insanity and evil: two paradigms

The lawyer for Anders Behring Breivik says that his client, accused of murdering at least 76 people, is “insane.” That word belongs to a vocabulary set that also includes “mentally ill,” “abnormal,” and “unhealthy,” as well as their opposites, “healthy” and “normal.” We have available to us a different vocabulary as well, one composed of words like “evil” and “good,” “immoral” and “moral.” The two sets are not logically exclusive: a person can be described as both insane and evil. But they have different implications for judgment and response. For instance, someone who is mentally ill deserves treatment; someone who is evil deserves punishment.

It seems to me that this choice is one of the great divides in modern and postmodern culture. It doesn’t simply divide us into two groups–the moralists and the psychologists–because many people straddle both camps.

I doubt the choice between the two vocabulary sets rests on empirical evidence, at least not in a straightforward way. These are more like paradigms or conceptual schemes than theories. I suppose some psychologists might claim that their medical-sounding terminology is empirical and scientific, whereas moral judgments are subjective, and that is the difference between the two ways of talking. But I don’t think that distinction will fly. “Insane” and “mentally ill” are loaded with value. They mean abnormal, atypical, and far from the mean–but only in a bad direction. Nobody calls the abnormally good “insane.” By the same token, it is not merely a matter of opinion to say that Breivik was “evil.” I am as sure of that fact as I am that Norway is west of Sweden.

We might reserve the word “insane” for people who are literally delusional or profoundly illogical: individuals who perceive nonexistent objects or connect means and ends irrationally. But Breivik fits neither category. Mark Thompson skillfully analyzes the “cold, appalling logic” of Breivik’s acts, including the way he chose to “to kill off an entire generation of multi-cultural political leaders-to-be in a small country.” Breivik chose the means best calculated to advance his chosen end; alas, his end and means were evil.

The claim that Breivik is evil would be complicated if his evil could be cured–perhaps by some easily administered drug. Then we might be tempted to say that he was sick. Indeed, I would give him the drug and, once cured, he would elicit some sympathy from me–especially if he took responsibility for what his prior self had done. But why should he regret what he did while ill? Being sick is not a choice.

The conclusion of that little fable makes us wonder whether punishment and even regret are unfortunate. Shouldn’t we wish that we could cure him and then forgive him and encourage him to forgive himself? I interpret it in a different way, as evidence that there is no solution or remedy for a heinous act. Punishment, treatment, exile, execution, suicide, remorse–nothing satisfies. I have long believed in “moral luck,” and so it comes as no great surprise to me that someone can be evil for unfortunate reasons, such as sickness. It is still evil.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.