Do you have to be intelligent to be evil?

A question like “do you have to be intelligent to be evil” can seem philosophical and vague, but it becomes less theoretical when you apply it to a death penalty court case like the one that has played out in Georgia. Must there be a conniving, Machiavellian mind behind evil, or is it something inherent in anyone — or everyone?

…..At the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s department of cognitive science, a research team explored the logic of evil by programming a computer character named “E” that “acted on” or was motivated by a definition of evil. The Rensselaer crew defined an evil person as one who decided to commit an immoral act without prompting and carry out the plan with the expectation of considerable harm. When reflecting on those deeds, the person would either find incoherent reasons for his or her actions or think the damage caused was good.

….Trying to get an objective answer about evil or intelligence is never going to work. We all have too many inherent prejudices and biases to ever get a response that satisfies us. But looking at something like Dr. Welner’s Depravity Scale does lead me to believe that critical thinking about intelligence and evil does have a purpose in our society: if we’re ever asked to use our own definitions of what is evil and intelligent to judge someone’s actions, we better have a compelling reason to believe our own opinions.

Hakone Open Air Museum
Intelligence and Evil


That was an excerpt from an article I read the other day, and though it goes on to talk about insanity pleas and so on, it reminded me of what weighs on all our minds.

Like a lot of us, I’ve been watching Gaza, and also the Malaysian plane shot down in Ukraine.

Since I can’t do anything else to help this world gone mad, where children are murdered (while they play on a beach or fly 33,000 ft above the earth towards a vacation or their homes), I try to gather positive energies. If the world goes negative, the only thing in my small, insignificant hands is to be positive. I can only add myself to the sum total of positive energies in this world, and thus stand against the negatives.

But somehow, I wonder whether the intelligence that has given us humans such an advantage in evolution would one day be our undoing. (Even in the animal world, it is the dolphins who rape, the chimpanzees who murder– is evil a function of intelligence quotient, after all?)

What do you think? Is what’s happening in the war-torn areas of the world a result of intelligence gone mad? Other than ranting and fighting virtual wars on Facebook, how can we as human beings help undo this horrific situation?


Add Yours
  1. Rudy Owens

    I would say an abundance of war crimes evidence shows you do not have to be intelligent to be evil. I read from a lot of published research that the average age of a guard at the death camp Birkenau (the main killing camp at Auscwhitz) was under 20 years of age, and they all had less than a college education. They also were not deemed to be the most intelligent of the many people who administered the place. They simply fell into the organizational structure/bureaucracy and carried out their orders. Intelligent people were most certainly involved, but uncreative and sometimes unimaginative people carried out evil daily, without really thinking. Here’s but one example of going with the flow and not demonstrating intelligence at all.


  2. jeffguenther8

    We need to abandon the idea the the end justifies the means. We need to teach logic in schools. We need to stop establishing atheism as the state religion. We need to stop elevating envy to a virtue. Stupid people can be evil. Even more so, ignorant people.


  3. Robert Jepson

    A thought provoking post ;) I believe intelligence may perhaps overcome the worlds problems but the barrier is the ego not evil.
    All we can do as individuals is work to understand and control our own egos, becoming beacons of light joining with others. Eventually a tipping point will be reached where the light excedes the dark. Much ax you said ‘I can only add myself to the sum total of positive energies in this world, and thus stand against the negatives.’ ;)


  4. Leigh W. Smith

    “Is what’s happening in the war-torn areas of the world a result of intelligence gone mad? Other than ranting and fighting virtual wars on Facebook, how can we as human beings help undo this horrific situation?” Truly wish I could answer that, Damyanti. I guess I feel that the root of the problem [of war (including societal war, as between rich and poor or different “classes” of people), rape, murder, genocide, incest, abuse, or neglect] lies in empathy. Can you mentally place yourself in that other person’s skin? If you don’t have that empathy, then either you are mentally ill or diseased, so to speak, [which is probably beyond your control in many cases], you are naive/haven’t been taught empathy (although I do feel some empathy is innate), or you are willfully ignorant. So, rather than violence resulting from intelligence, it’s generally stemming from ignorance (which keeps the fear ball rolling and reaping, forever). I also feel that, unfortunately, religion today (and in recent human history) is serving as a great divider of people. Some people fear what is different because they can’t or won’t understand it; the fear and ignorance turn to hate; and hate kills empathy and ignites rage. That is not to say that no good people are religious people or that religion has never sown or reaped good in “this world.”


