Bad guys

In her comment on the preceding post, Laura wrote:

I'm curious about whether people can be evil without being insane. Can a person who is entirely sane still be deliberately evil? Does past abuse, attachment disorder, etc., make the actions any less evil? I understood that the definition of psychotic meant "out of touch with reality". In that case, aren't the organized murderers more psychotic (insane) than the disorganized ones?
Hmmmm. I'm going to go for the easy question first, which is the last one. No. The disorganized ones are more psychotic. One of the disorganized guys believed his blood would dry up and turn to dust unless he drank the blood of his victims. He also believed that by doing so he was preventing earthquakes from causing California to fall into the ocean. He truly believed he was saving millions of lives. The organized guys, on the other hand, are merely (merely!) making their life-long fantasies of domination and death come true. They know full well what they're doing, and judging by the descriptions in the book they are not psychotic. Unless you want to argue that only an insane person would do what this person did, therefore he must be insane -- an argument that traditionally has not held up in court, if I recall correctly.

Laura's other questions have more to do with definitions, and the answers I believe are matters of opinion. What does it mean to be sane? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest a definition. Let's try this: sanity relates to cognitive processes, to how we understand and process information. One of the dictionary definitions is "able to anticipate and appraise the effect of one's actions." "Rational" is given as a synonym. Under this definition you could easily have a sane evil person. These organized guys clearly are able to anticipate and appraise the effects of their actions; the disorganized guys clearly are not.

Then again, I always wonder about the bad guys in movies. Do they think they are evil?

This is a great topic for discussion. What are your thoughts?


  • Interesting post. I'll have to think about that one.

    posted by Blogger purple_kangaroo on 2:55 AM  

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    posted by Blogger Running2Ks on 8:33 AM  

  • It reminds me of the definition of legal vs. moral.

    Interestingly, this was a debate in our psychology classes back in the day. They wanted to make a verdict in some states where you could be Guilty But Insane to combat the Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.

    So it comes down to whether or not a crazy act of evil could be your fault or not due to insanity. In the law's eyes, it seems that you are insane in either case--but whether or not that makes it your "fault" and liable is the question.

    posted by Blogger Running2Ks on 8:34 AM  

  • I think I was confused with the "unorganized types" between "crimes of passion" and real insanity. Still, it creeps me out more that there are very sane people out there who deliberately perform evil acts because they enjoy them. I would rather believe that it isn't their fault; that they can't help themselves because they are psychotic, because of past traumas, or SOMETHING. That someone could be fully in control of his senses and still want to do such horrible things--that is so frightening, and it hurts my possibly naive desire to believe that everyone has good in them, that everyone is redeemable. I don't really think insanity absolves people of responsibility, it just dictates the result of the verdict, where the locking up will occur. But those organized guys; it's enough to make one believe in demonic possession. But maybe that's just another attempt to believe that some outside source is responsible; that a person just couldn't be that evil alone and purposely.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 9:58 AM  

  • Like Laura, I worry more about the people who are deliberately enjoying the pain and torture they cause. They may be rationally, methodically, sanely (?), going about these sick things they do, but are they in fact sane? Is it sane to be missing some huge part of your psyche that stops you from behaving that way?

    I need to pick up that book.

    posted by Blogger SuzanH on 4:55 PM  

  • Just today, there was a story on the BTK killer. He found that killing people was physically demanding because they would fight back. So, he went to the gym to bulk up.

    No insanity there. A perfectly sane approach to killing people. How scary is that?

    posted by Blogger Fred on 8:02 PM  

  • Fred, ugh. One of the guys in the book purposely bought a car similar to a police car (a Caprice, maybe?) and added antennas on the back to make it look all the more intimidating.

    Laura, although I feel these organized guys should be legally culpable, on another level it seems like it's not their fault. Every one of them survived awful abuse and trauma. I don't know that they're being "purposely" evil. One guy wrote in lipstick on the wall at the crime scene "I can't control myself; please catch me before I kill again." Sadly, the author makes a pretty compelling argument that these guys are not redeemable. Let 'em out of prison and they will do it again and again. He makes an interesting argument against the death penalty, though. He says their death will not deter other psychos; let's keep these guys alive and study them. Maybe we can learn enough to be able to intervene in high-risk cases in the future.

