This is not an FAQ. These questions are not asked frequently; that’s the problem. The number of brilliant minds and holy books that have chosen to either half-ass or leave blank their definitions of evil is truly staggering. The consensus seems to be that we know evil when we see it, and don’t need to think any further.
These are the questions that someone should ask, so I asked them to myself– a list of Rhetorically Asked Questions. Why am I doing this?
The idea of evil is everywhere– fiction, mythology, news, religion, fake news, movies, scapegoating. It’s an idea we use to navigate and explain an uncountable number of events in and adjacent to our lives. Weirdly, though, it’s not a concept many great philosophers chose to explore.
And… that’s where war crimes come from.
The exploration of evil makes us truly uncomfortable, but also helps us understand the darkness inside of us– and by understanding, quell it. So, for our first entry in this RAQ of Vile Darkness–
What is Evil?
To answer this question, we need to acknowledge that ‘evil’ has multiple meanings. There is ‘natural evil,’ which is evil that occurs because of accidents or weather– the 2000 Tsunami in Asia was a massive ‘natural evil’ that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives.
The other evil is ‘moral evil,’ aka ‘the evil that men do.’ This is evil created or inflicted by someone or something (Stygian Dolphins, maybe?) with the ability to make moral choices. This is the evil we’re concerned with here.
So evil is bad behavior? No. Think bigger.
In addition to the moral element, there is the question of magnitude. To deserve the title ‘evil’ the actions in question have to be big. Not mere bad behavior, not teens joy riding in a stolen car,* not leaving a bag of flaming poop on a doorstep, but baby-punching levels of awful are required to deserve the title of ‘evil.’ Not everyone is going to agree on where that threshold begins, of course, but we need to agree in advance the standards are high.
So, a working definition, the kind of definition that changes as exploration improves understanding: “Evil is an extremely harmful misdeed performed by someone who can understand the harm they are causing or could cause.”
*Most teens can’t imagine a hit-and-run, or ruining someone’s life by stealing a car, thus the lack of evil. Of course, their nearly adult minds still understand that theft is wrong. ‘Wrong’ and ‘evil’ aren’t the same thing.
What are some other definitions of Evil?
There are 2 definitions of evil associated with Christian thought; both come across as the work of pleasant but unhelpful dementia patients. The first is “That which is against God.” If you believe in God (which I do) this might seem useful on its face. The obvious problem comes up, though– which version of God? Even inside the Christian faith, it’s rare for two churches– much less two people– to agree on God’s nature and behavior. A common reply to that question might be “the God in the Bible.” Ah, but which interpretation? And which Bible?
Even assuming every word of The Bible is 100% Perfect Truth, between its tendencies towards abstract metaphor and self contradiction, and the fact that most English versions of the Bible are translations of translations of compilations it ends up being harder to interpret than even the most poorly worded stereo instructions. Take the Books of Moses, for example.
Also called the Pentateuch, also known as the Books of Moses, also known as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible include the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy… unless it also includes other Hebrew texts like the Books of Enoch or Jubilees. With me so far? Then we should talk about the Septuagint, a Koine Greek translation of the Torah that according to legend was translated by either 70 or 72 Hebrew scholars simultaneously, who– through a miracle that, if legitimate, undermines every subsequent translation of scripture– came up with identical texts. A literal miracle. Except, confusingly, different versions of the Pentateuch include different noncanonical texts and that outside the translations of the Torah the later books were translated over the course of several centuries.
If that kind of inconsistency doesn’t bother you, then I’m looking for investors in my bovine fecal reconstitution formula that… it’s poo. The joke is literally poo.
There’s the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was assembled by Saint Jerome in the 4th Century and approved as the official Catholic translation by the Council of Trent in 1564… even though the multiple editions of the Vulgate exist, and the standard version didn’t exist until the 1590s. There are multiple human hands at work here, and if there is a single divinely inspired version then it has been intentionally occluded from us by God, lost in a sea of scriptures. After that, the Bible was translated into very nearly every other human tongue. Who wants to figure out how perfect each one is?
I’m not trying to undermine the authority of Holy Books, specifically or generally, by bringing up these histories. But it’s hard to know what God is for or against when even English-speaking believers in the same God can’t agree on a single text. The question of what (and who) is against God will always be as hotly debated as God’s existence; when looking for a practical definition of ‘evil,’ there’s still some work to be done.
A more nuanced definition is that evil is not in the defiance of God but in His absence. I first encountered this argument when reading C.S. Lewis in high school, and I’ve always liked it. Thomas Aquinas is an advocate as well, but the idea essentially dates back to the Neoplatonists of the 3rd Century, who were not overtly Christian but defined evil as an absence of good, indicating that the religious connotation came later. Either way, it’s an appealing notion, in that it seems to explain a lot– if God/goodness is sometimes absent, then maybe there is room in the universe for sorrow and anger and hate… not to mention hurricanes, heart attacks, skin cancer, crib deaths, multiple 20th Century genocides, and of course the existence and use of thermonuclear weapons.
As is demonstrated by the Neoplatonists, it is possible to strip the theology from the definition and stipulate that evil is either the opposite of good or the absence of good. Without an indisputable definition of ‘good,’ though, we still have essentially the same problem. Good luck getting a bunch of Aztec priests to agree with Jesuits on a common moral core.
