Is the concept of Evil useful?

I should state up front that I am a devout subjectivist. I do not believe that “good” and “evil” exist in any meaningful sense. One could, of course, label something “evil” because it contradicts one’s personal sense of morality. In that case, however, “evil” becomes merely a term of art, meaning “those things of which I strongly disapprove,” and I think that most people mean something quite a bit stronger (and more universal) than that when they use the word.

Whether or not objecive good and evil exist is a worthwhile (and perhaps inevitable) side-debate, but I’m mainly concerned here with the utility of the concept of Evil. Is it ever helpful to label a person, group, or even activity “evil.” Yes, I imagine that there are situations in which it would be useful, such as when dealing with a small child who is unable to comprehend why he mustn’t do something. Among rational adults, however, I believe the concept does vastly more harm than good.

If we deem a convicted felon to be “evil,” doesn’t it become more difficult for him to gain acceptance (and employment) in legitimate society, thus hindering his ultimate rehabilitation? If we call another country “evil,” does it not become more difficult to work toward a peaceful solution to whatever problems there might be? Doesn’t it worsen, in and of itself, our relations with the offending country?

In the case of the convict, why does it make more sense to say that he must be punished because he is evil than to say that there are perfectly good, practical reasons why he should be imprisoned?

I would argue that the concept of evil hinders empathy and compassion and, as such, is a detriment to human interaction. Beyond anecdotes, it would be impossible to provide empirical support for (or against) this position, so there should be a refreshing lack of the sentence “Cite?” in this thread.

So . . . thoughts?

In every thread I ever start. . .

Two typos in the second paragraph. My apologies.

Not sure. But I do know I’m not going to sit by a camp fire with a Jeffrey Dahmer talking over our points of view. And all the while I’m getting sleepy.



I don’t have a lot to add to your speculation; I think the concept of ‘evil’ is shorthand for being seriously at odds with a society and its morals.

However, I do think it is a useful tool to make people adhere to societal norms.

You’re going to run up against a lot of hyperbole: how can you say that the 9-11 hijackers were not evil? How can you say that the killers of Jamie Bulger are not evil?

People of religion are also going to think this concept is fundamentally incorrect too.

I’m a subjectivist too (if that word means what I think it does.) I agree with **VarlosZ **'s point above. Nevertheless I think “evil” is a useful concept. Take the example of the convict. Calling him “evil” makes it easier to punish him and easier to focus on protecting society from him. It makes it harder to rehabilitate him. So, the value of the term “evil” comes down to a real-world question. Are there convicts who cannot be rehabilitated, so that the shorthand “evil” is a useful way to think of them? Are there people for whom it’s a mistake to think o in terms of compassion and empathy?

Simlarly, are there governments so bad that we should think in terms of overthrowing them? Or, at least, simply protecting ourselves against them?

IMHO the answer to both quesitons is “yes.” An alternative debate would be to accept that “evil” is sometimes a useful concept, and debate how broadly we should define the class. E.g,. Jeffrey Dahmer, Stalin’s USSR? Pol Pot? Newt Gingrich?

In summary, I think evil can be a useful concept, but it’s over-used.

There are certain actions or behaviors that are so malicious and hateful that they can only be considered “evil”. For example, a serial killer who mutilates and kills people. Is this person mentally ill? Perhaps. But his behavior is so horrific that there can be no excusing or forgiving it. The same holds tru for the 911 terrorists. Whatever their reasoning, there can be no justification for killing thousands of innocent people who simply happened to be in the wrong place and time.

We use the term “evil” because there are felons who have no place in legitimate society. There are people who cannot be rehabilitated and are not deserving of compassion.

You ask if there are governments so bad we should consider overthrowing them? Are you familiar with a government that ruled a small European country in the 40s known as the Third Reich? Could not a government that creates the infrastructure to methodically murder millions of its own citizens be consider “evil”? What about the Khamar Rouge in Cambodia? Or Stalin?

In practice, most actions fall somewhere between the absolutes of “good” and “evil”. There are still some things that are so inexcusable that “evil” is the only word to describe them.

The idea of “evil” seems to be sort of a cop-out to me. Calling Hitler evil, for instance. It seems to me to say “there is nothing that could be done to prevent this, he was just evil.” I would rather see a logical examination of the circumstances that allowed Hitler’s rise to power with the hope that a similar situation could be avoided in the future.

