Ellis' Irrational Idea on Human Evil

31 January, 2020
Ellis' irrational ideas are largely used in therapy to dissect toxic and counterproductive thinking. This article focuses on his third irrational idea, which addresses human evil and punishment.

Irrational ideas exist at the root of society, and, furthermore, in the core of human beings. Albert Ellis calls them “aberrations”. In other words, deviations from the norm. His ideas address the basis of irrational thought, which darkens our mood and obscures our thinking.

Ellis’ irrational ideas are accepted tenets on the ways of the world and the people who inhabit it. They’re the legacy of history, cultures, traditions, and religion.  He says these irrational thoughts guide the actions and behaviors of humanity.

Albert Ellis authored the Irrational Ideas.

Are people bad?

Ellis’ third irrational idea states:

“Certain people are bad, wicked, and villainous, and they should be severely blamed or punished for their villainy.”

Many would agree with this. It’s common for people to label others as “good” or “bad” depending on their actions.  When someone does something wrong, we label them a “bad person”.  Furthermore, they suffer the consequences of their nature and their actions, and we believe they should be punished.

Depending on one’s cultural and societal norms, this may not sound like a wild idea at all. However, Ellis says it’s the foundation of irrational thought. Furthermore, he says this subjective and absolutist thinking is toxic and won’t do us any good.

But don’t bad people commit crimes, and shouldn’t they deserve punishment?

The understood evil of humanity

In his book, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (1962), Ellis intends to explain the nature of good and evil. He argues that the idea that people are either good or bad comes from ancient theological doctrines on free will.

Many philosophers (Descartes, Hume, and Kant) have debated free will and, above all, its relation to ethics. Essentially, if there are good people or bad people and free will, then people are free to do “good” or “bad” things.

This premise could also refer to the doctrine of predestination, the idea that God determines who’s good and who’s bad and, therefore, determines their fate as well.

There’s no scientific evidence for this doctrine, and its key premises (the existence of God, absolute truth, and free will) can’t be proved nor disproved. Therefore, saying that people are either good or bad doesn’t make sense.

A woman thinking about a choice.

Doing a bad thing doesn’t mean you’re a bad person

Committing a wrong action doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. In fact, although sometimes the impulses for wrongdoing come from our distinctly evil nature, the majority of these instances are the result of ignorance, simple-mindedness, or some kind of condition.

Regardless of whether or not someone’s responsible for harm done to another, this doesn’t mean they deserve degrading or lethal punishment when ignorance, simple-mindedness, or illness are in effect.

Punishment attempts to penalize evil. However, does it make sense to punish ignorance, simplicity, or illness? Rather, wouldn’t it make more sense to make sure that, the next time, this person wasn’t as ignorant or simple-minded or suffering from the same condition?

Many religions propagate the idea that a person who does bad things is a bad person. These religions often consider themselves the protectors of morality. However, the reality is more complicated. The same person who gives money to the homeless on the streets could go home at night and abuse their child. The same person who fails to give up their seat for an elderly person on the bus could work 14 hours a day to pay for a parent’s medical treatment.

One bad action doesn’t determine anything. While the definition of “bad” is subjective, some will find the good in the bad, and others the bad in the good.

The fallibility of our nature

In his book, Ellis argues that it isn’t realistic to believe everything you do will be good. Rather, fallibility is part of our human nature. Furthermore, we learn a lot through trial and error.

In his opinion, it’s wrong to say that one “should do something” or “should’ve done something differently”.  He believes that absolutes, as well as hypotheticals, are the foundations of all irrational thoughts. Saying that one should’ve done something differently ignores the fact that humans are fallible and make mistakes.

The utility of punishing the bad

Often, punishment has a few positive effects on one’s learning process. If someone makes a mistake or does something “bad”, blaming them in a vengeful or angry way is typically counterproductive. When someone makes a mistake out of ignorance or simple-mindedness, punishing them won’t necessarily make them less ignorant or less simple-minded. If we’re expecting that the punishment will make them act differently, this doesn’t make much sense. Ellis summarizes this problem with an example:

“I hoped he was an angel, instead of a human being, and that he never made mistakes; now that he’s shown he’s a fallible being, I demand in a less realistic way [after punishment] that he’s a perfect angel in the future.”

Furthermore, if someone makes a mistake due to their psychological condition, punishing them can worsen their condition. Actually, blame, rage, and hostility are the foundations of many psychological disorders.

From a young age, children are taught this philosophy of blame and guilt for their past, present, and future mistakes. Without that blame, feelings of anxiety, depression, and guilt wouldn’t get a hold of us so easily.

Conditioned on Ellis’ third irrational idea

Many of us have been brought up under the premises that support Ellis’ third irrational idea. Human beings feel guilt. We’re afraid to make mistakes and afraid of the punishments. Also, we have vague ideas of good and bad. This conditions our attitudes, way of being, and behaviors.

Therefore, before you judge the “wickedness” of another, you should think it over several times. Just as another could judge you for your actions, you first need to reflect upon Ellis’ third irrational idea and decide whether or not it’s fair to blame them.

  • Ellis, A. (2009). Razón y Emoción en Psicoterapia. Ed: Desclée de Brouwer.