The first step to appreciating the subtleties of evil is to begin at the most basic level of philosophical inquiry, the philosophy of being. Evil, as St. Augustine pointed out centuries ago, is not a positive quality or a substance, but a privation or corruption of being. This implies that "good" is a property of being. Whatever is, is good insofar as it is.
When we speak of good food, for example, we mean much more than that it simply tastes good. We mean that is good for us. Such food promotes the fullness of our being. Food that is bad for us brings about a corruption or deficiency of health. Aristotle wrote that the good is that which all things desire.1 This, despite appearances, is congruent with the notion that the "good" is fullness of being; for all things desire first and foremost their own perfection, that is, all things desire "to be" and "to be" most fully. Good and being are the same thing. Evil is thus a lack of due being. It is a deficiency, a corruption, a privation, a lack of something that should be there.
Consider a deformity of any kind. What is physically deformed lacks something that it ought to have. A bird that has one wing suffers from a physical evil and as a result cannot fly, that is, it cannot function as it belongs to a bird to function.
Moral evil is also a lack, a deficiency, or a privation, but one far more complicated than physical evil. For everyone understands the nature of a bird, and so it is immediately obvious that a one winged bird is deformed. But in order to understand moral evil, it is necessary to understand the basic requirements of the natural moral law, and unless one understands these, moral evil is not always easy to spot.
Moral evil is primarily about a disordered will; for only a being with intellect and will is a moral agent. That is why irrational animals are not treated as moral agents and held responsible for what they do. They literally don't "know any better". A good will, however, is one that "wills the good". This is what love is: willing the good of another (benevolence). But there are a number of goods that are specifically human, intelligible, and basic, that is, sought for their own sake and not for the sake of some other end. Such basic intelligible human goods include human life, the knowledge and contemplation of truth, the experience and contemplation of beauty, leisure, marriage, harmony between oneself and others, oneself and God, and harmony within oneself (integrity). The moral life has to do fundamentally with our relationship to the entire network of these human goods. Basic human goods are aspects of human persons, and so a good will is one that is open to the entire network of human goods in oneself and in others, that is, wherever there is an instance of human being.
An evil action is one that involves a will that is incompatible with an openness to the complete integration of basic human goods. Such a will is evil, because it is deficient, or lacking an order that it ought to have. For example, justice is the constant will to render to another his due. An unjust act involves a refusal to render another his due, such as the truth, or property, or reverence of his life, etc. Or, consider the act of treating another as a means to an end. In this case, a basic human good is treated as an instrumental good. The life of the other is subordinated to my own and is reduced to a means to my own ends. In other words, I treat my own life as an end, to be revered for its own sake, but I treat another's life as a means. But what is due to another is that he be treated in a way that respects his status as equal in dignity to myself. I willingly refuse that equality, thus failing to render that debt.
Just as a bird is good insofar as it has being, but suffers from a physical evil insofar as it lacks what ought to be there (i.e., another wing), so too an evil will is good insofar as it has being, but is evil in its deficiency. And since a moral agent is what he wills, we do not say that a person suffers from a moral evil as we might suffer from a physical evil. Rather, a person who commits moral evil is evil. Only moral agents can be evil.
And so evil is parasitic. Its host is always a good. And since evil is a kind of non-being or nothingness, pure evil is impossible. Pure evil would be completely nothing, and nothing is not evil; it simply 'is not'. Evil is a privation that requires a subject in which to inhere. St. Augustine writes:
...there is nothing of what we call evil, if there be nothing good. But a good which is wholly without evil is a perfect good. A good, on the other hand, which contains evil is a faulty or imperfect good; and there can be no evil where there is no good. From all this we arrive at the curious result: that since every being, so far as it is a being, is good, when we say that a faulty being is an evil being, we just seem to say that which is good is evil, and that nothing but what is good can be evil, seeing that every being is good, and that no evil can exist except in a being. Nothing can be evil except something which is good.2
Human persons engage in a kind of self-making whenever they make choices. The reason is that we are what we will. It was Sartre who said that existence precedes essence, and that we determine our essence by our absolutely free choices.3 Only if we substitute the word "essence" with "character" is Sartre correct. There is a relationship between choosing (doing) and becoming (being). We are (character) what we choose. Nothing is more intimately our own than our character, which is determined by nothing other than our free and self-determined choices. And since evil is a privation, a kind of non-being or nothingness, the more one makes morally evil choices, the "less" one becomes. In other words,choosing moral evil, such as treating another or others as a means to an end, brings about a shrinkage, a lessening of the self. If perpetuated and unrepented, such de-creation leads to a kind of self-loathing; for there is less of oneself to love -- just as the more one severs pieces of one's face with a knife, the more unsightly he becomes and the more horrified he is as he beholds his reflection in a mirror.4
Beauty is also a property of being. To be more fully is to be more beautiful. But disease or corruption involves a deprivation of beauty. What is morally noble is beautiful (kalon), but what is morally evil is ignoble and morally unsightly. That is why one who commits to injustice or who gives himself to evil for the sake of ends that are good becomes morally unsightly to himself, as well as to those who see him as he is. He becomes ugly. Hence, the self-loathing that is part and parcel of the depraved.
