Friday, April 20, 2007


The Oatibix have worked their magic. I have something to say. Responding to my post Virgin Tech 2: Sanctity, Ian Russell and River of Deceit said they didn't think evil exists. I have heard this said many times and it always puzzles me. The same people don't say love doesn't exist or, indeed, goodness, why is evil singled out for non-existence? One answer is River's remark, 'It's just a label that helps us cope with reality. The truth - that 'monsters' like Adolph Hitler and Cho Seung-hui are more like ourselves than we care to imagine, is probably too disturbing to contemplate.' This is not an argument against the existence of evil, merely against the labelling of individuals as evil. The Christian concept of original sin makes it clear that we all have the capacity for evil. Good Christians are, therefore, completely accustomed to the idea that they have something in common with Hitler or Cho Seung-hui. But I think the more general reason for denying the existence of evil is the postwar desire to reject all forms of biological determinism. After Nazism, people did not want to label others with inherent characteristics, they wished to say that nurture, not nature, was all, that, therefore, humans could fix themselves and evil could be conquered. Latterly this orthodoxy has been damaged by evolutionary psychology which suggests that nature is, in fact, highly influential if not actually dominant. Personally, I don't think the nature-nurture debate is strictly meaningful or resolvable, but that is another matter. What is clear is that both naturists and nurturists must be aware of the capacity for bad behaviour which, in extreme forms, can be called evil. Evil is thus just a word for 'very bad', a word we need since doing 40 mph in a 30 mph zone is clearly not the same as slaughtering 6 million Jews. The rejection of evil is also a rejection of metaphysics and religion. It is like saying God does not exist. Evil is singled out there because it seems more absolute and real than 'good'. It is as if the very word has a metaphysical presence so that saying 'Evil does not exist' is a much stronger statement that 'Love does not exist.' Anyway, just to say - evil exists.


  1. "It is as if the very word has a metaphysical presence"

    I think this much of the root of it all, as evil not existing defies all understanding. There's an extraordinarily profound yet very simply put utterance by Dmitri Karamazov in Dostoevsky's novel, where he says, "Man is broad, too broad even. I would narrow him down." This encapsulates all these attempts to reduce the scope of man by the materialists, Dawkinses, etc; reduce his scale so as to make him comprehensible to a categorising intellect.

  2. Here, here. I've always been struck by the fertility, rather than the banality, of evil. The obsessive devotion of so much destructive energy to the realisation of dystopian fictions, often through a mimetic dance with the 'good' (the Antichrist is a good figure for this process). But what do I know? Of course there are also impersonal 'social evils' ranging from structural poverty to the impoverishment and vulgarisation of the mind and spirit, much of TV being a good example. Evil is not always what kills, although moral philosophers like to concentrate on that because it is sensational, and gets them off considering issues that might conflict with their liberal secularism, like abortion and homosexuality. If I had my Blackwell Companion to Evil handy, I'd report more, but I lent it to a very evil person. Incidentally, it was 'Adolf' rather than 'Adolph'.

  3. Evil is an evaluative term, whilst love is a descriptive term, so it's perfectly consistent to deny the existence of evil but accept the existence of love. It would be inconsistent to deny the existence of evil, but accept the existence of good, given that they are opposite evaluative terms. If someone asserts that 'Julie is in love', then there are objective descriptive criteria which determine the truth-value of that statement. A meta-ethical position which holds that value judgements cannot be true or false, holds that there are no objective descriptive criteria to determine the truth-value of an assertion such as 'Julie is evil' or 'Julie is good'. This is not to endorse such a meta-ethical position, merely to point out the logic of the argument.

