Dr. Michael Stone, a Forensic Psychiatrist from Columbia University, is perhaps best known in popular culture as the the host of the Discovery Channel show, ‘Most Evil’. In ‘Most Evil’, Stone developed and employed a ‘scale of evil’ which took into account a number of factors with the aim of categorizing perpetrators of heinous crimes.
Exactly how one defines evil is hugely problematic and depends on your theological, philosophical and sociological stance, as well as your understanding of psychopathology. We have increasingly become uncomfortable, and I would argue for very good reasons, in applying the term ‘evil’ to describe an individual as opposed to a set of behaviours and moral choices.
And this vexed issue becomes particularly relevant when it applies to children. In Dr. Stone’s ‘Big Think’ contribution entitled ‘The Psychopathology of Evil Children’, he explains that a very small percentage of children express callous and unemotional (CU) traits which consist of a persistent pattern of behavior characterised by a disregard for others and a lack of empathy. Although these traits and associated behaviours cannot be ‘cured’, there are behavioural and pharmaceutical approaches that can, albeit to a very limited degree, ameliorate the negative effects explains Dr. Stone. This raises the interesting question of whether we can identify a neurochemistry or genetics of ‘evil’ as Dr. Stone seems to suggest; my own thoughts are that this reductionist approach is not likely to yield all the answers we need. Moreover, the prospect, and indeed practice, of branding children as intrinsically ‘evil’ does not sit easily with me and may even be counterproductive.
You can watch Dr. Stone’s ‘Big Think’ interview here: