People of the Lie
First published in 1983, People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil (ISBN 0 7126 1857 0) followed on from Peck’s first book. Peck describes the stories of several people who came to him whom he found particularly resistant to any form of help. He came to think of them as evil and goes on to describe the characteristics of evil in psychological terms, proposing that it could become a psychiatric diagnosis.
Peck discusses evil in his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, and also in a chapter of The Road Less Traveled. Peck characterizes evil as a malignant type of self-righteousness in which there is an active rather than passive refusal to tolerate imperfection (sin) and its consequent guilt. This syndrome results in a projection of evil onto selected specific innocent victims (often children), which is the paradoxical mechanism by which the People of the Lie commit their evil. Peck argues that these people are the most difficult of all to deal with, and extremely hard to identify. He describes in some detail several individual cases involving his patients. In one case which Peck considers as the most typical because of its subtlety, he describes Roger, a depressed teenage son of respected, well off parents. In a series of parental decisions justified by often subtle distortions of the truth, they exhibit a consistent disregard for their son’s feelings, and a consistent willingness to destroy his growth. With false rationality and normality, they aggressively refuse to consider that they are in any way responsible for his resultant depression, eventually suggesting his condition must be incurable and genetic.
Some of his conclusions about the psychiatric condition that he designates as “evil”, are derived from his close study of one patient he names Charlene. Although Charlene is not dangerous, she is ultimately unable to have empathy for others in any way. According to Peck, people like her see others as play things or tools to be manipulated for their own uses or entertainment. Peck states that these people are rarely seen by psychiatrists, and have never been treated successfully.
Evil is described by Peck as “militant ignorance”. The original Judeo-Christian concept of “sin” is as a process that leads us to “miss the mark” and fall short of perfection. Peck argues that while most people are conscious of this, at least on some level, those that are evil actively and militantly refuse this consciousness. Peck considers those he calls evil to be attempting to escape and hide from their own conscience (through self-deception), and views this as being quite distinct from the apparent absence of conscience evident in sociopathy.
According to Peck an evil person:
- Is consistently self-deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self-image of perfection
- Deceives others as a consequence of their own self-deception
- Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else (“their insensitivity toward him was selective” (Peck, 1983/1988, p 105))
- Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self-deception as much as deception of others
- Abuses political (emotional) power (“the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion” (Peck, 1978/1992, p298))
- Maintains a high level of respectability, and lies incessantly in order to do so
- Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness)
- Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat)
- Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury
Most evil people realize the evil deep within themselves but are unable to tolerate the pain of introspection, or admit to themselves that they are evil. Thus, they constantly run away from their evil by putting themselves in a position of moral superiority and putting the focus of evil on others. Evil is an extreme form of what Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, calls a character disorder.
Though the topic of evil has historically been the domain of religion, Peck makes great efforts to keep much of his discussion on a scientific basis, explaining the specific psychological mechanisms by which evil operates. He was also particularly conscious of the danger of a psychology of evil being misused for personal or political ends.Peck considered that such a psychology should be used with great care, as falsely labeling people as evil is one of the very characteristics of evil. He argued that a diagnosis of evil should come from the standpoint of healing and safety for its victims, but also with the possibility even if remote, that the evil themselves may be cured.
Ultimately Peck says that evil arises out of free choice. He describes it thus: Every person stands at a crossroads, with one path leading to God, and the other path leading to the devil. The path of God is the right path, and accepting this path is akin to submission to a higher power. [editor note = opposite of insolent pride] However, if a person wants to convince himself and others that he has free choice, he would rather take a path which cannot be attributed to its being the right path. Thus, he chooses the path of evil.
Narcissists are evil in three ways. First they want what they want, and are totally self-willed in seeking that – and in the process put their needs before everyone and everything else (= insolent pride). They are exalting themselves in making what they want the prime objective. Second, they are unwilling to acknowledge (to themselves and others) the evil in the first thing – so they cover it up through consistent deception, lying, and other forms of falsehood. They are exalting themselves in a projecting a superior image as opposed to accepting the reality. And third, they aggressively attack anyone who would challenge them on the first and second points.
* Narcissist is the modern colloquial term for what the Bible calls “insolent pride”. Please see here for an explanation.