Another property of moral evil, concomitant to self-loathing, is egotism. Consider that injustice is the freely willed decision not to render to another his due, whether it is truth, property, liberty, impartial treatment, or reverence of his life. The golden rule is a traditional formulation of the requirement of fairness: do unto others what you would have others do unto you, or, do not do to others what you yourself dislike. Injustice is precisely a failure to love another as another self. The unjust man treats himself with a degree of partiality, and he fails to recognize the other's status as a person equal in dignity, to be treated as an end in himself. The unjust man has thereby established a degree of egotism within himself; for he has made himself larger than another, at least in his own eyes and according to his own behaviour. As Vladimir Solovyov writes: "The basic falsehood and evil of egoism lie ... in the fact that, ascribing to himself in all justice an absolute significance, he unjustly refuses to others this same significance. Recognizing himself as a center of life (which as a matter of fact he is), he relegates others to the circumference of his own being and leaves them only an external and relative value."5
This egotism can be relatively mild, or it can reach pathological proportions. For there is a fundamental difference between the sinner and the one who sins. Everyone sins, but not everyone is given over to sin, that is, not everyone loves sin. Some have made a commitment to do battle against their own tendency to sin, while others have simply surrendered to a life that places the self at the center. The refusal to behold one's own moral unsightliness--and thus the refusal of repentance and moral growth -- brings about a conflict that demands resolution. Such a person is aware of his own moral deficiency and loathes himself accordingly. The degree of his self-loathing corresponds to the degree of his depravity. At the same time, though, he has surrendered to an egotism that is part and parcel of an unjust character. The egotist that he has become cannot tolerate the awareness of his unsightly ignobility. This conflict has to be resolved because he has a radical need for affirmation. Like all beings, he naturally desires to be most fully, and so he desires the fullness of the good -- it is just that he will not choose in accordance with what he really desires. The need for affirmation persists nonetheless. And affirmation is the natural and proper response to what is genuinely good. The problem is that he cannot affirm himself -- hebeholds his depravity and sees others as far less unsightly, which of course spawns envy -- , yet his egotism demands affirmation all the more and to a much greater extent and intensity. The greater his moral depravity, the greater and more unbearable is this fundamental conflict. He either beholds his corruption and repents of the choices that brought it about, or he turns his gaze from it and commits to creating an image, a reflection, a false self that others will be able to affirm.
He cannot allow others to see what he sees in himself, for they will reject him. What they see will be as repulsive to them as it is to himself. So he must create a highly likable and acceptable image that will procure the affirmation he requires for himself, an affirmation that he can only get from others who do not know him as he really is. Thus begins the fundamental lie of the self-loathing egotist. For an image is a reflection. One can only see a reflection if it is mirrored in some way. The egotist must see his reflection through the eyes of others, and so others become a means to his own affirmation, a means to his own conviction that he really exists. For the deeply depraved have created a void, a nothingness in the heart of their character. But a person cannot detect the presence of nothingness. Hence, the egotist desperately needs to be convinced of his own existence. He needs to feel that he is. If he will not achieve this through the pursuit of virtue, he will do so through the affirmation, praise, and adulation of others, or through their fear of him. But what others affirm (or fear) is not the true self of the egotist. He cannot show his true self, for he does not know who or what it is. His true self is fractured, dilapidated, and in pieces. Thus, it is only a reflection that they affirm.
