Michael Stone Explains His Scale of Evil

Michael Stone is an expert on evil. A forensic psychiatrist and professor at Columbia, Stone has cataloged and classified evil acts into a 22-point scale for his show on the Discovery Channel "Most Evil." Ranging from justified homicide to prolonged rape, torture, and murder, his scale includes names that have haunted the public's dreams, like Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer.


In his Big Think interview, Dr. Stone explained the breakdown of his scale of evil, which loosely mirrors the structure of Dante's circles of Hell in "The Divine Comedy." The first group, after justified homicide, covers impulsive murders by those who are not actually psychopaths; the middle of the scale includes those with a degree of psychopathic qualities including grandiosity, superficial charm, glibness, manipulativeness, deceit, callousness, and lack of remorse; and numbers 17-22 deal with the truly psychopathic, especially those involved in sexual serial homicide and torture. 

Stone also told us what it is like inside the mind of a serial killer. More than 90% of them are psychopaths and sadists, but what drives them to kill varies from person to person. Some of them are loners, incapable of sustained romantic relationships, who will "rape the woman and then kill er to destroy the evidence." Others are seeking revenge, says Stone, even if the real source of their anger, a parent for instance, is projected onto other victims, as with Tommy Lyn Sells in Texas. 

Stalkers are a more heterogenous group, but they are "often people who are hungry for attachment but who know no bounds," says Stone. "There's no brake system preventing them from bothering, pestering, and sometimes even harming the object of their interest." Young people tend to have poorer "braking systems" than people older than 20, (which could explain the ubiquity of Facebook amongst teenagers?) but there are some children who develop with no sense of empathy or compassion for others—a group which Stone calls "callous-unemotional youths." These children will almost invariably become psychopaths. 

Two groups that are not on Stone's scale, but which have received lots of media attention in the past decade, are terrorists and corporate criminals. What constitutes an evil act is different during wartime, and since the terrorists see themselves at war with the West, their status is complicated. "But I think it's pretty obvious, when you subject a human being to intense suffering, even for these so-called political purposes, that you've committed evil," says Stone. And while white collar criminals like Bernie Madoff don't directly kill others, their actions lead to untold suffering and maybe even suicides.

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