The Frivolity of Evil

Theodore Dalrymple

The Frivolity of Evil

When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have paid their debt

to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping.

Autumn 2004

When prisoners are released from prison, they often say that they have paid their debt to society. This is absurd, of course: crime is not a matter of double-entry bookkeeping.

You cannot pay a debt by having caused even greater expense, nor can you pay in

advance for a bank robbery by offering to serve a prison sentence before you commit it.

Perhaps, metaphorically speaking, the slate is wiped clean once a prisoner is released

from prison, but the debt is not paid off.

It would be just as absurd for me to say, on my imminent retirement after 14 years of my

hospital and prison work, that I have paid my debt to society. I had the choice to do

something more pleasing if I had wished, and I was paid, if not munificently, at least

adequately. I chose the disagreeable neighborhood in which I practiced because,

medically speaking, the poor are more interesting, at least to me, than the rich: their

pathology is more florid, their need for attention greater. Their dilemmas, if cruder,

seem to me more compelling, nearer to the fundamentals of human existence. No doubt

I also felt my services would be more valuable there: in other words, that I had some

kind of duty to perform. Perhaps for that reason, like the prisoner on his release, I feel I

have paid my debt to society. Certainly, the work has taken a toll on me, and it is time to

do something else. Someone else can do battle with the metastasizing social pathology of

Great Britain, while I lead a life aesthetically more pleasing to me.

My work has caused me to become perhaps unhealthily preoccupied with the problem of evil. Why do people commit evil? What conditions allow it to flourish? How is it best

prevented and, when necessary, suppressed? Each time I listen to a patient recounting

the cruelty to which he or she has been subjected, or has committed (and I have listened
to several such patients every day for 14 years), these questions revolve endlessly in my


No doubt my previous experiences fostered my preoccupation with this problem. My

mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, and though she spoke very little of her life

before she came to Britain, the mere fact that there was much of which she did not speak

gave evil a ghostly presence in our household.

Later, I spent several years touring the world, often in places where atrocity had recently

been, or still was being, committed. In Central America, I witnessed civil war fought

between guerrilla groups intent on imposing totalitarian tyranny on their societies,

opposed by armies that didn’t scruple to resort to massacre. In Equatorial Guinea, the

current dictator was the nephew and henchman of the last dictator, who had killed or

driven into exile a third of the population, executing every last person who wore glasses

or possessed a page of printed matter for being a disaffected or potentially disaffected

intellectual. In Liberia, I visited a church in which more than 600 people had taken

refuge and been slaughtered, possibly by the president himself (soon to be videotaped

being tortured to death). The outlines of the bodies were still visible on the dried blood

on the floor, and the long mound of the mass grave began only a few yards from the

entrance. In North Korea I saw the acme of tyranny, millions of people in terrorized,

abject obeisance to a personality cult whose object, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, made

the Sun King look like the personification of modesty.

Still, all these were political evils, which my own country had entirely escaped. I optimistically supposed that, in the absence of the worst political deformations,

widespread evil was impossible. I soon discovered my error. Of course, nothing that I

was to see in a British slum approached the scale or depth of what I had witnessed

elsewhere. Beating a woman from motives of jealousy, locking her in a closet, breaking

her arms deliberately, terrible though it may be, is not the same, by a long way, as mass

murder. More than enough of the constitutional, traditional, institutional, and social

restraints on large-scale political evil still existed in Britain to prevent anything like what

I had witnessed elsewhere.

Yet the scale of a man’s evil is not entirely to be measured by its practical consequences.

Men commit evil within the scope available to them. Some evil geniuses, of course,

devote their lives to increasing that scope as widely as possible, but no such character has

yet arisen in Britain, and most evildoers merely make the most of their opportunities.

They do what they can get away with.

In any case, the extent of the evil that I found, though far more modest than the disasters

of modern history, is nonetheless impressive. From the vantage point of one six-bedded

hospital ward, I have met at least 5,000 perpetrators of the kind of violence I have just

described and 5,000 victims of it: nearly 1 percent of the population of my city—or a

higher percentage, if one considers the age-specificity of the behavior. And when you

take the life histories of these people, as I have, you soon realize that their existence is as

saturated with arbitrary violence as that of the inhabitants of many a dictatorship.

Instead of one dictator, though, there are thousands, each the absolute ruler of his own

little sphere, his power circumscribed by the proximity of another such as he.

Violent conflict, not confined to the home and hearth, spills out onto the streets.