The habit of treating a human person as a means to an end has a kind of universal scope to it. One person is a particular instance of a basic intelligible human good. Just as I come to know the nature of all human persons by coming to understand a particular instance of humanity (for all have the same nature), so too, my ability to treat one individual human being as a means to an end amounts to a willingness to treat all human persons as a means to an end. And so wherever the egotist appears to be treating another as an end in himself, such behaviour is only appearance. At its roots, it is utilitarian and fundamentally a kind of manipulation.
The more intense the conflict between the experience of his nothingness and his emerging egotism, the more radical his manipulation of others. The more intelligent the egotist, the more able he is to hide his depravity by means of a clever reflection, and thus the more able he is to successfully convince others that they are loved and revered for their own sake. The longer he persists in his depravity, the more deeply he falls into the void that is decreated by the choices he continues to make.
From a purely moral point of view, this is how the narcissistic character disordered are created.6 They are self-created, or better yet, self-decreated, and then re-created, although what is re-created is not a self, but a reflection or an image. The greater the opposition between his depravity or moral nothingness (and thus self-loathing) and his egotism (his injustice and his regard for others as mere instruments of his own gratification), the more pathological his narcissism, and thus the more grandiose and fantastic his reflected or false self.7
The narcissist is incapable of love; for his narcissism is the fruit of his refusal to revere others for their own sake, that is, to love others as another self, equal in dignity to himself.8 His refusal to love barred him from loving himself because he became depleted and less lovable to himself. What he loves is the false self he has created and that he needs to see reflected in the affirmation and comportment of others. Such people are aptly referred to as narcissists. According to the ancient Greek myth, the nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus. She died of a broken heart after being spurned by him. As a result, Narcissus was punished by the gods for his callousness: the gods made him fall in love with his own image. He would live till he saw himself. Eventually, he caught sight of his reflection in the water, became enthralled with his image and refused to leave the spot. He died of languor and turned into a flower. As Alexander Lowen interprets this myth, if Narcissus could say "I love you", Echo would repeat those words and he would feel loved. The inability to say "I love you" is precisely what identifies the narcissist.9
And since he is incapable of truly loving another as another self, all his relationships with others are perverted, twisted, and abusive; for to use a person is to abuse a person, and everyone in his life, without exception, is nothing more than a means of procuring affirmation, adulation, and admiration, or if that isn't possible, fear.10 For it isn't the self that the narcissist loves, but his reflection.
The narcissist is calculating. He is utilitarian through and through. He refuses obedience to the basic requirements of the natural moral law, for obedience implies that there is something larger than himself of which he is not the measure, but which measures him. Such a notion, however, is incompatible with the very thrust of his character. He has become the measure. He is calculating for the sake of procuring power; for it is power that allows him the control he needs to protect himself from exposure and from his having to face his own finitude. Power allows him to more easily procure a supply of narcissistic fuel. His entire life has become a struggle to procure this fuel, or what Samuel Vaknin calls narcissistic supply,11 and he will employ the most devious means at his disposal to get it. And if, by some misfortune, he should come into a position of power, we can expect his style of leadership to be thoroughly Machiavellian.
There is no better insight into the workings of the mind of the morally depraved and narcissistic leader than what is provided in chapter 18 of Machiavelli's The Prince. The principal characteristic of such a leader is not prudence, but craft:
Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.12
Because such persons have depleted their character so profoundly through choices contrary to the norms of reason, they approach the bestial level and will even begin to see themselves as such. For beasts are not governed by the natural moral law, but by the law of power. The narcissistic leader is fundamentally bestial in his rule, but he cannot appear that way without exposing his true colors, and exposure is his greatest fear. And so he must employ craft and know when to "avail himself of the beast". Machiavelli writes:
… it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man. …A prince, therefore, being compelled knowingly to adopt the beast, ought to choose the fox and the lion; because the lion cannot defend himself against snares and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the snares and a lion to terrify the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are about. Therefore a wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer.13
Such a person, by virtue of his olympian egotism, always regards others as inferior to himself. Everyone is a simpleton in his eyes. What helps afford him this illusion is that most people are unsuspecting and are unaware of the degree to which they are being taken advantage of, used and abused. This unawareness is not due to a general lack of intelligence in people, but to their tendency to project their own range of normalcy onto others. Hence, their disinclination to suspect someone so profoundly depraved to be in their midst, carrying on an existence that is fundamentally and thoroughly alie. But the character disordered conveniently regard this trait as evidence of intellectual inferiority and will take a twisted delight in the knowledge that they have so many fooled.