    Meanwhile, here's an interesting etymology of the word 'evil' [I presume O.E. means Old English]:

    O.E. yfel (Kentish evel) "bad, vicious," from P.Gmc. *ubilaz (cf. O.Saxon ubil, Goth. ubils), from PIE *upelo-, giving the word an original sense of "uppity, overreaching bounds" which slowly worsened. "In OE., as in all the other early Teut. langs., exc. Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike or disparagement" [OED]. Evil was the word the Anglo-Saxons used where we would use bad, cruel, unskillful, defective (adj.), or harm, crime, misfortune, disease. The meaning "extreme moral wickedness" was in O.E., but did not become the main sense until 18c.

  4. I think this very topic came up in relation to the Ipswich murders back in December. I was the hapless commenter then who uttered the immortal words: There is no such thing as evil. Of course, this was pounced on and I flailed around trying to explain myself. On this occasion, I going to plump with Gordon.

  5. The Christian concept of original sin makes it clear that we all have the capacity for evil.

    only for christians, surely.

    I wouldn't question the existence of a belief in evil. it's the same deal as looking down from a mountaintop to admire ''god's work''. is it really god's work just because someone says so?

    we all put our heads together one day and decide what's good and what's not - the common good, morally and ethically. if you're not for it you're probably evil.

    sometime later we repeat the game and the results have changed! what was once good is evil and what was once evil is good. have we changed that much, has our innate human capacity for good and evil mutated somehow? no, it's just our perceptions of good and evil. we make them up, they don't really exist.

  6. ian:

    Well, if your analysis is correct, does it follow that because the criminal law varies from country to country there is no such thing as justice?

  7. Justice is not synonomous with the law, except perhaps in legal circles. It has a broader social and political meaning now associated with equality. Again, it is an evaluative term and a devilishly tricky one to define. Plato had a crack in the Republic I think, although if I'm not mistaken equality wasn't high on his agenda.

  8. ultimately yes I suppose it does, peter, though that it a quick answer. justice is relative, it depends on your view of good and evil. a life for a life or attempting rehabilitation?

    drifting off tangent a bit; we, and me icluded, readily refer to the holocaust as an extreme atrocity. now you probably say therefore the nazis were 'evil' for killing so vast a number of jews. but what of the US at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It isn't so often you hear of those acts as being 'evil'.

    Is it wrong to assume that the nazis didn't regard themselves as evil? Had they prevailed, what would we, a new generation under their influence and teaching, have thought about good and evil?

    According to my bluffer's guide, the roman's prevailed in much of europe and, through Constantine, gave us christianity as the state religion. Had he failed, we would probably still be happy-clappy pagan, possibly nontheist. Many nontheist beliefs do not believe the existence of 'evil'.

  9. I do agree with you broadly about the existence of evil (although I think Gordon makes a good point about the evaluative/descriptive difference). I also agree that the debate about the capacity for human evil is muddied considerably by the nature/nurture dichotomy (I am someone who thought that Lionel Shriver's "We Need To Talk About Kevin" was not nearly dark enough).
    I am puzzled though, by your claim that "naturists...must be aware of the capacity for bad behaviour which....can be called evil"
    Isn't that a bit strong, given that they are only taking their clothes off?

  10. mercy killings - good or evil?

    the very words would suggest 'good', but the law is definite about it - it has the stain of 'evil'.

    what of the thoughts of the killer, was there a battle going on inside, the evil gene vs. the good gene? so tell me, who won then?!

    and if we legalise euthanasia after the event, were we wrong about evil then or ar we wrong now?

    it seems we make it up as we go along. undeniably love is real, the true motivation behind this merciful act, but evil is a fabrication.

  11. Evil is the ego state pushed to its nth. In religious terms, the Luciferian or Satanic is the denial of the unity of life and the insistence on one's separatist existence, which is a willed state of delusion. So in ultimate levels of reality, Evil is not. God being Isness, I Am that I Am, etc. However in relative terms, evil obviously is. We can wrap ourselves up in knots trying to deny its existence, though for what purpose I'm not sure- see earlier Dostoevsky point. We could probably have done without the example but Hitler did a good job of embodying evil in the form of the separatist ego pushed to its limits, while his contemporary Gandhi embodied wholeness or truth.

