Evil Genius: What Satan Tells Us About Leadership

| April 16, 2019

A menacing portrayal of Satan.

Satan is one example of a personification of evil found in many cultures. He’s a devil, and in the case of Abrahamic religions, a fallen angel. Once good, Satan became a particularly crafty and ingenious devil working against God, and luring humans to sin. As a being who seduces us, he’s an example of an evil genius.

Humans often equate excellence and achievement in one area of life with broader success. It takes great discipline to become a great marathoner, so we imagine great marathoners to be well-disciplined in other areas of life. Our esteem for excellence is magnified. When a businessman becomes a billionaire, we not only assume he is good at matters of business, but that he has a great understanding of the world in general. After all, the characteristics that propel greatness in one area of life are often found in others. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance as just a few characteristics of human behavior that have become associated with excellence. We know them as virtues.

We are dependent on our perception of virtue when making moral judgements about behavior. Unfortunately, it’s easy to mistake excellence in one area for virtue in general. Add anchoring bias to the mix, and the perception of excellence gets messy. Satan is undoubtedly good at what he does. The best. Does that mean he’s a virtuous? It would be hard to say that his genius isn’t admirable in some way, but we cannot ignore his sinful intentions. This kind of moral complexity animates many evil geniuses of popular imagination: Lex Luthor, Thanos, Dr. Evil, and so on. An underlying characteristic of these portrayals of evil genius is a lack of empathy for individuals en route to some “greater good” for humankind. In short, they are high-achieving sociopaths.

A sociopath is an individual who lacks what psychologists consider a normal amount of empathy. About one in a hundred people is a sociopath. It’s temping to think sociopaths present no challenges to a democratic republic, as cool heads and rational thinking can prevail in an arena of public debate. But as debate rises to a fever pitch, and partisan division entrenches irrational hatred toward alternate political views, the stage is set for a sociopath leader.

What does this mean for the kind of society we can be? What are the consequences of misjudging the moral lives of our leaders?