Moreover, I discovered that British cities such as my own even had torture chambers:

run not by the government, as in dictatorships, but by those representatives of slum

enterprise, the drug dealers. Young men and women in debt to drug dealers are

kidnapped, taken to the torture chambers, tied to beds, and beaten or whipped. Of

compunction there is none—only a residual fear of the consequences of going too far.

Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil, the one that brings

it close to the conception of original sin, is that it is unforced and spontaneous. No one

requires people to commit it. In the worst dictatorships, some of the evil ordinary men

and women do they do out of fear of not committing it. There, goodness requires

heroism. In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, for example, a man who failed to report a

political joke to the authorities was himself guilty of an offense that could lead to

deportation or death. But in modern Britain, no such conditions exist: the government

does not require citizens to behave as I have described and punish them if they do not.

The evil is freely chosen.

Not that the government is blameless in the matter—far from it. Intellectuals

propounded the idea that man should be freed from the shackles of social convention

and self-control, and the government, without any demand from below, enacted laws

that promoted unrestrained behavior and created a welfare system that protected people

from some of its economic consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought down, it

flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of

man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.

Of course, my personal experience is just that—personal experience. Admittedly, I have looked out at the social world of my city and my country from a peculiar and possibly

unrepresentative vantage point, from a prison and from a hospital ward where

practically all the patients have tried to kill themselves, or at least made suicidal

gestures. But it is not small or slight personal experience, and each of my thousands,

even scores of thousands, of cases has given me a window into the world in which that

person lives.

And when my mother asks me whether I am not in danger of letting my personal

experience embitter me or cause me to look at the world through bile-colored spectacles,

I ask her why she thinks that she, in common with all old people in Britain today, feels

the need to be indoors by sundown or face the consequences, and why this should be the

case in a country that within living memory was law-abiding and safe? Did she not

herself tell me that, as a young woman during the blackouts in the Blitz, she felt perfectly

safe, at least from the depredations of her fellow citizens, walking home in the pitch

dark, and that it never occurred to her that she might be the victim of a crime, whereas

nowadays she has only to put her nose out of her door at dusk for her to think of nothing

else? Is it not true that her purse has been stolen twice in the last two years, in broad

daylight, and is it not true that statistics—however manipulated by governments to put

the best possible gloss upon them—bear out the accuracy of the conclusions that I have

drawn from my personal experience? In 1921, the year of my mother’s birth, there was

one crime recorded for every 370 inhabitants of England and Wales; 80 years later, it

was one for every ten inhabitants. There has been a 12-fold increase since 1941 and an

even greater increase in crimes of violence. So while personal experience is hardly a

complete guide to social reality, the historical data certainly back up my impressions.

A single case can be illuminating, especially when it is statistically banal—in other words, not at all exceptional. Yesterday, for example, a 21-year-old woman consulted me,

claiming to be depressed. She had swallowed an overdose of her antidepressants and

then called an ambulance.

There is something to be said here about the word “depression,” which has almost

entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. Of

the thousands of patients I have seen, only two or three have ever claimed to be

unhappy: all the rest have said that they were depressed. This semantic shift is deeply

significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical

condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means.

Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to

be happy (the opposite of being depressed). This idea in turn implies that one’s state of

mind, or one’s mood, is or should be independent of the way that one lives one’s life, a

belief that must deprive human existence of all meaning, radically disconnecting reward

from conduct.

A ridiculous pas de deux between doctor and patient ensues: the patient pretends to be

ill, and the doctor pretends to cure him. In the process, the patient is willfully blinded to

the conduct that inevitably causes his misery in the first place. I have therefore come to

see that one of the most important tasks of the doctor today is the disavowal of his own

power and responsibility. The patient’s notion that he is ill stands in the way of his

understanding of the situation, without which moral change cannot take place. The

doctor who pretends to treat is an obstacle to this change, blinding rather than


My patient already had had three children by three different men, by no means unusual

among my patients, or indeed in the country as a whole. The father of her first child had

been violent, and she had left him; the second died in an accident while driving a stolen

car; the third, with whom she had been living, had demanded that she should leave his

apartment because, a week after their child was born, he decided that he no longer

wished to live with her. (The discovery of incompatibility a week after the birth of a child

is now so common as to be statistically normal.) She had nowhere to go, no one to fall

back on, and the hospital was a temporary sanctuary from her woes. She hoped that we

would fix her up with some accommodation.

