation of evil … Most of them regard themselves as good people
who are trying to defend themselves and their group against the forces
It's not as though Baumeister does away with the concept of evil. Far
from it. He explains that he has tried to understand evil as "an
extraordinary human phenomenon" and that his venture has required
the temporary suppression of moral judgement of evil deeds. "It is
too easy to forget that we had to take a one-sided view of things in
order to understand them, and to escape the intuitive tyranny of the
victim's view … It is a mistake to let moral condemnation interfere
with trying to understand - but it would be a bigger mistake to let that
understanding, once it has been attained, interfere with moral
Our society in the West has, quite literally, an investment in
perpetuating the myth of an evil force. Without it, movies and writing
would be less interesting because evil villains represent in some
powerful manner the way many people perceive the world.
Baumeister makes the interesting point that evil in the early part of
the 20th century tended to be represented as werewolves, mummies,
witches and invaders from outer space. Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960
marked the introduction of the human villain and the relegation of the
spine-chilling monster to cheap horror movies and sci-fi.
A feature of recent written and screen fiction is the villain who
appears to be motivated by an apparent enjoyment of hurting their
victims. Sadism has become of the essence of the contemporary evil
person. "Thus," says Baumeister, "it is not enough to
perform harmful acts. The truly evil villains derive pleasure from
Baumeister thinks that religion is "…probably the best place
to learn how people think of evil" because of the way religious
people tend to view good. It appears that religions world-wide have come
to similar conclusions about the nature of evil - that it does not exist
by itself, but emerges as the opposite of what is termed good.
There has been constant debate in Christianity about how God can
choose to permit evil or fail to prevent it. One solution adopted by
some religions but condemned by Christians (as the heresy of Manichaeism)
has been to suppose that Satan - evil's spiritual representative - is
somehow the equal of God, or at least his inferior by only a small
Despite its attempts to avoid it, the Christian faith seems to have
adopted a form of dualism tempered only by a belief in the assured
victory of supernatural good over supernatural evil in the longer term.
The net result, however, is a powerful motivation to preserve the notion
of evil in general, and the person of Satan in particular, in order to
also retain the structure of Church teachings.
After all is said and done, what is one to do with traditional
teaching about Jesus vanquishing the powers of evil (as C H Dodd would have it, "now but not yet") if the concept of
supernatural evil is failing and fading?
What has happened in the West says Baumeister, is that "…the
issue of the relationship between good and evil is usually phrased in
terms of human nature" instead of supernatural forces at war. One
strand of this movement has been to perceive people as intrinsically
good and to blame social structures for making them evil.
The result? Many utopian causes which, like the disaster of Communism,
have failed to obliterate human evil.
Another strand is to perceive human evil in terms of bad upbringing.
From Freud to the present day, psychologists and sociologists have done
battle in their disciplines with limited success. "The final
victory of the good is not in sight. Not by a long shot", writes
The myth of evil is perpetuated by the means we use to teach our
children about the nature of reality. The fairy tales and stories of the
past have been largely supplanted by the TV cartoon. Both portray
"…stark and simple battles between the forces of good and evil
… villains have no clear reason for their attacks. They seem to be
evil for evil's sake, and they have been so all along. They are sadistic
…" It may be that such portraits of evil succeed because that's
how children's minds work in earlier stages of development.
Nevertheless, this simplistic view of evil persists into adulthood,
extended into more complicated but essentially unchanged perceptions
rather than being transformed into something closer to reality.
Another source of the modern image of evil is a "popular
paramilitary culture" which can be traced back to Clint Eastwood
and Dirty Harry. In such depictions the ideal North American
culture is pitched against a form of evil so pure that it can be
conquered only by counterbalancing violence. It gets sexual joy from
killing, desires the destruction of the American way of life and is most
often personified in the foreigner who is unable to control himself - in
contrast to the cool, detached rectitude of home-grown defenders. These
stories are "…simple allegories of battle between those who have
self-control and those who lack it …"
Baumeister selects eight characteristics comprising the myth of pure
- It involves the deliberate infliction of harm on people;
- Gratuitous pleasure is the motivation for inflicting harm;
- The victims of evil are innocent and essentially harmless;
- Evil people are outsiders, not part of the group;
- Evil is as old as creation.
- Evil promotes chaos conflict and thus pits itself against good
order and peace;
- Evil people are driven by egotism;
- Evil people can't control themselves, especially when they get
Roots of Evil
If the age-old concept of all-pervading, supernatural of human
evil is a myth, what can take its place? As Baumeister shows, the
reality of evil is very different.
He begins with the most obvious motivator - evil as a means to an
end. He puts forward the case of the Mongols, personified in Genghis
Kahn, as one of the most ruthless groups of killers in history. The
evidence is clear: the Mongols wanted to exercise power and through that
gain respect, and they desired material wealth. To their victims they
were evil. But in their eyes "…they were merely pursuing a
rational, sensible strategy for getting what most people want: wealth
This is "instrumental activity", hurting which is not done
for its own sake but rather to further goals. As Baumeister points out,
the fact is that the Mongols passed the test of instrumental violence
because they abandoned it as a means whenever another way was possible.
