Abstract Psychopathy and the Problem of Evil
A two hour workshop 3.30 to 5.30pm on Saturday 6 August. The content includes: Popular culture images of the psychopath. How do we define such a person? Robert D Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist and we use it to ‘assess’ Donald Trump. Ted Bundy video clip. Are there any psychopaths in the Bible? Genetic and other explanations of psychopathy. The problem of evil illustrated by Dr Hannibal Lecter. M Scott Peck and People of the Lie (1983). Satan in the Bible. Augustine and evil as parasitic. Three examples from my experience as a forensic psychologist. John Swinton’s pastoral response to evil. Optional additional discussion over a meal at Gungahlin Lakes Club 5.45pm.
Week 1 Who or What is a Psychopath?
Discuss: Who do you think of when you hear the term psychopath or sociopath?
Psychopathy, from psych (soul or mind) and pathy (suffering or disease), was coined by German psychiatrists in the 19th century and originally just meant what would today be called mental disorder, the study of which is still known as psychopathology (which I’ve taught at university).
We have popular images of antisocial people. I think of Alex with his “ultra-violence” in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971) film. All include some notion of deviance from accepted social behaviour. We can also think about evil dictators who have wreaked havoc in the 20th C: Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and many more. And mass murderers convicted of horrendous crimes such as Martin Bryant in Port Arthur. More recently Brenton Tarrant who killed 59 people in Christchurch and has been sentenced to life-without-parole.
How do we make sense of all this? It is a question at many levels. There is considerable overlap between the psychological notion of psychopathy and a theological understanding of evil. Sadly, there is something very wrong with social reality as we know it which has evoked various explanations, none totally adequate; it is not rare – indeed it is somewhat common.
Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists can make a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder from DSM-5. The psychopath is considered a more extreme form of the anti-social personality, though not formally diagnosed in DSM-5. It has been estimated that approximately half of people who are incarcerated would meet the criteria for antisocial personality and about half of this group would be likely to have psychopathy.
301.7 Antisocial Personality Disorder (DSM-5, p. 659)
A. A pervasive pattern of disregard for and in violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
- failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviours, as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
- Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
- Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others. Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behaviour or honour financial obligations.
- Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalising having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.
B. The individual is at least 18 years old.
C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.
D. The occurrence of antisocial behaviour is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
The Canadian psychologist Robert D Hare developed the Psychopathy Checklist now revised (PCL-R). It is widely used in prisons and high security psychiatric units. This is considered the most reliable way of making a diagnosis and is commonly used in some risk measures to evaluate who is likely to reoffend.
Psychopathy Checklist – Revised
The criteria include (score each 1 [somewhat descriptive] or 2 [describes the person perfectly]):
- Glibness or superficial charm.
- Grandiose sense of self-worth.
- Need for stimulation and proneness to boredom.
- Pathological lying.
- Conning or manipulative.
- Lack of remorse or guilt.
- Shallow affect (emotional expression).
- Callous and/or lack of empathy.
- Parasitic lifestyle (such as being a pimp or a criminal).
- Poor behavioural controls.
- Promiscuous sexual behaviour.
- Early behavioural problems.
- Lack of realistic, long-term goals.
- Failure to accept responsibility for own actions.
- Many short-term marital relationships.
- Juvenile delinquency.
- Revocation of conditional release.
- Criminal versatility (committing different kinds of crimes).
A score of 30+ is indicative of psychopathy.
Exercise: Small groups apply the PCL-R criteria to Donald Trump. It will probably depend on whether you favour the Democrats or watch Fox News!
To Do: Show the video clip. Discuss your reaction in small groups.
Theodore Robert Bundy (November 24, 1946 – January 24, 1989) was an American serial killer who kidnapped, raped, and murdered numerous young women and girls during the 1970s and possibly earlier. After more than a decade of denials, before his execution in 1989 he confessed to 30 homicides that he committed in seven states between 1974 and 1978. The true number of victims is unknown and possibly higher. Bundy was executed in the electric chair in Florida State Prison.
