What’s the Difference Between “He’s Crazy!” and “He’s Evil!”

Certain prominent political leaders who grab our attention (you know who I mean) sometimes seem crazy and sometimes seem evil.  Which is it?  To answer that, we need to ask ourselves what’s the difference between crazy and evil.

Some people say “it is more compassionate to call someone ill than to call someone evil”. The diagnosis of illness makes us want to heal while the diagnosis of evil makes us want to condemn and punish.  This is false.  When people are ill sometimes we quarantine them and allow them to die.  When people we care about do evil, sometimes we preach at them and try to get them to mend their ways.

Some people say “people who are evil are free to change” while “people who are sick are compelled by their illness.”  This is either false or so philosophical as to be useless.  Some people are so evil that they will never change.  Some people who are sick will get better by appropriate psychotherapy.

Some people say health is an objective scientific category while good and evil are subjective.  This is not true either.  When we define mental illness we make judgments of what sort of human life is worthwhile and what sort of human life is not worthwhile.  Sometimes we don’t notice because we appeal to a concept of function and disfunction, but these are always explained in reference to an ideal of human flourishing.  The man who sits in his room all day counting motes of dust is functioning perfectly well — as a lonely dust mote counter.  To call him catatonic or obsessive or paranoid requires some conception of how a good human life differs from his.

An argument that illness and evil are the same is that the opposites are the same.  There is no real difference between the extremely good human being and the extremely mentally healthy human being.  They are both human ideals that we laud, imitate, and are inspired by.

Calling someone mentally ill and calling somebody evil are both mechanisms of social ostracism.  If somebody is crazy, we don’t want to listen to his advice, we don’t want him taking care of our children, and if he’s dangerous we lock him up.  Similarly if somebody is evil; we watch ourselves around him, are wary of obeying his counsel, and if he does something bad enough lock him up or kill him.  What’s the difference then?

Let’s take a very simple case of social ostracism.  Joe, Mary, and Edward are lost in the woods with very little food.  Joe says to Mary: “I had a dream last night.  My pet dog Bomba appeared to me as a ghost and said if we kill Edward he will lead us to safety.”  Edward says to Mary “Let’s wait until Joe is not looking and kill him and eat him, and if we make it to safety we will say he died falling in a ravine.”

Let’s say Mary does not listen to either of her companions, and that evening they are saved.  Mary tells the authorities (or her closest friend) Edward is evil.  Joe is crazy.  Beware of them.  What does she mean?

The message from Joe was weird and led her in an unfamiliar way.  The message from Edward was entirely normal but something she doesn’t want to give in to.  Mary’s method of resisting the call of insanity is different than her method of resisting the lure of evil.   How is it different?  I’m not sure, but I think it’s different.  Or it might be. In certain circumstances.

What if we come across Mary and Joe walking alone and they tell us that they killed Edward because they were following the advice of a dog in a dream.  We might say that Joe drove Mary crazy.

What if we come across Mary and Edward walking alone and we learn years later that they killed JOe.  We might say that Edward seduced Mary to evil.

Or we might say that Edward and Mary made a tough but necessary choice. Or we may say that Joe’s dog Bomba really saved them.

In that case would it mean we ourselves are crazy?  Would it mean we ourselves are evil?

If we are crazy or evil, do we ostracize ourselves?


6 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between “He’s Crazy!” and “He’s Evil!”

  1. Some good points. However, I think that people call things “sick” instead of “evil” because our culture no longer believes that there is such a thing as evil. If evil doesn’t exist, then sickness (or ignorance, per Socrates) must be the cause.

    On Yom HaShoah of all days, I would never deny that evil exists, but I do think it’s the exception. All of us sometimes do things that are bad or borderline, but it’s usually from weakness, passion, confusion, or deliberate self-deception. The truly evil are those who choose to do bad things intentionally and with full awareness of what they’re doing. Such people do exist: they are the mirror image of Tsaddikim and equally rare, thank goodness.