But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic, and to be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.14
When it is a question of evil, it is precisely the element of disguise that people tend to overlook. We are wont to assume that evil, character disorder, profound moral depravity, psychopathy, pathological narcissism, etc., are easy to detect and that such people can only intimidate and inspire fear upon a first encounter. But this is only the case with those not intelligent enough to disguise their depravity, like the common criminal. The most dangerous among us are those intelligent enough to appear as paragons of virtue.
…it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.… a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result. … he will be praised by everybody because the vulgar are always taken by what a thing seems to be and by what comes of it; and in the world there are only the vulgar, …15
With respect to evil, there still exists a sort of half-baked Platonism in the attitudes of many people, for there is a common assumption that if a person is knee deep in depravity, either he does not know any better or is under the influence of environmental and psychological determinants he has no control over. But there is a distinction between intellectual and moral virtue. Morality is in the will. It is very possible to have a brilliant mind, but at the same time a wicked and depraved will. The most dangerous predators among us are ingeniously veiled. They carefully surround themselves with people entirely unlike themselves, that is, with deeply empathic human beings who wish to please others, who are slow to judge, who are excessively tolerant and who have an eye for the good to be found in others. They know how to exploit to their own advantage such character traits. It is their association with such people that maximizes their chances of perpetuating the facade and keeping themselves from exposure.
The narcissist despises community and emotional intimacy, and so they are profoundly lonely. On the one hand, though, there is something about their loneliness that narcissists like; for they can attribute it to their unique and superior nature. But as human persons who have a radical need for others, they cannot tolerate loneliness. This conflict is a source of chronic anguish; for loneliness is hell, and yet, as Sartre would say, "hell is other people" ("l'enfer, c'est les autres").
Man is a person, from the Latin persona (through sound). He longs to express himself, to communicate himself to others, whether depraved or not. Just as those who contemplate the marvelous or the beautiful cannot hold themselves but will cry out in praise of what they behold, so too the depraved cannot help but on occasion burst out and spit their bile, thus providing others a momentary glimpse of their interior rot. Moments such as these are clues that must be stored in the memory and, like disparate pieces of a puzzle, assembled later in order to acquire a more complete picture, which will be a horror to behold, or an experience of terror -- if the narcissist discovers that he has been found out by you.16 The clues, in isolation, will suggest only minor imperfections or character flaws. But taken together over a number of years, they suggest something much more ominous. The inconsistencies evident in the behaviour of the narcissist -- prior to his discovery -- should never be simply accepted, only to be forgotten. Rather, one must ponder the inconsistencies in behaviour until they become consistent, that is, until the apparently inconsistent behaviour acquires an intelligible narrative that rings true.
Some pathological narcissists are so clever that certain people will simply never be able to penetrate the disguise, no matter what has been pointed out to them. One reason they are so successful is that they have come to believe their own lies. The narcissist has convinced himself that the facade is not a lie. What helps to establish this conviction, among other things, is a commitment to a cause -- a genuinely good cause. But after a few years of observation, one discovers that the narcissist's devotion to the cause is one sided and not grounded in a commitment to the principles underlying the cause, because after a time the inconsistency of the morality of the depraved becomes noticeable. His behavior, in other words, is not principled. And he will despise any individual or institution that expounds a consistent ethics, because it exposes his own inconsistent and arbitrary one and is a constant reminder of his own self-deception.
It cannot be emphasized enough just how much we typically underestimate the depravity of the pathological narcissist who operates behind a facade of respectability and altruism. We cannot forget that they have a desperate fear of exposure, that someone might catch a long enough glimpse at the rot that lies within and raise the awareness of others, thus threatening the power structure that took years of careful planning to erect. That is why the pathological narcissist is a long term plotter, like the brilliant chess player who plans ten or more moves ahead. It is almost impossible for anyone to uncover the complex and multi-layered schemes of such a person unless one is entirely aware of the depths of his depravity and the level of his intelligence. Knowing the one without the other leaves one ever open to being perpetually deceived.
The awareness that others have seen contradictory aspects of himself is a constant source of anxiety for the narcissist in a position of authority. And he is aware of the limits of human perspectives and that community has the power to enlarge individual points of view. When people talk with one another, they begin to acquire a much larger perspective on things, that is, they begin to see a bigger picture. The pathological narcissist who is in a leadership role cannot afford to have people talking amongst themselves and sharing stories. So he will go to great lengths and carefully contrive very devious and underhanded schemes to keep people divided. He will sow division among colleagues by planting lies about one person to another, and another about someone else. This can be a successful strategy because no one expects a highly intelligent adult to be carrying on like a scheming eight year old child or an emotionally disturbed adolescent. And since most of us avoid confrontation, it is much easier to believe the liar.
