Psychological evil is a term most often used synonymously with moral evil. Moral evil refers to the exercise of human freedom and free will to deliberately inflict pain, cause harm, and destroy wholeness with respect to self, other, and creation. The scope of violence in the later part of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century has prompted interest in exploring the causes at the root of the distortions to the human psyche, which results in the capacity of some individuals to behave in incredibly cruel and destructive ways, often beginning at an increasingly young age. Gradually, psychological evil is becoming a category of its own as a distinctive subset of moral evil. The study of pronounced socially destructive behaviors is gaining currency in psychotherapeutic as well as theological circles.
In 1983, M. Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and bestselling author of many books, first released the groundbreaking text People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. Peck pushed the limits in suggesting that the problem of evil cannot be solely relegated to the moral domain of theologians and philosophers. It is simply no longer enough to discuss evil exclusively in terms of the fallen dimension of human nature and, in turn, relegate its reality to the religious world of sinful human nature and the tempting wiles of Satan. With the advent of developments in the personality and biological sciences in the late 20th century, the study of human destructiveness has crossed into previously uncharted territory by exploring what distinguishes those who are evil from the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed.
In Europe, the work of psychotherapist Alice Miller has received worldwide attention on the causes and effects of childhood trauma. The titles of her books reveal the kind of challenging thought that discloses the harm being done to children in childhood: For Your Own Good; Breaking Down the Walls of Silence; Thou Shalt Not Be Aware; and Banished Knowledge. In Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self, she turns her attention to analyzing the effects of parental failures in nurture, which result in childhood trauma and subsequently produce emotionally underdeveloped adults, who, in turn, parent others in a vicious cycle of emotional deprivation generation after generation. Neurobiological research into the human brain has established that children deprived of access to the emotional world of love and caring can become incapable of having such feelings, losing the power to develop the reciprocal and mutually enhancing relationships that make human life worth living. Miller's work, based on extensive clinical practice, is intersecting with neurobiology in exploring the connections between early childhood failures to thrive emotionally and the underdevelopment of those sections of the brain that enable us to care for ourselves and others. Clinical findings and case studies seem to confirm the hypothesis, but more research needs to be done in order to understand how to turn the tide on so many abused and neglected children growing into adulthood with a repressed range of emotional responses, which too often leads to lives of pathological destructiveness toward themselves and others. In 1996 and 2000, respectively, award-winning author and notable psychoanalyst Carl Goldberg produced two salient books on the subject of psychological evil, Speaking With the Devil: Exploring Senseless Acts of Evil (1996) and The Evil We Do: The Psychoanalysis of Destructive People (2000).
Based on four decades of clinical experience, Goldberg explores the complex of psychodynamics at the root of destructive behavior.
These researchers, along with a host of others, recognize that the behavioral and biological sciences have an essential role to play in exploring and explaining the origins and development of the unrelenting and senseless acts of cruelty and destructiveness that have become endemic to contemporary life. Serial killers, genocide, and the complex origins of the events of 9/11 are definitive illustrations of the need to become more adept at the psychoanalysis of destructiveness in human personality.