    As you observed, judgments about sickness or evil both depend on our conception of the good and our view of the universe. Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac can be seen either as evil (from most viewpoints) or as good (from a specific religious viewpoint). In fact, I think that’s the point of the story: to spotlight the moral complexity and ambiguity of life.

    As for social ostracism, you’re probably aware that the USSR routinely labeled dissidents as insane and confined them to psychiatric institutions. It took dissidents out of circulation, stigmatized their ideas, and intimidated anyone else who might have supported them. A similar kind of thing happens in America, as political partisans on both sides sometimes resort to “psychologizing” those with whom they disagree.

    My attitude toward visions and voices is the same as Kant’s: If a purportedly Divine voice tells us to do something that seems wrong, which is more likely: that it’s God’s voice, or that we’re hallucinating? Likewise, if a political leader tells us to do something that we know is wrong, we should listen to our conscience and not just go along with the crowd. And if the ghost of a dog tells us to do something, we should just give him a dog biscuit and go back to sleep.

    I tried ostracizing myself once, but I couldn’t afford the rent for an extra apartment.

    • Indiana’s criminal law has a variation on insanity pleas: “guilty but insane.” Like most solutions, it’s imperfect: people who are insane to the point of psychosis or inability to control their actions are not morally responsible for what they do. However, it tries to prevent abuse of insanity pleas by holding borderline defendants responsible for their actions. After they receive treatment for their mental illness, they might or might not then be sent to prison, depending on the facts of the case.

      Which is a long way of getting around to saying that I think Hitler was both evil and insane.

  2. Mr. N.S. Palmer has already done a great job of laying out most of the issue. The biggest points to be made, that of those who find the concept of evil to troubling, those who want to believe that man is not capable of evil because of personal feelings or ideology, eventually rationalize that there is no evil, just “sickness” that forced people do do something they didn’t really mean to do, or didn’t understand, is a major one. The abuses of various states to use weaponized psychology and psychiatry to crush dissidents, quite another. I would like to elaborate on another point.

    Recently, I was reading a letter to the editor for what I thought was the Los Angeles Times about a recent situation the man had with a self defense scenario, in which he elaborated he decisions he made during the scenario of a lurker around his property trying to get in, him arming for a potential conflict, him going through his belief system and personal values, then leaving his house because “nothing was worth killing over”. The police arrived shortly after h left his house, and when the plain clothes detectives found the intruder, he acted strangely, told the men that he was lost, hearing voices, and the police assumed the man to be disturbed. However, as the case progressed and video footage showed up from home owners security cameras, it did not show a wandering goof aimlessly following voices, but rather a normal looking burglar looking into windows and checking out houses like a normal burglar would. He seemed perfectly sane until the police confronted him. Was this evil or crazy? Or again, crazy to hide evil?

    It is difficult to impossible metaphysically to ascertain correctly some people’s motives and drives. Some people hide insanity, others fake it to cover up for real evil. The sociopath uses this tactic very well, abuses it to endless ends. He knows there are those who want to understand, and will try to fool us into giving them the upper hand, or granting them doubt, or letting them plain get away with things, by trying to take our good nature and open mindedness and using it as tools to, yet again, manipulate their way to victory. Once again, we have people who refuse to believe in evil, think all bad acts are mental illness, and are run ragged by the sociopaths and psychopaths that use this as a means of leverage.

    Unless you want to define sociopathy and psychopathy as illnesses, then they are all sick and none of them are culpable.

    As for prevalence, I think evils are more common than you think, if you include even the pettiest ones. Have you ever walked on the grass because there was a sign that said “do not walk on the grass?” Was this act of spite an act of a very tiny minor evil? Even in moments of anger, rage, duress, stress, and other mitigating factors, do we have some semblance of sanity and will in us, are we completely lost, do we understand even under these things that we have some choice and the right and wrong of it all? Did we do it because anger MADE us do it, or was it a contributing factor? Why did we restrain from evil acts under greater stresses while others have done far worse under less? Is it not a sign of weakness in ourselves when we fail in an easy scenario others have succeeded in? Even in our weaker moments, are we still subject to evil, even the minor amounts of it? Did we find motive in even a tiny amount of evil, did it not contribute? Did our pathos overcome us, or did we feed bad passions and want them to over take us? Did we just pretend to resist our passions and secretly let in the backdoor and give them the reigns?