Pathological narcissists succeed for a time because of the extreme resonance of their personality structure. As Samuel Vaknin writes: "Narcissists appear to be unpleasantly deliberate... They are too human, or too inhuman, or too modest, or too haughty, or too loving, or too cold, or too empathic, or too strong, or too industrious, or too casual, or too enthusiastic, or too indifferent, or too courteous, or too abrasive."17 He is an enigma, at least prior to his exposure. One can't help but reason that he's either an outstanding citizen, leader, priest, court judge, teacher, etc., or he's the most morally depraved individual you are going to meet for a long while. And very few of us expect to discover such a depth of depravity in well dressed professional adults. So we naturally conclude the former. For he is careful not to show opposite extremes to one and the same person, especially if that person is someone he needs. The majority in his immediate environment will see his "too good" side only. Should anyone no longer be needed, or should one happen to become a threat to his facade, such a one is likely to get a taste of the narcissist's vindictive nature, even one who has been a close "friend" to him for a number of years -- a narcissist's loyalty is paper thin, for he is incapable of genuinely intimate friendships18. But only the targeted victim will see his vindictive nature, or a small few. He is careful to keep this side of himself from others, for it is an inconsistency that might expose him. So adept is he at this narrowly focused persecution, in fact, that any attempt by the victim to tell another will in all probability make him (the victim) appear as if he is losing his mind.
The narcissist takes advantage of every opportunity to favor a person who is down and in need -- as long as the prospects that he will be of use later on are good. Such favors might include providing employment, personal counseling, boosting one's confidence, flattery, listening and being sympathetic (at least apparently), etc. Such opportunities supply the narcissist in a number of ways. Primarily, they ensure loyalty for the day that will inevitably arrive, the day when his personal edifice crumbles and he finally falls into the pit he has dug for his enemies over the years. Such a loyal following makes it all the more difficult for anyone to depose him. They also have the added advantage of helping him to persuade himself that he is good and that perhaps the gnawing awareness of that damp and dark cellar at the heart of his character was only a passing fancy. Furthermore, they provide a sense of superiority in that others depend upon him in order to be the persons they have become. When someone finally comes to realize that he is a treacherous and exploitative fraud -- which is inevitable -- , who is going to believe such a person when so many have been directly benefited by the accused? Gratitude makes it easier to excuse his "faults" or minor character flaws, and that is about all that the clues will suggest in isolation -- and most people have poor memories.
The depraved and pathological narcissist is very ready to forgive the faults of others, not because he is loving and merciful, but rather because he is indifferent. In fact, inordinate leniency is typical of narcissists. They are either vindictive or lenient, but rarely just. Leniency, which is a vice, is hard to distinguish from mercy or clemency, so it enables him to feel virtuous, and it also helps perpetuate the appearance of moral purity. Moreover, leniency provides another opportunity to ensure loyalty.
But ultimately, the pathological narcissist is indifferent to injustice and its victims. As St. Thomas Aquinas argues, the more excellent a person is, the more he is prone to anger (S.T. I-II, 47, 3). But the narcissist experiences no righteous indignation. He only rages against the person who is a threat to his charade and/or who refuses to cooperate with his underhanded schemes. But he will not be incensed at injustice.19
Courage is the mean between recklessness and cowardliness. Here, narcissists are also at both extremes, never in the mean. Indeed, they are often bold or inordinately daring. Their inflated sense of superiority propels them to recklessness; for they are subject to fantasies of omnipotence and unequalled brilliance, and they feel that they are above the law. And it is this sense of superiority that allows them to underestimate the intelligence and determination of their adversaries.20 But they are not brave; they are cowards at heart. They lack the courage to gaze upon the dilapidated specter of their true selves, nor can they bear to look into the eyes of one who has discovered their true nature. They inspire terror only because we recognize that the inhibitions that govern the impulses of normal healthy persons are completely lacking in the pathological narcissist. They are psychopaths.21 The terror they inspire is a source of narcissistic supply that contributes to their sense of existing, which they need to counter the sense of their own nothingness, created by their immoral and unrepented choices.