There are some questions about Bundy’s childhood. His maternal grandfather was violent and abusive, beating everyone including the family dog and mistreating cats in the neighbourhood. He may have been Ted Bundy’s actual father. His mother did meet his stepfather at a Methodist church dance and eventually the stepfather formally adopted Ted. Bundy completed college and briefly went to law school. He helped support the Republican Party with candidates such as Nelson Rockefeller.
It is possible that he began his series of murders when he was 14 years old with an eight-year-old girl. His earliest documented homicides began when he was 27 years old in 1974. Most of his victims were attractive young women who attended college.
He once called himself “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.” Attorney Polly Nelson, a member of his last defence team, wrote Bundy was “the very definition of heartless evil.” [Ted Bundy scored 39/40 on the PCL-R]
Donald Trump is unlikely to meet the criteria for psychopathy. I think he is more narcissistic, but his narcissism has something of an antisocial flavour. Ted Bundy certainly was a psychopath, but who is more obvious? I have assessed and treated people with psychopathy and I can only recognise it by subtle countertransference indicators such as when the person employs ‘menace’ and/or ‘spin’. I have also experienced what might be called ‘instrumental aggression’ in a way that is intended to intimidate. Ted Bundy shows something of the subtlety of presentation and the difficulty in recognising such an individual even when they present extreme threat.
Week 2 Psychopaths in the Bible
The Bible reflects life and as such it accurately portrays human fallibility. Think of King David committing adultery with Bathsheba and ordering the death of her husband. But was David a psychopath? No, he had a capacity for genuine repentance.
A likely psychopath was King Herod the Great 37-4BCE. In the NT Herod appears in the in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-21) ordering the massacre of the innocent children at the time of Jesus birth, “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in that region who were two years old according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.” (2:16). While there is no historical evidence that this occurred such a senseless murder was ‘in character’. Herod was raised as a Jew and his rise to power was largely due to his father’s good standing with Julius Caesar who entrusted him with public affairs in Judea. He was appointed a provisional governor of Galilee and by 47 BCE he met with some success in ridding that region of bandits. While he enjoyed the backing of Rome his brutality was condemned by the Sanhedrin; he was described as willing to commit any crime to fulfil his ambitions. Later, after a visit to Rome, Herod was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. To bolster his claim he banished his wife Doris and a young son Antipater in order to marry Mariamne. Eventually he had at least 10 wives.
He ruled harshly including using secret police to inform him about possible protests and his opponents were removed by force. He had a bodyguard of 2000 soldiers. He murdered three of his own sons Alexander and Aristobulus in 7BC and Antipater 2 in 4BC. He died in Jericho from a painful putrefying illness of uncertain cause known to posterity as “Herod’s evil”. Apparently, he attempted to suicide by stabbing himself because of the intensity of the pain. According to the Jewish historian Josephus Herod was concerned that no one would mourn his death. Herod commanded that a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho and he gave the order they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place [but his son and his sister did not carry out his wish]. I think Herod would meet the criteria of psychopathy.
Discuss: Anyone else in the Bible a candidate?
The idea of psychopathy is foreign to the world view of the Bible. Humanity is fallen and has a bias towards sin, and ultimately evil choices can be made. This leads to a recognition that we are easily tempted but 100% responsible. The ancient perspective was generally dualistic and in cosmic terms apocalyptic. Hence on the ‘big stage’ God and the angels wage war with Satan and his demons. If a human being acts in bizarre or antisocial ways they might be described as “demon possessed”. (See Mark 5:1-20 including “out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him anymore, even with a chain, for he had been bound with fetters and chains with the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.” He replied to Jesus, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”) However, the characteristics of the demon possessed man do not resemble the criteria for psychopathy. Many Christians would see this as mythological, but as I see the human capacity for both good and evil such explanations seem less than fanciful to me.
How do we explain Psychopathy?
