Epistemology of evilness

Most everyone seems to think that a big reason for bad things happening in the world is that some people are bad. Yet I almost never see advice for telling whether you yourself are a bad person, or for what to do about it if you seem to be one. If there are so many bad people, isn’t there a very real risk that you are one of them?

Perhaps the model is one where you automatically know whether you are good or bad, and simply choose which to be. So the only people who are bad are those who want to be bad, and know that they are bad. But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests? There’s plenty on how to do all the good things that a good person would want to do, such as voting for the benefit of society, looking after your children, buying gifts, expressing gratitude to friends, holding a respectable dinner, pleasing your partner. Yet so little on scamming the elderly, effectively shaking off useless relatives, lying credibly, making money from investments that others are too squeamish to take, hiding bodies. Are the profit-driven corporate media missing out on a huge opportunity?

If there aren’t a whole lot of knowingly bad people out there who want to be bad, and could use some information and encouragement, then either there aren’t bad people at all, or bad people don’t know that they are bad or don’t want to be bad. The former seems unlikely, by most meanings of ‘bad’. If the latter is true, why are people so blase about the possibility that they themselves might be bad?


Prompted by the excellent book Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is much talk of avoiding becoming ‘dark’, in stark contrast to the world that I’m familiar with. If you enjoy talking about HPMOR, and live close to Pittsburgh, come to the next Pittsburgh Less Wrong Meetup.

12 responses to “Epistemology of evilness

  1. Leaving aside advice on outright crimes, are you sure there *aren’t* media devoted to teaching defections from social norms (that benefit the defector at a larger cost to others)? Something that rhymes with “stick-up bardistry” seems to fit the bill, for example.

  2. I’d second orthonormal — you don’t think there is media for teaching or capitalizing on crime, its because of your viewpoint. Watch more exposes and scams, watch police shows and you find the limits and methods of criminality. “Copycat crimes”… There are also plenty of locksmithing classes and spy shops.

    Also, most “bad behavior” tends to be a con of one sort or another. People are abusing and perhaps amplifying the natural levels of trust built in to society’s working. Increasing awareness of the con, and confidence techniques makes the con less successful, regardless of whether the con is painted in favorable or unfavorable terms.

    More broadly, there is some minority of defective people that don’t care about society’s norms at all. As for the rest, different society’s have different norms, and whats bad or downright evil to one group may be nothing or even positive to another (whether its homosexuality, religion, respect for economic classes, respect for elders, physical (macho) hierarchies, concern for the environment, on and on).

    Most people do not want the same things, though I think ti’s often assumed they largely do. On the flip side, I find the notion that many people are “bad” to be a misconception as well. There are probably 10s of thousands of scales or axes people commonly use to measure one another, and most people only care at all about some small handful of them. There are limits to how much a person can really care about, and blase is to be expected for the rest of it.

  3. I found this blog linked to from a friend’s facebook page, and wrote this lengthy response. I thought I’d paste it here too:

    We should really replace the terms “good” and “bad” and for that matter “good” and “evil” with psychopathy (lack of empathy and hence guilt or remorse) due to brain abnormality, sociopathy (the same thing, but due to cruel or violent upbringing), and antisocial personality disorder (which has similar etiologies, but is due to a failure to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions, rather than an empathy deficit).

    Psychologist Robert Hare distinguishes between controlled psychopaths (who can anticipate the consequences of their actions, but merely lack empathy) who do just fine and often end up in positions of power; uncontrolled psychopaths (who lack empathy and the ability to anticipate consequences) who end up in prison for violent or other crimes; and people with antisocial personality disorder (who merely lack anticipation of consequences) who end up in prison, or being given ASBOs for relatively minor crimes (drug dealing, burglary etc…). Most people with ASPD are not psychopathic, and can feel genuine remorse after doing something bad, it just doesn’t occur to them at the time that smashing someone’s car window to steal something might get them in trouble.

    It should also be noted that just as good-bad and good-evil are false dichotomies, and really exist on a continuum of good to bad, so too do psychopathic and antisocial behaviour. In fact, in the right social situation we are all capable of psychopathic behaviour (war etc…). We only label people as psychopaths because they behave psychopathically in situations in which other people would not.

    So, returning to the point of the article – do bad people think they are bad people? I’d argue that we all like to believe we are good to reinforce our egos, as our culture brings us up to believe that being bad is a moral failure. I think that psychopaths tend to think they are better than most people (narcissism is an aspect of psychopathy) as they tend to blame negative events in their life on others, due to a lack of empathy and guilt.

