I once asked the question: Can Psychopaths become Christians? This not only generated discussion at the time, but continuous to be one of the most searched for pages on this blog.
In view of this, it’s obvious this question perplexes many, and I occasionally still receive emails, most of which are born from intimate experience with a psychopath, and predominantly answer this question forcefully in the negative.
In the back of my mind, whilst composing that question, I subconsciously conflated the notion of evil with psychopathy, and specifically the trait of an apparent absence of conscience.
But was I right in taking this approach?
M. Scott Peck in his book: The People of the Lie, takes a different line, making an interesting distinction between the psychopath and evil, especially relating to the issue of conscience:
A predominant characteristic, however, of the behaviour of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves beyond reproach, they must lash out at anyone that does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection.
Scapegoating works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They must project their own evil on to the world. They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others.
Evil, then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters……in other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgement of one’s need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgement, we have no option but to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection.
Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil. The problem is that they misplace the locus of evil. Instead of destroying the sickness within themselves. As life often threatens their self-image of perfection, they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying that life – usually in the name of righteousness. The fault, however, may not be so much that they hate life as they do not hate the sinful part of themselves.
What is the cause of this failure of self-hatred, this failure to be displeasing to oneself, which seems to be the central sin at the root of the scapegoating behaviour of those I call evil? The cause is not, I believe, an absent conscience. There are people, both in and out of jail, who seem utterly lacking in conscience or super-ego. Psychiatrists call them psychopaths or sociopaths. Guiltless, they not only commit crimes but may often do so with a kind of reckless abandon. there is little pattern of meaning in their criminality; it is not particularly characterised by scapegoating. Conscienceless, psychopaths appear to be bothered or worried by very little – including their own criminality. they seem to be about as happy inside a jail as out. They do attempt to hide their crimes, but their efforts to do so are often feeble and careless and poorly planned. They have sometimes been referred to as ‘moral imbeciles’, and there is almost a quality of innocence to their lack of worry and concern.
This is hardly the case with those I call evil. Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, they are increasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them.
The words ‘image’, ‘appearance’, and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are people of the lie.
Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously. Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right and wrong. We lie only when we are attempting to cover up something we know to be illicit. Some rudimentary form of conscience must precede the act of lying. There is no need to hide unless we first feel that something needs to be hidden.
We come now to a sort of paradox. I have said the evil people feel themselves to be perfect. At the same time, however, I think they have an unacknowledged sense of their own evil nature. Indeed, it is this very sense from which they are frantically trying to flee. The essential component of evil is not the absence of a sense of sin or imperfection but the unwillingness to tolerate that sense. At one and the same time, the evil are aware of their evil and desperately trying to avoid the awareness. Rather than blissfully lacking a sense of morality like the psychopath, they are continually engaged in sweeping the evidence of their evil under the rug of their own consciousness.
The problem is not a defect of conscience but the effort to deny the conscience its due. We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves. The wickedness of the evil is not committed directly, but indirectly as part of a cover-up process. Evil originates not in the absence of guilt but in the effort to escape it.
M. Scott Peck, The People of the Lie – The hope for healing human evil – Pages: 82-85