Martin E.P. Seligman on “Crazy or Evil: Classing the Virginia Tech killer among them is an insult to the insane”

Crazy or Evil?
Classing the Virginia Tech killer among them is an insult to the insane.

By Martin E.P. Seligman (with the permission of the author). | In the wake of the Blacksburg massacre, we are once again hearing the chorus of crazy. Seung-Hui Cho had an imaginary girlfriend, Jelly. He said he was from Mars en route to Jupiter. He was withdrawn, bashful to the point of mute, and delusional. He is headlined as a “madman.” This does not, to my way of thinking, remotely explain what happened. It neither mitigates his responsibility, nor will it help to prevent such awful events. Even worse, it is a callous and egregious insult to all the wonderful, humane “crazy” people that psychologists and psychiatrists routinely treat.

Crazy is a natural class. It has been around for as long as human records have been kept. In modern, scientific parlance, it centers on delusions, hallucinations, and bizarre beliefs. It is called insane, psychotic, or schizophrenic, and while less precise, I intend the word crazy as no more or less pejorative or stigmatizing than those terms are. Emotional and cognitive distortions are the hallmark of what is crazy. Crucially, however, crazy people are not characterized by extremely narrow moral circles, in which they regard almost all other human beings as objects unworthy of their care or compassion. Crazy people are not characterized by burning hate and they do not usually think that other people deserve to die at their hands.

Evil is also a natural class, at least as ancient as crazy. It’s big, it’s green, and it stinks. Its hallmark is a narrow moral circle in which almost all other people are objects of moral indifference, or worse, objects of hatred that do not deserve to live. If we haven’t been to graduate school, we know evil when we see it: mean, violent, full of hate, selfish, grandiose, without a conscience, and bullying are all parts of it. Unlike the classifying and unpacking of craziness, modern science has shied away from unpacking and classifying evil.

There is plenty of overlap between crazy and evil. Crazy people, on average, commit somewhat more violent crimes than non-crazy people. But the vast majority of crazy people are not evil. John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician, was certifiably crazy for much of his life—he had an imaginary roommate and pervasive paranoid delusions—but he remained kind and compassionate. His moral circle remained broad and undiminished.

Evil people, like the Blacksburg murderer, are also sometimes crazy. But the craziness of evil people almost never comes closeto fully explaining their crimes. Would Seung-Hui Cho have murdered had he not been full of hate, had he not believed that his fellow students deserved death, and had he not had a very narrow moral circle? There are the labels of psychopath and sociopath, but the scientific understanding of these categories is superficial at best and they are usually lumped in diagnostic systems together with mental disorders, a guild stance that medicalizes both and perpetuates the conflating of the two. However well-intended, this is a scientific and moral mistake of enormous proportions, a mistake that can only lead to more and more Blacksburgs.

Both craziness and evil cry out for causal explanations. It might be objected that evil is a moral and religious term, unlike crazy. But once operationally recognizable, the origin of the term does not make any difference to the naughty thumb of science. To what extent do genes, fetal hormones, upbringing, brain states, triggering events, rejection, poverty, racism, and the like play causal roles? The answers will be independent of moral, religious, or disease provenance. And just as the basic phenomena are very different in origin—disturbances of thought and emotion versus a narrow moral circle and obsessive hate—the causal skein that science would uncover is likely to be very different as well.

To explain craziness and evil scientifically is not to explain them away, however. The Gordian knot of responsibility remains, but making the evil/crazy distinction cuts away many of the tangles. Sometimes the responsibility for murder is clearly eliminated by craziness. The psychotic who shoots the salesman at the front door in the full belief that he is Satan come to kidnap her children warrants elimination of responsibility. Sometimes the case is hard to decide: The temporal-lobe epileptic who throws his secretary out a 10th-story window during a seizure, but who nonetheless, sensing his aura a half-hour before, does not tell people to lock him in his office because he knows he might do something dangerous, likely warrants some mitigation of responsibility. Whereas the psychotic who knows his victims are students innocent of any personal crime, and is full of hate for them nonetheless, who believes they deserve to die and, with premeditation murders them, in full knowledge of what he is doing, warrants no mitigation of responsibility at all. Prevention and treatment are important issues for both crazy and
evil, but they surely involve different interventions. Themedications, child-rearing, birth control, and societal ameliorations that might prevent and treat psychosis are surely not the same as the ways of creating broader moral circles or undoing hatred.

What we care about and what we don’t care about defines evil: Cho cared about killing students and he did not care about their innocence. Evil is a much more compelling account of what Cho did than is craziness. So please don’t excuse Seung-Hui Cho because he was crazy. Seung-Hui Cho was evil.

Martin E.P. Seligman Gr’67, professor of psychology, is a former president of the American Psychological Association and author of numerous books, including Authentic Happiness.

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