    My observations of sexual deviants has been long an interesting, and this topic is quite relevant. Listening to groups of people within their own groups and forums was interesting, the same as it was when being in treatment for my alcoholism and being around a community of drug addicts, and their similar behaviours between how they acted in their own group vs. the “normal” people, or internet slang “normies” could be used, and how you get to see false fronts presented. Both groups acted the same exact way in public, “I’m sick”, and in the closed group “I’m perfectly well and I enjoy X”, X being whatever the group was centered on. Wither the individuals truly thought they were healthy and enjoying the things they did out of pure enjoyment, or thought their acts and desires were 100% right and correct was never consistent, but the hollow mask of “illness” was one they all wore to others outside their communities, and never truly believed within. Once I realized my own drinking illness, I never could fit in well with them the same, because you no longer buy into the “We are OK” mentality of the sick and/or evil group.

    When in public, they claim “I never meant to do any of that”, whilst in the closed group they take full credit for their acts and revel in their evil motivations. In the outer world they claim they do not want to partake in more of the X they are motivated by, whilst int he group they romantically expound the glories of indulging in X. While in the outside world they will claim even if there were good parts, they hated the bad or evil parts, and pretend to claim the bad and evil parts are motivations to quit. In the inner group, this becomes the most sickening part of all, many will talk with sickness of indulgence in their eyes the great glories and wonderful parts of the evils and negatives, as if they were the best part of X. Wither these men were truly too sick to see straight and considered these terrible things good out of blindness is one possibility, but the other is that many of these men truly were rotten and could be considered evil by others. Those are some that will heal and recover and look back at X and be revolted by their own selves at that point, that place, in their minds, and realize how sick they can be, while others will never recover from the sickness, and still there are those who never want to let go of the sickness, or worse, aspire to such evils in their hearts. A diverse crew in each case, with the spectrum running from misguided to plain evil.

    Time after time, I see deviants claim they have a sickness, and the reason for their deviation is the illness. I am willing to buy that argument in some cases, but certainly not all, and certainly that ill group is a minority. The truth seems to be that most people within a deviation seem to like the whole fact it is taboo and inherently wrong more than anything else. The forums, the literature, the community, all of the inside stuff, always tends to maximize the evils, not minimize them. The focus tends to be on taboo, evil, the wrongness of it all. X is wrong, thus it is exciting and stimulating, and that stimulation becomes eroticism and further acts. There seems to be thin vaneer on the outside of healthy interest, but it scratches off easily to reveal the main core of the subject, which is the exact opposite. Eventually the evil becomes the core, unhealthy parts are seen as erotic and positive. Are these men ill, are they evil, have they become so evil they have become ill? Does not the enjoyment of evil for evil’s sake not constitute the purest evil of all?

    As more back to the original post, society has never been a good judge of either mental health nor goodness. Society bases everything on normal, not healthy or moral. It has a strange habit of sometimes embracing insanity in the form of shaumans and seers whose visions, often times hallucinations, were seen as almost divine. Insanity could be seen as spiritual in some cases, and the old shared delusion is the common disease of those are part of any given society. At other times, real science and free thinking were persecuted as crazy. The same goes for good an evil, society itself has been one of the greatest evils in history, it can either be a powerful tool to enforce moralism for a greater good, or a reversing lever that can attempt to “normalize’ evils that the society accepts.

    In any case, I think true evil exists, and I think there is more out there than what you think, its simply not brought to the surface, is made less easy to see by those willing to make excuses for pure evil, cover up pure evil, or pretend pure evil does not exist. The pure evil wont’ admit they are evil in mixed company, and will find the cover of insanity to their liking. Just because our perceptions are wrong, and society is very often wrong, does not mean that evil and real mental illnesses don’t exist at all, same thing with the weaponization of such concepts. In any case, good post.

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