The Social Psychology of Good and Evil

By Arthur G. Miller | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
FOUR ROOTS OF EVIL

ROY F. BAUMEISTER

KATHLEEN D. VOHS

The study of evil soon confronts any thoughtful person with a seeming paradox. On the one hand, there is evil aplenty: People perform violent, harmful, cruel, and oppressive acts all over the world, and they have done so throughout history. On the other hand, hardly anyone recognizes himor herself as evil. Ironically, many who have perpetrated what history has come to condemn as some of the worst excesses regarded themselves as trying their best to do something good and noble.

How can there be so many evil acts without evil perpetrators? Has everything been just a series of huge misunderstandings? It would be absurd to dismiss the tortures, genocides, and other monumental crimes as simply a matter of misunderstanding. People have really made other people suffer and die, often in large numbers.

This chapter has two parts. In an effort to understand how so few evildoers can produce so much evil—or, rather, why the perpetrators do not see themselves as evil, even as their victims condemn them, the first recognizes the deep gulf that divides the thinking of victims and perpetrators. To achieve any kind of understanding requires us to reformulate the question of why people do evil acts. It becomes: Why do some people do things that others will regard as evil? The second part of the chapter explores five answers to that question: four root causes and one proximal cause.

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