What is evil? Evil is any force, being or activity that increases human suffering. It is a negative force, concerned with loss and deprivation. It subtracts something from the universe, or interferes with human welfare. Nonetheless evil is relative: what causes pleasure for some may cause pain for others. There are few instances of absolute evil, though some actions and events have come close.

Christian scholars identify three main types of evil: physical, moral, and metaphysical.

Physical evil is that which causes harm to the body or the mind. This kind of evil need not be conscious or deliberate -- a car accident may be an evil event, though there was no bad intent. Similarly we might speak of an "evil storm" on the horizon -- it looks like it will cause suffering, but we don't truly ascribe evil intent to it. Of course, deliberate (unsolicited) bodily injury, or the thwarting of a person's full development, are also evil. The oppression of an underclass is evil because it restricts the development of the members -- again this need not be overt or deliberate to qualify as evil.

Moral evil is deliberate departure from an accepted moral code. This sort of evil can take two aspects. The first is when you do something that you know to be wrong - the will acting against the guidance of the conscience. In this sense moral evil can exist even for the atheist. The second is acting against the precepts of religion - committing sin. Someone who departs unknowing from such codes does not do evil. Thus the "pagans" or "savages" whom Christian missionaries tried to convert did not do evil in the eyes of the missionaries when found "in a state of nature" -- but did do so if they were "converted" to Christianity but then reverted to their native customs.

Metaphysical evil is that which exists due to the structure of the universe. This category generates the most lively debates. Some do not hold that it exists at all - that decay and death are a part of the order of life, and are thus not negative. Others hold that they cause suffering of others, and are thus evil. These latter must then find reasons to justify this kind of evil in the universe of a benevolent God. The Christian solution to this problem is the concept of original sin. The imperfections of the world are a result of Adam and Eve's original mistake in the Garden of Eden.

For Christians, a related topic is the "problem of evil". If God is benevolent, why does He cause or at least permit suffering? This is a topic for another node.

Evil is a concept that heavily relies upon perception. When doing "evil" deeds in order to execute an act of great goodness, does society consider an evil to have been committed? What if this goodness is only in the mind of the one who executes the deeds? In both cases, goodness exists, but only in the former is the goodness agreed upon by all (or at least most) members of society. Does this trivialize the pure intentions of the person engaging in so-called evil acts?

If the individual intentionally goes against the morals of society, has an evil necessarily been committed? What if those morals are in themselves evil (as viewed by a person from another society with different morals)? Under the assumption that evil is the opposite of good, then a good has been committed, but at the same time, an evil has also been committed, as the morality of society has been challenged.

This leads us to the conclusion that the only way to judge what is good and what is evil is to take a society and its morals and use them as a guideline. Societies do change, however, and it must be noted that morals change as well. As morals develop and evolve, the definitions of good and evil can be drastically altered, or, in the rare case, completely transposed. Due to these constantly-changing rules of societies, good and evil are destined to only be defined moral and immoral, respectively.

Evil, Ultimate.
Anatgonist in Terry Gilliam's 1981 film, Time Bandits.

Imprisoned within the Fortress of Infinite Darkness, he's rather upset about how the Creator has been handling things, and a little irate that he's imprisoned within said Fortress. So, he makes plans to steal a map to all the wormholes in existance so he may escape and wreak havok upon creation. The map, as it turns out, is already stolen once-over by a pack of Dwarves in the former employ of God.

Evil goes about trapping the dwarves and their young English boy companion, and obtains the map. Unfortunatly for him (and fortunately for Existence), the prisoners escape and bring a plethora of heroes from myriad different time eras to fight Evil and rewin the map. Unfortunatly, Evil defends himself from all of these attacks (apparently Ultimate Evil is not weak to Cowboys, tanks, ray guns, etc, etc...).

Fortunatly, the Supreme Being comes down from on high and blows up Evil, sending chunks of Evil everywhere. He then rehires the thieving dwarves and sends the young boy home. Unfortunately, a piece of Evil came back with him and burns down his house. His parents find the Evil in a toaster oven, and against the boy's protests, touch it and blow up.
Evil is always on duty.


Evil was my favorite character from Time Bandits. He certainly had some of the best lines:
  • "God isn't interested in technology. He knows nothing of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time. Forty-three species of parrots, nipples for men."
  • "When I have understanding of computers I shall be the Supreme Being!"
  • "If I were creating a world I wouldn't mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o'clock, day one."
  • "You are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence."