    In essence, quite a lot of the reason why we are not all psychopathic is because we are capable of emotions which make us feel bad if we behave badly. Hence, in order to behave badly, we have to justify our actions to ourselves as being not bad (again, war etc…).

    I think the reason why bad behaviour is not marketed to, is that the controlled psychopaths, although they don’t care much about others, are able to anticipate that a negative perception of their behaviour will impact badly on them (unlike the poor ASPD people). As a result, there is a massive PR effort to make oneself appear to be “good” even though they know this is a fraud. Also, lacking any emotional understanding of empathy, many psychopaths view of the world is that everyone is really a psychopath, but that they are just too weak or afraid to admit it. It must be strange to lack empathy.

  4. Cynic said: There are also plenty of locksmithing classes and spy shops.

    Yeah, but is there any data on how much criminality (badness) they actually produce or encourage?

    From what I’ve heard from law enforcement talking about it, almost no thieves do lockpicking, at least not the common sort – certain specialists might, but they’re far outliers.

    Lockpicking classes seem to be far more interesting to people who read about someone doing it, or to mechanics geeks, or (naturally) to people wishing to pursue a career as a locksmith.

    On the main topic, my impression from the studies is that most “bad” is done by people who are pretty well aware that what they’re doing is at least considered bad by others, but who lack impulse control and future-orientation enough to either stop, or to care about long-term consequences… and who also don’t really care a whole lot that “others” think it’s bad.

    (And relatedly, many of them seem to insulate “their” people from their behavior where possible – less so from the “poor impulse control” crowd and the junkies – and target some “other”, be it a rival gang, a rival race, “rich people’, or whatnot.

    So they’re not strictly sociopaths/psychopaths, in any case, most of ’em.)

  5. People would rather not know that they’re bad, because then they might have to change at a cost to themselves – especially if they way in which you’re currently being bad is also socially acceptable.

    See also.

  6. *the way

  7. Is not one of the key tenets of most religions that people who do not follow that religion tend to be bad people who cannot be trusted (and who need to be converted or, in some cases, killed)? Don’t many religious people think atheists are less moral and more likely to be bad people than believers are?

    Also, a more Western angle: What about stuff like original sin? If you believe in original sin, don’t you basically believe that all people are more or less ‘bad’, but that religion can conveniently help to make you less bad?

    Either way, I think the discussion needs to include a religious parameter for the inferences made to make much sense.

  8. Pingback: [365 Day Challenge] 005. What would you change about the world? « All that I am, all that I ever was

  9. Well, it seems clear to me through observation that most people think they are generally good. But this

    > But then if there is this big population of bad people out there who want to be bad, why is so little of the media devoted to their interests?

    doesn’t prove it. If I wanted to argue that there really were a bunch of knowingly bad people out there, I would just point out that media targeted t their interests would have to be highly disguised or secret in order to avoid retribution from the good majority.

  10. It sounds like a straw-man argument unless you provide an example of this bad-person theory. While the myth that “good and evil” exists is alive and kicking, the notion that persons divide into good and bad is dead or dying. Perhaps those who read little quality fiction are more subject to that illusion.
    Perhaps you think you have an “advance morality” for eschewing good and bad people, but moralism today lives in good and bad *acts.*

    One place where bad-person theorizing remains alive is in discussions of sociopathy, which you curiously fail to mention (along with the hell-bound, as others have remarked). Are sociopaths universally destructive of societal welfare? How much “badness” do they account for? Even with my professional background in personality and clinical psychology, I don’t feel confident of the answer, but I’m beginning to think sociopaths, too, have gotten a bad rap: in the right niches, they might play a useful societal function.

  11. The existence of career criminals is pretty undisputed, and there isn’t too much visible media catering to them. If the absence of media devoted to knowingly bad people is evidence that there aren’t knowingly bad people, the absence of media devoted to career criminals is evidence that there aren’t career criminals.

    My guess is that there are a certain number of people who know that, by most definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, they’re bad. However, there are also bad people who maintain a fairly mainstream standard of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but rationalize or mislead themselves into thinking they’re good. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissistic_personality_disorder#Diagnosis) cases would tend to fall into this category.

    I might support the existence of tools to tell if you’re bad, but I suspect the only bad people who care if they’re bad would either not bother using such aids, or rationalize away any uncomfortable results.

  12. When people talk about things they think will get them into trouble, they tend to do it covertly. At the jail where I work, I think they talk more freely because they’re already locked up and unlikely to get in more trouble for e.g. advising other prisoners on shoplifting methods.

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