Looking for Evil in Everyday Life

ByOliver Libaw

May 23, 2003 -- There is evil in everyday life, says Michael Welner.

And Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and New York University professor who studies depraved behavior, is trying to develop a scale to measure just how evil regular life can be.

"Evil is not confined to the criminal realm," he said, arguing that some acts of evil aren't even against the law.

For instance, a boss who boosts his ego and gains stature by publicly humiliating his employees should be considered not just a tough guy to work for, but evil. Or a health-care worker who deliberately exploits the physical weakness of a patient is not just bad, but depraved.

"These are exceptional cases, but they do happen in everyday life," Welner said.

Welner is working to create criteria of what exactly constitutes everyday evil in hopes that the work will eventually help juries in civil cases decide when a defendant should be punished for "outrageous" actions. It could also help mental health professionals and ordinary individuals look out for warning signs of people capable of truly evil behavior, he says.

Ignoring or Intensifying the Harm

Welner unveiled his criteria this week. They include a set of 14 traits such as "creatively causing suffering," "exploiting physical, mental, emotional vulnerability," or "maximizing destruction of another, or property." The list also includes stalking and inspiring others to commit evil acts.

The common thread is that evildoers don't just commit bad acts. They choose to make their actions even worse by behaving sadistically and deliberately ignoring or intensifying the damage and suffering they cause.

"Of all of these 14 items, none of them happened by accident," Welner said. "There is much more of an element of intent."

Welner hopes to get public and professional feedback on his list to show there truly is a consensus on what constitutes everyday evil.

Most people's lapses into bad behavior don't qualify as evil, he believes. A normal person might exhibit some of Welner's criteria — "choices not to remedy another's suffering," for example. But it would be evil only in an extreme case, such as choosing not to help someone who had just been sexually assaulted.

Helping Juries Judge Evil

Drawing a clear line between the merely bad and the truly depraved would help make juries fairer, Welner believes.

All 50 states have laws in civil trials that elevate damages for "extreme and outrageous" behavior. A specific, standardized definition would help prevent juries from relying on their emotions or personal experience, he says.

Developing criteria for evil would help in criminal cases, where juries routinely decide whether crimes are heinous, cruel, "wantonly vile," or inhuman — aggravating factors that can lead to longer prison terms and in some cases the death penalty.

Other researchers into the question of evil aren't sure a rock-solid definition can be reached.

"What is really evil? In some instances it's quite relevant as to who's side you're on," said Carl Goldberg, a psychologist and author of Speaking With the Devil: A Dialogue With Evil. "You can agree on some [criteria for evil], but others are tough or impossible."

William Banks, a psychology professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who has taught courses on evil, thinks some actions — like gratuitously torturing someone — are clearly evil. But he thinks the word is often more a matter of emotion than objective fact.

"What is the difference between a bad act and an evil act?" he asked. "It strikes me that the word 'evil' doesn't add very much."

Like Goldberg, Banks thinks evil is often in the eye of the beholder.

"It's impossible to say there's an objective measure of evil."

Seeking a Consensus on What’s Evil

But Welner is convinced people broadly agree on standards for evil. In a related project called the "Depravity Scale," Welner set out to see if people generally agreed on which cases of criminal behavior are so bad as to be genuinely depraved. He believes his results show they do.

"The American public regardless of [geographic] state, regardless of opinion, regardless of orientation, in a variety of issues can achieve an agreement about a number of qualities of crimes that make them beyond-the-pale depraved."

While Welner believes criminal depravity tends to be easy to spot — just about anyone can agree that Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer were evil — he says figuring out when you have been the victim of a malevolent act in normal life can be harder.

"Everyday evil, it encompasses a myriad of everyday actions," he said. "The possibilities are literally limitless."

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