Evil was played by David Warner.
Back to The Dhammapada

Chapter Nine -- Evil

  1. Hasten to do good and restrain your
    mind from evil. One who is slow in doing good,
    one's mind delights in evil.
  2. Should a person commit evil, let one
    not do it again and again. Let one not find pleasure
    therein, for painful is the accumulation of evil.
  3. Should a person do good, let one do
    it again and again. Let one find pleasure therein,
    for blissful is the accumulation of good.
  4. It may be well with the evil-doer as long
    as the evil ripens not, but when it does ripen, then
    the evil doer sees (the painful results of) one's evil deeds.
  5. It may be ill with the doer of good as long
    as the good ripens not, but when it does ripen
    then the doer of good sees (the pleasant results of)
    one's good deeds.
  6. Think not lightly of evil, saying, "It
    will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water
    pot filled; likewise, the fool, gathering it little by
    little, fills oneself with evil.
  7. Think not lightly of good, saying, "It
    will not come to me." Drop by drop is the water
    pot filled; likewise, the wise person, gathering it
    little by little, fills oneself with good.
  8. Just as a trader with a small escort and
    great wealth would avoid a perilous route, or
    just as one desiring to live avoids poison, even
    so should one shun evil.
  9. If on the one hand there is no wound, one
    may even carry poison in it. Poison does not
    affect one who is free from wounds, and for one
    who does no evil, there is no ill.
  10. Like fine dust thrown against the wind,
    evil falls back upon that fool who offends an
    inoffensive, pure and guiltless person.
  11. Some are born in the womb; the wicked
    are born in hell; the devout go to heaven; the
    stainless pass into Nibbana.
  12. Neither in the sky nor in mid-ocean,
    nor by entering into mountain clefts, nowhere
    in the world is there a place where one may escape
    from the results of evil deeds.
  13. Neither in the sky nor in mid-ocean,
    nor by entering into mountain clefts, nowhere
    in the world is there a place where one will not
    be overcome by death.

eurodemo = E = evil and rude

evil adj.

As used by hackers, implies that some system, program, person, or institution is sufficiently maldesigned as to be not worth the bother of dealing with. Unlike the adjectives in the cretinous/losing/brain-damaged series, `evil' does not imply incompetence or bad design, but rather a set of goals or design criteria fatally incompatible with the speaker's. This usage is more an esthetic and engineering judgment than a moral one in the mainstream sense. "We thought about adding a Blue Glue interface but decided it was too evil to deal with." "TECO is neat, but it can be pretty evil if you're prone to typos." Often pronounced with the first syllable lengthened, as /eeee'vil/. Compare evil and rude.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

The Nature of Good and Evil

The biblical story of Cain and Abel represents evil as a serpent, which lurks within every human, tempting them into sin. As is the case with all other philosophical concepts, the existence of evil is impossible to verify* and belief in it is a matter of personal opinion. Many Christians are of the opinion that God, in creating all things, must have created evil although prominent philosophers such as St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas declared that evil is not a created thing but the absence of one in a similar way to darkness or coldness. Through this analogy, evil can be understood as the absence of goodness.

In Christianity, evil is derived from free will, the freedom to do and say evil things. Because each person can choose what they do and say, they can choose to do and say something that will have the effect of hurting another. For Christians, evil arises when people make the choice to perform actions that are contrary to God’s desire. They believe that the source of evil is the ability of created beings to act and speak in a way that is out of harmony with the desires of God. Evil as a lack of goodness generally leads to wrong actions but the foundation of evil is not the action but an attitude of the heart. Evil actions are visible but an invisible desire is the underlying element behind them.

Evil is often equated with sin in the Bible, most especially in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but this is a simplistic definition. In order for an act to be true evil, it must be committed in full consciousness of its probable consequences and not merely through foolishness or ignorance. These consequences must be embraced by the person intentionally committing the act. Therefore, what is considered evil exists depends what is considered to be sin. The Biblical idea of sin as being the failure to follow God’s commandments obviously does not appeal to atheists and even some Christians may feel that 'sins' such as coveting the possessions of others are not evil.

Evil must be defined in a different way, since many different people interpret evil as being something opposed to their own values and beliefs. Some people believe that evil is a lack of compassion and a disregard for all others yet some would regard evil as something fearful which cannot be comprehended while to others, evil is rebellion and indifference.

Social customs, traditions, or feelings cannot determine a universal sense of right and wrong and thus no such sense can truly exist. Evil must be defined by through each individual’s own values. What some consider evil others may not and that which we approve of may be frowned upon by our society. Good and evil do not exist as absolutes but only as a set of values accepted or denied by each society and outside that society have little relevance. Evil as a concept is created by society and as such continually changes and evolves throughout that society’s existence.

Few people would commit an act that they considered evil of their own free will and those who commit such acts do so because they have not thought them through. Therefore, acts that are perceived by the majority of society as evil are either mistakes or committed by someone who believed that there was nothing wrong with such acts. If this person’s views were predominant within his society then there would be no complaint.

Evil cannot exist in a moral vacuum, without goodness with which to compare it, yet because good and evil can only be defined in relation to one another, they are fluid concepts completely dependent on the opinions and point of view of the individual. Therefore, evil cannot exist as a constant moral force but is only the result of applying a set of moral guidelines to a given situation.

*The existence of evil as a force rather than the existence of evil actions or people.
As a political scientist and a history buff, I've had the opportunity to study more than few evil deeds and evil people. Evil seems to come from two sources, either an inability to see others as human, or from an overblown sense of self. Ted Bundy never saw his victims as human. He felt nothing, and never believed that he could be touched. HIs self-confidence never cracked until the last day before his execution. He never thought anyone was really going to execute him. To him, his victims had no value beyond his pleasure. As people, they did not exist.

Almost to a man, evildoers see themseves as good. The confirmed psychopath who does evil because he can is more the stuff of novels than real life. They do exist but usually perform lesser, more localized evils. Serial killers they may be, but few sink to the level of genocide. They must hide in the shadows. Without the appeal of a transcendent idea, sociopaths cannot rise to positions of power and influence. The reason is simple: these people are nuts and anyone who comes to know them will recognize their madness before they attain real power.

It takes an idea, be it faith or ideology, to move a psychopath on to the stage of a Hitler or Pol Pot. The greatest evils of all are done by people who believe they are good. Adolf Hitler really believed that the Jews were a negative force that destroyed everything they came near. Consider Elie Wiesel's experiences in the concentration camps related in his short book Night. Wiesel recounts how as he and his fellow concentration camp inmates were run constantly in and out of showers. Now why would the Nazis do this to people whom they were expending as few resources on as possible? Consider the water and facilities costs for this, and you realize that they were trying to wash something away, as if Jewish people secreted some type of poison.

Fear too plays a role, for fear often blinds better people to the reality they face until they too have become party to madness. The Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition were historical examples of people using torture and murder to preserve the truth of the Prince of Peace. They defined evil as heresy while forgetting that Jesus Christ spent his time among the samaritans, lepers and tax collectors. Mohammad Atta and his fellow suicide bombers truly believed that they would be rewarded in heaven for mass murder. They expected glory. In each case, these people really believed that they were serving the common good. In these cases the persecuters bought into an ideology --- or a theology --- that declared someone evil based on some ascribed characteristic. In essence, they overemphasized one bit of their beliefs to the point where they forgot the more important and fundamental commands of their faith. Stereotyping seems critical in turning the quest for goodness into darkness.

True believers are probably the most dangerous people on earth. At their best they perform the most marvelous acts of goodness. It takes a true believer to give up everything and spend your life serving the poor. Or to promote a cause when all seems hopeless. They accomplish much good, but such self sacrificing devotion can be obsessive. When obsession is tainted with hatred and egotism people slip over the edge into darkness. I have often wondered if both self-sacrificing good and extreme wickedness are two sides of the same coin.

Hitler and Osama bin Laden are examples of the true believer. Pol Pot's murderous tendencies were well described in The Killing Fields. Pol Pot sought to remake Cambodia into a socialist paradise. In order to do that he and his Khymer Rouge compatriots had to murder millions. These people kill for an ideal they have romanticized.

There are lots of small, petty evils in the world. The office back-stabbing or simple lying. Claiming credit for another's contribution so you can advance while leaving them flat. All stem from the selfishness.

When you come right down to it Evil is selfish. Evil begins when the worthy goals of ambition and loyalty to your neighbor excludes anyone from the defined 'in group.' Evil comes when the desire to step on someone matches the desire to step past them. Evil grows when we forget that even our Enemies are like ourselves.

To avoid evil, love your neighbor as your self. Accept them without judgement. Seek a path where both you and they are better off. Include others. Evil begins with exclusion. Evil begins when one man decides he is better than another.

"Evil has an address. It has a phone number."
—Bertolt Brecht

Evil might be defined as "the intentional creation of harm". Quite often the idea is put forward that evil is an entirely subjective phenomenon and therefore does not exist in any definable form. This seems to ignore the possibility of the existence of both absolute and relative evil. Relative evil is by its very nature subjective, based as it is on individual perception of wrongdoing. From the perspective of relative evil, Hitler (everyone's favorite avatar of evil) may not have been evil at all, since he believed what he was doing was right. Which is not to argue that Hitler was good by any means, but that in some relativistic schemes of evil he may have been less so than, say, Halliburton or Enron executives, who knew full well that what they were doing was both illegal and immoral. Hitler's relative evil may also have been rooted in the fact that any normal society could not have embraced such a lunatic, but the German society of that time was decimated by economic and social conditions; the series of rationalizations required to accept Hitler as a legitimate leader may have been expedited by these conditions. In addition, Ervin Staub points out that "nations have not customarily assumed this responsibility, perhaps because of the tradition that nations are not morally responsible" (1, pg. 28). To cite a more prosaic example, birth control is considered an evil by certain subgroups in American society, and seen as the greatest of goods by many others. Relative evil can also be easily manipulated by the powerful into justification of evil acts: to al Qaeda, we are the great Satan; to U.S. leadership, "they" (an ever-shifting rogue's gallery) are the Axis of Evil. Relative evil, then, is of little interest philosophically, since it is subject to the whims of individual moral standards, and no overarching definition can ever be achieved.

But does this relativism justify an overall rejection of the concept of evil? The problem with such a wholesale dismissal of evil due to the lack of a clear definition is that we must know what we are grappling with in order to combat it successfully; it is very difficult to do anything about something as amorphous as evil. As one scholar in the study of evil has put it,

The trouble comes in trying to understand evil. When people become frustrated in their effort to do so, they are inclined to say that because they do not understand evil, it does not exist—a somewhat self-important fallacy based on the thought that what I do not understand cannot be real. Evil has made a successful career over many centuries by persuading people that it does not exist (2, pg. 4).

So we come to the concept of absolute evil, which, unlike relative evil, bears great fruit when subjected to rigorous intellectual investigation. One argument upon which this essay is based is that the opposite of absolute evil is not absolute goodness, but absolute altruism. The importance of this premise for a discussion of absolute evil is that, while goodness may be considered a personality trait, more or less influenced by the tides of nature or nurture, altruism is effortful. Altruism involves willing sacrifice of personal comfort. By extension, if we grant that evil is altruism's opposite, then evil is also effortful, as distinguished from "badness", which is, like goodness, more a tendency than a chosen behavior. Granted, these terms are also extremely subjective, and exist on something of a continuum. The distinction being promoted here is that evil and altruism are not merely the extremes of that continuum, but have a definite qualitative flavor. In contrast to the willing sacrifice of altruism, evil implies ultimate selfishness.

Of course, all this would be mere logical noodling if not for the fact that in seeking a satisfying definition of absolute evil and an idea of what we can do about it, we must take into consideration the intention of the evildoer if we grant the premises above. In other words, one does not simply stumble into altruism or evil; one must choose such a course. And the importance of this distinction will be made clear when we consider what actions might be appropriate in response to absolute evil.

What About God?

In most philosophical discussions concerning evil, God enters into the picture. An argument can be made that the existence of God can be disproved by the existence of evil. (The formal logical argument has been made quite eloquently in many places, and a concise version of this can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available online at plato.stanford.edu/entrires/evil). In brief, the argument runs that any God worth his salt would want to eliminate evil and has the power to do so, and that therefore the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. In the limited, Western view of God, the other possibilities would seem to be that God is indifferent, God is Himself evil and likes to see us suffer, or God has given us free will and the evil in the world is a result of the choices we have made. This last explanation includes the possibility that evil is inherent in humanity and it is only the belief in God which curbs the urge to give in to absolute evil. Religions will frequently make this argument, but since great evil has been done in the name of every major religion, and great good by many who purport to be godless, this assertion can be seen primarily as a power grab on the part of the religionists.

In any case, we are once again faced with the limiting notion of a relative evil, for the evil being discussed in these philosophical arguments is relative to the existence of God, that is, evil is defined by a moral code and this moral code is defined by God; therefore, if God does not exist, evil does not, either. The circularity of this argument would seem to refute it: if the popsicle man doesn't come around, does that mean popsicles don't exist? What we are searching for here is an Evil which can exist outside of the confining constraints of dependence on any other defining feature. Though the assertion has been made that God (and the Devil, for that matter) exist irrefutably, these cannot be said to be universal truths, and therefore play no part in the definition of an absolute evil. Aside from all of these points, we must also consider that, as Joseph Conrad wrote, "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness" (Under Western Eyes).