  12. In the past the concept of evil was seen as outside of self, much as goodness was seen in a similar way. While goodness could manifest in the human it seemed so rare as to require separate definition, the Saint. There was no necessity to place the absolute before either of the terms, as goodness came from God,is God. While evil came from the other fellow, and with both beyond the human.
    Today, terms from the past, which at best are vaguely understood, are used to explain actions within human control.

  13. Does that make all celebrities evil then, Andrew? And furthermore, if God is isness and "evil obviously is" as you say, does that make God in some way... evil. And, finally, are you trying to suggest that Popeye was a blasphemer.

  14. Justice is not synonomous with the law,

    True, but man attempts to define justice through the law, the sacred through religion, excellence through achievment, freedom through politics, etc., etc. I just don't understand those that say that because mankind doesn't agree on law, achievement, religion and politics that therefore justice, excellence, the sacred and freedom don't exist or are just artifical constructs we clever folks can dispense with. Where is the world do these notions come from if they don't really exist and why do they pre-occupy us so?

  15. I don't have any difficulty denying it's non-existence. I may have trouble making others see. To me its fallacy as clear as the existence of God to a christian.

    semantics. I'm okay with using it as a term for labelling the incomprehensibly bad: evil dictator, axis of evil, ''what's that evil smell?'' what I'm after is the entity, the being, the force, the 100% proof, the bug in the programme, the whatever thing itself.

    good and evil, it's a bit like considering east and west. we know what people mean by it but they don't really exist.

  16. I don't think there are too many people who have ever defined their moral and political bearings, created great art or committed, risked or sacrificed their lives in the name of where is east and where is west.

  17. Love is a profound emotion that, in my opinion, is much different from evil.
    Evil, if it exists, might not be felt. Did Hitler consider himself evil? Stalin? Mao? From an outsiders point of view it seems easy to subscribe an alien emotion to explain away horrible behaviour. A cop out, maybe.
    Hate, anger, vengeance, jealousy, indifference and apathy are all emotions most people can relate to. Do we consider them evil? Evil is something that conveys too much power that maybe isn't there. Someone said evil is the absense of love or goodness.
    Maybe that comes closest, because, from time to time, we've all felt an absense of love or goodness.

  18. The day after we lost 32 of our brethren to a madman, more than 120 people were killed in Iraq due to the little mess we've made over there.

    There were hours and hours of news coverage for our 32 and the usual 30 second sound bite for the Iraqis.

    Oh yes, the right-to-lifers are celebrating the fact that the Supreme Court upheld a ban on a late-term abortion method that is used only when the mother's life is in danger.

    I've never heard one of them try to defend an Iraqi's right to life.

    I've heard you Brits say that we yanks don't care enough about you and your politics. You'll excuse me, darlings, but I've got plenty of shit to worry about over here.

    God Bless America, babies.

  19. Oh yeah, want me to send Don Imus over there?

  20. We'll trade him for Bryan Ferry.

  21. We can always echo the governmental rating sytem and class the likes of Hitler as a 'Category 10 Bad'.

  22. Oh, dear. The question of evil is only the oldest one in the book for philosophers and theologians.

    Ian, art thou related to Bertrand?

    Anyway, let's take a line out of "Jumpers," the play by Tom Stoppard that Bryan has quoted from before ("credibility is an expanding field"):

    "Things and actions, you understand, can have any number of real and verifiable properties. But good and bad, better and worse, these are not real properties of things, they are just expressions of our feelings about them."

    And, obviously, different places and times (as various people here have pointed out), have different definitions of what constitutes evil and good.

    Mass murder, however, is probably considered evil *everywhere*. Oops, just remembered Nazi Germany....

  23. Oh, yeah -- Bryan Ferry. *He's* the guy whose new CD of Dylan covers you should listen to, Bryan A.! *MUCH* better voice!

  24. No, Neil, what is is true, evil is in a sense what isn't. God being what is, isn't evil. Celebrity is the worship of ego which is separation, and Hitler is this cult of personality at a deeper level.
    The unity or Oneness of life is reality, and love moves away from singularity into such direct apprehension of unity. Hate on the other hand does the opposite, and moves away from unity into separation and delusion. So love is an expansion of the sense of self, hate is a contraction. As could be said about wisdom and ignorance. Sorry, that should of course be ignorants.

  25. "The rejection of evil is also a rejection of metaphysics and religion. It is like saying God does not exist."

    I hate to break the bad news to you, but God does not exist.

  26. I'm suspicious of Gordon's distinction between the evaluative and the descriptive. To call an action or a person evil is clearly a form of evaluation, but isn't it also a description? After all it's not as if we can label just anything (or anyone) evil - if I call Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. evil then you'd be entitled to say that I don't know what the word means.

    As to what exactly the word does mean, it's not easy to say, but I'd like to offer a suggestion and respectfully disagree with Bryan: evil is not just a word for "very bad" because the distinction between that which is bad and that which is evil is not just a matter of degree; it's qualitative. And that's why we need the language of evil; to do justice to the fact that the difference between speeding in a pedestrian zone and genocide is not merely a matter of degree. So evil doesn't mean "very bad" and it doesn't mean "very, very, very, very bad" either.

    Debates about whether evil "exists" should be replaced by the question whether the bad/evil distinction in language picks out a real and important distinction in the world. One of the reasons why I think a lot of people are suspicious of talk of "evil" is because it can often be used as if evil was the name of a thing or perhaps a force and thus serve as a pseudo-explanation for behavior. They rightly see that "He did it because he's evil" isn't an illuminating explanation, but wrongly think that the language of evil must necessarily be used for that sort of mystification.

    Finally, let me suggest what the line between that which is bad and that which is evil corresponds to the line between those actions that while harmful or otherwise rephrensible can be accommodated by society's mechanisms for making amends and repairing order; retributive punishment, forgiveness and so on. There are some actions that we feel that no punishment is adequate to, no subsequent actions can make amends for, and that it would be indecent to forgive.

    So on this way of thinking about things evil doesn't exist, but some actions and some people really are evil (compare: beauty doesn't exist, but some things really are beautiful). Actions are evil if they exceed (or at least strain) the capacities of justice and and forgiveness to restore peace and well-being to the affected person(s)/community. Persons are evil if something about their character predisposes them to perform such actions. But not all evil actions are necessarily indicative of an evil character (one could do something resulting in evil out of ignorance for instance).

    This isn't an attempt to explain evil in the sense of explaining why people sometimes perform evil actions and why some people have character traits that predispose them to do so. It's just a theory about what the language is for. Yes, the language can be abused, but it doesn't follow that its use should be abandoned. I don't think we can do without it and I'm not convinced it would be a good idea to try.

  27. I meant, Tom, that in this context it is a similar sort of statement. God's existence or otherwise is immaterial.

  28. In buddhism and other eastern religions there is very little talk of morality (i.e good vs evil). They recognise people as a jumble of thoughts and feelings. Once you meditate upon emptiness you start to see yourself as undefinable and illusory.
    That's why i find it hard to believe in morality, because if we ourselves don't exist then it seems fair to say that all human judgement (i.e morality) is very uncertain. Joseph Conrad, in a rather miserable moment, put it well:

    Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow....
    In this world — as I have known it — we are made to suffer without the shadow of a reason, of a cause or of guilt....
    There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that... is always but a vain and floating appearance....
    A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains — but a clot of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.

  29. I should apologise, Andrew. I was being utterly, utterly juvenile. I don't know what came over me. I was busy in work, tired and out of the blue a fit of giddiness came over me. I suppose I just didn't have the energy to engage on any other level. But the quality of the debate has been first-class. What a smart bunch of contributors you have attracted, Bryan.

