The Metapsychology of Evil: Main Theoretical Perspectives Causes, Consequences and Critique


Torgeir Martin Hillestad


evil, psychology, ondskap


The purpose of this text or dissertation is to throw some basic light on a fundamental problem concerning manhood, namely the question of evil, its main sources, dynamics and importance for human attitudes and behaviour. The perspective behind the analysis itself is that of psychology. Somebody, or many, may feel at bit nervous by the word “evil” itself. It may very well be seen as too connected to religion, myth and even superstition. Yet those who are motivated to lose oneself in the subject retain a deep interest in human destructiveness, malevolence and hate, significant themes pointing at threatening prospects for mankind.   

The text is organized or divided into four main ordinary chapters, the three first of them organized or divided into continuous and numbered sections.

A crucial point or question is of cause how to define evil itself. It can of cause be done both intentional, instrumental and by consequence. Other theorists however have stated that the concept of evil exclusively rests on a myth originated in the Judean-Christian conception of Satan and ultimate evil. This last argument presupposes evil itself as non-existent in the real rational world. It seems however a fact that most people attach certain basic meaning to the concept, mainly that it represents ultimately bad and terrible actions and behaviour directed toward common people for the purpose of bringing upon them ultimate pain and suffer. However, there is no room for essentialism here, meaning that we simply can look “inside” some original matter to get to know what it “really” is. Rather, a phenomenon gets its identity from the constituted meaning operating within a certain human communities and contexts loaded with intentionality and inter-subjective meaning.

As mentioned above, the concept of evil can be interpreted both instrumental and intentional, the first being the broadest of them. Here evil stands for behaviour and human deeds having terrifying or fatal consequences for subjects and people or in general, regardless of the intentions behind. The intentional interpretation however, links the concept to certain predispositions, characteristics and even strong motives in subjects, groups and sometimes political systems and nations. I will keep in mind and clear the way for both these perspectives for the discussion in prospect.

This essay represents a psychological perspective on evil, but makes it clear that a more or less complete account of such a psychological view also should include a thorough understanding or integration of some basic social and even biological assumptions. However, I consider a social psychological position of significant importance, especially because in my opinion it represents some sort of coordination of knowledge and theoretical perspectives inherent in the subject or problem itself, the main task here being to integrate perspectives of a psychological as well as social and biological kind. Since humans are essential social creatures, the way itself to present knowledge concerning the human condition, must be social of some sort and kind, however not referring to some kind of reductionism where social models of explanation possess or holds monopoly. Social and social psychological perspectives itself represents parts of the whole matter regarding understanding and explanation of human evil. The fact that humans present, or has to represent themselves as humans among other humans, means that basically a social language is required both to explain and describe human manners and ways of being. This then truly represents its own way or, more correctly, level or standard of explanation, which makes social psychology some sort of significant, though not sufficient.

More substantial, the vision itself of integrating different ontological and theoretical levels and objects of science for the purpose of manifesting or make real a full-fledged psychological perspective on evil, should be considered or characterized a meta-psychological perspective.       

The text is partially constructed as a review of existing theories and theorists concerning the matter of evil and logically associated themes such as violence, mass murder, genocide, antisocial behaviour in general, aggression, hate and cruelty. However, the demands of making a theoretical distinction between these themes, although connected, is stressed. Above all, an integral perspective combining different scientific disciplines is aimed at.  

Author Biography

Torgeir Martin Hillestad

Professor emeritus
Faculty of Social Sciences
Department of Social Studies
University in Stavanger


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