Genetic there is a tendency to psychopathy that is possibly genetic. As an analogy think about different breeds of dogs. Some like the Labrador are highly people oriented and happily becomes a member of any human family. However, some dogs have been bred to be highly aggressive such as the pit bull, wolf hybrids and Rottweilers.
There has been research which has indicated that both fearless dominance and impulsive anti-sociality were influenced by genetic factors. Genetic factors may generally influence the development of psychopathy while environmental factors affect the specific expression of the traits. A study on a large group of children found more than 60% heritability for “callous-unemotional traits” and that conduct problems among children with these traits had a higher heritability than among children without these traits.
Question: Could aggressiveness is linked to survival and hence “survival of the fittest” and be adaptive in evolutionary terms? Discuss.
A study by Farrington of a sample of London males followed between age 8 and 48 included studying which factors scored 10 or more on the PCL:SV at age 48. The strongest factors included having a convicted parent, being physically neglected, low involvement of the father with the boy, low family income, and coming from a disrupted family. Other significant factors included poor supervision, harsh discipline, large family size, delinquent sibling, young mother, depressed mother, low social class, and poor housing. There has also been association between psychopathy and detrimental treatment by peers. However, it is difficult to determine the extent of an environmental influence on the development of psychopathy because of evidence of its strong heritability.
There’s been some evidence to suggest brain injury to the prefrontal cortex may be a contributing factor in some cases. However, most people with psychopathic traits do not have any history of brain injury.
I think there are also some psychological characteristics that contribute to psychopathy. One is a tendency to externalise rather than internalise [express rather than ‘take in’] discomfort or emotional pain. This is supported by the observation that many antisocial people are in fact quite happy, it is just their family and associates who are miserable. There is also the possibility that the psychopath assumes that everybody is the enemy and needs to be fought.
I have been interested in the idea of early unconscious learning and how this shapes adult lives. I suspect that the psychopath made an early life decision, possibly before language, deciding in effect “I will get you before you get me!” This is my belief but it is not based on anything other than speculation and clinical experience.
Psychopathy is a multifaceted concept. It is easy to highlight certain aspects and to ignore others, but because it is embedded in human personality is always more complex than simply a few traits. As always it is people we are talking about and we must try to understand ? though empathy is challenging.
Discuss: There is no question about the prevalence of antisocial people in some circles. Think the of the mafia in Italy or the USA, Mexican drug cartels, Third World dictators, et cetera. While there would be some evidence of ‘humanity’ many would be best described as psychopaths. What do you think might be the cause of such deviant people? Is it nature or nurture?
How do we respond to such a person? Naturally the first step is our own personal safety: physical, emotional, financial, reputation. But realistically, how do we respond?
Week 3 Problem(s) of Evil
There is some fascination with the idea of evil in popular culture. I think of Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (novel 1988, film 1991) featuring Dr Hannibal Lecter, psychopathic psychiatrist. In a memorable scene, Hannibal says to the FBI agent, “Nothing happened to me Officer Starling, I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviourism. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants – nothing is every anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand by to say I’m evil?”
It is not at all clear what we do with the concept of evil. It may not be politically correct to use the term evil because of mediaeval religious connotations. But Susan Sontag asked, “What do we do when we have a sense of evil but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about it”?
I have some sympathy for the point Solzhenitsyn (1974) was attempting to make in The Gulag Archipelago “If only there were evil people out there insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” I would certainly acknowledge that he has experienced far greater depths of the human capacity for evil than I have. Anything he says should be taken seriously, and I think he makes the important point that we must recognise wickedness in our own hearts. This is the only way to discern the traces of evil embedded in human nature. But I think this point obscures the fact that there are people who have surrendered themselves completely to evil. There is an element of choice about evil which affects the whole person. I think Shakespeare got it right in his characterisation of Lady Macbeth: “Come, you spirits, that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here; and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty.” (Act 1 Scene 5)
Discuss: Are there evil people? Does everybody have a mixture? Is it helpful to think in such simplistic or black-and-white ways?
