The Hierarchy of Evil


The Hierarchy of Evil


April 26, 2007

Staff writer
Even in the Garden of Eden, questions of evil abounded. Thousands of years later, we are still wrestling with the issue of depravity and the nature of evil.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech University is the latest reminder of the human capacity to act in ways that harm others.

Two psychiatrists, Dr. Michael Stone of Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at New York School of Medicine, are developing systems to rank evil deeds according to degrees of heinousness.

Both scales have implications for the legal system. Welner hopes his scale on depravity will be used as a guideline in criminal sentencing, and Stone's 22-level hierarchy of evil is based on biographies of violent offenders.

Dr. Daryl Koehn, author of The Nature of Evil and chairwoman of business ethics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, said she believes it's dangerous to rank evil behavior.

"It seems to me that the ranking system would say that the people themselves are more evil and not the acts they are committing," Koehn said. "I think it will make us see some people as monsters and completely unlike us."

"I don't believe Cho (Seung-Hui) was a monster," she said. "I think it's a mistake to see him as motivated by malice."

Koehn said we're all "caught up in the same dynamics" of good and evil and are guilty of "identifying with a false self and trying to transfer our pain to others."

When we suffer in some way -- physically, emotionally or otherwise -- we become frustrated and react in different ways, she said. Koehn offered the example of road rage as one modern expression of frustration.

"The false self tells us we are a nobody," she said. "In some ways we are all trying to transfer that pain."

Becky Robertson, a George W. Truett Theological Seminary student from the Ivory Coast, said the universal guilt of humankind manifests itself in different ways.

"We have a natural tendency to say, 'I told a white lie. I didn't kill anybody,'" she said. "We always want to justify our actions, but in the end we are all sinners."

Even though Robertson said distinctions for criminal actions are necessary, she believes the Christian outlook needs a component of grace.

"If we were really caught doing every evil thing we did, what would our consequences be?" she said.

Koehn identified another trouble spot with a ranking system.

"Intent can be a hard thing to establish and rank," she said. "We have to be extremely careful telling people what their intentions are."

Koehn said she believes the current system works well at separating legal levels of offenses, such as distinctions between murder and assault, and doesn't need remodeling.

"I believe it's better to keep focus on the acts themselves rather than the evilness of the individual," she said.

Dr. Dennis Tucker, associate professor of Christian Scriptures at Truett, said while Christianity has not historically had a hierarchy of evil, the issue can be explored outside of a theological context.

"Creating a new way to distinguish levels of crime is entirely different than ranking sins," Tucker said. "It's not an issue of making one sin worse when it's serving the judicial system."

Both Tucker and Kohen highlighted the difference in the understanding of evil in the Old Testament and current culture.

"Today, we talk about someone doing something evil, but in the Old Testament the lines are a little more blurred," Tucker said.

The word evil in Hebrew has a wide range of meanings, he said. In addition to what we commonly understand evil to be, it can also mean "disaster" or "destruction."

"Older ideas of evil in the Hebrew and Greek traditions didn't identify evil with malicious intent, but with suffering," Koehn said.

She said the question as to why God allows evil to exist is becoming of less interest as people begin to question the nature of evil itself.

Tucker echoed Koehn's thoughts, and added that our contemporary culture could learn from the perception of evil in the Old Testament.

"In the Old Testament the idea is that humans create or make evil," he said.

Tucker said he believes the Old Testament wasn't as preoccupied with "the riddle of evil" as Christianity is today.

"In the Old Testament, they understood that evil things happen, and God is still God of the universe," he said. "We have to learn to live with that tension."


Original Source: Baylor University
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CLAIRE ST. AMANT, “The Hierarchy of Evil,” The April 16 Archive, accessed July 16, 2019,