And the Anthropology of Evil

by Hugh M. Lewis


Human Beings fear the unknown, and failing to face it, grow to hate what they fear.


Knowledge creates responsibility. We recognize our humanity by sense of responsibility created our knowledge of the evil in the world, by our ignorance, our complicity, our prejudices, our deceit and our hypocrisy. Our knowledge may be measured by the gulf of our own ignorance and hypocrisy, by the lies we tell about the world. We measure the moral boundaries of humanity by the knowledge of its possibility for evil in the world. The historical and panhuman basis for a meta-ethics of humanity is rooted in the perennial recognition and experience of evil across time and throughout the world.

Evil has many faces in our world and many causes. There can be as much evil in unwanted or misplaced love as there are in indifference or hatred. Evil can be personal, cultural or trans-cultural in expression. Money may be the root of all evil, as can human power and arbitrariness, as well as the vagaries and disasters of nature. Evil is rooted in human suffering, fear, aggression, the tolerance for violence, the violation of human rights. Evil can be institutionally legitimated. It can be highly impersonal or neurotically hyper-personal. It can be random or targeted.

Whatever its character, all evil shares certain basic attributes. Whether intentional or deliberate or not, evil always involves the enactment of a relationship of victimization between a victimizer and a victim. Evil is what people do to other people when they violate their basic rights. It is social action that causes suffering or violation. Symbolically, the victimizer depends upon the hapless fate of the victim. Victimization entails a kind of neurotic persecution or incrimination of the innocent of the sense of guilt and fear of what remains unresolved within the self. It thus involves a moral repression of the victimizer's own responsibility for involvement, its projection onto the victim in the form of victimization, and an invisibility of such responsibility which allows the victimizer to act, to victimize. In other words, the victimizer has no internalized form of constraint or moral boundary which would preclude the possibility for or prevent victimization. The transparency and invisibility of the victimizer's role in victimization is part of the conscious repression of the responsibility this role entails. We can see that victimization is always a symbolic acting out of basic conflicts that remain unresolved in the life of the victimizer.

We can find the source of these conflicts in the moral immaturity or malformation of the individual in society, and of the sense of discrepancy between the victimizer's worlds of primary acquisition and subsequent social development. Strongly discrepant realities can be the source of a great deal of contradiction, confusion and hence frustration at its resolution. Chronic victimizers failed products the processes of the normative production of human reality. They suffer internalized conflicts that prevent them from carrying on a normal moral life, and compel them to symbolically act out their conflicts in the world. 

We are, in our unfinished states, partially frustrated and failed victimizers. We all share in our common capacity for evil in the human heart of darkness. Only most of us are able to bring this capacity under control, even transforming it into a beneficial creativity. In order to bring it into control, we are able to render it visible to ourselves, to reflect upon it and to recognize it within ourselves. It requires a kind of moral vision that is reflexive and apperceptive--able to penetrate the veil of illusion that surrounds our own involvement with the world. Victimizers suffer a common predicament of normative blindness that precludes the possibility of their coming to terms with their own evil.

Part of this blindness is the inability to see or sense the suffering of others. But beneath this is the inability to see or sense a deeper kind of symbolic suffering that remains repressed and unresolved within.

It is invisible because it is repressed and indirectly available in our lives. It may be rooted in our context in the world as much as in our subconscious expressions. Like culture and character, context and unconscious are dialectically bound to one another, and constitute a kind of processural substrate of our symbolic representation and expressive behavior in the world. We organically incorporate the world within ourselves, and extend ourselves into the world--and we cannot have one without the other.

It can be seen as a failure to incorporate the moral values that would lead the individual down a path to philanthropic humanity. The victimizer is moral monster who does not know how to become human, and instead becomes inhumane in its frustration. Evil in this sense is a kind of anthropological perversity of the human character--the possibility for our perversion that is rooted in our condition of world openness and unfinishedness.

Misanthropy and evil are not just moral problems, they are human phenomena that require anthropological attention as well. It is important that we understand the origins and causes of misanthropy in human nature and culture. It is important that we seek an anthropological definition and solution for human evil that like any disease has an etiology and an explanation, and understanding that will allow us to approach such phenomena in a more realistic and humane manner. Human history has been replete with both, so much so in fact that it is difficult to believe that humankind or its society may be in constitution morally good--goodness seems to have been the far too uncommon exception to the rule. And of course, as a mentor was fond of reminding me, people are neither good nor bad, and nothing is wholly evil or wholly good. We must understand that a definition of evil must be based upon some notion of anthropological goodness, and that misanthropy must be understood against the phenomena of philanthropy.

From an anthropological standpoint, such questions are extremely relativistic in the best and worst senses of that term--so much so in fact as to lead to serious doubt whether we can legitimately speak of any such phenomena or principle as anthropological, pan-human good or evil. But there is a sense that every empirical problem and epistemological question that an anthropologist might ask must always have a concomitant normative consequence or entailment. Questions of meaning, fact, and value cannot be clearly separated even for the purposes of anthropological analysis.

We must acknowledge though, that some higher, meta-ethical and panhuman standard of moral injunction or imperative is regarded has valid, though this is most only presumed and implicit, and though its exact prescriptions or specification resists clear elucidation. This is so because though we all act within a self-enclosed moral-symbolic-rational universe that tends to construe whatever we do as just and appropriate, history and the world will still come to judge us by the net human consequences of our actions, whether we will inflict suffering upon others or alleviate their suffering. Though we acknowledge the cultural origins of many forms of evil, we cannot thereby anthropologically legitimate such evil.

But the anthropological perspective which regards the expression and constraint of evil to be based upon culture, sees that it shares as a cultural phenomena a normally wider and more complex sphere of causality and influence than those who want to point fingers find exceptionable. Spheres of involvement are cultural and usually to some extent institutionally incorporated. Thus many people will be found who share partial involvement in the perpetration of evil in the world, and few who will share total or exclusive responsibility. It is true that when such evil happens, those who are perhaps the most to blame for it may be the least susceptible or suspect of its guilt.


The sense of evil, of being wronged, has the same source in the human right and in symbolic sentience as does our sense of justice. We understand that we have been wrong, that some value or norm that we hold has been violated, even if it is not exactly clear how or what the ramifications of the violation may really be. Indeed, the possibility for being or doing evil stems from the same source of world openness as does our possibility for goodness. Though cultural norms and values and the sanctions taken against their violation vary widely among different cultural groupings, it is clearly that there is no culture on earth that does not have some such normative system by which to weigh and reward people's behavior. People are neither born good nor evil, but must learn how to be either. This learning will carry an individual through many trials and tribulations over the course of a lifetime. There is a sense that before we can learn well our lessons, we must make many mistakes, and this inherent proneness to error in our cultural acquisition can be the source of much evil.

We can see the possibility and likelihood of evil as rooted in the moral immaturity of humankind. It is a humankind that fails to transmit or acquire the level of responsibility toward the rights of others that the amelioration of evil requires. In our daily lives, we are immersed in a stream of action which always has moral ramifications and entailments stemming beyond the narrow spheres of our own self-interest or even our own particular cultural orientation.

Evil can be seen to proceed from the default of the affirmation of the sentience and equality of the subjective other that is at the heart of nonviolent action. It can be rooted in either a profound indifference and ignorance of the suffering of others, or for a hatred of the differences and plight of others. It leads to the form of rationalization in which the victim is blamed for victimization, and the responsibility and involvement of the victimizer are invisible. This transparency of misanthropy has the same character as ethnocentrism, and thus can be seen to largely have a cultural character.

We can see that misanthropy is a form of evil that comes from the projection onto others of the feelings of inferiority, weakness, difference, that are repressed within oneself. Misanthropy is usually attended to with such intensity of feeling and intent that is disproportional to the nature of the real relationship between people based upon their cultural differences. Misanthropy proceeds from an undeveloped and frustrated sense of self-identity.

The immaturity or misdevelopment of misanthropy can be seen to be part of a larger cultural complex of the relative cultural dependency and boundedness of people in relation to a larger world, webs of neurotic relationship that frustrate and prevent people from achieving the level of liberation and self-realization that might otherwise be possible. Such dependency always has its appeal to the darkness of people's hearts--to the sense of terror or aggression, greed or avarice. Cultural orientations may either foster such dependency, and reinforce patterns of neurotic adaptation in a kind of archosis which, like a crutch and a placebo, promotes nonbeingness and a failure to face the separation and marginal experience of death in a realistic way. Whole cultures and even nations may be wrapped up in a mythoi of symbolic, collective representations which entails the regular denial or forgetting of negative experiences or the suppression of the kinds of contradictions which might otherwise seem to threaten one's "sacred" sense of order. People without courage will fear what they do not know, and then will grow to hate what they fear.

Such patternings of social archosis and neurotic interdependency can become institutionally incorporated, and then acquire a certain objectivity and "facticity" which obfuscates their human-made origins.