M. Scott Peck wrote the Road Less Travelled, alsowrote his follow-up book People of the Lie: The hope for healing human evil (1983). He gave a series of case studies, most of which seem somewhat irrelevant, but most memorable was the parents who gave their depressed son his older brother’s suicide weapon (THE gun, not just a gun like it) for his birthday. The most interesting point Dr Peck makes is to argue that evil is a kind of personality disorder (like the Narcissistic Personality Disorder). I don’t think Peck makes his case but it’s an interesting and original argument. Possibly most dubious is his advocacy for exorcism; apparently, he has participated in attempts to do this (but it is so blatantly unethical for a psychiatrist that anyone who did this today would be deregistered).
Question of evil in a historical perspective
The name Satan comes from the Hebrew noun meaning adversary or accuser. In Old Testament there are two concepts that contribute to a developing understanding of Satan. First the Near East concept of the divine counsel “sons of El” which introduces the role of celestial figures in legal maintenance of earthly justice. Second is the idea of the combat in which the divine figure defeats a strong adversary. We see both ideas in the Book of Job. Gradually this figure develops into the devil who we see in the New Testament who is the personification of evil. Note that the traditional Christian understanding of evil is that it enters the world through the volition of human and angelic creatures. August said, “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns what is lower, it becomes evil not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.” (City of God, 12:6)
A dualist perspective is seen in Zoroastrianism with its opposed good and evil deities more or less equal strength. There is also the Gnostic idea of an evil god who is pure matter and the manipulator matter; there is a good god who is pure spirit. He has no relation to the creation of the material world that has as his task the liberation of humans beings from the bonds of matter, that is from evil. (Christos Yannaras, The Enigma of Evil, 2012). Another widely held view is reincarnation which has its own inbuilt explanation of evil and motivation to live a better life.
Augustine argued that evil is parasitic on the good and not separate. “Nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity” (Enchiridion, chapter 4). Evil is a corruption or rejection of the good. Just as a shadow grows larger as we move away from the light source, so the evil grows as we move away from what is good. Alvin Plantinga likened evil to an uninvited dinner guest who just keeps eating.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt (1978) wrote on the banal nature of evil. She described the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) Arendt never did reconcile her impressions of Eichmann’s bureaucratic personality with her earlier searing awareness of the evil, inhuman acts of the Third Reich. She saw the ordinary-looking functionary, but not the ideologically evil warrior. How Eichmann’s humdrum life could co-exist with that ‘other’ monstrous evil puzzled her. She said, “Only the good has depth and can be radical” ? essentially the point Augustine was making.
Discuss: do you think that evil is something separate? What do you think of Augustine’s argument? How do we balance the traditional notion of ‘weakness of will’ with being taken over by a lie (eg. suicide bomber for a religious cause) or a wilful choice to do wrong and hurt others?
When we think of institutional evil it is also important to think about the conditions in which self-regulation and restraints of conscience tend to break down. This certainly occurred in Nazi Germany.
Freud and his psychological perspective
World War I impacted the thought of Sigmund Freud. He thought there was two instincts in human nature, Eros a life instinct and Thanatos a death instinct. Both were integral to human nature. So, he thought that aggression with ultimately evil consequences was part of human nature. Ernst Becker had the provocative thesis that evil comes primarily from our denial of death and a narcissistic need to obtain immortality.
Discuss: Do you think that aggression is part of human nature?
Week 4 The Test of Experience
In the apocalyptic vision (of some parts of the Bible) the cosmos is divided between good and evil forces. These forces battle for the will of human subjects. While there is no question that God is more powerful and will ultimately triumph, there is a question about the source of evil. Did it originate in the fall of Satan and his angels who partook in his rebellion?
Theologian Walter Wink observed that evil must be symbolised (by words such as the devil), “Without a means of symbolisation… Evil cannot come to conscious awareness and thus be consciously registered. Like an undiagnosed disease it rages through society, and we are helpless to produce a cure. Evil must be symbolised precisely because it cannot be thought.”
