What Is Evil?

My mother asked me to do her a favor on behalf of one of her students by answering some questions regarding the topic of “Evil.”
The assignment was to define and explore an abstract concept, and evil was the subject that the student was assigned or chose for himself. I was more than happy to offer my assistance, but I found that the discussion merited more detail than was possible within the confines of the brief questionnaire.
This seems like a suitable place for me to discuss the subject.
The questionnaire begins with a quote from Joseph Conrad, “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” That is a sentiment with which I wholly agree. I would add one caveat; that the belief in a supernatural origin of either good or evil most certainly does provide adequate impetus to perpetrate even greater wickedness than we, as humans, might otherwise muster. We regularly and repeatedly utilize those supernatural forces as justification for the actions we intend to take or rationalization for those we already have. Rest assured, there is no supernatural origin for those evils that we commit, even when on behalf of a supernatural being, it’s all us.
I am next asked what thing or things I consider evil and I find that far more difficult to answer. There are numerous things that I think of as being evil, but that is little more than my own opinion and I recognize that I suffer from numerous cultural and personal biases. I think that that hate crimes and bigotry are evil, I think that willfully taking advantage of others and needlessly hurting others is evil as well. By all rights, I consider most of the same things to be evil that others would, such as rape, child abuse, and murder; but there are numerous things that I most assuredly do not find evil, homosexuality, drug and alcohol use (with some degree of moderation), and belief in science and a scientific understanding of the universe around us.
Aristotle said, “Evil draws men together.” That is absolutely accurate. External evils are frequently required to bring disparate groups of people together (at least until that evil is neutralized), a remnant of in-group/out-group aspects of our primitive, tribal origins rooted in kin selection. Fear and conflict can make for some strange bedfellows.
The questionnaire includes one of my favorite sentiments expressed by Nietzsche, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” I am asked if it is true that one can become the very evil that they fight to rid the world of, and I think that it happens all the time. Regimes are toppled in order to install new regimes of equal or greater toxicity. Revolutions are fought against kingdoms and empires only to build new ones that are no better than what came before. There is a passage in Revelations which asks a question that is quite similar to what the syphilitic said, “Who is like unto the beast? Who is able to make war with him?” It was recognized then that an equal or greater beast could be needed in order to combat the one that was being worshipped by the imaginary lost souls of John’s revelation.
I am asked if there are any people that I consider evil and there are. The question is unfair though, because there are always going to be people that I or anyone else would consider evil, but that doesn’t make them evil in an objective sense. It is easy to look back on men like Hitler and Stalin and write them off as being evil, but they probably weren’t born that way and they most certainly didn’t consider themselves to be evil nor did a number of the people who willingly and joyously followed them in their endeavours. There are people today that I think are evil, all around the world; and there are those like Fred Phelps and Pat Robertson as well as countless other ignorant and hate mongering folks right here in America…no need to look far afield.
Mae West apparently once stated, “Between two evils, I always pick the one I’ve never tried before.” As entertaining as that answer might be, I can’t go along with it. In circumstances like that I always go with the evil I feel I best understand, the lesser of two evils isn’t always the least destructive but is often the one that I feel would be easiest to subdue. I prefer the least damaging of two evils, but that isn’t always a known quantity, so I am forced to opt for the one I comprehend with greater clarity. It’s hardly optimum, but life rarely coincides with our level of comfort.
I do not consider some imaginary devil to be the root or source of evil, nor do I feel that money or commerce are the root of modern evils. To discover the root of evil one needs look no further than their own preconceptions and instances of willful ignorance. Substituting our own subjective version of reality for what is real, insisting that others believe what we believe (or live in such a way that it would be impossible to discern any disparity in those respective beliefs), and pigheadedly refusing to modify our beliefs and biases when there is ample cause to do so…those are the evils that propagate in our world today and always have.
In life we are all forced to make unsteady compromises with evil; to speak or act in ways that are damaging to our integrity and to work with people or organizations that are guilty of numerous things that we consider to be evil. There is no avoiding those compromises, no matter how steadfast and pure we might try to be.
I am asked if I laugh at the inconveniences or misfortunes of others in response to a quote from Will Rogers, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else.” Of course I do, we all do. Our culture, especially here in America, is dedicated to guilty pleasures. We make celebrities of people we know, deep down, are inferior to us for the sake of feeling superior to someone. We watch the mighty stumble and fall and we smile because we see that our icons are as prone to mistakes and failure as we are. I try to avoid those aspects of our society, but I am a product of my culture as well. I don’t derive much real pleasure from the pain of others though, unless I am the one inflicting that pain upon them…a sort of righteous indignation fueled vindictiveness seethes below the surface within me just like everyone else.
I am asked if I consider myself evil, and of course I don’t. No one actually considers themselves to be evil, even when they are acting in a way that would be categorically defined as evil by the whole population. This isn’t The Lord of the Rings and there are no definitively good or evil people out there. What I do at times might be considered evil by another, but might (to me) be done with the greater good in mind…at least for myself and/or those I love and care for. We lie to avoid hurting the feelings of others or to avoid uncomfortable conflicts, we become physically aggressive to defend others, and we do so many other things on a regular basis that we ourselves consider to be evil when we see them done by others. We are, all of us, evil…if we define being evil by doing evil things. But I don’t believe that evil actions make a good person evil…they simply make them human, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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4 comments on “What Is Evil?