So, you say you're nuts?

Insanity has been put forward quite often as a factor which makes great evil less so. Is this always so? It would seem clear that the answer lies not in the degree of insanity, but in the effect it has on the ability to perceive what one does as morally wrong. Sometimes insanity may take the form of complete lack of conscience, so the wrongdoer may have no concept of what is wrong or right, but only what he or she desires (Ted Bundy is brought up elsewhere in this node as an example of this). But is conscience truly a defining characteristic of goodness or altruism? Conscience has been defined as "the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness...of one's own conduct, intention, or character..." (3). It is possible, then, that insanity may take the form of a disconnection from conscience rather than an absence of conscience. It has been argued, in fact, that one can be trained into this form of insanity, as when otherwise normal human beings are made into cruel torturers by a stepwise process of indoctrination which slowly desensitizes the torturer and serves to dehumanize his victims (4). The definition of evil we are using here would not see such a disconnection as an excluding factor in defining an individual as absolutely evil. Only a form of insanity in which the conscience was utterly absent or overwhelmed by outside forces, such as the voices of the paranoid schizophrenic, would exclude one from being considered evil: if part of the definition of evil is volition, then when insanity takes the form of a lack of choice, this person cannot be seen as absolutely evil.

This discussion also leads to a consideration of the legal use of insanity as a plea against guilt. Though we are all familiar with the idea of pleading insanity and being found innocent, in many jurisdictions there is also the plea of "insane but guilty", which implies that the insane person is not necessarily blameless by virtue of insanity, but that their craziness may plead for a lighter sentence, or a more constructive one (i.e., institutionalization rather than incarceration). Another interesting legal question is the idea of remorse. It has been put forward in the sentencing phase of some trials that if the guilty party expresses remorse, the deed is less onerous and therefore the sentence should be more lenient. However, it may well be that the person who feels no remorse is in fact incapable of it, and that those who feel remorse are more to blame for their behavior because they could have used their sense of conscience to keep them from committing the crime to begin with.

What, then, is Absolute Evil?

For the sake of argument, let us consider this definition of absolute evil: "The intentional creation of harm by a person or persons through actions which their own values deem wrong, and which actions are not ameliorated by any mitigating circumstance." The implication here is that the individual has a clear choice, knows both the right action and the consequences of a wrong action, and chooses the latter. Further, this choice must have no redeeming features, e.g., one who kills to save the life of another. The definition itself, while staking a claim to absoluteness, may seem at first blush to be itself relative, based as it is in the evildoers wrongness as measured by his or her own values. However, the universality of the definition is not the specific values, but the willing compromise of those values by the perpetrator. Staub argues that we "cannot judge evil by conscious intentions, because psychological distortions tend to hide even from the perpetrators themselves their true intentions" (1, pg. 25). This essay argues, however, that it is relative evil which cannot be so judged; absolute evil is much more amenable to such definition. Some examples of absolute evil:

  • Fairly common in American society is the family member who kills another family member for sheer personal gain. Dad has a pile of money, but he's a jerk, and Mom conspires with her son or some other young man to kill the guy and split the loot. Such a discounting of conscience and the sense of moral values can only be seen as absolutely evil.

  • The sexual abuse of children should be seen as absolutely evil in nearly every case. It is perhaps plausible that some forms of insanity make this not so, but these would have to be extreme and rare cases.
  • Though torture is used earlier as an example of how evil can be conditioned, this should in no way detract from the evil of torture and all those who condone it as absolutely evil.
  • One of the intentional ironies in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is that one of the most powerful purveyors of religion, the Grand Inquisitor, is the personification of absolute evil. The Grand Inquisitor is well aware that he is performing evil acts, and is so caught up in the power of his role he is even willing to sacrifice Christ himself in the name of Christianity, while claiming to do so for the common good. Of course, this is an expression of Dostoyevsky's own religious bias exaggerated for effect; still, it is an apt illustration of how the urge to goodness can itself lead to absolute evil when compromise leads us by degrees to embrace the very evil we have given our lives to defeat. "Evil appears in an immense and subtle variety of forms--including, sometimes, the form of apparent good" (2, pg. 13).
  • Another fascinating fictional example of absolute evil is the character of Tom Ripley in a series of novels by Patricia Highsmith. Ripley claims to have no conscience, but it appears more likely that he is simply entirely disconnected from his conscience, since he is quite clear that his evil actions are just that, and does them anyway. In fact, his motives are all the more pure evil since he makes no pretense of justification; quite often, he does what he does merely because he can and because it entertains him.

