The Other I

December 5, 2011

Evil incarnate? Understanding child abusers

Filed under: Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:08 pm

It is not uncommon to hear court judges tell an offender on sentencing for a particularly vicious crime that he is “evil.”  I have long cringed at this diagnosis first because if a person is indeed “evil,” only God is in a position to make that judgement.

But having given up belief in the existence of Plato’s spiritual world, I’ve given up the idea of evil incarnate as well.  Evil, for me, is not an adequate explanation of what happens in this universe.

And yet, there are some things people do that have seemed particularly inexplicable.  I can understand even if I don’t approve of many things – murder, revenge, theft are often explicable.  But I have never been able to find a reasonable explanation for torture and sometimes murder which some people seem to engage in for no apparent reward save some intrinsic satisfaction of causing pain to a helpless victim.  Child abuse has always seemed the worst.

Until now.

To explain, let me back up.  After the Newtonian revolution in which the entire universe was seen as a giant machine, many scientists came to the conclusion that there was no essential difference between sentient animals and machines.  They therefore undertook some harrowing experiments on animals on the grounds that they did not feel pain any more than does a car motor.  It is only in the last  century that this view was largely abandoned.

Obviously this illustrates the fact that science is an incomplete project, that it is not always right.  And that there is a place for at least a serious examination of scientific findings that seem to contradict common sense.  I value science as one of the better applications of human intelligence.  But obviously it is not infallible and never will be.

It is science, however, which has also suggested to me how it is possible for child abusers to engage so casually in many of the behaviors judges so frequently label as “evil.”  We are now learning from MRI scans, in particular, that part of the brain processes of some people is damaged or not functioning.  Typically they are called “autistic,” which means they find it difficult to put themselves in someone else’s place, to sense what someone else is feeling.

This is not a question of intelligence.  Many of these people are exceptionally brilliant.  Newton himself may have been autistic.  But it is a question of the kind of empathy most of us take for granted.  Most of us can understand the physical or psychological suffering of others even when we ourselves are not experiencing it.

But what if I can’t?  then torturing a child may feel no more disturbing than exploring a light switch or trying to figure out how my toy train works.

And now we are learning more about how this kind of autistic damage occurs.  We have known for a long time that being brought up in an abusive environment often results in children who grow up to be abusive themselves.  But we now also know that stress during pregnancy can have long-lasting effects on the child.  This stress may not have been abusive.  It may be stress caused by famine, death in the family, anxiety about losing ones job, enduring concerns about one’s physical safety, or by marital discord.

The study of epigenetics is suggesting that actual physical changes occur during fetal development which can explain how abusive behavior  can run in families.

But science is also beginning to explore how we might deal with people affected in this way.  Punishment – even draconian punishments – do little to change the inability to empathize with others whom we might be causing pain.  But there are approaches to teaching children how to recognize and to some extent overcome this profound destructive deficit.  Some day there may be drugs that can help at some stage but that is some way down the line and not apt to be a one-size-fits-all solution.

But I’d rather put my efforts into supporting the scientific search for answers than to send increasing numbers to prison where presumably they will be cured of their “evil.”


  1. Would love to do a proper response, but have a backlog of work.
    I posted a couple of weeks ago on “monsters” and a lot of your thoughts were my thoughts, but no one really picked them up
    I think I think that ‘evil’ is selfishness and wisdom is selflessness and egoism is the way most of us work.
    I worked with a young person once that went on to murder. We knew we were failing him at the time; we knew he had suffered abuse; we knew he struggled with his behaviour. But then he kills an innocent passer-by. I’d say that it was an evil act – but the blame is corporate. So much more to say, so much work to do, so many Christmas cards to write!!


    Comment by sanstorm — December 5, 2011 @ 6:52 pm | Reply

    • Are you talking about your post “I would have gotten away with it?…” As I recall, your conclusion is that you are still holding onto the ax despite your view that children might have some valuable insights into our monsters. Which sounds a lot like my own mystification over what looks like wanton cruelty.

      For reasons that you will no doubt understand but possibly not agree with, I prefer not to use the word “evil” at all to describe behavior. It makes me uncomfortable in that it assumes too much judgement. I would prefer something which is a little more tentative in its assumed cause. The Buddhists refer to our incompleteness when we in the West typically refer to sinfulness. As a psychologist, I often think of the word “damage,” or “disease,” or even sometimes merely “immature.”

      On the other hand, the question of what behaviors really might be considered “evil,” “incomplete,” or “damaged” rather than simply socially or culturally unacceptable is an interesting one. I tend to think that it revolves around a lack of respect for life, for what we are, even for what is. For all of creation, if you will.

      I know how the demands of Christmas, especially with children, seem to demand far more than our allotted 24/7. Thank you for taking the time to add your comment. I look forward to some of your further thoughts on the question. When there’s time!


      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 6, 2011 @ 12:39 pm | Reply

      • Hi there –
        I have this unformed theory about mankind, perhaps rightly, moving away from ‘demonising’ people. Child abusers are still demonised, but there are many other people that historically would be outcast and are now included and made to be less monstrous as they were perceived as being. My post went nowhere near the crux of my theory, but that is what is behind it.
        So no one is ‘evil’ any more – they just have a personality disorder, ADHD, psychosis… and ‘sin’ is sanitised – at least that is where we are going.
        Having worked with so many people with so many conditions and mitigating factors – I still have this thing about choice – free will even – that no matter the factors in play – people still have the choice (or do they) about their actions.

        So I am in a loop of logic with a veil of harrassment preventing me from “going there”.

        Even if someone with a multitude of conditions may be incapable of avoiding “evil” acts – I can. I can choose. So if I do a bad thing – I am culpable.
        As for that -as I still hold to theism I can retain good and evil as concepts: good is what God says is good. Evil is what he says is evil. But I don’t think there is anything necessarily evil about evil things – it is arbitrary – God has decided: it’s his opinion…
        Or something…


        Comment by sanstorm — December 6, 2011 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

        • What a great comment! Thank you.

          I appreciate your question about free will. I have the same question. I can’t say I have resolved it, but that is above all why I feel it is beyond my ability to judge others. Actually to some extent even myself. I feel as if I have a choice and in the decisions I make I hold myself responsible. But there are limits to my freedom, some of which I can recognize (I’m no good at flying through the air, for instance), but some of which I may not be aware of.

          As for what “evil” is, for the first two and a half decades of my life I was immersed in Catholic theology which taught that morality arose out of “natural law.” For a long time this satisfied me — respect for nature and all of creation still seems like a principle I can follow. But what is natural? homosexuality? cancer? food grown with fertilizer rather than organically? sexual abstinence (a great favourite of Catholics)? My sister told me when she walked into a supermarket recently selling “natural food,” she was tempted to ask where the “unnatural” food is.

          But how do we know what evil is if it’s merely arbitrary? Especially if it is hidden in the inscrutable mind of God? Yet we both have a strong sense that some behaviors are evil, even if we do not call the individual engaged in that behavior evil. And why — on what grounds — can we call human behavior evil and not call the same behavior in animals evil?

          Okay, back to Christmas preparations. I’ve just discovered an enticing recipe for Cranberry Cake.



          Comment by Terry Sissons — December 7, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

  2. I agree that the word “evil” is an inadequate way to describe human behavior.

    I have heard from a psychologist who works with child abusers that they see themselves–feel, I suppose is a better word–as children themselves in these situations.

    I imagine there is a wide range of behavior as well that we lump into the category “child abuse.” There are no doubt people who are sexually attracted to children but would never force themselves upon them, and then there are out-and-out-rapists, with everything in between.

    Foucault wrote three volumes on sexuality (with three more to come, but then he died). He makes for pretty dense reading, but his history (he calls it “archaeology”) of sexuality, especially from the eighteenth century on is a revelation. Most of what we think of as perversion wasn’t even on the social radar. The first prosecution for child abuse was in the nineteenth century, and the accused was a retarded person. When the psyche became medicalized and then handed over to the psychiatrists at that time, all sorts of behavior got categorized as pathologies–masturbation being the biggie that endured well into the twentieth century (the first thing Freud did was check little boys physically for indications).

    Which is not, I hope it’s understood, to condone any kind of abuse, sexual or otherwise. But the way we think about these things is conditioned, and knowing how can be educational.

    Asperger’s Syndrome, as you suggest, as a diagnosis allows us to see some of these people with a tolerance we wouldn’t have without medical science giving us permission to do so.


    Comment by pianomusicman — December 5, 2011 @ 11:20 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Tom, for this needed amplification. I have not read Foucault but I am fully aware that what constitute both abuse and rape are greatly influenced by culture. Here in modern-day Britain, sex – even consensual sex – with someone under the age of 16 constitutes rape. Sex with a consenting 16-year-old is hardly in the same category as sex with a 3-year-old. And the same for child labour. I’m quite sure under this definition, many of us have grandparents and great-grandparents who were unknowingly either raped or rapists.

      Having said that, the behavior I was thinking of in particular in my post which I called “abusive” is behavior which seems to have no other purpose beyond itself. Burning infants with cigarettes, for instance, or throwing rocks at a two-year old tied to a stump. The potential list of examples, as you would no doubt agree, is distressingly long.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — December 6, 2011 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

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