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We Call It "Insanity" Because We Do Not Understand Morality

We Call It "Insanity" Because We Do Not Understand Morality

Walter Donway

April 19, 2022

I hear, today, from rightfully outraged friends: “Putin is insane!”

In New York City, now, a single shooter has been identified as the murderer of three homeless individuals. “Some insane guy…”

It is horrible, “these insane guys” who push people off the subway platform into the path of oncoming trains.

We “medicalize morality.” We “medicalize crime.” It seems we even medicalize war crimes and genocide.

This phenomenon is not unknown, even to contemporary psychiatry. We “medicalize morality.” We “medicalize crime.” It seems we even medicalize war crimes and genocide. That observation is not limited to philosophical opponents of a deterministic view of human behavior, including of crime at every scale. But having observed the medicalizing of what used to be called “evil,” or “wicked,” psychiatry does not know how to respond. For contemporary psychiatry, professional moral judgments are a deadly third rail. Psychiatry limits itself, today, to research on why and how people make moral judgments.

If Vladimir Putin is explained, and condemned, as “insane,” then morality has no reality.

If Vladimir Putin, however, never mind Adolf Hitler, is explained, and condemned, as “insane,” then morality has no reality. It has been superseded by psychiatry. Actions initiated by individuals—like systematically murdering New York City’s homeless—become headaches for psychiatry. They are not the result of an individual’s flinging aside the fundamental choice of human beings to focus on reality (to reason) or, in default, to act on our emotions, or, in other cases, on norms of a society enmeshed in irrational philosophy (e.g., Nazi Germany).

I disagree. Killers, with a few exceptions, are not candidates for psychiatry. We should not ask Putin what childhood experiences, sibling relationships, disappointments and deprivations, and abuse move him now to kill those people in Ukraine, including pregnant women, children, fleeing refugees. What “makes” him do it? That is to ask for a recitation of excuses.

The Psychology of Evil

Psychology is not irrelevant, of course. Philosopher and novelist, Ayn Rand, has portrayed in her novels, and analyzed in other writings, the pathology of the power seeker. That returns us to some fundamentals of human nature. It is a truism that all animal behavior, including human behavior, can be explained. But the radical difference with human behavior is that one explanation is choice. Human consciousness at the conceptual level is volitional, we can choose in the face of uncertainty—a question, a decision—to “focus” on reality as the only source of an answer. It is the uniquely human capacity to activate the conceptual level of cognition, to ask: “What is this?” “What am I dealing with?” “What is the reality, here?”

If the individual systematically evades awareness that focus, an exertion of mental effort, attention to reality is demanded in a situation, then the alternative sources of guidance are emotions, the ideas of others, or simply a pattern of anti-effort. As James Taggart, one of the evil characters in Atlas Shrugged is introduced, he is saying, in response to an emergency: “Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me.”

Peter Keating in The Fountainhead is willing to exert an effort. But he seeks answers to uncertainty, lack of self-confidence, and conflicts in what those “in the know” believe. If they are famous, praised, and followed, then their judgment should substitute for Keating’s.

In the works of Ayn Rand, there are many exemplars of choices and behavior guided by emotions. In The Fountainhead it is Ellsworth Toohey—so typically, in that novel, sharply delineated in his psychology as intellectual, articulate, and superficially confident—who is driven by an intense sense of inferiority acquired while growing up. It is an emotion that causes him to seize the weapon of ideas and intellect only to control others and, above all, to destroy the awful enemy who will not be controlled: Howard Roark, who will not accept Toohey’s universe of emotional manipulations as reality. And to whom Toohey himself has no reality: “But Mr. Toohey, I don’t think of you.”

In Atlas Shrugged, the character who defaults from focusing on reality to emotion is Lillian Rearden.

