To be precise, by "evil" I am referring specifically to the weakness of the trait of (or compulsion) for “genuine care and concern for the wellbeing of others” with respect to the strength of the trait of (or compulsion for) "the pursuit of self-interest".

Or, more succinctly, the weakness of the force of conscience as a constraining force on the predatory compulsion of self-interest.

“The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man."

~Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Some humans seem to lack this “genuine care and concern for the wellbeing of others”
Of those who do, there seem to be at least 2 distinct groups:
1: Those who lack it permanently. (irredeemably evil)
2: Those who lack it only temporarily. (temporary insanity)

By "temporary insanity" I am referring to the phenomenon of people who seem to act without care and concern for the well being of others, but who seem to do so because they lack the ability to control their fear at the time and are later genuinely remorseful for their behavior.

By "irredeemably evil" I am referring to those who never experience any genuine remorse for such behavior.

Difficulty #1: The seeming absence of a single underlying cause

Psychopathy is probably the best example of "irredeemable" evil. There are methods like the PCL-R to detect this particular type of evil. However, there seems to be growing evidence that narcissism also has a strong heritable component. The methods for detecting psychopathy do not seem to be applicable to narcissism.

To add to the difficulty of the problem, the evidence would seem to suggest that the absence of moral constraint to predatory compulsions may not have a single cause.

For example, there is some evidence to suggest that psychopathy may be the result of weak pain signals in general.

One interpretation of this is that conscience emerges and is strengthened by the process of persistent pain giving rise to rumination. i.e. When our actions harm others, the persistent guilt that we feel, gives rise to a resolve to change our behavior both to relieve the pain in the moment and to avoid feeling this pain again in the future. However, if the pain signal is too weak to give rise to rumination, then the conscience does not form.

On the other hand, narcissists seem to typically have normal levels of pain for themselves but lack the affective empathy which would trigger similar levels of pain when other humans are suffering. One interpretation of this is that the persistent pain which gives rise to the rumination which gives rise to conscience does not arise, due not to the inability to experience pain in general, but rather to the inability to experience pain of others due to the absence of affective empathy.

Given these different ways in which the growth of conscience can be interrupted, it's possible that the most effective means of discernment between "irredeemable evil" an "temporary insanity" might be to identify the traits of those who have a fully developed conscience and look for the absence of those traits in the individual in question.

Difficulty #2: Variance in the size of the circle of genuine care and concern.

To further add to the difficulty of this problem, it seems that the size of the circle of "genuine care and concern" varies considerably amongst humans.

For some, it extends only to kin.
For others it might extend to a larger tribe.
For others still, it might, as some religions would encourage us, extend to all humans or even all living beings.

To be more precise, therefore, given that evil is the perception of the absence of "genuine care and concern for the well being of others", and that those who lack "genuine care and concern for the well being of others" will feel compelled to fake it in order to survive and thrive in society, this question seems to break down into the following 2 components:

1: pre-discovery: What is the most accurate method that potential prey can use to detect that the "care and concern" displayed by the skilled predator is, in fact, a deception?

2: post-discovery: Having witnessed evidence of the absence of "genuine care and concern for the well being of others", what is the most accurate means of determining if this is due to a permanent versus temporary inability to expand the circle of care and concern?


2 Answers 2


It almost seems like a two-valued judgment, where you either have the trait or don't, but the context seems to matter. Someone may perform irredeemably evil acts, yet go home to their family with whom they have a genuine concern for their wellbeing. Especially when talking about the issue using the construct of psychopathy where:

By foregrounding intrinsic evil, psychopathy marginalizes social problems and excuses institutional failures at rehabilitation. We need not understand a criminal's troubled past or environmental influences. We need not reach out a hand to help him along a pathway to redemption. The psychopath is irredeemable, a dangerous outsider who must be contained or banished. Circular in its reasoning, psychopathy is nonetheless alluring in its simplicity (Franklin 2011).

Franklin essentially views the construct as subjective, rightfully so, since those who often lead or protect our society might commit or allow acts that would fall into the category of irredeemable evil, in terms of participating or profiting from genocide or interfering in other nations politics that may cause great harm to that particular population. Bandura (1990), views it as a problem of cognition, where the individual's thoughts are reconstrued or even formed to justify their actions, where the benefits seem to outweigh any moral sanctions that would regularly prevent the behavior from being performed. He gives the example of the soldier that kills, where they have reframed the act of murder as something to be proud of, rather than something that is forbidden and evil.

If one gets behind the construct of psychopathy, there could be an argument made that they may lack the proper cognitive skills to buffer themselves against moral disengagement, making them act the way they do.

References: Bandura, A. (1990). Selective activation and disengagement of moral control. Journal of Social Issues, 46(1), 27-46 https://sci-hub.se/https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1990.tb00270.x

Franklin. K. (2011). https://www.wbur.org/npr/136433233/expert-panel-weighing-the-value-of-a-test-for-psychopaths Retrived 19, July 2020.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a really good point. The variable size of the circle of "care and concern" points out a weakness in my question. I think you are suggesting for some this extends only to kin. For others it might extend to a larger tribe of humans. For others still, it might, as some religions would encourage us, extend to all humans or even all living beings. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Ryan
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ To be more precise, therefore, I think what I am looking for is an accurate method to identify those whose circle of "care and concern" does not include those whom they are intent on victimizing. i.e. What is the most accurate method that potential prey can use to detect that the "care and concern" offered by the skilled predator is, in fact, a deception. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Ryan
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 8:47

The lexical approach may assist. The lexical hypothesis states that, ‘All aspects of human personality, which are or have been of importance, interest or utility, have already become recorded in the substance of language’(Cattell, 1943) and, ‘When an idea is important, people are likely to have a word for it … the more important something is, … the more words there are likely to be’(Miller, 1996). The atlas of personality, emotion and behaviour uses a lexical approach to visualise words using the axes of affiliation and dominance (Mobbs, 2020).