I do not believe that evil is a useful concept. I imagine that there are some people who, at this point in time, are beyond the point of being able to interact with other members of society in a positive way. I do not think every prisoner can be rehabilitated. However:

I think the answer here is no. Even for these individuals, I see no benefit and quite a bit of detriment in calling them evil. I do not think that it is necessary to think of someone as evil in order to confine them, even for their lifetime. (For other methods of punishment, like torture and execution, perhaps this would be the case. However, I am against the use of both of these methods.) The only gain seems to be in order to feel that we understand why horrible crimes occur. I find this unacceptable. Labelling people in this way is, intellectually speaking, a cop-out.

Furthermore, the definition of evil is subjective and personal, often taking on strong religious undertones. I do not believe that ‘evil’ means simply that the person does not adhere to societal norms. For one thing, obviously, not assimilating does not make one evil, and secondly, this implies that all social norms are ‘good’ (I believe this is obviously wrong). What do we say about societies where slavery, racism, or murder are acceptable (in certain situations)? Is opposing these things then evil? This is obviously not the case.

Evil is a moral, not a cultural, judgement with a religious basis. It is not uncommon for members of a group to consider others evil or degenerate (tribalism, racism) or for members of a religion to declare nonbelievers evil. In some interpretations of Christianity, for example, people are evil by default or by nature, and only by adhering to one set of beliefs are they ‘good’. I have been called evil, but I obviously disagree. I do not conform to all societal norms, but I do not kill or steal or rape.

Even if the concept of evil was remotely useful in a certain circumstance, it is used far too negatively to be considered generally useful. Evil will be used for serial killers, that’s true, but evil is also applied to political parties, to certain kinds of music, to using certain substances, to believing or not believing in certain gods, or being a member of a certain cultural or ethic group. Evil makes it easy to discard compassion and empathy, and it is not difficult to see that evil is a term that is applied with a wide brush by too many people. I would much rather use a term like ‘sociopath’ rather than ‘evil’ for the sake of precision and because it is not a loaded and hateful word.

Heh. What is the TRUE definition of the words “good” and “evil?”

We know these characteristics when we see them in people, at least we do so when we see the black and white versions. The grey areas are always a problem.

I see many absolute aspects to good and evil. For example, consider people who experience joy when either performing treacherous acts or when simply hurting others for no reason. THAT is not open to interpretation. It really happens, they really experience joy, and they really hurt others intentionally. If we define those sorts of actions as examples of “evil” behavior, then we have moved “evil” out of the morass of subjectivity.

Exactly. Anyone can conveniently redefine the word “evil” so it conveniently fits their opponents, but that constitutes an intentional distortion of an existing concept. I could label all republicans as “insane” but that doesn’t mean that true insanity is open to opinion and doesn’t really exist.

If someone derives great pleasure in torturing weak people who can’t fight back, and if this person is not brain damaged and easily grasps that others feel pain… what do we call that behavior?

I’ve met people who seem normal, but when given the opportunity they intentionally hurt others. And more than this, their eyes get all wide and sparkely, and they display a frightening grin. And they only do this in secret, when they think nobody is watching the whole event. It’s like something out of a children’s fairy tale, yet people like this really exist. How do we lable this behavior? “Evil” in this case isn’t a relative term, instead it’s a shorthand designation. It’s easier than calling someone a “sparkley-eyed covert cruelty enjoyer.”

I think that a major problem with the terms “good” and “evil” is that most of us haven’t met any truely evil people or truely good people. We live our lives in the grey area, and come to believe that “good” and “evil” are nothing but epithets to be used on others whom we admire or dislike. We forget that two things exist which aren’t at all relative: “joy at creating and benefiting others”, and “joy at destruction and premeditated cruelty.” Whatever else we might say about these, they occupy opposite ends of a behavior spectrum, and they need shorthand designations so we can talk about them. Perhaps there are societies where cruelty and destruction are commendable, but even in that case, we still need terms which refer to the opposite ends of that spectrum.

I think the OP is objecting to dishonest use of the terms, objecting to “spin doctors” who take one side of an issue and then dishonestly label their opponents as “evil.” If this is so, then why not attack that behavior rather than trying to perform “grammatical engineering” by eliminating the terms good and evil themselves?

Hitler was evil. The political environment of the time allowed him to rise to power, but that doesn’t lesson his evil in any way. It isn’t as if diferent circumstances would have turned him into JFK or something.