Evil is never an impersonal question. It is always linked to human suffering. Ivan speaks in The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky) and asks Alyosha to imagine a young mother with her baby surrounded by Turkish soldiers to shoot the baby in front of the mother. Ivan says, “I think that if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.” Ultimately evil is immediate and confronting. Evil is meaningless, senseless destruction. It destroys and does not build, rips and does not mend, it cuts and does not bind.” (J. Russell, 1977, the Devil and Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity)
Discuss: I think it raises a profound question about whether evil is personal or impersonal. Or does detached people (Augustine)?
The novelist Thomas Mann in Dr Faustus, the Faustus character as it gradually emerges as an image of Germany itself, selling it’s soul to the Devil and finding itself taken over by a power greater than itself, a terrible power which would destroy many others and finally destroy itself.
Discuss: Nazi Germany is an example of institutional evil. Discuss what you think might be other examples of what might be an institutional expression of evil.
I have had a forensic psychology practice for over 30 years. I’ve also lectured in forensic psychology at the University of Canberra in their clinical psychology program. I warned the students that I teach that they will need to have some capacity to recognise evil, because at some point they will be confronted by something that has no other name.
Three examples from my cases:
- Death of Arlie in the Pearson case.
- Father with his 5-year daughter after death mother OD, full sexual intercourse.
- Heroin addicts trafficking their children.
What is a Pastoral Response?
N. T. Wright in his book Evil and the Justice of God (2006), observed (a) we tend to ignore evil when it doesn’t impact us, (b) we are surprised by evil when it does, and (c) we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result. Consider, for example, about how USA reacted to the events of September 11, 2001.
The traditional question of evil is tied up with theodicy: why does a good God allow evil and suffering…? Peter van Inwagen (Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil, essays, 2004) concluded, “There is generally no explanation of why this evil is happened to that person. What there is an attempted theological explanation of why evil can happen to people without any reason. And that explanation is: that is part of what being separated from God means: it means being the playthings of chance. It means living in a world in which innocent children horribly, it also means something worse than that: it means living in the world which innocent children horribly for no reason at all. It means living in a world in which the wicked, through sheer luck, often prosper. Anyone who does not want to live in such a world, in which we are the playthings of chance, had better accept God’s offer of a way out of that world (through salvation in Christ).” (p. 72) This author did not offer this as an absolute argument, but more a conversation starter and he did not think that it absolved God from serious moral criticism. I also hesitate to think that salvation in Christ is a way out of this world, but I think it’s more an invitation to share it sufferings through Christ.
Discuss: We should also note that a lot of senseless suffering occurs because of natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes. I do not classify this as evil but it is certainly senseless suffering. I would also add the whole process of natural selection as proposed by the theory of evolution.
John Swinton in his book Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (2007) made some important points to give a context for a theological reflection.
- We live within God’s creation. This is our context. It belongs to God, is sustained by God and ultimately will be redeemed by God through Christ.
- The world is not the way God planned it to be. Something very wrong has happened has caused creation to move from a position of goodness to 1 of suffering and tragedy.
- We are not left alone to face the rigours of the world in the person and work of Christ we discover God gently lovingly transforming and recreating the world.
- As Christians we wait for the day this will be completed. We look for when God will “wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation 21:4)
I think Swinton should have added another theological point, that in Christ God participates in suffering and evil of the world.
Prof Bruce A Stevens (PhD Boston University 1987) is a clinical and forensic psychologist. He is a supply minister at Gungahlin Uniting Church.
 The average neurotypical (normal) person receives a score between 3 and 6 (4 being the average estimate). The average non-psychopathic criminal receives a score between 16 and 22. The average criminal Sociopath and/or Antisocial Personality Disordered individual receives a score between 22 and 26. Criminal Psychopaths receive a score between 30 and 40. A non-criminal Psychopath receives a score between 30 and 34.
 though there has been talk of a malignant form of this disorder.
 Cited in Terry Cooper, Dimensions of Evil: Contemporary Perspectives, 2007, page 11.