In Atlas Shrugged, the character who defaults from focusing on reality to emotion is Lillian Rearden. In a sense, she is portrayed more “realistically” than Toohey. She whines, wishes, manipulates and ultimately rages and hates. It is a portrait far more familiar in the reader’s experience than Toohey. Both are psychologically real—and both give us different insights. My hunch is that Ayn Rand created the character of Toohey influenced by Victor Hugo’s writings. She said that even Hugo’s villains have a certain “cleanliness” in their consciousness of their motives. That is true of Toohey. I suspect that as Ayn Rand sought to capture the character of the “whim worshipper” in Atlas Shrugged, Lillian Rearden’s foggy, emotionally self-indulgent consciousness—and her final self-destructive enactment of a “reality” (sex with James Taggart) that she felt would destroy her husband—seemed much closer to what her readers know than is Toohey.

Psychology or Immorality

If this is a rogue’s gallery of personality types who default on the choice to think, to focus on reality, then aren’t we dealing with psychological problems, psychiatric cases? And are these driven, tormented individuals also to be called “immoral,” “evil”?

The answer is that each personality type is a variant on the choice to think or not to think, to focus the mind on reality, or default to emotions, social conformity, or anti-effort. It is important to grasp that this is a choice. It is made not once but repeatedly, hour by hour, day by day, when confusion, uncertainty, guilt, and emotional conflict signal to an individual the need to consult the facts and logic. Implied in the very nature of those feelings like confusion is that a source of certainty, relief of guilt, and unconflicted feelings does exist. It is reality, the only reality in which we live or can live.

To respond to those signals to focus the mind on reality by ignoring them, evading them, is to decide, in effect, that “anything goes.” If reality is not the guide, the standard, the final arbiter, then there isn’t one. Anything goes. And when “anything goes” in a mind, history ends up asking, in disbelief: How could anyone do that?

Sometimes the outcome is a life of self-doubt, emotional conflict, and profound resentment of “a world I never made.” But, sometimes, in other circumstances, the result is Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and, recently, Vladimir Putin.

The opportunities, abilities, energy, and passion are specific to an individual. The common denominator is a self-made soul. Choices not once but daily and hourly, year after year, create the man that is Napoleon or Nelson, Locke or Kant, Jefferson or Robespierre.

All are souls, personalities, on history’s stage, created by ultimately free choices that they made. Not a fatal single choice. That is not how souls are fashioned.

A Nero, Stalin, Hitler, or Putin is self-created choice by choice as a pattern becomes a habit and then a policy and then their psychology. Again, to choose as our basis for decisions, judgments, anything but reality—a focus on truth—spins destiny’s roulette wheel. Some such individuals will become the petty irrational tyrants of the home, office, marriage. Others, with different abilities and opportunities, will stride into history to dispose of the lives of millions, exalt in power lust, or fight for “what my tribe always believed,” or sigh, “Who cares”—as did the anti-effort heirs of mighty kings and emperors, who lived for the feast, bed, and hunt, but insisted on exercising absolute power…to do nothing.

“Sheer Thoughtlessness”: The “Banality” of Adolf Eichmann’s Evil

It can seem difficult to conceive of evil as originating in the use or refusal to use our conceptual faculty. In her famous 1963 article for The New Yorker, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of the Nazi functionary, Adolf Eichmann, for organizing the deportation and transportation of Jews to the Nazi concentration and extermination camps. She called Eichmann a “desk murderer,” a man she did not think had had monstrous motives. Instead, she wrote, “It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed [him] to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.” Eichmann, she concluded, was “terrifyingly normal”—a human being who simply did not think very deeply about what he was doing.

It can seem difficult to conceive of evil as originating in the use or refusal to use our conceptual faculty.

What should we make of this? A man employed in the German National Socialist (Nazi) government bureaucracy knows that his job is arranging the logistics of shipping innocent men, women, and children to where they will be murdered. He knows the consequences of what he is actively arranging every day. He, too, is a human being with a life, a job, a family, friends… This, I submit, is an occasion—emphatically so—to think. Not to decline to think, decline persistently and habitually, which Arendt calls “thoughtlessness.” Not to “just not think very deeply about what he was doing.” In the context, Eichmann’s evasion, his disinclination to exert the effort of focusing the mind on the reality of his role—and perhaps his indulgence of emotions of fear or embarrassment at the consequences if he took responsibility—were in the context his first evil choices.

