In any sufficiently high-pressure situation, weakness is indistinguishable from evil.
This sentiment is written to mirror Arthur C. Clark’s statement about technology, but the structure fits well.
In these decades I’ve lived, I’ve seen thousands of situations where someone is causing pain to others—not because they want to—but because they’re broken.
I used to draw a line based on the cause, i.e., are they doing this because they’re a bad person, or are they doing it because they’re in pain and suffering themselves?
It matters, but not in the moment.
In my later analysis, however, I’ve found it doesn’t matter. The real question is whether or not you can help. If you can, I recommend trying, so you can dig out the person you know they can be.
But if they refuse help or the damage is too great—and they continue harming themselves and others—you may need to separate in the same way you would from someone who is ill-intentioned. A smart and damaged person often has identical behaviors to someone who is evil, and when you’re the target of such attacks the difference in cause becomes academic.
This is one of the great lessons in life that nobody formally teaches. Broken people can cause nearly identical damage to evil people, and it’s just as necessary to distance yourself from both.
The main question to ask in this situation is this:
A big part of this is often whether or not they want help.
If you do your research and come to the conclusion that you can help, make sure you can pay the cost. Make sure your own sanity and the health and happiness of those around you can absorb the effort. If they can, then putting forth that effort, even at great cost to yourself, is likely to be one of the best things you ever do.
But if you can’t help, for whatever reason, you’re better off separating yourself from the problem. Namely, them.
This is hard, but if the person is emotionally harmful to themselves and others, in a chronic and unfixable way, you can think of them like a hurricane or a Grizzly bear. You’re not mad at them. You’re not blaming them. You just can’t be close to them because they’ll hurt you. Bears and hurricanes aren’t evil either, but they cause damage just the same.
Watch for people who turn into these things in your life, and make the difficult decision to separate when needed.
Ultimately, because I don’t believe in Libertarian free will, I don’t believe in “evil” people either. I see evil as a practical effect in reality, as opposed to an authentic source for action. In short, truly evil people like Manson or Bundy or whoever are just a combination of material bits that got assembled in some configuration, combined with an environment that acted on them in some way. The result manifests in a way that we call evil, and I think it’s a useful term. But it’s not a good description of an actual cause.