Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Do you have to be intelligent to be evil?


Scaly Evil
Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the very personification of evil genius?
Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the very personification of evil genius?
Express Newspapers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It usually doesn't take long to watch a movie and figure out who the villain is. In pop culture, our villains are pretty cut-and-dried. They care about no one. They engage in acts that willfully hurt innocent people. If they have a chance to harm more people or inflict greater pain, they take it. They're also usually the less-attractive star of the movie, if you're really searching for a clue.

But in real life, evil seems much less clear. Naturally, people in different cultures -- and even within them -- have their own take on evil. If you're not buying it, imagine yourself on a jury. You have to decide if a criminal's horrid and debased actions deserve a harsh sentence, or if they deserve the harshest sentence. And what you see as the worst action -- just for an example, shooting a child -- might strike someone else as less evil than torturing an adult to death.

That's one reason that forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner is conducting a survey to determine a baseline for "depravity" in the criminal justice system. It hopes to establish a standard for how juries can determine depravity and eliminate bias in sentencing. In the United States and other nations, a particularly harsh sentence can be given to those who have committed acts the jury sees as especially heinous. Welner's site, DepravityScale.Org, invites people to take a survey that asks you to decide, for instance, whether intentionally disfiguring someone is more or less depraved than intentionally hurting a lot of people.

And this brings us right back to intellect. Could any act that much of society sees as unconscionable be considered "intelligent," considering the consequences of the action and the enormous social stigma attached?

We might not ever know if intelligence is inherent in evil, but perhaps we can at least determine how it's categorized and punished in our society.