Perhaps our problem, today, is that the term “evil” connotes possession by malevolent powers. Connotes the mind’s rejection of this or that god. For centuries, in Europe, evil was rejection of the Church of Rome—or, for others, embracing the Church of Rome—or rejection of religion as such—and the punishment was death in the flaming faggots heaped about the stake.

This historically embedded philosophical distortion removed morality, and our concept of evil, from the earth. To this day, many cannot understand “evil” in a non-mystical sense. The mere choices we make, how we behave on this earth, may be judged as misguided, wrong, bad, very bad, criminal, or insane. But those labels do not convey the moral judgment: evil. We will not pronounce someone “evil” because that is the judgment of Heaven.

And yet, during the age of faith, probably no malefactor—and they were many and terrible—committed atrocities against humanity comparable to those in our time of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot….

It is time to bring morality down to earth. Should we jettison the word “evil,” then, and find one more comfortably secular? I don’t think so, for the same reason that Ayn Rand insisted upon the uncomfortable term “selfishness” in the title The Virtue of Selfishness. We must insist on using “evil” because its historical associations scare people. It unequivocally connotes that morality is real, contextually absolute, the currency of our salvation or damnation on earth, and our proper first concern. It denies relativism, pragmatism, human resources office “ethics,” and the criminal justice system’s social-work morality—among other, well…evils. It scares us because we do not want to concede such paramount importance, such gravity, to morality.

Do not call Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot “insane.” That, as discussed earlier, is the plea of individuals whose brains are demonstrably compromised to preclude choice, judgment, and behavioral control. There is no option but to lock them up permanently as the ruined humans that they are.

In fact, to routinely label the mass murderer “insane” is to defame those afflicted with severe psychopathology. Some horrendous crimes are associated with psychopathic individuals, but not the majority, and there seems to be no direct cause and effect. Studies have sought repeatedly to identify the part that psychopathology plays in crimes, including mass murder. The FBI in 2018 looked at the cases of 63 “active shooters” and reported (with individuals often in more than one category) that 40 percent had received a psychiatric diagnosis at some point before the shooting, 70 percent had “mental health stressors,” before the attack, and 86 percent had “suicidal ideation.”

Dozens of studies like the one described above actively sought a correlation between psychopathology and mass killing and did identify a significant amount of psychopathology.  On the other hand, many of the killers–like other monsters of our time—could not be called “insane.” Many of their mental health issues as described are common in the population at large. Like the rest of us, many were “self-made men”—making choices, including defaulting on choice, as real and impactful as choices that created our heroes.

Aristotle on the Absence or Privation of the Good

Where to begin? We might see what Aristotle thinks because Ayn Rand has said that he frequently has the answer or a lead to an answer.

Evil in Aristotle by Pavlos Kontos (ed.) was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018. A reviewer of the volume begins “In Aristotle’s philosophy, there is no source or principle of evil as there is of good…. Badness does not exist in the category of substance, whereas the supreme good is existence par excellence. Furthermore, there is no contrary to this ‘primary being’…. How then, does evil get a foothold? Extreme badness is for Aristotle not something substantial or a source or principle in its own right but rather the absence or privation of good.” [Section and page reference omitted.]

The review goes on: “In the past, most have assumed that since he has neither an evil intelligence, like Satan, nor a source of everything bad, such as Plato’s receptacle, there is no theory of evil in Aristotle. A claim the book wishes to ‘defend’ is ‘that Aristotle has a theory of evil that is both highly elaborate and attractive.’”

You probably do not want to wade through this book, but a brief reference to one contributor to the book suggests that the discussion has not changed in 2500 years:

“In ‘Aristotle on Psychopathology’, Giles Pearson posits that Aristotle thinks that since the bestial person is ‘living by his senses alone’…he or she lacks any reasoning capability.

