The Best Quotes From “Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty”


All of these quotations are from Roy Baumeister’s outstanding book, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty . Enjoy!

Perpetrators tend to favor minimalist, distancing styles of thought. — Preface

Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil. — P.1

To understand evil, we must set aside the comfortable belief that we would never do anything wrong. Instead, we must begin to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to do such things? Assume that it would be possible. — P.5

Indeed, if we limited our examination of evil to acts that perpetrators themselves acknowledge as evil, there would hardly be any acts to examine. — P.6

There is no culture in which the most aggressive trouble-prone group is, say, middle-aged women. As the evidence about male aggression continues to accumulate, it is increasingly difficult to deny that some natural or genetic component plays a role. — P.15

When trying to understand evil, one is always asking, “How could they do such a horrible thing?” But the horror is usually being measured in the victim’s terms. To the perpetrator, it is often a small thing. As we saw earlier, perpetrators generally have less emotion about their acts than do victims. It is impossible to submit to rape, pillage, impoverishment, or possible murder without strong emotional reactions, but it is quite possible to perform those crimes without emotion. In fact, it makes it easier in many ways. — P.18

“Violence ensues when people feel that their favorable views of themselves are threatened or disputed by others. As a result, people whose self-esteem is high but lacks a firm basis in genuine accomplishment are especially prone to be violent, because they are most likely to have their narcissistic bubble burst. — P.25-26

The First World War had been so much more horrible than anything Europeans had remembered or even imagined that it produced a lasting and profound psychological impact. The winners concluded that there must be no more jobs. The losers concluded that there had to be another war to set things right: So much sacrifice could not be allowed to be in vain. And so Germany rearmed while England and France made concessions (“appeasement”) and hoped for peace. The Germans saw embarking on the conflicts and policies that led to the Second World War as a way of getting back what was rightfully owed them and getting even with some of the enemies who had robbed them. — P.37

Victims tend to see things in stark, absolute categories of right and wrong; perpetrators see a large gray area. Many perpetrators admitted that they had done something that was partly wrong, but they also thought that they were not fully to blame and that it was not as bad as others (especially the victims) had claimed. Even while blaming themselves, these perpetrators still thought the victims had overreacted and blown things out of proportion. — P.40

Individual victims may continue to ruminate about their traumas and suffer over them for decades. Whole societies and cultures may nurse one grievance for centuries. The victim’s motto is “Never forget.” In contrast, the perpetrator’s motto is “Let bygones be bygones.” –P.43

Bullies, wife-beaters, tyrants and other violent people tend to think that other people are attacking or belittling them, even when others would not have the same interpretation. — P.43

A recent work on domestic violence approvingly quoted the following (slight overstated) conclusion from an earlier study: “Batterers always see themselves as the victim of the battered woman.” — P.54

The categories that our modern culture perceives as seriously evil are never used as group names. No sports teams call themselves the Child Abusers or the Bigots. — P.61

In the history of the world, increased recognition of differences between groups had led more often to conflict or violence than to peaceful cooperation and sharing. America is now making a dangerous gamble on the opposite result. — P.79

Most violence and aggression involve reciprocal, mutual grievances and provocations. The most common pattern is for two people (or groups) to offend, provoke, and attack each other in escalating rounds until one of them kills or injures the other. At the same time, I concluded that the most common way of thinking about violence — the myth of pure evil — puts all responsibility on one side and absolves the other side. The myth of pure evil depicts sadistic, malicious forces that arbitrarily and randomly attack innocent, virtuous victims….In fact, what seems to happen often is that both sides of a conflict perceive it through the lens of the myth of pure evil — but in mirror images. Each side sees itself as the innocent victim and the other as the evil attacker. — P.91

Even people who appear to outside observers to be clearly the aggressors, such as by participating in large-scale violence against relatively innocent and helpless victims, tend to see themselves as being the virtuous victims. They too see evil as a powerful invasion of their good and peaceful society. Their victims do not seem to them like helpless innocents. Rather, they appear to be representatives of the forces of evil. — P.94

A recent study concluded that the average pay from crime for the young black man in Boston was between $10 and $20 per hour, whereas the after-tax wage for legitimate employment was only about $5.60. Thus, crime (especially selling drugs) seems to pay much better. But if the risk of imprisonment and violent victimization are included in the calculations, the economic superiority of a criminal career may be eliminated or even reversed. — P.109

One must admit, however, that evil and violence do often achieve a significant measure of success in the short run. The violent person does win the argument, get the money, establish dominance,eliminate the rival, make good his claim to the disputed territory, silence dissent, or accomplish whatever other short-term goal prompted the violent response. These benefits may evaporate or seem trivial in the long run, but in the short run they are sought and gained. It is only from a broad, long-term perspective that one can say that evil means are not generally effective. –P.119

Over and over, then, we find that groups with higher self-esteem are more violent and more aggressive than others. When self-esteem rises, violence rises too. ….if low self-esteem really causes violence, it would be reasonable to expect that most groups with higher self-esteem would have lower rates of violence. But the opposite is the case. Thus, the widespread and traditional theory that links violence to low self-esteem should be discarded. — P.140

A person with a firm, unshakably high opinion of himself is not going to be threatened by anything. No matter what happens, he will still think he’s great. That firm belief will make him largely immune to ego threats. — P.148