So what?

Does this discussion of absolute evil have any practical application, or is it merely a meandering philosophical monologue? Ervin Staub, himself a victim of two totalitarian regimes and a psychologist, argues that there is no more important discussion we as a society can have. It is his assertion that evil is largely a taught behavior, and that the cruelty in society is attributable to the attitudes and behaviors of those in authority, who themselves have been indoctrinated into ways of thinking which tend toward evil (4).

But what of absolute evil, the ability to entirely remove from one's thoughts any consideration of morality? Is this also a learned behavior? Can we give our children the moral courage to avoid a path which leads to the possibility of separation of action and consequence? The answer to all of these clearly seems to be, "Yes". Roy Baumeister argues that there are four major root causes of evil: desire for material gain, threatened egotism, misguided idealism, and pursuit of sadistic pleasure (5, pg. 376-377). The road to absolute evil originates in the compromise of our values to serve an ignoble end, such as the accumulation of wealth or our personal comfort. "Evil seeks its opportunities and settles in like a parasite where it finds conditions welcoming" (2, pg. 17). Once the rationalization of such compromise is made, it is a decidedly slippery slope one is on, and this leads in turn to the possibility of the ultimate moral compromise which is absolute evil. Staub notes that great societal evil "is usually the outcome of an evolution that starts with discrimination and limited acts of harm-doing. Harming people changes the perpetrators (and the whole society) and prepares them for more harmful acts" (4, pg. 303). Contributing to the ubiquity of such a path to evil is the fact that great evil tends to give birth to more evil; it is well documented that child abuse is a causative factor in much of the criminality in the world, for instance. All persons who become torturers and genocidal maniacs start out with some degree of horror at the prospect of either behavior, but go through a process of rationalization which leads in a stepwise fashion to the ultimate compromise of absolute evil.

During World War II and in the years since, there has been considerable discussion of the Holocaust, and who was responsible for the Final Solution promoted by Hitler and his cronies. Were all of the German people responsible? Was it only the Germans, since many other countries were complicit in either placating the Nazis (e.g., Great Britain) or ignoring the threat they posed (e.g., the United States). Even more interesting are the evil deeds of Stalin, and how he was considered during this era. Josef Stalin was, if one judges purely by number of persons killed at his instigation, a far more evil man than Hitler. However, during the war, Stalin was our ally, and he has never reached the level of a Hitler in the Western imagination of evil. Once again, the question must be posed: who was responsible for these evils? Did those who were alive during that era have some responsibility for the pogroms of Stalin and the genocide of Hitler, if only through omission? And what of the virtual extermination of the indigenous population of the United States by white settlers? This, too, was a form of genocide, but is rarely referred to as such, most likely because it makes us so profoundly uncomfortable to think of ourselves as springing from an ancestry which perpetrated a genocide of its own.

In our current era, the model of this path to absolute evil is the American response to the attacks of 9/11. While granting that the attacks were evil, at least in conception, and although there was much of goodness and nobility in the widespread response to this tragedy, the systemic response was one of fear and violence. This in turn lead to a willful disregard for the truth (eg, "weapons of mass destruction"), and this process of moral compromise lead eventually to such atrocities as the ongoing war crimes of Guantanamo Bay. "Power and the leadership role easily lead to a belief in special knowledge and the devaluation of those who dare to oppose. Leaders may come to believe that they have the right to use whatever means are necessary to achieve their desired ends" (1, pg. 270). Sound familiar? As Christopher Dawson once wrote, "As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy" (The Judgment of the Nations). Staub argues that the role of helpless bystander in such situations is a fallacy and a form of tacit permission for the evil being perpetrated (4, esp. pp. 489-496). He also urges us to recognize that "feelings of injustice, disregard, deprivation, and humiliation are significant roots of terrorism" (ibid, pg. 479).

The Task At Hand

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
—Henry David Thoreau

Part of the problem in considering absolute evil may well be that there is much more of it around than we choose to admit. If we consider poverty, starvation, the ubiquity of preventable diseases, and most (if not all) of the manifestations of war to be evil, then how many of us can escape the accusation of absolute evil being leveled at us? Through our ignorance and apathy, we all may be complicit in the perpetration of this type of evil. We take what action we can, but outrage can last only so long before tedium sets in. "The most terrifying fact of human nature is that people commit evil (or permit evil) not because of some impressive grandeur of Luciferian defiance, but instead for reasons arising from everyday stupidity, inattention, convenience, cowardice, peer pressure, momentary entertainment, or idiot ideology" (2, pg. 106).

