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On a Scale of 1 to 22… September 15, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Since Dwight brought up Michael Stone, and I’ve encountered his work before, here’s another angle on the work of Stone, tying it  in with our ongoing discussion of the concept of evil. A trend in moral philosophy which was pretty well established in the 20th Century has been broken lately, and it is partly thanks to Stone’s work—because philosophers do, on occasion, read the works of psychologists/psychiatrists. That trend was, for ethicists, to avoid the term ”evil” professionally,  partly because of its supposed religious connotations, and partly because of its unmanageability—because how exactly do we define evil, and how does it play into our subjective notions? In other words, using the term “evil” opens the door wide to subjectively emotional statements of condemnation, the kind of sweeping irrationality that moral philosophers have tried to avoid and counteract ever since Plato. Instead, to designate truly horrendous acts toward others, ethicists have preferred to call them “morally wrong,”  “heinous,” “going against the accepted norms of society,” or simply “malevolent.”

But even so, in everyday life, in the media, in politics, and in the world of entertainment we have blithely proceeded to use the E-word, with all its baggage, because expressions such as “morally wrong” and “really really bad behavior” simply aren’t strong enough. And now philosophers seem to be softening their stance against using the word evil—not just because we have been inundated with graphic novels and their world view of good vs. evil, but because we’re beginning to get some kind of structured understanding of what we can and can’t say when using the word. The first step in that direction was taken by Hannah Arendt, German philosopher who, after reflecting on the atrocities of the Holocaust, coined the term the banality of evil, to designate a new category:   the deplorable tendency in (supposedly) each of us to be persuaded to cause harm to other human beings under the assumption that it’s okay, that it’s not our responsibility, that everyone is doing it, and that somehow those people we’re hurting must have deserved it. In the wake of her analysis, we’ve had Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo substantiating her theory through psychological experiments. Zimbardo has even drawn a line from Arendt’s analysis directly to Abu Ghraib. So though the backdoor, so to speak, ethicists were reintroduced to the concept of evil, but this time in an everyday guise, of normal people capable of doing horrendous things to others.

And now we’re, interestingly, reopening the possibility of using the label of what some of us call “extreme” or “egregious evil,” by reexamining not the banality of it, but the rare and shocking total disregard for the suffering of others, and even the joy in inflicting it. That is what laypeople have called evil all along, and a few years ago Michael Stone reached out to laypeople and ethicists alike, by suggesting a scale of evil related to homicide and other infliction of pain. This list has been making the rounds on the Internet, and was even featured in a television series in 2006, Most Evil, but NPR ran a story about it in August:

Inspired by the structure of Dante’s circles of hell, Stone has created his own 22-point “Gradations of Evil” scale, made up of murderers in the 20th century. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to do,” he says.

His scale is loosely divided into three tiers. First are impulsive evil-doers: driven to a single act of murder in a moment of rage or jealousy. Next are people who lack extreme psychopathic features, but may be psychotic — that is, clinically delusional or out of touch with reality. Last are the profoundly psychopathic, or “those who possess superficial charm, glib speech, grandiosity, but most importantly cunning and manipulativeness,” Stone says. “They have no remorse for what they’ve done to other people.”

Stone hopes the scale could someday be used in prosecutions. “The people at the very end of the scale have certain things about their childhood backgrounds that are different,” he says, from those who appear earlier in the scale. And because the scale follows a continuum of likelihood a killer will kill again, courts may be able to better categorize the risks posed by releasing a psychopath.

 Justifiable homicide such as self-defense is not evil, according to Stone, and gets a 1. The worst of the worst rates a 22, psychopathic  torture-murderers. Spree killers “only” rate a 15, and there is a difference between murdering torturers (20) and “merely” torturing murderers (18). And, interestingly, I can’t find a category or a number that would fit Arendt’s duty-driven, even reluctant Nazi torturers, but with some tweaking, the list might accomocate the banality of evil.

Will this scale make the concept of evil easier to handle for ethicists? The list is not intended to be absolute, and of course philosophers are welcome to question the moral connotation of a clinical psychiatric list of symptoms ( and we should), but overall Stone has simply systematized a vocabulary that we have been using all along, with its dangers of misunderstandings and exaggerations. Egregiously evil acts do exist, and Stone offers a moral classification of the degree of evil involved, without getting into any metaphysical discussion about what made these people do these evil things, whether they acted out of “free will,” or whether “evil” exists as an entity. That’s not for him to do—that’s for philosophers to discuss. (However, as you can read in the post below by Dwight, Stone also has a theory about underlying brain anomalies which should be taken into account—but all the brain theories in the world can’t provide the complete answer to the perennial philosophical question of when, why and to what extent we choose to assign guilt and responsibility to an act.) So his list is useful—not the final word for ethicists, but another tool in our ongoing understanding of not only what people do and what might make them do it, but why we believe they shouldn’t do it. In the end, it does boil down to how we view our responsibility to the Other.