“In ‘Aristotle on Psychopathology’, Giles Pearson posits that Aristotle had ‘an early, and fairly sophisticated, sketch of psychopathology’… Preferring to translate thêriotês as brutish, [Pearson]…focuses on the causes of this extreme personality, according to Aristotle—nature, disease and habit…. The bestial (or brutish) state of character is perhaps the closest we get in Aristotle to pure human evil, resulting in behaviors such as murder, cannibalism, and rape…. However, one might wonder if members of this rare group are evil or rather merely sick, and their defect, however it is caused, isn’t part of the moral realm. This is presumably why Aristotle says it is not as bad as vice…; it is not something that deserves our censure and is thereby also incurable. Pearson, however, carves out space for moral censure and therapy for psychopathology, but only in certain cases. For Pearson, in contrast to Kontos, the fully bestial character lacks all reasoning capability. Human reasoning for Aristotle has two aspects: knowing the good or fine and instrumental reasoning about how to reach this end. Kontos argues that, like many intelligent non-human animals, the bestial person will possess instrumental reasoning. Pearson, on the other hand, thinks that since the bestial person is ‘living by his senses alone’…he or she lacks any reasoning capability.”

The Default on Reasoning

Aristotle’s concept of evil as the absence or privation of the good became one perspective running through the entire history of discussions of the nature of evil. It is Ayn Rand’s perspective on evil, also, which she sees as the default that occurs when an individual evades reality, fails to focus on the facts and logical connections implicit in a situation, decision, problem, question, or judgment. The default is to be impelled by whatever emotions the individual is feeling, guided by what others think and do, or just not to initiate the mental effort of focusing the mind. All are the absence or privation of the fundamental human virtue: rationality—as a mental action, habit, commitment, and personality trait. If reason is a value, then the varieties of default on reason are disvalues. If rationality is a virtue, then irrationality is a vice. If consistent rationality in response to life’s challenges is good, then consistent default on rationality in response to those challenges is evil. The consequences of the two opposite policies will depend upon the context, the stakes. The evil is the same.

Contemporary Neuroscience Speaks Up

I think readers realize that many neuroscientists today would dismiss this discussion as uninformed. One popular writer about neuroscience, Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D., biology professor and professor of neuroscience, and researcher in neuroendocrinology, at Stanford University, published Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Vintage Digital, 2017), hailed as a work of genius, as astonishing, “800 brisk pages…[on] nearly every facet of the human condition” from moral philosophy to genetics. I have not read it, but Vox interviewed Sapolsky in 2017, entitling the interview “A Stanford Scientist on the Biology of Human Evil.”

For Sapolsky, there isn’t any human evil because there isn’t any free will: “On the one hand, it seems obvious to me [Sapolsky] and to most scientists thinking about behavior that there is no free will. And yet it’s staggeringly difficult to try to begin to even imagine what a world is supposed to look like in which everybody recognizes this and accepts this.”

Interviewer: “Our entire notion of moral and legal responsibility is thrown into doubt the minute we fully embrace this truth, so I’m not sure we can really afford to own up to the implications of free will being an illusion.”

Prof. Sapolsky: “I think that’s mostly right. As individuals and a society, I’m not sure we’re ready to face this fact. But we could perhaps do it bits and pieces at a time.”

Does Prof. Sapolsky have a plan about what, um…should be done in a world where choice has no reality and everything is determined by so many layers of causes (genetics, brain structure, synaptic connections, hormones, conditioning) that free choice is unimaginable?

Yes, he does: “There’s very little about our behaviors that are inevitable, including our worst behaviors. And we’re learning more and more about the biological underpinnings of our behavior, and that can help us produce better outcomes. As long as you have a ridiculously long view of things, things are getting better.”

My translation: Neuroscientists will be determined to learn more and more about how human nature works, be determined to focus on what they are determined to view is better behavior, will be determined to use the findings of neuroscience to “produce better outcomes” because they are determined to “have a ridiculously long view,” and, therefore, by no choice of our own, “things are getting better.”