Their cruelty was, in other words, not gratuitous.
Nevertheless, the question presents itself: Why should anyone adopt
evil means when ordinary "good" means are available? Why beat
up an old woman for her purse when it's possible to earn the money?
Research and history indicate the following:
- Evil means are perceived as quicker and easier - attractive
reasons for some people;
- Legitimate means may appear difficult or impossible - like getting
a job in difficult times or if one belongs to a group which is
- Effectiveness is a factor. Crime may seem less risky than long
- It can be more exciting, producing a high which contrasts with
- If legitimate authority is weak or absent, evil actions may have
little or no downside.
Despite evidence which indicates that there are large and successful
groups of criminals in all societies, it seems clear that evil does not
pay. In all its common instrumental forms - robbery, organised crime and
drugs, political murder, government repression and torture, warfare and
the like - gains are short-lived and quickly dissipated.
But evil means do pay in one respect: they are effective in creating
suffering and, if judiciously and effectively applied, are "…a
useful and effective way to establish dominance over another person or
to defeat another person's dominance over you. In simple terms, violence
is a tool for taking power."
One of the most pleasing aspects of this book is the way in which
Baumeister uses stories to illustrate and enhance the lessons of history
and research. His tale of the Zulu king Shaka is a gripping instance of
the motivation of egotism and revenge in evil acts. The Christian
Crusades show how idealism provides a licence to hate and hurt:
"…the record suggests that holy wars are often dirtier, more
brutal, and fuller of cruelty and atrocity than ordinary wars. The usual
effect of religiosity is to make war more brutal, not less".
Over the centuries the debate in Western societies has been fierce:
do ends justify means? Is it possible to achieve good through evil?
Baumeister's study is conclusive. "Idealism leads to evil primarily
because good, desirable ends provide justification for violent or
oppressive means. Evil is not likely to result when people firmly
believe that ends do not justify means. If they evaluate their methods
by the same lofty standards by which they judge their goals and
purposes, evil will be held in check".
Example after example demonstrate that ideology demands that we
perceive the enemy as evil. It is license to hate. How do idealists -
particularly Christians idealists whose ideal person said "Love
your enemies" - avoid feeling guilty when they harm others either
directly or by underhand means?
Idealists are most convinced that they are opposing evil when their
victims closely resemble the myth of pure evil. Baumeister sums it up:
"Two prominent features of that myth are the fundamental otherness
and innate wickedness of the enemy. Evil people commit bad actions for
their own sake … Moreover, they are fundamentally different from us
and belong to a totally different category of being, so we need feel no
empathy for them". In the final analysis, no matter what Jesus
said, the idealist needs feel no guilt about hurting or killing such
The famous studies by Stanley Milgram on authority and obedience in
1975 yielded one less-recognised result. A crucial factor in persuading
people to give apparently painful electric shocks to subjects was
"…the presence of a fellow human being assuring them that their
actions were justified and, indeed, were their duty".
All Christians, and indeed all religious people, need to pay
attention to this important aspect of evil. For what is the case when
"God" has been invoked as the assurance of rectitude? Surely
nothing less than absolute justification for what is really
It would not stretch the point too far to propose that the more
certain a Christian is that he or she has access to absolute, unique
truth about reality, the more likely it is that others can become a
justifiable target for abuse or violence. In direct contrast are those
with a frame of mind which is sceptical, open and questing. Perhaps this
explains the apparent ease with which certain groups of Christians use
disparaging, vicious language to vilify their brothers and sisters in
Another reason for ongoing evil is the discontinuity effect, a
"…pattern by which a group tends to be more extreme than the sum
of its individual members". The effect is strengthened when,
despite the highest goals, the "…group becomes an end, a positive
value, in itself". Then, to protect the group whether at a high
level like the Papacy or at the low end like the congregation,
"…what is good for the group becomes right, almost regardless of
whether it has any clear positive link to the group's original
goals". Then the outsider, the apostate, must be killed.
Perhaps the most compelling, even startling conclusion about the
roots of evil relates to that part of the myth of pure evil which
supposes that evil people enjoy inflicting harm. Not only do the
vast majority of perpetrators suffer terrible emotional trauma but most
of those called to inflict suffering on others - whether gang members,
soldiers or fraudsters - seek to avoid it at all costs. Did you know,
for instance, that some 25% of Allied soldiers in Word War II could not
aim to kill?
What is true, however, remains distressing - even if it contributes
nothing to the myth of evil. And that is that hurting others can
be enjoyed by a small minority of those who inflict such harm, perhaps 5
percent or so. The enjoyment is, however, only "…gradually
discovered over a period of time involving multiple episodes of
dominating or hurting others" during which normal empathic
responses are extinguished.
The process of habituation is subtle. Humans have the capacity to
replace initial feelings of shock and disgust with a backwash of
compensating good feelings, rather like those bungee jumpers report when
their voluntary ordeal is over. As Baumeister remarks: "The thrill
of killing may be closer to the thrill of parachute jumping than to the
thrill of taking drugs: The pleasure is in the backwash".