Is There Such a Thing as a Bad Person?

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

This week a man in rural eastern Kentucky, furious about how his wife prepared his eggs, shot five people dead, then killed himself.  Stanley Neace’s hostile behavior over the previous few months prompted eviction proceedings from his mobile home park residence.  Apparently his family lived, for a long time, with an extremely hostile and scary person.  One might feel tempted to chock this story up as one lone nut doing something really crazy.  Unfortunately too many Stanley’s seem to mate, make families, and destroy lives.


Years ago I volunteered for Crisis House,  a suicide prevention hotline.  One afternoon a woman burst into our office screaming, “He’s going to kill me!”  A counselor ushered her into the back office and locked the door, while my hotline partner and I sat behind a reception window in the lobby.  We watched a man crash through the door, shouting, “Where is she?  I’m gonna KILL her!”  He proceeded to throw chairs at the reception window, toss racks of pamphlets to the ground, and smash lamps.  We called the police while waiting behind the glass window and locked door.  The man ran out and was later apprehended by the police after he returned to his house to get his shotgun.
We watched the police interview the woman in our lobby.  “What did you do to make him so mad?” the officer asked.  (This happened years before officers received sensitivity training in domestic violence).  The assumption was, any man who acts this crazy must have suffered some serious provocation.  As the story unfolded what triggered the man’s violent episode was a birthday cake.  The wife brought his birthday cake to the coffee table while he and his buddies watched a football game.  In his mind this was such a grievous violation of his right to a perfect birthday that he felt driven to destroy her.

Many, including those in my profession, question the idea that evil people exist.  We talk about environment, deprivation, abuse, poverty, and mental illness as causes for many of society’s ills.  Yet I know plenty of good people who come from poverty, extremely abusive environments and who struggle with mental illness.  One client of mine suffered the most severe child abuse you could ever imagine.  She was repeatedly raped, beaten, humiliated, threatened and tortured.  Yet today she heals others.  She is a wonderful human being.

The big ideas, good and bad, seem muddied today by reality shows that make celebrities out of disgusting people.  You can make a lot of money in television today by obnoxious, selfish, immature behavior.  In fact, the more despicable the behavior the better your chances of getting a following.  Neuropsychologist, John Arden, Ph.D., wrote a book about this called, America’s Meltdown:  Creating the Lowest Common Denominator Society. Too often I hear people say, “He/she is really good at heart.”  I say if you have to dig that deep to find the good you’re working too hard.

How do we know if someone is good or bad?  Are they nice?  Well many psychopathic killers can be quite charming, polite, nice.  Serial killer Ted Bundy was a really nice guy.  Evil, but nice.  It’s easy to be nice.  Say please, thank you and smile and everyone thinks you’re nice.  Does that make you a good person?  Webster defines good as, “suitable to a purpose; effective; efficient.”  Goodness requires purposeful action.  It is by our actions that our character, our goodness or badness, gets revealed.  Country music great, Willie Nelson, wrote a song with the lyrics:

Maybe I didn’t love you

Quite as often as I could have

Maybe I didn’t treat you

Quite as good as I could have

If I made you feel second best

Girl I’m sorry I was blind

You were always on my mind…

Sorry Willie, you’re a great songwriter, but these lyrics don’t cut it.  If you really care, don’t make us read your mind.  Merely thinking about doing good things doesn’t make you a good person.  How do we know what anyone thinks?  Purposeful action says a lot more.  A friend of mine, Andrea Schneider, wrote a book about her experience surviving breast cancer.  Andrea wanted to help ease the suffering of other women. She didn’t want to relive her cancer experience, yet she felt compelled to help others.  Good people make sacrifices for others.  That’s purposeful action.

I counsel some people who are married to someone who behaves heartlessly.  “Can’t counseling help my husband/wife get better?” they ask.  I reply, “Who is here making the effort to improve?”  The bad person rarely begins counseling.  Good people feel horrible when they do something that harms others and they try really hard to do better.  Good or evil behavior starts with a choice.  Some people choose bad behavior.  That makes them bad.   B-B-B-Bad to the bone.