Narcissism and Evil
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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In his bestselling "People of the Lie", Scott Peck claims that narcissists are evil. Are they?
The concept of "evil" in this age of moral relativism is slippery and ambiguous. The "Oxford Companion to Philosophy" (Oxford University Press, 1995) defines it thus: "The suffering which results from morally wrong human choices."
To qualify as evil a person (Moral Agent) must meet these requirements:
Clearly, evil must be premeditated. Francis Hutcheson and Joseph Butler argued that evil is a by-product of the pursuit of one's interest or cause at the expense of other people's interests or causes. But this ignores the critical element of conscious choice among equally efficacious alternatives. Moreover, people often pursue evil even when it jeopardizes their well-being and obstructs their interests. Sadomasochists even relish this orgy of mutual assured destruction.
Narcissists satisfy both conditions only partly. Their evil is utilitarian. They are evil only when being malevolent secures a certain outcome. Sometimes, they consciously choose the morally wrong – but not invariably so. They act on their choice even if it inflicts misery and pain on others. But they never opt for evil if they are to bear the consequences. They act maliciously because it is expedient to do so – not because it is "in their nature".
The narcissist is able to tell right from wrong and to distinguish between good and evil. In the pursuit of his interests and causes, he sometimes chooses to act wickedly. Lacking empathy, the narcissist is rarely remorseful. Because he feels entitled, exploiting others is second nature. The narcissist abuses others absent-mindedly, off-handedly, as a matter of fact.
The narcissist objectifies people and treats them as expendable commodities to be discarded after use. Admittedly, that, in itself, is evil. Yet, it is the mechanical, thoughtless, heartless face of narcissistic abuse – devoid of human passions and of familiar emotions – that renders it so alien, so frightful and so repellent.
An argument can even be made (and I am not making it) that narcissists and psychopaths are like a force of nature: viruses, or tornadoes. They inflict havoc on their environment, but they cannot really help it. Healthy people are compelled by the process of socialization to make moral choices. Narcissists and psychopaths are compelled by nature and nurture alike to NOT make such choices. This is who they are, their quiddity.
We are often shocked less by the actions of narcissist than by the way he acts. In the absence of a vocabulary rich enough to capture the subtle hues and gradations of the spectrum of narcissistic depravity, we default to habitual adjectives such as "good" and "evil". Such intellectual laziness does this pernicious phenomenon and its victims little justice.
This article appears in my book "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"
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Note - Why are we Fascinated by Evil and Evildoers?
The common explanation is that one is fascinated with evil and evildoers because, through them, one vicariously expresses the repressed, dark, and evil parts of one's own personality. Evildoers, according to this theory, represent the "shadow" nether lands of our selves and, thus, they constitute our antisocial alter egos. Being drawn to wickedness is an act of rebellion against social strictures and the crippling bondage that is modern life. It is a mock synthesis of our Dr. Jekyll with our Mr. Hyde. It is a cathartic exorcism of our inner demons.
Yet, even a cursory examination of this account reveals its flaws.
Far from being taken as a familiar, though suppressed, element of our psyche, evil is mysterious. Though preponderant, villains are often labeled "monsters" - abnormal, even supernatural aberrations. It took Hanna Arendt two thickset tomes to remind us that evil is banal and bureaucratic, not fiendish and omnipotent.
In our minds, evil and magic are intertwined. Sinners seem to be in contact with some alternative reality where the laws of Man are suspended. Sadism, however deplorable, is also admirable because it is the reserve of Nietzsche's Supermen, an indicator of personal strength and resilience. A heart of stone lasts longer than its carnal counterpart.
Throughout human history, ferocity, mercilessness, and lack of empathy were extolled as virtues and enshrined in social institutions such as the army and the courts. The doctrine of Social Darwinism and the advent of moral relativism and deconstruction did away with ethical absolutism. The thick line between right and wrong thinned and blurred and, sometimes, vanished.
Evil nowadays is merely another form of entertainment, a species of pornography, a sanguineous art. Evildoers enliven our gossip, color our drab routines and extract us from dreary existence and its depressive correlates. It is a little like collective self-injury. Self-mutilators report that parting their flesh with razor blades makes them feel alive and reawakened. In this synthetic universe of ours, evil and gore permit us to get in touch with real, raw, painful life.
The higher our desensitized threshold of arousal, the more profound the evil that fascinates us. Like the stimuli-addicts that we are, we increase the dosage and consume added tales of malevolence and sinfulness and immorality. Thus, in the role of spectators, we safely maintain our sense of moral supremacy and self-righteousness even as we wallow in the minutest details of the vilest crimes.
From My Correspondence
I find it difficult to accept that I am irredeemably evil, that I ecstatically, almost orgasmically enjoy hurting people and that I actively seek to inflict pain on others. It runs so contrary to my long-cultivated and tenderly nurtured self-image as a benefactor, a sensitive intellectual, and a harmless hermit. In truth, my sadism meshes well and synergetically with two other behavior patterns: my relentless pursuit of narcissistic supply and my self-destructive, self-defeating, and, therefore, masochistic streak.
The process of torturing, humiliating, and offending people provides proof of my omnipotence, nourishes my grandiose fantasies, and buttresses my False Self. The victims' distress and dismay constitute narcissistic supply of the purest grade. It also alienates them and turns them into hostile witnesses or even enemies and stalkers.
Thus, through the agency of my hapless and helpless victims, I bring upon my head recurrent torrents of wrath and punishment. This animosity guarantees my unraveling and my failure, outcomes which I avidly seek in order to placate my inner, chastising and castigating voices (what Freud called "the sadistic Superego").
Similarly, I am a fiercely independent person (known in psychological jargon as a "counterdependent"). But mine is a pathological variant of personal autonomy. I want to be free to frustrate myself by inflicting mental havoc on my human environment, including and especially my nearest and dearest, thus securing and incurring their inevitable ire.
Getting attached to or becoming dependent on someone in any way - emotionally, financially, hierarchically, politically, religiously, or intellectually - means surrendering my ability to indulge my all-consuming urges: to torment, to feel like God, and to be ruined by the consequences of my own evil actions.
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