There's been a lot of loose talk of "evil" in the wake of the twin shocks of the Penn State scandal and the Aurora massacre. We touched upon the topic of what neuroscience might have to say about unspeakable acts before (see, for example, "Will Brain Scan Analysis Replace M'Naghten Rules?") What I like about yesterday's New Yorker blog essay "What Do We Mean By Evil?" is that it connects the threads of horror underlying the conclusion that someone is evil to our impulse for justice:
“Evil” has become the word we apply to perpetrators who we’re both unable and unwilling to do anything to repair, and for whom all of our mechanisms of justice seem unequal: it describes the limits of what malevolence we’re able to bear. In the end, it’s a word that says more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor. As Dews writes, “Basic notions of offence and punishment, of transgression and forgiveness, seem to lose their grip in the face of profound, far reaching desecrations of the human.” For those kinds of crimes, “evil” is still the only word we’ve got.