Research psychiatrists say they can now quantify evil, and they will be lobbying state legislatures to adopt their “depravity ratings” for use by courts determining whether to impose the death penalty on convicted murderers.
Long seen as a subjective moral term, evil, two recent studies of criminal personalities claim, can now be measured objectively.
“People say evil is like pornography – they know it when they see it, but can debate whether or when it is harmful,” Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at New York University, told the London Telegraph. “This is not true. We are finding widespread agreement about what is evil.”
Welner’s research has focused on the scientific definition of “aggravating” factors in crimes that could guide judges and juries charged with imposing the death penalty.
“Jurors are left to decide on the fate of criminals on the basis of mere emotions, and we want to define the term,” says Welner. “It might sound like parsing words to us, but it would not do so to the victim. We need a serious attempt to engage evil in the modern world: we have lost our compass of what is unacceptable. If there is a clear sense of what is beyond the pale, or evil, it is easier to promote good.”
Welner’s depravity scale is based on contributions of thousands of people who contributed their understanding of evil to a website. Aggravating-factor scores reflect criminals’ intent, action and attitude. Those committing crimes for excitement or to terrorize or as a result of prejudice would be measured as having a more depraved intent.
A second study, conducted by Dr. Michael Stone, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, developed 22 “gradations of evil” based on the lives of 500 killers held in a New York psychiatric center.
“After years of study, we have learned to recognize the traits of these people – what they do and why they do it,” Stone says. “It is time to give them the proper appellation – evil.”
Stone’s depravity scale ranges from the least evil – those who kill in self-defense – to the most evil – “psychopathic torture murderers, with torture their primary motive.” Factors such as a history of having been abused, being a jealous lover or showing remorse are factored into the scoring.
Dr. Welner says his research has already drawn the attention of public prosecutors and defense lawyers. He expects his depravity scale to be adopted by U.S. courts charged with imposing capital punishment.
“It is already being used informally by these lawyers,” Welner says. “But we want to submit it to legislatures for formal adoption into state criminal and civil (tort) law … I do believe it will become part of our system of law within a few years.”