  1. chicagoja says:

    Loved your post. Very well thought out. Of course, the question remains as to the actual source of evil. Yes, all people, even good people, commit evil acts. But exactly where does the evil come from? Are people both good and evil? Edmund Burke, who I love to quote, said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing. I would take that one step further and say that evil is the absence of God (in our hearts). Just a thought for your consideration.

    • I personally feel that for all intents and purposes good and evil are merely subjective terms that we apply to past events based upon our own perspectives. What I define as being “good” after the fact is easily defined (with no less accuracy) as “evil” by another. It’s a rare thing that we set out to do something either good or evil…we just act, we do what we do (largely in our own self interests), and it is the consequences of those actions that often determine whether our actions were good or evil.
      The assertion that evil comes from absence of god in our hearts is one that I can’t personally adopt, because of the fact that I believe that god is absent in all of our hearts due to god being absent altogether. Even if I did believe in a god of any kind I would find myself hard pressed to adopt that as the source of evil simply because of the massive proportion of evil that is perpetrated and condoned by those who are absolutely certain of the presence of god in their lives.
      I definitely concur with the statement that all evil requires in order to thrive is that good people do nothing.

  2. Well written, well thought out post! I can’t agree that good people can do evil things without being evil – I think we all have bad impulses, and carried into action, they make us into bad people, more or less, depending on how bad they are and how often we do them. Bad and good are both questions of degree, do you think?

    • Like most things, degrees of good and evil fall along a spectrum. Me stealing bread to feed my family is a lesser evil, to me (and my family) than following laws and allowing them to starve while from the perspective of the merchant who supplies that bread it is reversed though they might, on a personal level, feel precisely the same way that I would.
      I don’t think there is such a thing as a good or evil person though…nor do I feel that a series of evil actions would make us into evil people or that the inverse is true and that good actions make us good people. I think that we are just what we are, neither good nor evil really, and that we act in the ways that we act because (at the time) we feel that we are going with what seems/feels like the best idea at the time. Taking a shortcut and opting for the path of least resistance (though it may be the more evil choice) doesn’t make us evil, it simply makes us shortsighted or, as I stated above, Human. I believe that the good choices
      I make outweigh the bad, but anyone else might feel quite differently…which means that evil isn’t a quantifiable or objective thing in most respects. Sure, there are actions that I find utterly evil and without any chance of being “good” by any perspective, such as rape, but those are extremes of human behavior and more like our animal origins than anything else. Those extremes are present all through the animal kingdom and we never once consider thinking of them as “evil” actions. It’s a difficult thing, to really determine what actually qualifies as being evil when we take that into account.

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