"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.