I hate to assert the determined view that my brain has been programmed to reach, but don’t expect contemporary scientific research to clarify the nature of human evil. To Prof. Sapolsky, the idea is laughable. Human volition to him is inconceivable (although the world without it also is inconceivable).

Neuroscientists like physicists for the most part simply assume the mechanistic (billiard-ball-hits-billiard-ball) view of causality for which David Hume is best known. In effect, Hume chose to focus on only one aspect of causality, sometimes called “efficient cause,”—and, ever since, so has science. Ignored today is the view that prevailed for centuries before Hume. Aristotle’s highly sophisticated analysis of the four types of causality (of which one is “efficient” cause) explains things that Hume (and Sapolsky) banish to the realm of superstition. For Aristotle, the cause of an entity’s actions (including behavior) is its identity. That applies to the brain and its potential to act. Because we observe introspectively that we must choose to focus our minds in order to think conceptually (question, compare, analyze, generalized), the job of neuroscience is to explain how the nature of our brains makes possible a mind with the ability to initiate conceptual mental activities.

On this view, human beings choose their behavior because it begins and follows from their radical freedom to think—to activate the conceptual level of consciousness. And so, to pose the question of free will is not to ask: How can bouncing atoms or firing brain cells or chemically and electrically mediated synapses become something called “free” will?

A phenomenon experienced by everyone, even Prof. Sapolsky, must be explained—not “explained away” by “science” that channels David Hume.

As a footnote: Some neuroscientists have made the investigation of free will a continuing thread in the field. For example, one influential set of experiments identified what came to be called “readiness potential” (RP). Investigations reported identifying a flurry of brain activity microseconds before individuals are aware of initiating a movement. From this brain activity “preceding subjectively spontaneous voluntary movements,” they concluded that the cause of a movement began before our mind became involved. This was offered as proof that free will is an illusion. For some time, the “current” thinking of neuroscience was that free will had been refuted. But, more recently, investigators have dismissed RP as no more than the ebb and flow of “neuronal noise” in our brains, not our brains revving up movements that we then attribute to our choice to act. So “free will” is again an open question with some neuroscientists.

The Reality of Choice Underlies Moral Judgment

Sick or evil? The discussion has not changed. Today, it usually focuses on psychopathology, which, in the extreme, I believe, is what Aristotle means by a fully “bestial” character. Could the defendant in a criminal trial know the nature and moral import of his or her actions? That is an assessment of brain function that at least theoretically can be objective. Thus, the category “not guilty by reason of insanity” is a diagnosis offered in mitigation of the actions of violent criminals. For the most part, our criminal justice system has no problem excusing them from capital punishment but locking them up. This is not on the theory that they are “evil,” which sent men and women to the stake a few centuries ago, but that they are a danger to society.

In fact, though, neuroscience and psychiatry mostly refuse to commit to a decision about the psychopath’s capacity for self-control. A statement in a leading journal: “Psychopathy is a neuropsychiatric disorder marked by deficient emotional responses, lack of empathy, and poor behavioral controls, commonly resulting in persistent antisocial deviance and criminal behavior. Accumulating research suggests that psychopathy follows a developmental trajectory with strong genetic influences, and which precipitates deleterious effects on widespread functional networks, particularly within paralimbic regions of the brain…. Here we review…literature that informs our understanding of the brain systems compromised in psychopathy.”

In other words, the author characterizes the psychopath as struggling against a compromised brain system that results in “poor behavioral controls…” It seems the field is not prepared to equate psychopathy, as such, with behavior not within the individual’s control. This leaves uncertain the decision to regard let’s say a psychopathic killer as “insane” or “evil.” There are degrees of psychopathic disorder and, in general, if untreated, it worsens with time. Thus we are on a kind of borderline between “insane” and “evil.”

Good and Evil  

We can approach the question of the reality of evil simply by asking if anyone ever is morally culpable: If the kids who enjoy tormenting their classmate, even while thinking “Thank God that poor kid isn’t me!” are just “disturbed” or if they are bad. Not irredeemably bad, at that point, but entertaining the experience of power and the deliciousness of getting away with it. Bad.

