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Horne, M. (2008). Evil Acts not Evil People: Their Characteristics and Contexts. J. Anal. Psychol., 53(5):669-690.

(2008). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 53(5):669-690

Philosophical Studies

Evil Acts not Evil People: Their Characteristics and Contexts

Michael Horne, M.B., B.S.

The problem of evil has vexed philosophers and theologians for centuries and anthropologists, sociologists, psychoanalysts and analytical psychologists in more recent times. Numerous theories have been proposed but there is still little agreement on such basic questions as the nature of evil, what constitutes and motivates an evil act, and how we resolve conflicts between individuals and groups in which evil acts are being committed.

I am proposing that evil should be used as an adjective, and not as a noun. As such it should be employed to qualify acts of persons rather than their character. This change would enable us to eschew foundational explanations of evil and, therefore, to examine evil acts in their contexts and so better discern their nature and motivation.

I will contend that evil acts begin when an individual makes, or members of a group make, assertions about the ‘naturalness’ of their own acts and, correspondingly, the ‘unnaturalness’ of the acts of others. I will suggest that this results from the anxiety that ensues when they cannot adequately signify their experience of these acts. When this occurs, those so treated are dispossessed of their ‘personhood’, allowing members of the ‘natural’ group to violate their ‘boundaries’ with impunity. These violations can range from the relatively innocuous such as being ignored to the extreme such as genocide. I am asserting that all these acts should be termed evil as they derive from the same semiotic process of ‘naturalization’.

I will discuss ways of preventing individuals or groups from embarking on the process of ‘naturalization’ and describe the types of contexts that might reduce or eliminate the commission of evil acts by those already engaged in their perpetration. To demonstrate these ideas I will use examples from my personal experience, from analytic theory and from the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland.

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