Is that evil a necessity?

Constanze Dennig on the psychology of evil

Constanze Dennig deals with human abysses in several ways: She works on the one hand as a specialist in psychiatry and neurology and on the other hand as a writer. The tough Viennese private investigator and psychiatrist Alma Liebekind plays the main role in her thrillers - brand new in “Böse Samariter”.
For you, Constanze Dennig has now dealt with the psychology of evil, because: What is it anyway, evil?



Evil is constantly changing

What is meant by "the evil"? For now: “Evil” as a basic truth does not exist.

Theologians and philosophers have been dealing with the concept of evil for thousands of years.

“Evil” and its opposite, “good”, are vague terms that are intended to regulate coexistence in communities for cultural and religious reasons. Accordingly, “evil” means something different in every society and epoch. It is therefore necessary to define the term “evil” in a temporal and social context. What was "bad" 1000, 100, even 50 years ago, differs far from our modern western moral concepts.

While 100 years ago it was by no means reprehensible to chastise one's children, even one's wife, there is a general consensus in our present society that physical violence of any kind is "bad". If it is very well accepted in other law firms that underage girls can be married when they reach sexual maturity and are thus also available for sexual use by their husbands, this is by no means accepted in the western world. Whoever kills in war is a hero, whoever kills his neighbor is a murderer.

The rule of what is bad is also subject to necessity in a community. For example, when defending a group against a real or supposed enemy externally, a more generous interpretation of the term “evil” applies than within a group.


Good and bad as common guidelines for social coexistence

"Evil" is still subject to archaic rules, although humanity wanted to bring "evil" into binding forms very early on (for example in the Codex Hammurapi, 18th century BC, or through the 10 commandments of God in the Bible). Viewed religiously and stately, the concept of evil also serves to guide the people. The ruler, be it a god or a secular ruler, takes hold of this term and, by threatening to punish the "evil" act, directs his flock. The aspect that evil has to be atoned for is something “evil” has in common in all cultures and epochs. The consequence of the punishment, whether during one's lifetime or only after death, makes “evil” evil. Thus, in the course of epochs or when the political system changes, bad behavior can also turn into acceptance of exactly the same act, even into “good” and vice versa. Just think of homosexuality, which was once a mortal sin and is now seen in Western culture as an enrichment for communal diversity. Conversely, National Socialism taught us that positive behavior, such as tolerance towards other cultures, can very quickly change into undesirable behavior, even into socially propagated “evil”. “Evil” is exclusively an agreement of a group of people and accordingly depends on the external and internal circumstances of living together.

This also explains why “the bad” as well as “the good” is an epigenetic as well as an immediate learning process.


Is Evil Innate?

Constanze Dennig is a specialist in psychiatry and neurology and a writer. Photo: David Payr

Epigenetics (changes in the genetic material of our ancestors as a result of experiences through them), together with individual experiences in the social environment, shapes our attitude towards what is good and bad. Psychological trauma not only causes injuries to the soul, but also damages the genetic make-up! This means that people who have had negative experiences in their childhood and even later, pass them on to the next generation not only through upbringing, but also in their genes. Unfortunately, this has the consequence that these people are often unable to empathize with the generally socially recognized code of values. Because empathy is the basic requirement for “the good”! Empathy describes the ability and willingness to recognize and understand feelings, thoughts, emotions, motives and personality traits of another person. Without empathy one is not able to recognize the injustice of one's actions and thus cannot differentiate between good and evil - according to whatever cultural guidelines. Experts differ on the development of empathy. Some posit an innate empathy that is only modified by upbringing, while another group of researchers think that empathy is exclusively a product of human socialization. The fact is that this property can also be influenced hormonally (oxytocin). Empathy is the prerequisite for being able to empathize with the suffering that you inflict on other people. Criminals who are incapable of doing this can intellectually recognize guilt, but cannot feel it. This means that, for example, they may well understand a murder they have committed as an act as illegal, but they lack any pity for the victim. On the contrary, it may even be that they cannot understand why they are being punished and therefore feel self-pity for the unpleasant consequences.


An interplay of external influences and genetic requirements

The reaction of a person to the suffering of another is triggered in the lobe of the island, the insular lobe, which is part of the cortex (cerebral cortex). This insula is connected to the limbic system and the thalamus, which in turn evoke the emotion. We are already able to examine the brains of psychopaths - because that is the psychiatric term for people who cannot feel empathy - using PET (positron emission spectrography) and magnetic resonance imaging. It was found that in many psychopaths large parts of the paralimbic and limbic systems were structurally weaker than in the general population. However, not every psychopath has to be a convicted criminal. Psychopaths just cannot empathize with the other they are harming. Many of the successful managers who walk over dead bodies are psychopaths, but also many people who successfully manipulate and take advantage of their empathetic fellow citizens. In general, one can say that psychopaths are individuals who do not feel empathy. It follows that “evil” is an interplay of social, learned constraints as well as genetic, epigenetic requirements. We will see to what extent brain research will provide data in the future that will enable us to identify criminals at an early stage. It remains to be seen whether this will create an Orwellian society or serve the well-being of the population.



On the trail of evil is Alma Liebekind, whose chronic curiosity always keeps her busy. When a man dies in front of her eyes on New Year's Eve after the pummer and the corks pop, there is no stopping them - and Alma goes on a hunt for criminals in Vienna ...
From Leopoldstadt to Alsergrund, from Stephansplatz to Naschmarkt, the resolute Alma shines a light on criminal souls. Accompany Alma in her investigation through the Austrian capital!