  5. writingsprint

    Is what’s happening in the war-torn areas of the world a result of intelligence gone mad? Evil happens everywhere, even in the animal kingdom. So does goodness. So I would say the short answer is no. I don’t think it’s a result of intelligence. Kindness and intelligence are what’s needed to stop it from happening. I don’t mean it in a pollyanna way. It would take enough compassion on both sides to push through centuries of hate, and enough intelligence on both sides to come up with solutions both could live with.

    Other than ranting and fighting virtual wars on Facebook, how can we as human beings help undo this horrific situation? Support the international Red Cross to help the victims and refugees on both sides. Write letters to our politicians. Vote for candidates who have more human-centered agendas. Pray, meditate, or do whatever metaphysical thing we do to ask for divine intervention.


  6. etazooma

    I don’t think Evil is a human quality, but a supernatural force that is very present in the world and can and does work through people.
    I prayed about that very thing this morning. What can a person do when others are being harmed in other countries by war, etc, other than sit by and watch from a distance?
    Human beings bear witness to events with their eyes and draw conclusions and are touched by what they see emotionally and intellectually; however, to judge by sight is judging without knowing what is really occurring behind the scenes.
    They are many events that take place in this world that are the result of cause and effect and prophesy; supernatural forces are at play that humans have no control over.
    Prayer is a powerful act of Love! But how many people take the time to pray to a supreme being and ask God to intervene within earthly affairs? Or pray for the healing, wellness and restoration of a land and its people? For God to open the eyes of people to see who they are being and who they are not being? To realize that killing and harming one another isn’t Love. Etc.
    I’m asking a question, not pointing a finger at anyone; that very realization came to my awareness today. I too look and say “how horrible” and my heart is touched by the harm being done unto other human being, but then I say what can I do about it? What I found myself being made aware of today was – have you prayed for your sisters and brothers/your neighbor? And I hadn’t; I hadn’t come before a supreme being/God to receive guidance to, ask for revelation as to what was taking place beyond what my eyes could see; I hadn’t prayed and asked God to come and heal the land and for the people to be healed, restored, etc., and I believe in God and the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s just that for some reason (most likely having my attention on something else other than God) the awareness to do so escaped me, but as soon as I received the revelation – I did so!
    It is so easy to be met with distraction in this world and for ones attention to be diverted away from God; especially if one claims that there is no God and that humans are in control. The only safe haven in this world is to realize that there is a God and to come unto that God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Doing so is the only protection against Evil. And things are only going to get worst in this world, not better.
    The fact remains that because humans don’t know what to do, is a sign that a higher intervention than human intervention is needed; imagine if every human being on this planet was praying for intervention from God? It would reveal to God the hearts of humans on this planet; not praying to a higher being/God also reveals the hearts of humans on this planet.
    Not praying reveals that our thoughts are elsewhere; not being focused on God; or, there’s no belief in God/ a Creator; or that people have went away from God and in some way think that they have the solution to Evil when the truth is humans beings don’t.
    What matters is the hearts of humans being elevated to a point of loving one another; however, humans can’t transform themselves, only God can accomplish that within a human being; never the less, human beings can be made aware of being lost or of being in darkness, and not knowing what to do is being in a state of being lost. People have gone away from God and claimed their own divinity, power, strength and ability to change the world, and the state of the world reflects back to humans that without God it only continues to worsen. Human beings didn’t create themselves or the world.
    I’m thankful for the awareness that came to me today and I’m passing it on! My hope and prayer is that all humans will come back to God and that the entire world will start praying!! God will do the rest!
    God bless Israel, Gaza, America and all people and nations on the earth! I pray God will pour out His Spirit upon the earth; call humans out of darkness; give all people awareness, open eyes and change hearts!
    Love in action is the key! And only God can change hearts!


  7. Dawnasong

    Intelligence can be used for good or evil. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and many others used thir intelligence for good. Evil is a choice. If we focus on the good it gets better, but if we focus on the bad it gets worse. The laws of the universe cannot lie! If we stay in positive energy we will attract more positive energy!
    “The law of attraction.”
    Great article, I enjoyed it greatly. It is persuasive for pondering thought.


