There are some very bad people in the world. Sometimes evil seems to be not too strong a word for some of the actions that are perpetrated, and you may well wonder why should you develop metta towards those who commit evil actions.
Metta is a state of loving others. It’s a state of empathetic awareness that brings about compassion, consideration, and kindness. If those evil people were to experience metta then they would not do the things that we so deplore. Acts of evil come from a failure of empathy.
It makes sense then that if you want the world to be a better place you would want all beings to experience metta — even the very bad ones. In fact especially the bad ones, since if evil people were to experience Metta, there would be no evil done. I’m not suggesting that we can “wish” bad people into becoming good people, simply that it’s rational to wish that those who commit evil were free from the unwholesome mental states that lead to their actions. This implies that we should have compassion even for those who commit evil actions.
A meditation student of mine who is a psychotherapist pointed out to me that most of the actions that we would label as evil are committed by people who suffer from what is known as Antisocial Personality Disorder, and that scientific research studies have shown that up to 75% of all those in the US criminal justice system fit the diagnostic criteria for this personality disorder.
This disorder is almost certain to have a genetic component, so that many bad people are born that way and not made that way, although poor environments almost certainly make these genetically based traits worse. Many people, in committing evil, are therefore passing on the results of a sickness that they suffer from — a sickness that prevents them from feeling empathy, remorse, and anxiety.
Additionally, they may feel compelled to lie, even when it’s not necessary, have difficulty learning from past experience, and have trouble controlling their impulses in the way that most people can.
Evil as an illness
There’s no reason why we should feel any less sympathetic towards a criminal who, because of a genetic defect, has a lower than normal ability to control his or her impulses, than towards a person with any other genetically based physical or mental condition.
If we can feel sympathy for a person who suffers from, say, Downs’ Syndrome, then why not cultivate sympathy in meditation towards someone who has a genetic disorder like Antisocial Personality Disorder that ruins the lives not only of its direct sufferers but also those who are unfortunate enough to be exploited or harmed by them.
As an aside, I hope (although I have no personal experience on which to build this hope) that those suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder are able to learn to control their impulses. Some mental health professionals have shown that individual and group therapy can help those suffering from this devastating condition to learn to experience and to deal with their emotions, and to learn to have more moral concern for others.
I don’t want to appear to be saying that those who act destructively should be absolved from all responsibility for their mental states and actions, simply that not everyone is starting from the same place in learning to take such responsibility, and that it is helpful to them and to us if we have sympathy for those in such an unfortunate position.
You might well ask though: how is you doing the metta bhavana towards a bad person going to have any effect on them? Isn’t it just a game that you’re playing inside your own head?
It’s true that your meditation practice is not likely to have much effect on another person (although you never know – some interesting research has been done that shows that this does happen), but at the very least it will have an effect on you. It will help you to be more truly compassionate. It will reduce the amount of intolerance and hatred in the world by reducing the amount of intolerance and hatred in your own heart (which is the only place where you can guarantee to make a difference).