People Of The Lie

The purpose of this book is to encourage us to take our human life so seriously that we also take human evil far more seriously – seriously enough to study it with all the means at our command, including the methods of science. it is my intention to encourage us to recognize evil for what it is, in all its ghastly reality. – M. Scott Peck, People Of The Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil, p.44

Dr. M. Scott Peck

Dr. M. Scott Peck

Is evil a human condition that can be identified, diagnosed, treated, and perhaps cured? Do evil people, as opposed to evil acts, which all of us commit on rare occasions, exist, often just below the radar? What would a psychology of evil look like?

In this older work, clinical psychiatrist M. Scott Peck set himself the task both of defining and describing human evil, as he encountered it in his practice. In a long chapter, he set out what he called the beginnings of a psychology of evil, because, he insisted, there wasn’t then one worthy of the name.

The case studies he offers are certainly chilling, sad, frustrating, and curious. In one case study, among the many alarming bits of information related, parents gave their teenage son, already in the midst of a spiraling depression, the very gun their older son had used to commit suicide. When I read that, I was quite horrified. In another chapter, dedicated wholly to a case of a woman who was his patient for four years, we watch the unfolding, and unending, saga of a manipulative woman really doing the only thing she does well – getting Peck in a tizzy each and every time she comes to his office.

Here’s my question, and it’s one that Peck’s book doesn’t answer at all: What possible benefit accrues from labeling these people “evil”, as opposed to other, clearly defined diagnoses that satisfy current DSM criteria without the added moral burden of calling these people, as opposed to their actions, evil?

In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant was an unassuming professor of philosophy, teaching Christian Wolff’s popular introductory book on metaphysics. In the late 1770’s, he asked a question that revolutionized western philosophy: What is added to a thing by claiming some thing – not just a quality, nor a substance, yet nevertheless complete and necessary – had being. Wasn’t it enough, acknowledging that it existed that saying “being” was part of what made it exist? Of course, Kant realized that if he discarded the notion of “being” it opened up a whole passel of questions he had to face squarely in order to convince other philosophers he was on to something. Thus was Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy begun.

So, I ask the question again: What is added to a description of persons already acknowledged as living with a particular mental illness by calling them “evil”, not in a metaphysical but in a “scientific” sense? To my mind, nothing at all. Whether one is a religious person or not, the added moral weight of defining an individual, as opposed to particular actions that person takes, as evil would make any kind of therapeutic action far more difficult. Which does not mean people should not understand particular acts as evil. I’ve stated any number of times, however, that labeling particular acts and behaviors is less an act of moral courage than it is a parlor game for moral poseurs.  A five year old recognizes “bad” acts, in adults and peers, and is quick enough to call them out. For a psychiatrist to write an entire book based on the premise that evil is difficult to recognize and therefore in need of scientific diagnosis is false on its face. It may well be that Peck, who has admitted that his religious conversion to Christianity came late in life and was rooted in a personal experience of the divine, had the realization that psychiatry, as a science, was perhaps deficient in its willingness to pose both moral as well as medical questions when confronting particular patients. This, however, doesn’t excuse him – or anyone else – from applying a simple logical rule: If there are two explanations, the simpler one is probably correct. Despite the complexity of the diagnostic tests in the DSM, they are actually far easier to use than a moral judgment upon a person.

Peck offers a chapter on possession and exorcism, insists the phenomenon is real, then claims that the events were so convoluted and detailed they would require a book. He has, at this point, offered up three or four case studies that lasted from a few days to four years; by his own admission, the exorcisms lasted only several days at most. It seems a bit odd that he wouldn’t even attempt, perhaps, a composite sketch of what he witnessed, particularly since he claims – again without any evidence – both possessions involved Satan himself.

One of the more famous – or notorious, depending upon your point of view – is that of the young German woman Anneliese Michel. Diagnosed with gran mal epilepsy at 16, she subsequently began hearing voices that told her she was eternally damned. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with depression and the general label “psychosis”. By the mid-1970’s, however, Anneliese became convinced that conventional treatments were inadequate to address what had come to believe was a case of demonic possession. Priest after priest refused her parents’ requests to research and petition the Vatican, insisting he continue with conventional treatments. They finally found a priest who was willing, after just one visit, to ask Rome for permission that was soon granted. Over the course of months, several times a week, two priests gathered in her bedroom and performed the Rite. During that time, Anneliese refused to eat or drink, becoming dehydrated and malnourished. In July, 1976, she died from complications incurred from those chronic conditions. The priests and her parents were arrested, tried, and convicted of criminally negligent homicide. In my opinion (and, yes, I’m neither a Roman Catholic priest nor a German lawyer) that was the right course of action. When Anneliese began asking for a priest rather than follow medical advice, it should have been clear enough she was no longer capable of making rational decisions regarding her own care. Rather than feed her delusion, her parents should have consented to continued psychiatric treatment. In a clinical hospital setting, she would not have been allowed to starve herself, nor have her delusions of possession reinforced by months of fruitless exorcisms.

I’m left disheartened by Peck’s book, not the least because his case studies and arguments are so uncompelling. There is very little moral seriousness in calling people evil. It is an evasion of moral responsibility, and very often distorts the reality we confront. As for evil actions, like giving your child a gun that his older brother used to kill himself, it’s easy enough to see them for what they are. Name-calling, however, is for children, and too often the whole matter of labeling either an event or person “evil” is just that, a child’s game that leaves us no clearer-minded about that with which we have to do. In all honesty, I would prefer psychiatry leave matters of moral judgment to philosophers and theologians, judges and juries. I can’t imagine how calling people evil could ever be helpful.