We should examine the circumstances that allow evil men to rise to power in order to prevent it from happening.

The idea that there are extenuating circumstances for every action is a cop out.


But why do you believe these things? I honestly don’t mean to be flippant or offensive, but I want to point out that you haven’t offered any arguments in support of your assertions, instead following each assertion with another.

You say that there can be no justification for the September 11th attacks, and yet, apparently, millions of presumably sane people throughout the world believe they were justified. Are they suffering from a bout of collective stupidity? Are they too biased to see some blatantly obvious logical flaw in their beliefs?

Needless to say, I don’t look favorably upon terrorism, and I think there are perfectly good reasons for taking reasonable means to stop it. My question: How am I better off if I demonize the terrorist in addition to, say, arresting him? Are we so unsure of the practical benefits of locking away or killing terrorists that we have to rely on abstract moral condemnations for determination? Is there some other reason we should classify things as objectively evil?

But one person’s black (“it is wrong to commit genocide against the Jews”) is another person’s white (“it is a moral duty to commit genocide against the Jews”), to say nothing of the “grey.”

Why not? Presumably, the person who enjoys hurting others has interpreted his actions as being justified. Again, can we not simply believe that it is entirely practical to forbid and punish such a person’s actions?

I don’t have any necessary objection to the terms good and evil. My question is about the concept of actions or people that are objectively, universally evil.

Saying that it’s not a relative term in that instance assumes, at least, that everyone would agree that such a person is evil . . . but if the “sparkly-eyed covert cruelty enjoyer” (or any other one person) does not believe himself to be evil, than the assumption is incorrect. That said, this is the type of shorthand designation that I would use if I thought my audience would understand I mean subjective evil.

But there are plenty of such shorthand designations: compassion, empathy, benevolence, beneficence, malevolence, barbarity, etc. Labeling “joy at destruction and premeditated cruelty” as “evil” implies a universal moral obligation to abstain from such. Again, it’s not the word itself that bothers me – it’s the concept of objective, metaphysical, proscriptive “evil.”

Well, what originally prompted me to start the thread were judgements I saw on this very board: “gun control is evil,” “socialism is evil,” “capitalism is evil,” etc. Ultimately, however, no: I am objecting to the concept of evil as being harmful.

VarlosZ - It sounds as though you just finished the chapter in ethics class on moral relativism. Essentially, the belief that morality and ethics are a matter of perspective. All actions can be justified based on circumstance. The terrorist isn’t evil because he believes he is fighting for a good cause. Hitler isn’t evil because he was trying to build a strong Germany. Everyone can just get along if we can all sit down and have a useful dialogue.

No, nothing of the sort. I’ve been a “moral relativist” for quite some time now. Besides which, didn’t I mention the actual inspiration for this thread not two inches above your post?

This is a misrepresentation. A more accurate description might be: “the terrorist isn’t evil (in the objective sense) because there is no such thing as evil.”

On the other hand, I do believe that “objective” moral judgements are a hindrance to peaceful negotiation between enemies. How can terrorists, for example, moderate their stance towards (or even entertain a discussion with) the US so long as it is the Great Satan™?

I understand that you disagree with me. I’m still curious as to why. Is it a gut reaction?

Rather, I would think that someone subject to, well, subjectivism would say that there is no reference-frame free evalutaion of good and evil. There is no “Deren” in any meaningful sense, except for the fac that that is my name. There is no “tree” in any meaningfull sense, except for the object we assign to it. Just because the referent for a word is held in the eye of the beholder doesn’t make it meaningless, does it?

I would direct anyone here for the side-debate:

Yes, there are costs in associating persons, peoples, nations, and so forth with (subjectively defined) evil that don’t necessarily come from our motivation for labeling activities we wish to (and wish others would) avoid. But does the concept of evil itself really hinder rehabilitation, attrition, and so forth, or rather is it most people’s unwillingness to allow for the forgiveness you see as necessary?

What we seem to be dealing with here is that many people’s idea of when they can forgive is simply not the same as yours, and is it this level which causes the harm? Surely associating words and feelings with actions we wish to avoid is not the problem here!