This also brings into play Hannah Arendt's assessment of "the banality of evil"(6); Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann and came away with this famous assessment. Eichmann, the primary architect of the genocide of the Jews in Europe, was a boring little bureaucrat and not much more. To him, Jews were merely numbers to be erased from a ledger, and he was the Grand Accountant of Death. Once he had allowed himself to accept the basic premise of the virulent anti-Semitism of Nazism and the Final Solution, it was a fairly simple matter for him to slip into this role of banality and become the prosaic file clerk of a Holocaust. To be near him, by all accounts, was not to feel yourself in the presence of great evil, but rather of an ultimate mundanity. Evil had become normal and average. In our own time, we have seen how so much which was once considered fantastic or impossible—good, bad or neither—has simply become an accepted part of our everyday lives.

Our task, then, is to confront the ultimate evil in ourselves and in the world whenever and however we can, and allow neither the banality of evil nor the tedium of opposing it to deter us from the task at hand. We must always be aware of the dangers inherent in the search for what Lance Morrow calls the "emerging global conscience," for it "can often be a messy, fatuous, self-righteous thing--merely politically correct, maddeningly smug, and, in its turn, dangerously out of touch with the real possibilities of evil. It risks becoming a paradox, that insufferable thing, a conscience that is irresponsible" (2, pg. 48). The only way that anything like a society we admire can grow up among us is through the steady application of the tenets of our own individual and, yes, relative morality, without reference to the definitions of those who, through the pursuit of power or gain, attempt to sell us on a course of action which veers from our values. We must insist that our governments and other institutions conform to ethical and moral standards; these must not be compromised for expediency or from fear. "Moral courage is the ability and willingness to act according to one's important values even in the face of opposition, disapproval, and the danger of ostracism" (4, pg. 8) Hope is, perhaps, evil's greatest enemy; there is no more important or urgent journey humanity can undertake than a comprehension of evil and an active, hopeful part in its defeat.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
—Edmund Burke (attributed)

See also Ethics: an Essay on the Understanding of Evil

(1) Ervin Staub, The roots of evil, the origins of genocide and other group violence, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
(2) Lance Morrow, Evil, an investigation, Basic Books, 2003.
(3) Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, 2003.
(4) Ervin Staub, The psychology of good and evil, Cambridge Press, 2003.
(5) Roy F. Baumeister, Evil, inside human violence and cruelty, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997.
(6) Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Viking Press, 1964.

EVIL, the rate at which work is expended to produce suffering, measured in terms of equivalent destructive energy relative to a known reference atrocity.


= −

₰(t) × (q′q)
)  cos ₥ ⋅ dR
Fig. 1, the Scheißstrahlung equation.
The vertical lines have no meaningful relevance and it is recommended that you do not see them.

In the classical formulation shown above, Φ represents the devastatic flux in antijoules per cubic centiperson, ₰ is the dialectic field strength in microhegels, ₥ is malignitivity in radians, and ξ0 is a constant representing the permittivity of a moral vacuum. Symbols q and q′ represent two very small residents of region R, separated by an irreconcilable difference of ȓ.

The SI unit of evil is the hitler (卐). It is a logarithmic scale with 1.0卐 representing the theoretical maximum amount of evil which is thermodynamically possible under non-eschatological conditions. Everyday measurements describing politicians, civil servants, managers are better expressed in microhitlers (μ卐).

Encyclopedia Blipvertica.

Evil is a problem, and I don't mean the 'Problem of Evil'. The problem has to do with the fact that the usual modern sense of 'evil' is something more like 'a calculating desire to cause unjustified harm to others', and that explains only a tiny fraction of the unnecessary suffering in the world. When people do each other wrong, it is much more likely to be because they are scared or careless. Sometimes people are vengeful for some perceived slight - convincing yourself that someone deserves vengeance is an easy way to justify doing things to them which would otherwise be wrong. Another way is to convince yourself that someone just doesn't deserve your respect because they aren't good enough, or human enough.

