Most helpful critical review
76 of 89 people found the following review helpful
Too little result for such a long read
on February 9, 2006
Important topic, promising approach, but the insights offered are too few and too shallow.
I bought this book partly on the strength of its readers' reviews here on Amazon, but found myself disappointed. The book's subtitle, "inside human violence and cruelty," promises much, but the author, I feel, has not really delivered.
A social psychologist, Baumeister avoids a philosophical and theological discussion of evil in favor of a psychological one, based on facts gleaned from history and experiment. This approach is attractive and promising, but somehow, in almost 400 long pages, not much seems to come of it. Too often I felt that the insights offered by Baumeister were mere banalities, such as that evil acts are experienced more strongly by victims than by their perpetrators--a point Baumeister repeats many, many times.
The author uses this observation to conclude that "evil is in the eye of the beholder"--and even launches the book with a clever anecdote about an event in which two people see each other as evildoers, despite no intentional act of harm being committed. But this is surely a special case, and not comparable to the operation of a system of death-camps, or hacking apart defenseless people huddling for safety in a church. Baumeister takes pains (repeatedly) to stress that he wants to see evil acts through the perpetrators' eyes, and not prejudge events from the perspective of victims, but the result is an uneasy or indecisive tone that wavers between a normal-sounding condemnation of evil and a moral relativism that really believes that evil is merely in the eye of the beholder--that is, there's no such thing as evil, as long as you're the one perpetrating it.
Baumeister finds four basic psychological causes of evil: greed/lust/ambition, or evil as a means to an end; revenge for insulted egotism; ideological evil; and actual sadism--deriving pleasure from harming others. The author discusses each of these at length, but does not come up with many conclusions. He observes that crime, for the most part, does not pay as well as even the lowest-level jobs, and that people who commit crimes generally have a poor idea of the long-term consequences of their actions. This, to me, is another banal point, not an insight that requires much discussion.
Baumeister makes much of his conclusion that standard psychology is wrong when it attributes violent, bullying behavior to low self-esteem; he feels that the facts show that bullies and violent people in fact have high self-esteem, in the sense of high or even inflated regard for themselves. As an example, he points out that convicted, incarcerated rapists often think of themselves as "superachievers." Technically this might be called high self-esteem, but I would call it delusional, and I think there is a difference. Maybe I'm alone here, but I think of high self-esteem as being realistic and adaptive, not the fragile egotism of the narcissist. Baumeister spends much time trying to disprove the "low self-esteem" model of violent behavior, but I was never persuaded.
My overall impression is that there is length here, but not depth. I did not feel I got "inside" human violence and cruelty. Having read only the first chapter or so of James Waller's "Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing", I already feel that I am getting a much deeper and also more sympathetic view of how and why evil is committed, from a social-psychological perspective.