The Apostle Paul writes:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. (Romans 7:15-23)
Christians understand that evil is a reality, both personal and cosmic, that is chosen through free will, but what is the line between evil and mental illness? I should state strongly and unequivocally that I am not suggesting that mental illness is by definition "evil" or that people suffering from mental illnesses are "evil," but Eliot Cohen has raised this question in Psychology Today in his post "Are Evil People Crazy?" He raises a number of intriguing points and questions in his post, some of which are difficult to answer definitively, such as the defintion of someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder:
According to the DSM 4-TR,"The essential feature of Antisocial Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood." (p. 701)
Does this defintion simply describe someone who acts against agreed upon moral codes, who chooses willingly to break God's law - this is my language, not Cohen's - or is such behavior grounded in a real disease? Personal responsibility would seem to at stake here.
Cohen raises in this regard the critique of Thomas Szasz, who for decades has argued against the psychiatric establishment:
But some "anti-psychiatrists," notably Thomas Szasz, would argue that mental illness is itself a myth; and that therefore terms such as "sociopath" and "Antisocial Personality Disorder" are themselves just moral judgments disguised as empirically verifiable psychiatric disorders. "We call people mentally ill," argues Sasz, "when their personal conduct violates certain ethical, political, and social norms." Is this view correct? Is calling someone a sociopath, or saying that the person has Antisocial Personality Disorder, merely a concealed way of calling the person evil?
On the other hand, from the ancient world until now, many thinkers would argue that to disobey the dictates of reason persistently would render one "ill":
Ancient natural law theorists such as Aristotle, medieval theorists such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, and contemporary theorists such as Eric Fromm would not have a problem with making the stated assumption. For these theorists, there are certain basic human tendencies that are "normal" and those who deviate from them are, in effect, mentally ill. Thus all of the aforementioned theorists hold that human beings are by nature social creatures. So, people who kill, rape, and steal from others are transgressing this moral order of nature.
Cohen also notes that certain thinkers have also opted for moral standards as "relativistic" and humanly created, having no natural or divine origin. It seems to me that there are then a number of approaches one could take from Cohen's article: evil is always simply a moral choice and so one remains personally responsible; persistent evil is the result of a definable "illness" which renders one less (or not) responsible for one's behavior; defining evil as illness masks personal reponsibility (Thomas Szasz's approach); or evil is a human construct.
Missing from Cohen's discussion, as it is not a discussion of religion, is Paul's solution to evil: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25a). On the other hand, most of the approaches noted in his article, apart from the relativistic approach, can find a home in a Christian understanding of evil such as Paul's just described. Yet a question still remains: if someone is suffering from a genuine illness which leads to evil acts as a result of that illness, to what extent does this person remain personally responsible?
John W. Martens
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