Scared people are not really calculating. Careless people don't want to do wrong. Vengeful people tell themselves their actions are justified. When someone dehumanises their victim, they are not really counting them as others. In their own heads, almost nobody is evil. Hatefulness and disdain for others can fall within the definition I gave earlier, but even that depends on your perspective in any given case. This makes it interesting to me that there are so many fictional antagonists whose perspective we are not really expected to understand. They are evil, so of course the good guys need to fight against them; their ideas about why it would be okay to do what they do are completely opaque to us. The most interesting thing about this is that the 'evil' party here is painted as inherently hateful, barely even human. You may sense a kind of circularity here.

The idea of the heartless antagonist seems to have so much narrative pull that it is almost irresistible to treat it as if it helps make sense of everything. I see people wasting a lot of energy doing little more than fighting against personifications of evil, when the real problem is usually that people are given the opportunity to do something that is good for them but bad for someone else, and they just do it without thinking about what it means, or they think it's okay because the other person was an arsehole anyway. There is a lot of subtlety there, and subtlety is boring and difficult, so even though we all know that our opponents are probably just people who have picked up wrong ideas, or bad habits, or a perspective we don't agree with, it is so much easier to think of them as just being bad guys.

I am bothered about this because I think it feeds so much of the partisan political theatre we see in our legislatures and media, so many of the wars that we are asked to support, so many of our least useful struggles. It is easy to feel like you are fighting the good fight when you work to tear down people who are abusing positions of power, but when they are just the latest figurehead of a complex power structure, it is all too easy to leave the underlying power structure intact. It is also frighteningly easy to get caught up in somebody else's game of demonisation, or we would never have needed the word genocide.

I guess what I am saying here is that the idea of evil causes great evil. Maybe some people really are just awful, but even if they are, it is not so much the people that we need to fight against; it is the awfulness, and the opportunities to express it.

Hayao Miyazaki is good on the concept of evil; here's a comic of some of his thoughts on the matter.

E*vil (?) a. [OE. evel, evil, ifel, uvel, AS. yfel; akin to OFries, evel, D. euvel, OS. & OHG. ubil, G. ubel, Goth. ubils, and perh. to E. over.]


Having qualities tending to injury and mischief; having a nature or properties which tend to badness; mischievous; not good; worthless or deleterious; poor; as, an evil beast; and evil plant; an evil crop.

A good tree can not bring forth evil fruit. Matt. vii. 18.


Having or exhibiting bad moral qualities; morally corrupt; wicked; wrong; vicious; as, evil conduct, thoughts, heart, words, and the like.

Ah, what a sign it is of evil life, When death's approach is seen so terrible. Shak.


Producing or threatening sorrow, distress, injury, or calamity; unpropitious; calamitous; as, evil tidings; evil arrows; evil days.

Because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel. Deut. xxii. 19.

The owl shrieked at thy birth -- an evil sign. Shak.

Evil news rides post, while good news baits. Milton.

Evil eye, an eye which inflicts injury by some magical or fascinating influence. It is still believed by the ignorant and superstitious that some persons have the supernatural power of injuring by a look.

It almost led him to believe in the evil eye. J. H. Newman.

-- Evil speaking, speaking ill of others; calumny; censoriousness. -- The evil one, the Devil; Satan.

<-- p. 518 bad typing! -->

; Evil is sometimes written as the first part of a compound (with or without a hyphen). In many cases the compounding need not be insisted on. Examples: Evil doer or evildoer, evil speakink or evil-speaking, evil worker, evil wishink, evil-hearted, evil-minded.

Syn. -- Mischieveous; pernicious; injurious; hurtful; destructive; wicked; sinful; bad; corrupt; perverse; wrong; vicious; calamitious.


© Webster 1913.

E"vil (?) n.


Anything which impairs the happiness of a being or deprives a being of any good; anything which causes suffering of any kind to sentient beings; injury; mischief; harm; -- opposed to good.

Evils which our own misdeeds have wrought. Milton.

The evil that men do lives after them. Shak.


Moral badness, or the deviation of a moral being from the principles of virtue imposed by conscience, or by the will of the Supreme Being, or by the principles of a lawful human authority; disposition to do wrong; moral offence; wickedness; depravity.

The heart of the sons of men is full of evil. Eccl. ix. 3.


malady or disease; especially in the phrase king's evil, the scrofula.



He [Edward the Confessor] was the first that touched for the evil. Addison.


© Webster 1913.

E"vil, adv.

In an evil manner; not well; ill; badly; unhappily; injuriously; unkindly.


It went evil with his house. 1 Chron. vii. 23.

The Egyptians evil entreated us, and affected us. Deut. xxvi. 6.


© Webster 1913.

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