    Yeah, Running, I remember that discussion, too! It came up in law school as well. Unfortunately in law moral and legal are not always the same.

    posted by Blogger Julie on 8:35 PM  

  • And Suzan, I don't know. It depends on how you define sane.

    Yeah, you should read it! But you may find yourself becoming very overprotective of your daughter. I've gotten nervous about letting mine play outside alone, which they've been doing all summer long. Yikes!

    posted by Blogger Julie on 8:37 PM  

  • Well, that's what bugs me--that anyone could be unredeemable. What makes someone like that? And what should be done with such a person? And is there any way to predict that a person will act that way? Because, as you said, not every person who has survived abusive trauma turns out like that.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 11:50 PM  

  • Joseph Duncan chose to kidnap Shasta Groene when he saw her playing outside in her yard, dressed in her bathing suit. She's 8 years old! :(

    These people are insane, even when they plan their crimes in a sane methodical manner. If the end result is insanity (and killing a child is) then they are insane.

    posted by Blogger mrsd on 7:33 PM  

  • Laura, the author tries to answer those very questions. He was the first person to really study these guys. He was the first person to bring in outside experts -- psychiatrists, etc. He had to fight the FBI bureaucracy to do it, too, because the FBI had this attitude of "we know everything already." The author is the first to admit that not enough is known about them. Maybe there IS a way to "cure" them (I suddenly thought of A Clockwork Orange). This book is a call to action for other researchers.

    Mrsd, how would you define sanity?

    posted by Blogger Julie on 9:10 PM  

  • Have you read Crime and Punishment? Dostoevsky doesn't let Raskolnikov's apparent insanity relieve him of cupability or redemption. I realize that gets us into areas of religion, but it seems pertinent.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 10:13 PM  

  • That's "culpability".

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 10:13 PM  

  • A Clockwork Orange is very haunting--And I bet it would work, but really, was there true redemption? Of course, I didn't read the book--saw the movie years ago. It just always stuck with me. Like some lab rats in behavioral psychology--sure, he "couldn't" act, but the impulses didn't leave. Couldn't he then overcome the training and go back to the insanity and psychopathic behavior that came naturally?

    posted by Blogger Running2Ks on 11:28 PM  

  • Running2k mentioned 'a clockwork orange' in terms of books about trying to reprogram people, but what about '1984'? Winston wasn't 'bad' by our standards, but was by the standards of his society...
    The other question always raised in my mind by those two is "did the reprogramming work?"

    As the parent of a small child the concept of "good" and "bad" come up a bit. Even from the earliest we (and others) would praise D'Arcy as "good boy". Now that we're in the Disney movie phase we have to come up with answers to "why did Scar kill Mufasa?".

    The perspective we have used is that all people are good, but that sometimes people do nasty things because they get confused about what is a good thing to do. The confusion arises from early hurts in life, but can be dealt with at any time....serious sociopathy or psychosis we haven't really dealt with, but have begun to explain that some people are so hurt and confused that they kill or hurt other people...and then there is war.

    I have a profound disappointment in society that we let people get so badly hurt and confused that they do things that are harmful to society. But I guess it doesn't sctually change anything much. Bugger the Fabians that raised me!

    A bit of a ramble there, sorry, but a nice opportunity to think!

    posted by Blogger Mummy/Crit on 6:49 AM  

  • Everyone here has raised some incredibly intelligent ideas. I wonder if it boils down to 2 things:

    1. Can someone be born psychopathic and/or "evil" and be beyond much redemption?
    2. Are all psychopaths (or those who engage in very evil acts) developed over time, and possibly "cured".

    That brings the debate to nature vs. nurture and also to society's ability to forgive and/or rehabilitate.

    I have to say that I have really been stimulated by the lively discussion here. Julie, your blog has raised some great discussion!

    posted by Blogger Running2Ks on 10:51 AM  

  • Re evil and insane.

    What kind of word is "evil"? Is it a an ethical or a psychological term?