She could not return to her mother, because of conflict with her “stepfather,” or her

mother’s latest boyfriend, who, in fact, was only nine years older than she and seven

years younger than her mother. This compression of the generations is also now a

common pattern and is seldom a recipe for happiness. (It goes without saying that her

own father had disappeared at her birth, and she had never seen him since.) The latest

boyfriend in this kind of ménage either wants the daughter around to abuse her sexually

or else wants her out of the house as being a nuisance and an unnecessary expense. This

boyfriend wanted her out of the house, and set about creating an atmosphere certain to

make her leave as soon as possible.

The father of her first child had, of course, recognized her vulnerability. A girl of 16 living on her own is easy prey. He beat her from the first, being drunken, possessive, and

jealous, as well as flagrantly unfaithful. She thought that a child would make him more

responsible—sober him up and calm him down. It had the reverse effect. She left him.

The father of her second child was a career criminal, already imprisoned several times. A

drug addict who took whatever drugs he could get, he died under the influence. She had

known all about his past before she had his child.

The father of her third child was much older than she. It was he who suggested that they

have a child—in fact he demanded it as a condition of staying with her. He had five

children already by three different women, none of whom he supported in any way


The conditions for the perpetuation of evil were now complete. She was a young woman

who would not want to remain alone, without a man, for very long; but with three

children already, she would attract precisely the kind of man, like the father of her first

child—of whom there are now many—looking for vulnerable, exploitable women. More

than likely, at least one of them (for there would undoubtedly be a succession of them)

would abuse her children sexually, physically, or both.

She was, of course, a victim of her mother’s behavior at a time when she had little control over her destiny. Her mother had thought that her own sexual liaison was more

important than the welfare of her child, a common way of thinking in today’s welfare

Britain. That same day, for example, I was consulted by a young woman whose mother’s

consort had raped her many times between the ages of eight and 15, with her mother’s

full knowledge. Her mother had allowed this solely so that her relationship with her

consort might continue. It could happen that my patient will one day do the same thing.

My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however: she had knowingly borne

children of men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the

consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that

I said to her—and say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situation—proved: next

time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and

I’ll tell you if you can go out with him.

This never fails to make the most wretched, the most “depressed” of women smile

broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out

further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil

written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, saying “FUCK OFF”

or “MAD DOG.” And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know

what I would look for, so can they—and therefore they are in large part responsible for

their own downfall at the hands of evil men.

Moreover, they are aware that I believe that it is both foolish and wicked to have children

by men without having considered even for a second or a fraction of a second whether

the men have any qualities that might make them good fathers. Mistakes are possible, of

course: a man may turn out not to be as expected. But not even to consider the question

is to act as irresponsibly as it is possible for a human being to act. It is knowingly to

increase the sum of evil in the world, and sooner or later the summation of small evils

leads to the triumph of evil itself.

My patient did not start out with the intention of abetting, much less of committing, evil.

And yet her refusal to take seriously and act upon the signs that she saw and the

knowledge that she had was not the consequence of blindness and ignorance. It was

utterly willful. She knew from her own experience, and that of many people around her,

that her choices, based on the pleasure or the desire of the moment, would lead to the

misery and suffering not only of herself, but—especially—of her own children.

This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing

pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty. What

better phrase than the frivolity of evil describes the conduct of a mother who turns her

own 14-year-old child out of doors because her latest boyfriend does not want him or her

in the house? And what better phrase describes the attitude of those intellectuals who see

in this conduct nothing but an extension of human freedom and choice, another thread

in life’s rich tapestry?

The men in these situations also know perfectly well the meaning and consequences of what they are doing. The same day that I saw the patient I have just described, a man

aged 25 came into our ward, in need of an operation to remove foil-wrapped packets of

cocaine that he had swallowed in order to evade being caught by the police in possession

of them. (Had a packet burst, he would have died immediately.) As it happened, he had

just left his latest girlfriend—one week after she had given birth to their child. They

weren’t getting along, he said; he needed his space. Of the child, he thought not for an


I asked him whether he had any other children.

“Four,” he replied.

“How many mothers?”


“Do you see any of your children?”

He shook his head. It is supposedly the duty of the doctor not to pass judgment on how

his patients have elected to live, but I think I may have raised my eyebrows slightly. At

any rate, the patient caught a whiff of my disapproval.

“I know,” he said. “I know. Don’t tell me.”

These words were a complete confession of guilt. I have had hundreds of conversations

with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly

well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children.

They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty,

abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over

again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are

now brought up this way.