From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In religion and ethics, evil refers to the morally or ethically objectionable behaviour or thought; behavior or thought which is hateful, cruel, excessively sexual, or violent, devoid of conscience. Evil is sometimes defined as the absence of a good which could and should be present.
The modern English word 'evil' (Old English Yfel) and its cognates such as the German 'Übel' and the Dutch 'Euvel' are widely considered to come from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed form *Ubilaz, comparable to the Hittite huwapp- ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European form *wap- and suffixed zero-grade form *up-elo-. Other later Germanic forms include Middle English evel, ifel, ufel Old Frisian evel (adjective & noun), Old Saxon ubil, Old High German ubil, and Gothic ubils. The root meaning is of obscure origin though shown to be akin to modern English 'over' and modern German 'über' (OE ofer) and 'up' (OE up, upp) with the basic idea of "transgressing".
In Western philosophy, evil is usually limited to doing harm or damage to an object or creature. Plato argued that which we call evil is merely ignorance and that good is that which everyone desires. Benedict de Spinoza said that the difference between good and evil is merely one of personal inclinations: "So everyone, by the highest right of Nature, judges what is good and what is evil, considers his own advantage according to his own temperament... ."
The duality of 'good versus evil' is expressed, in some form or another, by many cultures. Those who believe in the duality theory of evil believe that evil cannot exist without good, nor good without evil, as they are both objective states and opposite ends of the same scale.
Carl Jung, in his book Answer to Job and elsewhere, depicted evil as the "dark side of God". People tend to believe evil is something external to them, because they project their shadow onto others. But from a psychological point of view to be evil is to refuse to acknowledge the weaknesses in one's own personality. Jung interpreted the story of Jesus as an account of God facing his own shadow.
Philosophical quandaries about evil
Is evil universal?
A fundamental question is whether there is a universal, transcendent definition of evil, or whether evil is determined by one's social or cultural background. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, maintained that there are certain acts that are universally considered evil, such as rape and murder. On the other hand, it is hard to find any act that was not acceptable in some society. Less than 150 years ago the United States of America, and many other countries practiced brutal forms of slavery. The Nazis, during World War II, found genocide acceptable, as did the Imperial Japanese Army with the Nanking Massacre and the Hutu Interhamwe in the Rwandan genocide. Today, there is strong disagreement as to whether homosexuality and abortion are evils or not. Universalists consider evil independent of culture, and wholly related to acts or intents. Thus, while the ideological leaders of Nazism and the Hutu Interhamwe accepted (and considered it good) to commit genocide, the universally evil act of genocide renders the entire ideology or culture evil.
Views on the nature of evil tend to fall into one of four opposed camps:
- Moral absolutism holds that good and evil are fixed concepts established by a deity or deities, nature, morality, common sense, or some other source.
- Amoralism claims that good and evil are meaningless, as there are no deities, no moral ingredient in nature. Amoralists tend to apply a homo economicus style of making decisions in their lives.
- Moral relativism holds that standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice.
- Moral universalism is the attempt to find a compromise between the absolutist sense of morality, and the relativist view; universalism claims that morality is only flexible to a degree, and that what is truly good or evil can be determined by examining what is commonly considered to be evil amongst all humans.
As Plato observed, there are relatively few ways to do good, but there are countless ways to do evil, which can therefore have a much greater impact on our lives, and the lives of other beings capable of suffering. For this reason, some philosophers (e.g. Bernard Gert) maintain that preventing evil is more important than promoting good in formulating moral rules and in conduct.
Regardless of the source of their definitions, most human cultures have a set of beliefs about what things, actions, and ideas are undesirable. Undesirable circumstances are often categorised as evil within some cultures. Natural evils generally include accidental death, disease, and other misfortunes, although some cultures see these occurrences instead as a healthy part of the natural order. Moral evils generally include violence, deceit or other destructive and antisocial behavior toward others, although the same behavior toward "outsiders" of the group may be considered "good." War provides many examples, and "God is always on the winning side."
Most cultures recognize many levels of immoral behaviour, from minor vices to major crimes. These beliefs are often encoded into the laws of a society, with methods of judgement and punishment for offenses.
Is evil a useful term?
There is a school of thought that holds that no person is evil, that only acts may be properly considered evil. Psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg claims that the root of violence is the very concept of "evil" or "badness." When we label someone as bad or evil, Rosenberg claims, it invokes the desire to punish or inflict pain. It also makes it easy for us to turn off our feelings towards the person we are harming. He cites the use of language in Nazi Germany as being a key to how the German people were able to do things to other human beings that they normally would not do. He links the concept of evil to our judicial system, which seeks to create justice via punishment — "punitive justice" — punishing acts that are seen as bad or wrong. He contrasts this approach with what he found in cultures where the idea of evil was non-existent. In such cultures, when someone harms another person, they are believed to be out of harmony with themselves and their community, they are seen as sick or ill and measures are taken to restore them to a sense of harmonious relations with themselves and others, as opposed to punishing them.
Psychologist Albert Ellis makes a similar claim, in his school of psychology called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT. He says the root of anger, and the desire to harm someone, is almost always related to variations of implicit or explicit philosophical beliefs about other human beings. He further claims that without holding variants of those covert or overt belief and assumptions, the tendency to resort to violence in most cases is less unlikely.
Prominent American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck on the other hand, describes evil as "militant ignorance". The original Judeo-Christian concept of "sin" is as a process that leads us to "miss the mark" and fall short of perfection. Peck argues that while most people are conscious of this at least on some level, those that are evil actively and militantly refuse this consciousness. Peck characterizes evil as a malignant type of self-righteousness which results in a projection of evil onto selected specific innocent victims (often children or other people in relatively powerless positions).
According to M. Scott Peck an evil person:
- Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else ("their insensitivity toward him was selective")
- Abuses political (emotional) power ("the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion")
- Maintains a high level of respectability and lies incessantly in order to do so
- Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency
- Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat)
He also considers certain institutions may be evil, as his discussion of the My Lai Massacre and its attempted coverup illustrate. By this definition, acts of criminal and state terrorism would also be considered evil.
Is evil good?
Anton Szandor LaVey, the late founder of the Church of Satan, asserts that evil is actually good (an often-used slogan is, "evil is live spelled backwards"). This belief is usually a reaction to evil being described as destructive, where apologists claim that definition is in opposition to the natural pleasures and instincts of men and women. In the more extreme cases, however, this belief can be interpreted to mean that hurting others is acceptable if you can get away with it.
Even Martin Luther allowed that there are cases where a little evil is a positive good. He wrote, "Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play, talk bawdy, and amuse yourself. One must sometimes commit a sin out of hate and contempt for the Devil, so as not to give him the chance to make one scrupulous over mere nothings... ."
It is not uncommon to find people in power who are indifferent to good or evil, taking actions based solely on practicality; this approach to politics was put forth by Niccolò Machiavelli, a sixteenth century Florentine writer who advised politicians "...it is far safer to be feared than loved."
The international relations theories of realism and neorealism, sometimes called realpolitik advise politicians to explicitly disavow absolute moral and ethical considerations in international politics in favor of a focus on self-interest, political survival, and power politics, which they hold to be more accurate in explaining a world they view as explicitly amoral and dangerous. Political realists usually justify their perspectives by laying claim to a "higher moral duty" specific to political leaders, under which the greatest evil is seen to be the failure of the state to protect itself and its citizens. Machiavelli wrote: "...there will be traits considered good that, if followed, will lead to ruin, while other traits, considered vices which if practiced achieve security and well being for the Prince."
Sociological views on evil
When a person acts in such a way as to use others as means to achieve one's own personal ends or fails to consider the consequences of his or her acts upon the lives of others, it is considered to be psychopathic or sociopathic. Some consider such acts to be "evil". This is the view taken by Walter Wink, the Christian theologian of non-violence. In the 2007, Ph.D Philip Zimbardo suggested that people may act evil as a result of a collective identity. This hypothesis, based on his previous experience from the Stanford prison experiment, was published in the book 'The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil'.