A sample of synonyms of evil are: abhorrent, abominable, appalling, atrocious, awful, baleful, base, bent, contemptible, corrupt, criminal, crooked, cruel, damaging, dangerous, depraved, despicable, destructive, disagreeable, disgusting, dishonourable, dreadful, fiendish, filthy, foul, harmful, heinous, hideous, horrendous, horrible, horrid, hurtful, immoral, inhuman, inhumane, iniquitous, loathsome, malevolent, malicious, malignant, mischievous, monstrous, nasty, nauseating, nauseous, noxious, obnoxious, obscene, odious, offensive, pernicious, perverse, perverted, poisonous, repellent, repugnant, repulsive, revolting, rotten, ruinous, scandalous, shocking, sickening, stormy, threatening, ugly, unclean, unethical, unlawful, unprincipled, unscrupulous, venomous, vicious, vile, villainous, wanton, wicked, woeful, wrong.

A sample of synonyms of insane are: absurd, asinine, bananas, barmy, bats, batty, bedlam, bizarre, bonkers, certifiable, crackbrained, cracked, crackers, crackpot, crazed, crazy, cuckoo, daffy, daft, delirious, demented, deranged, devilish, dippy, disturbed, dotty, enraged, exasperated, extreme, fanciful, fantastic, farcical, fatuous, featherheaded, fool, foolish, fruity, gaga, half-baked, half-witted, hare-brained, haywire, hysterical, idiotic, ill-conceived, illogical, imbecilic, immoderate, inane, incensed, inept, intolerable, irrational, irritated, jerky, kookie, laughable, lavish, loony, ludicrous, lunatic, mad, mad_as_a_hatter, maniac, maniacal, manic, mental, mentally_ill, mindless, moronic, non compos mentis, nonsensical, not_all_there, nuts, nutty, nutty_as_a_fruitcake, pointless, potty, preposterous, psycho, psychopathic, psychotic, raving_mad, ridiculous, round_the_bend, scatty, schizophrenic, screwball, screwy, senseless, silly, simpleminded, stark_raving_mad, stiff, stupid, unbalanced, unconscionable, unhinged, unmerciful, unreal, unrealistic, unreasonable, unsound, unstable, unwise, vexed, wacko, wacky, weird, whacko, whacky, wild, witless, zany.

Both evil and insane are visualised according to the atlas below along with other constructs for the purpose of comparison (Jones & Paulhus, 2014; DSM-5; ICD-11).

Evil and Insane according to the atlas of personality, emotion and behaviour (Mobbs, 2020)

From a linguistic / lexical perspective, the primary difference between evil and insane is the level of dominance. Evil implying intent whereas insanity implies the absence of intent. The visual analysis also appears to support the concept that insanity is associated with a complete absence of empathy.


Cattell RB. The description of personality: basic traits resolved into clusters. J Abnorm Soc Psychol. 1943; 38: 476–506. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054116

Miller GA. The science of words. New York: Scientific American Library; 1996.

Mobbs AED (2020) An atlas of personality, emotion and behaviour. PLoS ONE 15(1): e0227877. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0227877

Jones DN, Paulhus DL. Introducing the short Dark Triad (SD3): a brief measure of dark personality traits. Assessment. 2014; 21: 28–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191113514105

Oxford and Merriam-Webster thesauri.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed. Washington, DC: Author; 2013.

World Health Organization. International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems. 11th ed. World Health Organization; 2018. https://icd.who.int

Declared interest: I am the author of the atlas paper.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a very interesting answer and I'm very grateful for the amount of thought was put into it. The part that I feel somewhat uncertain about is the choice of the trait of "dominance" as this might skew towards males. It has been my observation that, when seeking to use other people as tools without care or concern for their welfare, females tend to rely more on methods like seduction, deception and manipulation rather than overt dominance. Though as a non-professional I may be attributing a cultural rather than specialized meaning to that word? $\endgroup$
    – Alex Ryan
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 8:25
  • $\begingroup$ I suspect that the approach of identifying different markers for the permanent absence of care and concern for the welfare of others between males and females might be the most useful approach. Though I confess that I have a strong suspicion that the underlying brain anomaly or anomalies that give rise to the permanency of the trait is not gender specific. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Ryan
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 8:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your feedback. Other researchers have used a range of synonymic terms for affiliation and dominance including: agency/communion, ambitious/agreeable, and assertiveness/compassion. Probably agency is a term more familiar to you. I could not use agency and communion in the atlas paper due to Bakan's original definition of these terms which was not orthogonal (they were circularly defined by reference to each other). It may also assist if you think of dominance as 'seeking to influence'. Seduction, deception and manipulation are all dominant behaviours and not gender specific. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Mobbs
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 8:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you for your insights. Thinking of dominance as 'seeking to influence' is very helpful. I am probably grossly over-generalizing, but am I correct in my understanding that the gist of this trait of dominance that you are referring to might be generalized as a disparity in the balance of forces between (1) the compulsion to satisfy one's own desires and (2) the compulsion to avoid the suffering of having caused pain to others? $\endgroup$
    – Alex Ryan
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 17:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Great questions. The Atlas paper is more an exploration and description of the limits of behaviour. By way of analogy, the atlas is like a map of the world. Plate tectonics, erosion, volcanic action etc are the explanation as to why the map is the way it is. The descriptions of the what and why are very different. The question of why these behaviours are as they are is the subject of another paper. I don't have a conclusive answer to your question as yet but I am working on it. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Mobbs
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 18:15

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