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:

  1. That he can and does consciously choose between the (morally) right and wrong and constantly and consistently prefers the latter;
  2. That he acts on his choice irrespective of the consequences to himself and to others.

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.

Histrionics and psychopaths experience their needs and wishes as uncontrollable urges, akin to extreme hunger or thirst. It is a torture to deny these insatiable inner drives.

Though perfectly capable to control their impulses and delay gratification, histrionics and psychopaths choose not to do so for two reasons:

1. Pathological narcissism is a diagnostic-clinical dimension of all cluster B personality disorders.

Consequently, histrionics and psychopaths place a higher value and weight on their needs compared to the needs of others. They come first.

2. They lack empathy and, therefore, do not really grasp the hurt and pain they cause. Even when they do - they do not care. And even when they do care - they believe that they have a right to gratify their desires and fulfil their wishes no matter the cost to others. Histrionics may feel guilty and ego-dystonic (bad about themselves and their actions) - but it will not prevent them from misbehaving.

So when a histrionic feels the need for male attention and admiration, she will seek it without dedicating a single thought to the pain and hurt she may be inflicting on her nearest and dearest or on her male targets.

And when a psychopath wishes to secure money or power or sex he will go to any ruthless length and embark on any number of unconscionable and callous acts until he feels sated and gratified.

Histrionics and psychopaths are not evil. The pain, damage, harm, and hurt they invariably cause are rarely premeditated. They are like self-absorbed children or natural catastrophes replete with enormous collateral damage.

It is inappropriate to use words like "evil" in a clinical discussion. Religion and morality automatically imply judgment of right and wrong which is not what psychology is all about.

Psychopaths are antisocial and goal oriented. People are their collateral damage. There is no malice involved, just indifference to the effects their actions or inaction may have on others.

Some narcissists and psychopaths are also sadists and they derive gratification from inflicting pain on victims.

Narcissists seek to devastate or annihilate sources of frustration and narcissistic injury.

Borderlines hurt people with their lability and reckless acting out.

All these types ruin the lives and mental health of people around them, including their "nearest and dearest". But evil implies premeditation. Cluster B personalities are off-handed about their misconduct and the hurt they cause which is an ineluctable byproduct of their lack of empathy, impulsivity, and aggression.

All cluster B personalities seek to punish transgressors: people who stand in their way (antisocial personality disorder), threaten them with abandonment (Borderlines), or challenge their grandiosity (narcissists). But they do not perceive these destructive acts as evil - rather as a necessary evil.


Weakness of character is indistinguishable from evil. Weak people cowardly sacrifice moral principles and values, are often highly suggestible, are eager to please and conform at any cost, and unthinkingly follow the mighty and the rich wherever they may lead them.

The main preoccupation of the weak is how to abrogate responsibilities and obligations and surrender their freedom of action and free will to strong men and institutions.

Weakness entails corruption, compromise, deception, and dependence as well as the ability to morph and shapeshift in order to fit in. The weak are amorphous and fuzzy, they cannot be trusted because they have no core or identity. They are easily swayed and end up committing the most appalling transgressions against themselves and others, even their nearest, dearest, and loved ones.

(continued below)

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.

Also Read

Dialog about Narcissism and Evil

Is the Narcissist Legally Insane?

On Empathy

Legalizing Crime

On Being Human

The Egoistic Friend

Affiliation and Morality

The Happiness of Others

Morality as a Mental State

The Argument for Torture

Nature, Aesthetics, Pleasure, and Ethics

Ethical Relativism and Absolute Taboos

Surpassing Man - An Epistolary Dialogue

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