The Anatomy of Everyday Evil

A new inventory serves as a foundation to further public health by identifying the many facets of maleficence.

Grant H Brenner

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Rene Asmussen/Pexels

“The history of man is a graveyard of great cultures that came to catastrophic ends because of their incapacity for planned, rational, voluntary reaction to challenge.”

-Erich Fromm

Questions surrounding the nature of evil have been of profound importance for humanity since time immemorial. When we try to make sense of how we behave toward one another, how we act within the world, whether we work toward or against the greater good, often we are left confused, disempowered, and distraught, in a state of moral injury relative to harms perpetrated against and around us.

Philosophers and theologians have long struggled to understand malevolent behavior. On an individual level, we make attributions about motivation that help determine how we respond when others perpetrate terrible actions-for example, psychologists studying tensions between Republicans and Democrats have focused on whether we see our opponents as evil-or merely stupid.

When we see others’ behaviors as intentional, we are likely to hold them culpable, attributing blame and judging them harshly-determining how we respond to them (e.g. findings of guilt and consequent punitive responses, versus understanding and leniency).

Mental health researchers are interested in the clinical implications of what Welner and colleagues name “everyday evil”, as articulated in their recent paper in the Journal of Psychiatric Research (2022). In this work, they describe the development of the Welner Inventory of the Everyday Extreme and Outrageous (WIEEO), an instrument developed to assist clinicians and researchers in identifying and assaying different facets of everyday evil as a public health problem, a problem to be addressed not just collectively but one-on-one, for example during consultation with mental health clinicians.

In this view, everyday evil is best prevented by early detection and appropriate intervention, much as other forms of violence, abuse, and neglect are best…

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Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer