What is Evil?

It’s one of those questions that every philosophical system and religion has to deal with. What is evil? How do you recognize it? How do you define it? How do you fight it, or do you? The question came up in recent weeks, back-to-back, in otherwise unrelated discussions or lectures. That sort of coincidence usually means I need to pay attention.

Eli Wiesel said that evil is indifference to one’s fellow men. I heard that definition, and thought, “What about suicide bombers, what about . . .” and began sort of listing individual actions and things that seem to be the opposite of indifference. But Wiesel was talking in the context of the Holocaust, about systems of evil. In that case, indifference does apply. The system doesn’t care about suffering, has no pity, or mercy, or interest in understanding people. People of the system are indifferent to what goes on, deaf to objections from victims of the system. Think of bureaucrats with quotas, or who always close the office at three-thirty in the afternoon, no matter how many people are still waiting to get help with paperwork, or in need of something. That’s the mild version. Stalin’s Soviet Union, or the Nazi empire, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward are the more severe version. Individuals disappear.

Then there’s active individual evil, the evil freely chosen, embraced, for a whole host of reasons. Some of them are because the individual’s wiring is skewed, and evil is the easier path. (A lot of people who might go that way don’t, for a number of reasons. But a few do.) The two are not exclusive. Actively evil people often do well in an evil system, or become the head of an evil system.

At an individual level, it’s not just indifference, although I suspect there’s a bit of that, a certain sadism, or even cold calculation that others are less than, well, anything. People are things, are tools, but are also obstacles to be removed, demons to be sent wherever $Deity wants them to go, toys to play with and enjoy watching them suffer.

Judaism and Christianity use the story of the serpent in the garden, where evil is introduced to paradise through temptation and disobedience. But where did the serpent get it from? The “Book of Job” is often nodded to as a book about coping with evils, but if you read it carefully, well, it’s not satisfying, exactly. Evil in the New Testament is personified as the Tempter, Satan, and as actions that go against the will of the Lord. But what is evil? An idea? An action? Where does it come from? Was it created by G-d? That leads into the argument that a perfect and good deity can’t have created evil, unless the deity did it for reasons that are good and that mortals just can’t understand. Or you get into dualism, where you have a good deity and an evil one, and eventually the good side wins (Zoroastrian system, among others.)

Evil is one of those things “I know it when I see it.” Except my definition of evil seems to be rather different from others’ definitions. Being a suicide bomber, to me, is evil. To others, it is a way of getting rid of evil. Lyall Watson’s book Dark Nature, and some of his other works, considers the idea in nature. Is what we call evil something that other animals do? Is it built into life in some way, something that culture checks most of the time, but that leaks out at other times? It’s a creepy book, one that I’m still chewing over even though it’s been a while since I read it. When orcas seem to “play” with seals before finally killing and eating them, is it evil? Or is it just further evidence that Adam’s fall condemned other creatures as well (one idea I’ve seen kicked around)?

Humans have been debating the question of evil for a very, very long time. It’s a question with no easy answer, unless it is to say, “This is evil. This I will not do, this I will avoid thinking about, this idea I reject and will teach/preach/fight against.”

But what is “Evil?”


13 thoughts on “What is Evil?

  1. What is evil?

    I’ve had to wrestle with the question a lot in recent years. My youngest daughter will gain the diagnosis of psychopathy on her 15th birthday. (Still many, many moons away. That particular diagnosis can’t be made before then. She’s long met all other criteria.)
    I absolutely do not grok the nature of evil. To the extent I can make any sort of sweeping generalization, it would be this:
    Evil is the need for control, without care for consequence.

  2. A quick thought, and maybe not very helpful: God values each of us beyond measure. Evil denies that.

    C.S.Lewis made the point that evil denies reality, seeks to hide from it, seeks to crush it and all who recognize it.

    And in the Screwtape Letters, he forces the question of the boundary between love and merely using each other. As a minor Odd, I wrangle with that question too often, and with too little success.

    Hope this helps

  3. Seriously, some of the time I object to evil.

    Some evils get my temper up.

    Other day, a conversation about policy A, and my conclusion was that result one, an evil, bothered me less than result two.

    Thing is, the thing that may bother me about two is that it is a lie, transparently false, and if an actual mistake the mistake of a profoundly stupid person.

    I’ve aimed some of my discussion style at communicating with people that I do not have a moral foundation in common with. Attention to explaining carefully why something is stupid, instead of ‘yeah, it is evil, see citation’, etc.

    I have a serious objection to, if one adopts evil principles, then pursuing them in breath takingly stupid ways. When someone claims that they did not see the obvious mistake to avoid, I jump to the conclusion that they do not respect me enough to tell a plausible lie, and get angry.

    Which may simply be pride and vanity in the gifts that I was given.

    Anyway, I can be profoundly stupid.

    There is a lot of evil that I’m just not very aware of.

    There is sometimes evil in what I do.

  4. I’m fond of the definition Ursula Vernon had a character use in Digger: Evil is punishing world for not being like inside of head. I think it’s a restatement of what njc quoted from CSL.

  5. I don’t know that I have a whole lot of insight to offer on this question, just random bits and pieces…

    I hate the movie and the character, but I’m reminded of a (variant on a) line from “Forrest Gump”: Evil is as evil does.

    In Tolkien’s legendarium, evil was defined in large part by its inability to create. Morgoth and his armies could only imitate and destroy.

    Some years ago, in relation to a similar discussion, I did a little quick and dirty research into the law systems of several ancient civilizations. I found that while they defined crime in different ways and assigned different levels of “Not Good” to different crimes, there was one act, and only one, that they all recognized as a crime – and moreover, they all considered it right up there alongside murder as among the worst crimes a human could commit. That act was treason for greed: betraying your tribe or nation just for money. Treason for principle – turning your coat because you honestly believe the other side is better – is sometimes considered understandable, though still harshly punished. But treason for greed is always among the worst of crimes.

    • Interesting about the law codes. I can see why motivation would make the difference. I can respect someone who felt truly compelled by conscience to turn coat. Not like them, but respect, because that’s not a decision to make lightly. Greed? Faugh!

  6. One I find useful is “sacrificing a greater good for a lesser one.”

    Eating. It’s good, it feels good, you need to do it to live.

    Killing someone to eat them because you can:
    … I don’t need to explain that one, right?

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