So You Think There’s No Such Thing As Evil
evil [ee-vuh l]. adjective 1. morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked, 2. harmful; injurious (Dictionary.com)
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the past century has brought many philosophers back to a concept that Frederick Nietzsche managed to squelch over a hundred years ago with his widely popular book, Beyond Good and Evil. He argued that the old paradigm of moralistic judgments made based on theological tenets was outgrown by a modern society. No doubt the need to refer to God and the Devil when discussing evil is outmoded.
Q. Why do people feel the need to bring back the concept of evil?
A. The Holocaust. The genocides of King Leopold or Rwanda. The identification of serial killers and their torture as a sociopathic phenomenon.
“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” -Joseph Conrad
As the Stanford Encyclopedia says,
“It seems that we cannot capture the moral significance of these actions and their perpetrators by calling them ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ or even ‘very very wrong’ or ‘very very bad.’ We need the concept of evil.”
People who thought about these things long ago have sub-divided evil into further categories based on a broad and narrow interpretation of the idea. Broadly, evil is broken down into natural and moral evil. Natural evils are those to which we have typically turned to a omniscient being called God for understanding or blame. Why are there tsunamis that kills hundreds of thousands of people? Why are there earthquakes?
Some people come to the conclusion there is no all-powerful God when these evils overcome them. In the modern era, we understand the mechanisms of these disasters, typically no longer attributing them to an all-knowing being. People have (mostly) learned to think of natural disasters as consequences of Earth’s properties, rather than evil. Of course, there are many people who still believe natural disasters are punishments for evil.
However, the concept of evil extends beyond the old-fashioned notions of a theological beings. It extends to behavior by human beings when we talk about moral evil. In a humanist society, ethics and morality are the standard by which human beings hold each other accountable as social animals. Likewise, humans are allowed to define for themselves what constitutes an evil act. Broadly speaking, moral evil encompasses both committing murder and telling a lie. That is why we need the narrow definition of evil in contemporary use.
As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia, “ the narrow concept of evil picks out only the most morally despicable sorts of actions, characters, events, etc.”
Those who are called “evil-skeptics,” wishing to retire the word, are left to define behavior and the character of people as wrong-doing or bad. These are simply softer synonyms for classifying a range of behaviors, characters, and events. They do not allow for a severe categorization of the continuum for any of these, effectively allowing human beings who introduce these elements into society a level of acceptability.
In books like, “The Sociopath Next Door” and “Almost a Sociopath,” estimations of the percentage of people who are almost sociopaths in the population are essentially 5–15%. Are these people without a conscience evil? That depends on how they choose to conduct themselves. Furthermore, you don’t have to be a sociopath to commit an evil act. What is it when in city after city across the country people are unable to get clean drinking water? When children are knowingly poisoned with lead? Bad? Wrong-doing? Evil?
Many skeptics of using the word “evil,” cite their concern over the dangerous nature of word. Its application to people who are believed to have fixed characters ascribed as evil could be risky, because people generally want to harshly punish “evil” generically. To this, as a proponent of the word, I reply it is its very ambiguity of application that drives its power to instigate a rush to judgment. There is no limit on punishment of evil, because punishment itself has no evil limit.
This uncertainty is not helped by going silent about the concept. It is only helped by discussing it. It is not a concept that will simply go away, and leaving it solely to the purveyors of Satan and Hell is not useful, especially if society grows more secular. Allowing the Biblical set to co-opt evil as solely their own limits our ability to label extremes. It also prevents us from studying it to prevent it.
If you examine Nietszhe’s reasons for abandoning the concept of evil, he has a very interesting twist that handicaps today’s oppressed people. He claimed the concept of evil was in the hands of the oppressed as their tool; they used it to describe their oppressors. He claimed that domination, appropriation, and mistreatment of one human being by another human being is not immoral. Not “evil.” Claiming it is, well, that’s just stifling “creative self-expression, accomplishment,” and the freedom of at least one individual (the creative self-expression, accomplishment and freedom of the oppressed are not addressed).
In fact, for 20th century philosopher, Hanna Arendt, “radical evil [a term she borrowed from Immanuel Kant] involves making human beings as human beings superfluous.” This is the definition of evil I adopt. The definition oppressed people should be free to reclaim, ignoring the domination of Nietzsche's beliefs on secular thought. Oppressed people reclaim your word. Describe the behavior of your oppressors for what it is. Evil.
Critics and adherents of Arendt have expanded on this definition. Philosophers like Calder and Card have added necessary conditions for a wrong-doing to be evil, such as intent to cause harm by the perpetrator. Card says a harm must be intolerable such as physical or mental suffering and denial of basic needs such as food, social contact, water, etc. She defines evils as “reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms produced by inexcusable wrongs” (Card, 2010, p.16).
This is a good launching point for a current conceptualization of evil. I believe it is still applicable to human behavior and character that lacks remorse for other human beings. I especially believe it should be a word available to oppressed people when speaking of the behavior of their oppressors.
Arendt, H. (1985). The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc.
Arendt, H. (1994). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.
Calder, T. (2015). The concept of evil.” In E. Zalta, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Website: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/concept-evil/
Card, C. (2001) “Inequalities versus evils.” In J. Sterba (Ed.). , J. Sterba (ed.); Controversies in Feminism (pp. 83–98), Oxford: Rowman& Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Card, C. (2010). Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
evil. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 22, 2016 from Dictionary.com websitehttp://dictionary.reference.com/browse/evil
Garcia, E.V. (2002). “A Kantian theory of evil.” The Monist, 85(2), 194–209.
Kekes, J. (1988). Understanding evil. American Philosophical Quarterly, 25(1), 13–23.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. “Beyond Good and Evil.” Last updated December, 2015. Retrieved January 22, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Beyond_Good_and_Evil&oldid=697229999