Fathoming the concept of evil
The word evil comes up many times in ordinary life. I’ve encountered it in professional life as well. Of course, I just have one life. In these posts the word ‘evil’ has been applied as a tag. On reflection I have never explored deeply the concept of evil. So that’s what this post is about. If anyone thinks this is going to be a lecture, they’re so in the wrong place. And in order to learn something, reading and study are required. To be 100% clear, I am not here to define evil – nor am I here to tell people who is evil or what is evil. [READ THAT AGAIN! Slowly this time.]
This post contains my own perceptions of what evil is about and a summary outline of what is at The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – The concept of evil. That’s a hint to head over to that link and stay there! This is not going to be an exploration of Fred West and similar other hardened criminals. If you want that click this fast (without thinking or hesitation).
The faces of evil
There are always people in our world who are mean, nasty, nefarious, sadistic, narcissistic, insulting, cruel and other words indicating utterly contemptible behaviour. If all of those people were to be classified as evil, then probably more than 70% of the human population would be evil at some point. Not every person who does some evil deed is evil for the rest of their lives. People can change. Acts done cannot be changed. Is every child who pulls the legs off ants or stomps on snails, evil? I don’t think so. Those might be cruel and senseless things to do but I do not think such acts cause such children to be labelled evil forever. There are other children and adults who commit acts of cruelty to animals which may be considered evil, but even that does not make them evil for life.
Some key points emerge about people acting in despicable ways:
- The nature of the act or behaviour.
- The nature of the person.
- The duration of contemptible acts, or behaviours.
- Repetition or pattern to the act or similar acts (frequency, trajectory etc).
At this point I’m being intruded upon about a question on remorse, from some recess in my mind where an impish figure lives! I’m not going into that because obviously that’s about the ‘nature of the person’. I’m not here to psychoanalyse everybody or any one individual.
Are remorseless children who are terrorists, evil? What some people want is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to that one. The ultimate issue is that no one flies out their mother’s womb firing a Kalashnikov. The point is – obviously – that evil patterns of behaviour are learned. The end point is the same, whether an adult or a child is groomed to be a terrorist. Yes – there is a qualitative difference. Hence it is important to look for the source of the evil; and not simply the perpetrators of evil. Caution: I am not saying that a Kalashnikov is evil. The point – for the not so intellectually gifted – is that Kalashnikovs or any other weapon can be used for evil deeds. It is about how weapons are used. It is the ‘teaching’ and learning of evil ways that is more important in this part.
The obvious question arising is whether ‘a person groomed into virtue all of their life can be turned to commit acts of evil or join in a system delivering evil?’ If you’re a religious purist, the answer is a definite ‘NO!’. If you’re someone who has studied human nature, psychology and social sciences, the answer is a definite ‘YES!’. To understand any of that ‘you’ will have to read, study and understand the work of Stanley Milgram (1974) and Philip Zimbardo (2007) and various other social psychology experiments. Both sets of experiments were very flawed and unethical. Be that as it was, it brought out aspects of human nature that would not have been seen until Abu Ghraib 2003-2017 (which was not an experiment). YouTube may be your friend (or not). Real psychological life cannot be simulated in a ‘test tube’. Real life is also flawed and unethical in many ways. [This does not mean I forgive or support Milgram or Zimbardo, or similar experiments!]. As flawed as Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments were, there was enough evidence – before things went totally crazy – to show that minds can be manipulated by psychosocial systems and individuals, to carry out evil. But today we don’t need such experiments. We have the evidence of what extremist cells do. Caution: I’m not focusing on brain-washing! From cults to extremist cells, they all use a common set of ‘techniques’ of which brain-washing is just one minor aspect. This is not a lecture on that stuff.
In social science there are concepts of ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. To start your PhD studies on that go here. People being people, absolutely believe that they are in charge of their own minds and behaviours. It would be abhorrent to most people to be told ‘You can be set up to do evil – as great as you think you are!‘
The nature of the victim(s) of the evil deed must also be considered. A drone attack on a leader of a terrorist network may not be considered by many to be evil. But a drone attack targeting a school full of children might be seen as evil. However, drones just don’t make decisions on their own.
Heinous acts and torturous suffering inflicted on the innocent, weak and vulnerable tend to fall into the category of evil. The point here is that evil has to be judged on the type and degree of suffering caused and the characteristics of the victim(s).
Evil acts and events
There is a roaring debate out there about whether an ‘act’ can be evil. I dismiss it because we’re talking about human ‘acts’ which don’t just happen on their own. A volcanic eruption – an act of nature – that kills many people is not considered to be evil. A tsunami that kills thousands is not evil. However if an individual does something to cause a volcano to erupt or a tsunami to kill loads of people, that might be conceptualised as an evil action.
Evil actions carried out by humans are necessarily deliberate or calculated – or there is sound evidence to infer intentionality and calculation.
The evil in a situation does not just arise from the act itself. The act is like a flare signalling that the source of the evil is elsewhere.
There is more complication though. Is an act that would appear evil without further context, become not evil when a fuller context becomes known? If for example, a man with 10 children, driving on his own, is targeted by drones. When there is no context, the latter is seen as evil by many. But then when they find out that he is a hardened terrorist who is the leader of terrorists cells that have tortured and raped women and children – then much less chance the drone-strike being seen as evil.
I infer that acts of revenge, retaliation, retribution – in particular contexts – may not be seen by people, as evil. [I’m being 100% clear – that this does not mean that I support such actions! This social media thing is dangerous so I have to punctuate my blogs with words like that.]
Summary of Stanford Article in a mindmap.
This may be updated as I go along. You take it or leave it. End of.
Disclaimer & Guidance