  8. burhan ayub

    coincidence or not, I have been thinking the same for the past couple of days. The things going around in world often force me to think negatively and I too try to shrug away these thoughts by shutting myself off all the social networks


  9. AlexM

    “Evil’s behavior” as a crime or as something morally unacceptable for “normal” people? And what and who exactly is “normally normal”? Some of so called “normal” people (politicians, cultural idols and guru of every stripe, so called celebrities and etc.,) do more harm for society than bunch of shoplifters.


  10. masquerade21

    I think to be truly evil you only have to have a desire to harm, the intelligence to understand this desire and it’s evilness and the willingness to act on it. It’s a complex question and every answer will be different. I haven’t made up my mind as to whether you can be evil without intelligence.

    Thanks for following my blog :)


  11. LAMarcom

    “how can we as human beings help undo this horrific situation?”
    I don’t know, but I do know humanity needs to become more humane.

    As one who worked in the Sinai desert for three years and as one who has driven through Gaza many, many, many times (granted, years ago), I completely empathize with the Palestinians. But I also kept a flat in Tel Aviv and had many Israeli friends as well. I often felt the frustration as one just outside-looking-in…
    The whole mess is heartbreaking.


  12. D.J.

    I have seen some unintelligent people in my life doing malevolent things, but never murder. Usually, you learn that’s more of a person with a mentally unstable mind. The only thing you can do as one person is to remain positive and to love all. I know it sounds strange, but kindness is the way to go.


  13. grievingsparrow

    This definitely leaves me thinking. I do not believe intelligence is needed for you to be evil. I do believe though that in the war torn areas of the world…it is more the leaders many times who serve to fuel the fires of war and therefore power and politics play a key role in those areas.


  14. hilarycustancegreen

    Such big questions. The confusing thing is that we are all, all over the world, asking these questions, except the people pulling the strings, who are clearly asking different questions. Personally, I don’t think intelligence is the source or even the correlate of ‘evil’, in fact as I write evil, I have put in quotes as I’m not sure I really believe in it as an entity. I agree, though, that how our brains work is part of the problem. The brain and the rest of the body are full of hormones and these cross with memories, so you get, for instance, testosterone fuelled revenge, and any number of other complexities. I’d better stop before this turns into an essay, but I agree we have to hold our tiny hands out to try and stop this. It might seem incredible, but I believe we are less violent than our ancestors.


    • Leigh W. Smith

      I agree, Hilary. I was uncomfortable with the word “evil,” too, couched as it is in religious philosophies of the world. I guess I think of “evil” (if I have to use that word) as being anti-empathy or without empathy. Someone of X religion will define evil, PERHAPS, as a person who believes in Y religion (or as someone with no religion or no god, gods, or goddesses). If we explore anthropology and biology, in terms of our link to other great apes, I also think we are less violent now than, say, 30,000 or 50,000 years ago — where we have followed the bonobo model, so to speak (make love/art, not war), we have become less violent. I think Greenblatt’s Swerve book might explore this topic some, but, alas, it’s on my shelf still and on my to-read list.


  15. earthstills

    J-P Sartre has a characteristic ‘answer of sorts’ to your question:
    “He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he thought them into being.”


  16. Ian Andrew

    The doing of evil and the concept of evil are fundamentally different things. If self-awareness means intelligence then yes, one needs to be intelligent to understand one has “done evil”. A chicken, thrust into the cock-pit (albeit trained to do so by a suposedly “intelligent” human), can be fairly “evil” in it’s treatment of the other bird but, does it know it is evil? Probably not. If I know it is evil and I carry out the act then it IS evil and I require intelligence to make that assessment. If I, as a human, regard the actions of an animal as evil am I not just projecting my moral sense on to a creature who may not have the same drivers and capacity to understand? Saying all of that, the current upswell in violence prompted by petty-regional differences and religious disharmony are not evil. They are, sadly, par for the Human condition. It ’twas ever so’ and probably will ‘for ever be’.


  17. Ruchi Chopra

    You got wonderful blog!Thought-provoking post,consequences are worst from this kind of unjust & intolerance behavior, I feel terrible wen I heard such kind of news every other day,frustration, anguish,remorse? hope we can change something for better tomorrow.


  18. Anmol Rawat

    No it need not necessary be intelligent. Evil can be created and nurtured by anyone irrespective of the intelligence. People are promoting evil even in the name of religion, what can we expect!


  19. nimadas

    Evil doesn’t need intelligence.A deviant mind may or may not be intelligent,it doesn’t understand the consequences in most times or just doesn’t care. Its so sicking what is happening in the world,what can we do but feel frustration and sorrow.


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