Concepts of evil
In Judaism and Christianity, evil is the result of forsaking God. (Deuteronomy 28:20) Judaism stresses obedience to God's laws as written in the Torah (see also Tanakh) and the laws and rituals laid down in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Some doctrines others emphasize the idea that humanity is, within itself, irremediably evil, and in need of forgiveness. (see Original Sin)
In some Abrahamic faiths, evil is personified as Satan, a challenger of the law or will of God. Satan is defined in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek writings and these faiths also teach demons may possess humans or animals and tempt them to do evil. It is argued by those who follow the documentary hypothesis and higher Biblical criticism that this concept of Satan developed over time. Hebrew "Satan" seems originally to have been the accuser, a title given to the prosecuting attorney at the heavenly court. He maintains this role within the Book of Job.
Some forms of Christianity, as well as Judaism, do not personify evil in Satan; these instead consider the human heart to be inherently bent toward deceit, although human beings are responsible for their choices, whereas in Judaism, there is no prejudice in one's becoming good or evil at time of birth. In Judaism, Satan is viewed as one who tests us for God rather than one who works against God, and evil, as in the Christian denominations above, is a matter of choice. The Greek word used in the New Testament for evil can just as well be rendered by "a wrongdoer" or even as "the evil one". This ambiguity means that a passage in the Sermon on the Mount has been translated "Do not resist evil" and "do not set yourself against a wrong-doer."
- "The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am the LORD who does all these."
Some cultures or philosophies believe that evil can arise without meaning or reason (in neo-Platonic philosophy this is called absurd evil). Christianity in general does not adhere to this belief, but the prophet Isaiah implied that God is ultimately responsible for everything including evil (Isa.45:7).
In Latter-day Saint theology, Mortal life is viewed as a test of faith, where our choices are central to the Plan of Salvation. See Agency (LDS Church) Evil is that which keeps one from discovering the nature of God. Temptation is the constant desire to "force" others to do what we want.
Christian Science believes that evil arises from a misunderstanding of the goodness of nature, which is understood as being inherently perfect if viewed from the correct (spiritual) perspective.Misunderstanding God's reality leads to incorrect choices, which are termed evil. This has led to the rejection of any separate power being the source of evil, or of God as being the source of evil; instead, the appearance of evil is the result of a mistaken concept of good. Christian Scientists argue that even the most "evil" person does not pursue evil for its own sake, but from the mistaken viewpoint that he or she will achieve some kind of good thereby.
For the French philosopher Michel Henry, God is the invisible Life that never stops to generate us and to give us to ourselves in its pathetic self-revelation. God is Love because Love itself in an infinite love is Life. By consequence life is good in itself. The evil corresponds to all what denies or attacks life; it finds its origin in death, which is the negation of life. This death is an inner and spiritual death which is the separation with God, and which consists simply in not loving, in living selfishly as if God did not exist, was not Father of us all and we His beloved Sons; as if we were not all Brothers generated by a same life. The evil peaks in the violence of hatred that is at the origin of all the crimes, of all the wars and of all the genocides. But the evil is also the common origin of all those blind processes and of all those false abstractions that lead so many people to misery and exclusion.
In the originally Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, the world is a battle ground between the God, Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd), and the evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (also called Ahriman). The final resolution of the struggle between good and evil was supposed to occur on a day of Judgement, in which all beings that have lived will be led across a bridge of fire, and those who are evil will be cast down forever. In Iranian belief, angels and saints are beings sent to help us achieve the path towards goodness.
Evil in business and politics
Recently, the term "evil" has been applied much more broadly, especially in the technology and intellectual property industries. One of the slogans of Google is "Don't be evil," and the tagline of independent music recording company Magnatune is "we are not evil," referring to the alleged evils of the RIAA. The economist David Korten has argued that industrial corporations, set up as fictive individuals by law, are required to work according only to the criteria of making profits for their shareholders, meaning they function as sociopathic organisations that inherently do evil.
The term "evil" has been controversially used politically by several governments. In recent times it has been used in describing:
- "Evil empire" - Originally used by President Ronald Reagan of the United States in describing the Soviet Union in 1983.
- "Axis of evil" - Originally used by President George W. Bush of the United States in describing forces he perceived to be acting against the United States in 2002.
- "Evil cult" - Used by People's Republic of China in describing Falon Gong.