In some of these examples you can see some problems with this definition. It makes evil a passive thing, which feels inadequate in the face of human malice. Saint Augustine writes (terrifyingly, obsessively) about how he stole some pears as a child simply for the joy of doing wrong. This doesn’t sound or feel evil to me, but given the way he goes on about it in his Confessions it’s clear that Augustine was disturbed by this memory. It made him realize that he had it in him to love doing the wrong thing. I’ve felt this same perverse pleasure, both from contemplating bad deeds and doing them; knowing I was getting away with something, however small.
There’s a lack of precision in this “absence of God” definition, too. Since humanity can’t agree of God’s form, forms, or existence, it’s a definition that is bound to vary according to each observer. And while that’s kind of cool, in that it opens up room for a comparison between moral theory and quantum physics, the question of “Schrodinger’s God” isn’t useful in defining evil. It’s more like a meme, the kind with kitty cat pictures and captions.
Philosophers’definitions of Evil include:
Benedict de Spinoza: In the 1600s, this lens grinder-turned-logician attempted to define good and evil in psychological, relativist terms– that a greedy person might think that owning food or money is Good, while a priest or judge might see Wells Fargo’s creation of thousands of false accounts as a literal way to secretly steal money from their clients as Evil. For BS it’s all about perspective and values.
Immanuel Kant: In the 1800s Kant’s moral purist definition of evil held sway. Kant believed that Good is defined by Altruism– the ability to think about and act on the needs of others either before or as well as your own. Motive is primary for Kant– for him the Road to Hell can’t be paved with good intentions; it is instead presumably lined with chocolate trees. As a result, when he gets around to defining Evil he comes up with several declining tiers of impurity– doing a good thing for the wrong reasons, for example, is still bad but not the worst– forming a kind of moral wedding cake too complex to ever use to make actual moral decisions. If you had to sum his thoughts up in a single sentence you’d probably say something like “selfishness is evil.”
Some 100 years later Ayn Rand would read Kant’s stance on selfishness and think this song was about her.
Friedrich Nietzsche: Perhaps the most famous philosophical stance on evil– that it (and good, and God) are outmoded concepts we need to move beyond. This marks Nietzsche as the most prominent “evil skeptic,” a group of thinkers who argue that the idea of evil has been so abused and misused that it needs to be retired.
My late friend Charlotte Frye, who had a legitimate PhD in philosophy, set me straight on Nietzsche. He wasn’t so much in favor of killing God as mourning the fact that reason seemed to be replacing religion. Yes, he thought good things would come out of this change, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also devastated by the concept, afraid of the holes this left in the world. He was right– people in religious crisis do terrible things.
Ayn Rand: Rand’s not a legitimate philosopher. She misrepresented and distorted opinions and arguments that might invalidate her. She is, however, incredibly influential– former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was one of her disciples, and Kentucky Senator Rand(al) Paul’s odd nickname isn’t entirely a coincidence either. To her credit, Rand tried to define evil in concrete terms.
“An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, and that which threatens it is the evil.” Which is to say, Rand considers altruism evil and selfishness to be the only true good. Not smart, far-looking enlightened self-interest, but raw “I take what I want if you can’t stop me” selfishness. She doesn’t really justify it logically or morally, she instead concocts vast fictional examples of her claims– thus the “not a legitimate philosopher” disclaimer above. She also ridicules philosophers whose conclusions are based on logic and facts– she obviously had it in for Kant. I don’t always agree with philosophers’ conclusions, but they show their work, and she makes a habit of attacking not the work but the person.
See also Straw Man Fallacy and Ad Hominem Attacks. To paraphrase Ayn Rand (on Kant), so much for Ayn Rand.
Rand’s relationship with Nietzsche’s work deserves some comment. Nietzsche famously predicted a future Superman (ubermensch) whose Will To Power would change the world, including creating a morality “beyond good and evil.” Rand never says it, but all of her arguments seem to indicate that she is the Super Being in question– the phrase she uses and abuses is “Superior Mind”– and that her Objectivist philosophy is the morality Friedrich was anticipating. As is true for most things Rand, she neither gives credit Nietzsche nor proves her point via logical construct– she just asserts the latter and heavily implies the former.
For Further Reading:
For more on moral philosophers, I recommend The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, particularly its article titled “The Concept of Evil.” It also has excellent articles on the philosophers (real and self-imagined) referenced above.
For an excellent, detailed look at Ayn Rand and her relationship to other philosophers, I recommend “The Virtue of Stupidity,” by academic freelancer Christopher Roberts. It is well written, well reasoned, and fun to read.
There is a lot written about various versions of the Pentateuch and the Vulgate, often from sources with some evident conflicts of interests and bias. Wikipedia honestly does an adequate job outlining the facts for both. If you’d like an entertaining story of how Biblical translation can at once go right and wrong, then I recommend John Updike’s “The Great I Am,” published in the New Yorker in November of 2004.
Bon appetit! Oh… and don’t be evil.
Note: edited on 4/5/2018, to reflect Rand’s relationship to Nietzsche.