You might think that murders would be private affairs because killers would not want witnesses, but some studies have found that a high proportion of them occur in the presence of other people….Audiences lend social reality to events. If no one else knows about it, you can pretend it never happened. Self-esteem can usually bounce back. But people are very concerned with what other people think of them, and if someone else knows about an ego threat, the option of ignoring it is lost. — P.156

Extreme measures seem appropriate when one is retaliating against a thoroughly evil person. Unfortunately, because victims tend to see those who harm them in extreme terms, they will unusually be prone to think that extreme retaliations are appropriate. — P.161

Idealism leads to evil primarily because good, desirable ends provide justification for violent or oppressive means. Evil is not likely to result when people firmly believe that ends do not justify means. If they evaluate their methods by the same lofty standards by which they judge their goals and purposes, evil will be held in check. — P.176

The use of violent or oppressive means to solve problems is a common feature in both instrumental and idealistic evil. There is an important difference, however, and that is the extent to which the ends justify the means. The thief does not generally claim that his desire for money makes his use of violent and illegal means right. In contrast, the idealist may feel that the means are justified. — P.178

Idealistic evil permits and sometimes even demands that its agents despise their victims. — P.181

In many cases, the consequences of one’s own presumptive goodness is more than a license to hate one’s opponents. It is a positive duty to hate them. — P.182

Idealists and utopians cannot easily acknowledge that their opponents have a legitimate, acceptable claim on being good themselves, because to do so would undermine their own claim on being on the side of good. — P.185

Idealists think they are up against a dangerous and powerful opponent who will stop at nothing to spread evil in the world, and so desperate and extreme measures are appropriate. — P.186

In the long run, the ends often fail to justify the means, and instead the means tend to contaminate the ends. — P.200

The famous serial killer Ted Bundy said he never really achieved the satisfaction he expected from killing, and in fact his murders usually left him feeling empty, depressed, forlorn, and hopeless of ever finding emotional satisfaction. Other serial killers have reported the same feelings of emptiness and depression afterward. — P.211

Sexual sadism is rare. Only a small proportion of adults engage in sadomasochism at all, and the overwhelming majority of those are primarily or exclusively interested in the submissive side. — P.232

Sadistic enjoyment is something that is gradually discovered over a period of time involving multiple episodes of dominating or hurting others. — P.233

To produce violence, it is not necessary to promote it actively. All that is necessary is to stop restraining or preventing it. Once the restraints are removed, there are plenty of reasons for people to strike out at each other. –P.263

The great crimes and atrocities of history did not generally appear abruptly and full-blown. Rather, they were the result of a period of escalation, often one that occurred very gradually. — P.283

Many people will sympathize with victims or question whether their own side’s most violent actions are morally right, but they will also feel ashamed of these doubts. What is said in the group, and what is likely to dictate the group’s actions, will be the most extreme and virulent sentiments. Whatever their private feelings, the members may express only the politically correct views of strong hatred of the enemy. In such an environment, the group’s actions may reflect a hatred that is more intense than any of its members actually feel. The group will be more violent than the individual people in it. Given all the other processes that foster escalation, it may not even be necessary for groups to have this effect forever. Once the members of the group are waist-deep in blood, it is too late for them to question the group’s project as a whole, and so they are all more likely to wade in even deeper. — P.304

When there is some evidence that supports a preferred conclusion, people are willing to overlook its flaws and find ways to dismiss contrary evidence. The combination of desire and minimally plausible evidence is a powerful recipe for distorted conclusions. — P.307

People will settle for any vaguely plausible argument when they want badly enough to believe that their hurtful actions are justified. — P.311

Idealists can best avoid guilt if they are convinced that they are fighting against evil, and they feel the least guilty when their enemies resemble the myth of pure evil. Two prominent features of that myth are the fundamental otherness and innate wickedness of the enemy. Evil people commit bad actions for their own sake and therefore initiate many conflicts and problems. If we are fighting against such people, there is no reason to feel guilty about hurting or killing them. Being evil, they must have started the battle, and we are doing good by defeating them. Moreover, they are fundamentally different from us and belong to a totally different category of being, so we need feel no empathy for them. — P.316

It is not hard for us as outsiders to knock holes in the self-justifying reasoning of perpetrators, but such an exercise is misleading. Perpetrators often find themselves in groups where no one would think to raise objections and everyone would agree with even flimsy arguments that support their side. — P.331

Indeed, one of the ironies of the nineteenth-century history occurred in the Egyptian uprising led by Muhammad Ali (the original leader of that name, not the boxing champion). Ali sought independence from Great Britain, which along with France had ruled Egypt after the Egyptian government had proved itself unable to pay the debts owed to European financiers. Ali recognized that the Egyptian economy was in shambles, and one of his plans to put it on a sounder footing was to revive the slave trade. The British had outlawed slavery throughout their empire and were passionately opposed to any slave trade in Egypt. Thus was fought one of the great interracial wars over African slavery: Black Africans fought to revive slavery, while white Europeans fought to eradicate it. — P.350

Ervin Staub emphasized the role of bystanders in The Roots of Evil. His book was devoted to genocide, and he concluded that the lack of international outcry and pressure was a key factor in each of the four major instances of genocide he covered. — P.355

Many instances of profound evil begin with a small, ambiguous act that crosses a fuzzy line and then escalates gradually into ever greater levels of violence. — P.378

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