    A parent mistreats a child, that is, punishes it more severely than we find acceptable in a normative sense. Did s/he do it, thinking "I am doing something evil?" Not necessarily. In fact, the deed may seem to him/her to be noble ("I am making sure he turns out to be a good person when he grows up, knows right from wrong, and doesn't turn out to be like so many people today who cheat, lie, and hurt others, etc.")

    Did Hitler and Stalin think they were doing evil when they "fought to protect the 'Aryan race' or 'the Socialist society'?" Surely not. They may have known, like the abusive parent, that others disapproved strongly. But they undoubtedly felt righteous, not evil.

    Of course, there are exceptions, chiefly when people, on a loose impulse, commit an act they themselves disapprove of. Then they say remorsefully,"this was wicked or evil of me."

    The point is, evil is not an term that aptly characterizes the intentions of all actors whose actions we call evil.

    And insane? That's a term with which psychologists describe certain people. An insane person MAY commit an act that we call evil. But what if a paranoid person, i.e., someone who fears the letter carrier has it in for him, kills the guy "in self-defense"? Is that evil? Or in order to arrange the guy's return to the heart of our Savior, or some such? Would we call that evil?

    We do take the actor's intentions into account. A deliberate destructive purpose of a certain kind in a person of a certain make-up may be judged evil. But the actor need not regard himself as doing evil. Also the same act performed under different circumstances by the same or another person may be judged differently. That's what goes on under the heading of the insanity defense.

    As regards criminality, we do not punish people because they did something evil, but because they broke a law.


    posted by Anonymous fatherworm on 10:30 AM  

  • But don't we create laws to prevent, dissuade, or punish people for doing something that society considers evil? Laws are based on morality; they are not objective or very relative.

    I have a hard time believing that Stalin and Hitler did not know their actions were evil. They justified themselves with "noble" causes, but they were acting out of enjoyment of inflicting pain and abusing power. And, as Julie said, killers have been known to want to be stopped.

    Is Fatherworm the psychiatrist father of Bookworm? That makes me much less qualified to disagree . . .

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 11:28 AM  

  • Sanity is doing as I would do. Ha! :)

    posted by Blogger mrsd on 11:42 AM  

  • Oooh, this is good!

    A quick phone call confirmed my suspicion. Yes, Fatherworm is my dad. He's not a psychiatrist, though. He's a professor of clinical psychology. Don't know if that makes him more or less qualified, though.

    Dad, I think you're splitting hairs when you say we only punish criminals because they broke the law. Sure, that's true. But the laws (in theory) are meant to be a reflection of our society's values.

    Crit, you raise interesting points, too. I have always hated the phrase "good boy." I usually say "good job" with the idea that kids aren't good or bad, but their actions are. Hmmm.

    I would not consider reprogramming a la Clockwork Orange redemption or cure. If you only behave because you're afraid of the consequences of misbehaving, is that "good"?

    Ay yay yay! I think I'm about done with this discussion. I'm gonna write a post about something completely different now.

    posted by Blogger Julie on 12:22 PM  

  • Good idea. There's no answer to the question. But it certainly is interesting!

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 9:24 PM  

  • Too late to comment now- Shoot!
    I found the post and comment thread very interesting and will write to my secret self since the discussion is closed. Super post& ensuing discussion generated, J!

    posted by Anonymous SilverMoon on 2:41 AM  

  • Oh heck, Silver! That's not what I meant! I'd love to hear your thoughts. I just wanted to write a post about something else and I felt I shouldn't until this discussion was done. Come on, now! Come back and tell us what you were thinking! :)

    posted by Blogger Julie on 7:20 AM  

  • Julie, I knew that :) Your always open to discussions here! - I was *worming* my way out of writing the dissertation that would ensue if I commented on this post!

    ROFL at your *virtual panting* as you ran after me over to my blog. I laughed so hard reading that on my Insomnia No-no's post. Obviously, I haven't licked insomnia yet! Perhaps, I'll email you my thoughts when I have some time in a couple of months. Back toi painting.............. see my brush ~~~~#

    posted by Blogger SilverMoon on 4:48 AM