In this sense, much of the modern evils in the world can be seen to be rooted in the symbolic reification of humankind--the turning of the human being into a thing that is something less than fully human. The legitimization of the institutions of slavery in the past had as their basis just such a reification of the human other as something less than human, or as human at all. It is clear that in the human world, what we are actually dealing with are the socially circumscribed categories of the imagination which casts human differences into a differential, stratified field of relations and dependency. The master mentality and the slave mentality go hand in hand and dialectically require one another.

The level of mass destruction and bloodshed on modern battlefields, and the increasing victimization of civilian citizenry in warfare, is founded upon this incorporation of evil and the kind of collective social pathology of militarism and nationalism which promotes this evil. The tyranny of war is that its has removed the element of choice from the threat of violence--it compels and literarily forces otherwise good people to commit immoral, atrocious acts of violence. "War is hell whenever men are forced to fight--when the limit of consent is breached." When we have state machineries of mobilization for war and of mass conscription, we have the transformation of both the soldiery and citizenry alike into a common cannon fodder--grist for the bureaucratic, administrative mills which always carry an impersonal face and which always hide and protect and inner, elite circle.


We cannot discuss the anthropology of human evil without taking a moment to consider the problem of reform. We must liberate the notion of reform from its relativistic connotation of veritas--that there may be a true way of which evil is a false or untrue way. Reform must begin with the acknowledgement of the possibility and valuation of human differences in the world.

Evil, like any human phenomena, must also be seen as holistically complex. It presents to us a problem for which there are no simple or straightforward solutions. In this regard, reform projects that look to rehabilitate or ameliorate all the causes and consequences for evil, at the same time, are perhaps the most efficacious means of reform.

This often entails a form of radical reidentification, a conversion experience which causes a radically split between present and previous lives, involving much reinterpretation of prior experiences in terms of a new world-view. The therapeutic value of religious conversion in this regard must be recognized. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, such conversion experiences entail the displacement of libido and the transference of libidinal associations onto new symbolic forms which are external to one's inner world. This is precisely the kind of rehabilitative therapeutic transformation that the psychiatrist and the shaman try to effect in their patient's lives.

But we must also see that extreme evil will be so deeply rooted in the organic and primary processes of the individual as to prove impervious to even the most radical kind of conversion experience or the most total form of holistic reintegration. At this level, the kind of therapy that seems the most remedial if not completely effective the kind of permanent, organic transformations which come with behavior modification and stress-induction associated with brainwashing. The trouble with this is that such stress-induction results in a kind of irreversible kindling and deindividualization, the consequences of which may be worse than the original problem. It leads to the breaking down of the individual's normal adaptive faculties and to patterns of withdrawal which may compound or aggravate an originally unresolved problem. In this regard, radical therapies like lobotomies, or extensive drug programs or electric shock treatment, torture and radical deprivation, will result in irreversible damage that may or may not entail the elimination of the original problem.

Such therapy and our individually oriented theories of psychology downplay the role and importance of a socio-centric and cultural orientation in the understanding of social pathology and thus for the possibilities for their reform. Entire social systems or cultural orientations may be maladaptive perverse and diseased or inherently evil. By and large, anthropology has not given us any theoretical framework upon which to evaluate cultures, and we are left to place almost the entire burden of pathology, disease and evil upon the psychological constitution of the individual, without paying much attention to the alternative, of normal people trying to adapt to a diseased and evil social system. Edward Sapir drew a useful distinction between spurious and genuine societies based upon the quality and normal character of social relations and to the place a society will give to the independent life of the individual. In a similar way Alfred Kroeber associated civilization with the cultivation and rise in frequency of culturally stylized Genius, and the demise of civilization with the demotion and infrequency of talent. One marker of social pathology is to the surfeit of value it provides to the subjective life of the individual, as well as to the extent that its system results in the violence and victimization of human beings. In this regard, any system that demotes human differences, devalues individual freedom, and promotes extreme uniformity or conformity must be regarded as spurious and therefore pathological. The character of the "true believer" cannot be adequately comprehended outside of socio-cultural context of its cultivation and fulfillment.

We lack the kinds of innovations that will therapeutically rehabilitate and bring reform to entire societies or institutions. These kinds of reforms will not be found in prisons, churches or schools built upon the principle of seeking exclusive guilt in, persecuting and reforming the individual.

The common symptom of a diseased, inhuman system is its structures which obfuscate reality, creating an inner circle of deceit, and which impersonally deny, implicitly or systematically, the subjective value if the individual human being.

Anthropology must come to examine the role and effects which strongly authoritarian power structures come to play in human stratification and the perpetuation of organized forms of human evil in the world. People worldwide exhibit a strong tendency to organize themselves into hierarchies of dominance that exclude human freedom and that eventuate in evil. In this sense, power corrupts.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05