If we admit such commonplace immorality, not merely being mistaken or having a “psychological problem (although perhaps that also),” then we can admit the existence of evil that is invited into the personality and permitted to consume it. We can admit that Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or Pol Pot (Putin is not in their league, yet) are what they seem—human beings given over to evil. They are self-made monsters by an evasion of reality made habitual, whatever the layers of rationalization by ideology that have been piled atop it.

In the end, we must decide if we can do “good,” do what is “right,” rise to “heroism.” Because those concepts are meaningless if they do not result from our choice. If choice is not real, then there is no praiseworthy “good,” or “right.” If the “good” and “right” are not chosen in the face of an alternative, they are mere deterministic programming that is not praiseworthy in a moral sense.

If, on the other hand, there are genuine and praiseworthy choices, then the alternative, too, must be genuine. It may seem comfortable, for the moment, to deny the existence of “evil.” To safely categorize even the worst crimes as an act of the “insane.” But as we do, we deny the reality of the good and the right—deprive them of the admiration earned by choosing them when another perhaps far different choice was possible.

It is our own nature that we define, and severely limit, when we conclude that a Stalin, Hitler, Mao, or Putin can be fully characterized by the term “insane.”

We then must limit our characterization of their opposites—whom we wish to call “good” “great,” and “heroic”—to the term “sane.”


  1. We call “insane” individuals who are evil.
  2. But “insane” and “evil” must be distinguished.
  3. Ayn Rand characterizes morality—including the judgment “evil”—as beginning with the choice to think (on the volitional, conceptual level) or evade thinking.
  4. That choice to focus on facts and logic germane to our decisions, actions, is the essential moral act; its opposite is the decision that “anything goes”—the abdication of morality.
  5. The moral monsters among humans are self-made by their choices derived from the fundamental choice to think or not to think.
  6. The foremost scholar of modern totalitarian evil, Hannah Arendt, characterizes Adolf Eichmann as persistently “thoughtless,” mentally passive about his job as chief logistics planner for shipping German Jews to death camps.
  7. Our cultural resistance to making the judgment “evil” goes back to the religious origins of the term. We must secularize the term because we have no equivalent that carries its connotations about the reality and paramount importance of morality in our lives.
  8. To call brutal criminals and mass murders “insane” defames individuals with severe psychiatric illness. Mental health issues, including psychopathic illness, indeed are found frequently in populations of mass killers. But, by any measure, individuals with those illnesses rarely are criminals.
  9. Aristotle, whose writings hold the key to many philosophical questions, viewed “evil” not as positively existing, but as an absence or privation of the good. Psychopaths he seemed to view as lacking essential human capacities, notably moral reasoning. He did not include them among the “evil” who possessed moral reasoning but chose vice.
  10. This is consistent with Ayn Rand’s view. If reason is a value, rationality a virtue, and a consistent policy of rationality the good, then their absence, privation, is bad.
  11. Contemporary neuroscientists like Robert Sapolsky view “free will” as a naïve concept, a superstition. Other neuroscientists actively investigate how our brains could enable and mediate free will.
  12. The crux is that without free will, the concept of “morality” has no meaning. The unchosen warrants neither praise nor condemnation. For science, today, the chief obstacle to entertaining the possibility of free will is viewing causation as philosopher David Hume’s “billiard ball table” notion of “efficient” causality. Aristotle’s sophisticated understanding of causality was that the nature (identity) of an entity (such as the human brain) is the cause of its actions. This view frees science to explain what is introspectively evident—our choice to focus our minds to “think through” something.
  13. If we affirm that human behavior can be “good” or “right,” then we accept that we can choose in the face of an alternative. Choice and morality are inseparable.
  14. If human choice is real and can be praiseworthy, then other choices can be both real and immoral.
  15. We cannot deny that proposition, not without delimiting our own personalities and speaking of what we approve of not as “good” or “right,” but only as “sane.”

This article was originally published on TheSavvyStreet.Com and has been republished with the author's permission.

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