I must admit, I think this is an unhelpful take in this context. For normal people, sure; they make a mistake but should not be defined by it. But we’re not talking about normal people. We’re talking about a “deranged despot”.
Ajahn Brahm cracks jokes a lot. Does that make him a person who says funny things, or a funny person? It’s just language. Evil is just a word. The point of calling a person evil is to recognize that they have a persistent pattern of acting in the worst of ways.
It is a word that should be reserved for extreme circumstances, to be sure. But if someone, all their life, has a persistent pattern of rape, child abuse, criminality, racism, lies, cruelty, a flagrant disregard for the lives of others, and a list of other evil deeds that just goes on, and has never shown a hint of recognition or remorse, then I ask: what other word do we have to describe such a person?
As Adutiya says:
The problem is that we overwhelmingly tend to imagine that others are pretty much like us. So we assume that, just as we might make a mistake and do something bad, but feel guilty about it and change our ways, so too a “deranged despot” might choose to do good over evil. But they won’t. This is a delusion, one that the “deranged despot” relies on to keep power. It’s how they gaslight their people.
What we are dealing with is a deep level mental pathology, a void of empathy and morality, and an incapacity to even comprehend what good and evil are. There is zero chance that a despot like this will somehow “choose” to do good. We often forget that “good” and “evil” are learned concepts, that morality is a learned behavior, and we cannot comprehend that someone has simply failed to learn these things.
Compare it to maths. For us, we assume that even someone bad at maths will make mistakes. But they’ll learn and do better next time. And the attitude of forgiveness and encouragement is appropriate in 99% of cases. But what of an adult who, as a child, never learned to read numbers? Who has no concept of what “plus” means? How has no idea what a “number” is? If they say “2 plus 2 equals 5” there are no grounds by which they might understand that it is a mistake. And if they say by chance that “2 plus 2 equals 4”, it means nothing. It’s a stopped clock on the twelfth hour.
A “deranged despot” will do what they have always done—whatever they see is in their own interests—and as they do so they occasionally stumble upon something that some people regard as “good”. Those people will then praise the despot, praising their “pivot”, and dismissing those who point to a person’s character. Thus they grant more power to the “deranged despot”, allowing them space to recover, and setting the stage for the next calamity.
Each time they do that, their own moral compass—if they have one—is bent further out of shape. They do this only to curry favor with the despot; but the ultimate irony is, there is no-one a “deranged despot” loathes more then their own followers. When it becomes extreme, this loathing manifests in behavior that endangers the very lives that the despot depends on.
When a person has complex, deep-level developmental disorders, and has never learned what it means to do good, it is extremely hard for them to do so as an adult in the best of cases. And if they are put in a position of power, it is virtually impossible.
In such cases, we need to clearly recognize the dangerous pathology: this person will not be redeemed, and they will not learn and grow. We must remove them from power immediately, and ensure that they face the full legal consequences of their actions.
Using the same techniques of positive reinforcement that we use with children or with healthy adults is a recipe for disaster.
Because of our incapacity to understand the mind of a truly broken person, it is crucial that we rely on the advice of experts in the field. The same behaviors that are so publicly visible in the conduct of world leaders are routinely observed in the courtroom, and psychologists are specially trained to detect these pathologies and advise how to protect people from them. We ignore their advice at our peril.