  30. As I said in the other blog entry, evil is whatever we say it is. If we were Mayans we would be rounding up our neighbors and sacrificing them to our gods. Would that make us evil? George Washington had slaves. Was he evil? Is slaughtering animals in order to eat them evil? If 200 years from now everyone is a vegetarian, would they call us evil?

  31. This deep in the night I feel safe to side here with philosophers and suggest that the difficulty arises from the word 'existence' and not evil.

    Namely, 'existence' can be viewed as an unreal notion, for a simple reason that it has no real negative. It is because 'existence' is everything!

    But then when the philosophers explore the meaning of 'benevolence' and 'malevolence' they link them to our nature as animals. Both are linked to acts that have value attached to them.

    Have no idea if this helps at all.

  32. If you say evil doesnt exist, and evil is a synonym of 'bad', then you might as well delete a whole lot of words from the dictionary, and create a Newspeak of relativism. Evil is like when Endora puts a spell on Darren and Samantha and they change from a loving couple to a bickering one. It's an atmosphere. Or when youĂ re writing something really good and the computer starts playing up. Funny nobody's mentioned Macbeth

  33. I met a guy once - charming fellow, actually, with sparkling blue eyes and an engaging smile - who got back at the junkie upstairs who stole his stash by breaking into the junkie's apartment and dipping the junkie's needle (this was in the days before disposable needles) in dog shit. Next time the junkie shot up he got gangrene and had to have his arm amputated. Those who intellectualize about the non-objectivity of evil ought to poke around a bit more in the real world. Oh, I know, I'm being judgmental. Damn straight.

  34. (Apologies for posting the previous lengthy comment under a username that didn't adequately distinguish me from Peter Burnet).

    Frank, for the record I was coming down on the side that says that some things are objectively evil.

    But I doubt that those who do deny that things are objectively evil are going to be persuaded by your example. Clearly people who say that evil isn't real aren't denying that people do cruel and malicious things. Sometimes they even do them for the sheer hell of it - malice for its own sake. But I think that (almost) everyone on both sides of this debate will accept that so it doesn't seem to be what the argument about evil is really about.

  35. Peter: Jesuit-trained as I am, I am ineradicably convinced that action follows from being. So if one concedes that cruel and malicious acts occur, then it seems to me they must follow from cruel and malicious being. You are, of course, right that my example will not persuade those who insist (I would say sophistically) that evil does not exist, though my point - that they might trouble themselves to broaden their experience - still stands.

  36. I agree that cruel and malicious acts must be the product of a cruel and malicious person, although I think that has more to do with the way the words cruel and malicious both make reference to the intentions of the agent than any general Aristotelian principle.

    Someone who actually rejects talk of evil or denies the objectivity of evil will surely do a better job of making their case than I will, but I think that one of the reasons some people are suspicious of the language of evil is that they think it's inherently religious. I don't think that's true. But having said that I can't resist quoting Chesterton:

    "People have given up on the idea of original sin when it's the only doctrine of Christianity that can be empirically proven."

  37. I don't think there are too many people who have ever defined their moral and political bearings, created great art or committed, risked or sacrificed their lives in the name of where is east and where is west.

    very good, peter! (in the style of Lydon to Andre) ;o)

    No, suzie b, no relation. neither am I familiar with his views. a coincidence or accidental pick-up if they tie in.

    they are just expressions of our feelings about them. exactly.

    mass murder can be considered evil but that doesn't make it from evil. there isn't a thing ''evil'' that causes these bad things to happen, imo. just like god didn't make the little green apples - despite many voices saying he did.

    God does not exist.
    and god created evil.
    God's existence or otherwise is immaterial and yet you can't have the egg without the chicken.

    Damn straight. are they allowed to say that now? standards must be dropping... ;o)

    but as a parable it stinks more than the dog shit. just as likely he was merely a very stupid fellow.

  38. sorry susan. I'm used to replying to a suzie - my unintentional error.

  39. I am not saying evil doesn't exist... I am saying evil is whatever we decide that it is. Just like beauty.