“When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life -- particularly human life -- such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may "break" a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.” - M. Scott Peck  

With the classic best-selling book The Road Less Traveled, the late Dr. M. Scott Peck introduced millions to the coupling of psychiatry and religion . In People of the Lie, the equally compelling companion volume, Peck utilized the same analysis to discern human evil. Peck's core premise was that people who are evil attack others as opposed to facing their own failures. He demonstrated the havoc “People of the Lie” create in the lives of those in their orbit. These are illustrated by cases encountered in his psychiatric practice, vivid incidents of evil in everyday life. This disturbing and  fascinating book offers a original approach to the issues of human evil.

Evil to many is a question best addressed by religion. But people of faith participate in the same wars on different sides. Atrocities have abounded in “holy wars” with the same frequency as those for treasure and plunder. Define it as the modern day "jihad" or the crusades of less recent vintage, the inhumanity of man towards his fellow man in war blurs any distinction of moral differences. Until Satan holds a press conference , we are left with an abstraction we ultimately cannot prove for certain. In People of the Lie, Peck described the stories of several cases that were resistant to any intervention. He used his experience to describe the characteristics of evil while postulating that evil was an actual psychiatric diagnosis. 

Peck saw evil as a "malignant and extreme function of self-righteousness", accompanied by an "active refusal to tolerate imperfection and sin", with the rejection of guilt as a consequence. The syndrome results in a projection of evil onto innocent victims, particularly children. Peck argued these are the most difficult of all to deal with, and more difficult to identify. Peck detailed one case as typical because of its subtlety - a depressed teenage son of affluent parents. In a series of decisions justified by consistent and subtle shadings of reality, they exhibited a global disregard for their son's feelings, with a demonstrable effort to destroy his growth. With their pretensions disguised as rationality and normality, they vehemently denied they were responsible for his resultant depression, suggesting his condition must be incurable and genetic. In other words “Roger” was simply defective.  

Peck's findings about the state that he defined as "evil", were substantiated by the study of a patient named  Charlene. Though not a threat to others physically, she utterly lacked empathy . To Peck,  these "malignant narcissists" view others as objects to be manipulated for their own purposes or occasional fun. Though “narcissistic personality disorder” has been recognized with much more facility in the three decades since Peck’s work, it still stands that these potential patients too often go unseen seen by psychiatrists, and are famously resistant to treatment. 

Peck’s definition of evil is "militant ignorance". Christian teachings of sin are of a process that leads us to fall short of perfection. While most people are conscious of sin on a certain level, those who are evil utterly refuse to be accept this. Peck describes those affected by evil, as attempting to escape and hide from conscience via deception (“the lie”), and distinguishes this from the apparently similar deficits of conscience evident in sociopaths.

Peck defines an evil person by the following benchmarks: 
  • Consistent self-deception, in order to avoid guilt and to maintain a self-image of perfection.
  • Deception of others as a consequence of their self-deception
  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being normal with everyone else 
  • Hates coupled with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others.
  • Abuse of political or emotional power , "the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion" 
  • Preserves an aura of respectability, and lies incessantly in order to accomplish this end.
  • Evil persons are characterized less by the magnitude or scope of their actions, but by the utter consistency of their destructiveness
  • Unable to think from the viewpoint of a victim or scapegoat.
  • Has a covert but malignant intolerance to criticism and other forms of perceived narcissistic injury.
Peck also examined the evil of groups. He postulated that group morality is defined downward from individual morality. Peck explains this to be as largely due to "specialization", which allows people to avoid individual responsibility , in a group dynamic. The decline of group conscience, is notable in cases such as bullying, lynch mobs,  as well as state based terrors.

Explaining Evil has historically been the domain of religion, and one viewpoint that defines Peck’s work is a religious perspective,  while writing in a manner that based his analysis in science. Though authoring a study explaining the specific psychological mechanisms by which evil operates, he also recognized the dangers of a “psychology of evil” being maliciously used for personal and political agendas. As falsely labeling people as "evil" is a defining characteristic of evil itself,  Peck cautions that the diagnosis of evil must begin with commitment to the sanity and safety of victims. He urged considering the possibility that tevil amongst us could actually be cured.  

Western Religous traditions states that evil arises out of free choice and individual agency. Each stands at a fork in the road, with a road leading to God or the devil. Accepting the path to God is both right and is a submission to a higher power. When a person convinces himself and others that he has an utterly free choice, he selects a direction that is inherently wrong , leading to evil. Inevitably this choice leads to belief in God or the choice to follow Satan.  

Peck originally joined with ‘99% of psychiatrists and the majority of clergy’ in belief that the devil was a mythical creation, and questioned the concept of “spiritual evil.” This belief was altered by his treatment of many cases of alleged possession and attendance at two exorcisms. Peck asserted people who are possessed were victims of evil, but not necessarily evil themselves. For while possession is rare, human evil is all too common. Peck's ultimate conclusion, was that a relationship existed between Satan and human evil. whatever its exact nature.  So perhaps the saying that “the devil made me do it,” could actually be right.



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