For some there is no distinction at all; practical morality has never really been in short supply. Apart from that, doesn’t this sentence simply have one phrase focus on the justification for the label of “evil” versus just using evil as a shorthand? Surely at some level of existence we may dispense with laying out the assumptions, justification, and so forth for punishment, trade sanctions, and so forth. While I agree it would serve many well to examine their own justifications further, the exercise seems (to me) to be a waste of time.

Well, some might say: “That’s the friggin’ point!” We don’t like evil, that’s why we use the word “evil” and attach such a stigma to it. Deterrence, retribution, etc, etc… :wink:

Long message, no need to respond to every last bit! :slight_smile:

Right, but I’ll repeat my last part. In human populations there really is a good/evil behavior spectrum: people who ENJOY hurting others, versus the direct opposite. What terms do we use for these? Let’s just use the terms which already exist. Grammatical engineering invariably increases confusion rather than reducing it.

Ah, I see what you mean. This regards “evil” actions, as opposed to “evil” people. So put human actions on a spectrum too, a spectrum which extends between these opposite ends:

[li]eliminating joy and causing human suffering[/li][li]creating joy and ending human suffering.[/li][/ul]

Because joy and suffering are real, the above is not relative or open to interpretation (i.e. the spectrum is as real as a spectrum of height or weight.) Yes, it’s hard to compare similar amounts of joy/suffering, but that just means that one person’s place on the spectrum is fuzzy. It doesn’t mean that the spectrum doesn’t exist at all.

Hitler may not have been an evil person; he might NOT have enjoyed the pain he caused. Instead he might have just been performing evil actions because he talked himself into thinking that they were necessary. Yet “necessary evils” are still “evil.”

Actually, I used to be a relavitist too. I changed my mind for two reasons. First, I got away from my old Behaviorist indoctrination. In case you don’t know, Behaviorism is the discredited psychologist viewpoint that humans have no internal mental states, that they are just black boxes which react to stimuli. But mental states are genuine phenomena, they’re just INTERNAL phenomena, and any measurements of them carry “noise.”

Second, I realized that, while “truth” is usually relative and multifaceted, lies are not. Intentional dishonesty and intentional distortion are real phenomena. Truth then becomes a simple concept: it’s what’s left behind once all the lies and intentional distortions are removed. But what does this have to do with Evil? It impacts the subjectivity of human opinions.

For example, Hitler can talk himself and his followers into believing that the Jews aren’t really human beings, but this is called LYING. The German population ends up with OBJECTIVELY WRONG beliefs about “non-aryan” people. When they start killing all these “dehumanized” people, they are committing genocide regardless of whether they pretend otherwise. It’s the intentional act of pretending which makes the difference.

Wrong viewpoint. You’re talking about measuring evil, and such measurements are noisy. Do you conclude that since measurement noise is present, nothing real is being measured? I hope not.

Also, “everyone agrees” is irrelavant when it comes to measuring objective phenomena. That “everyone” might make mistakes because they believe in lies. Perhaps germans during WWII try to redefine the word “kill” so it doesn’t apply to jews, gypsies, gays, etc? Then “everyone agrees” that “kill” has a new definition? That has no effect on reality. A killed person is still dead, and their attempt to redefine a word is called “intentional lying.”

If the word “evil” means “sparkly-eyed covert cruelty enjoyer”, and if such a person believes himself to NOT be evil… then something is wrong. They think they don’t enjoy cruelty when they obviously do? They think they aren’t covert about performing cruel actions? Their opinion is either a mistake or a lie. (E.g. if I believe myself to NOT be typing on a keyboard right now, well, I’m entitled to my own opinion, right? Wrong.)

I see what you mean.

I define “evil person” and “evil action” in an objective way. Then I conclude that “evil” is a real phenomena.

I think that you’re defining the word “evil” in a different way, perhaps as “badness as judged by a majority of people.” If so, then it’s clear where our disagreement lies: we haven’t agreed on a definition of the word “evil” yet!

In other words, is a “sparkly-eyed covert cruelty enjoyer” an evil person? Is an empathic person who secretly gives money to homeless shelters a “good” person? I can imagine a society where such a “good” person would be considered weak and stupid loser, i.e. not “good” at all, while the cruelty-enjoyer would be seen as a “Winner” who everyone wants to emulate.

If “evil” is objective, then such a society is objectively evil. But if the definition of the word “evil” is open to majority vote, then such a society can redefine “joy in causing suffering” as being the very essence of “good.”

Again, it’s not the word itself that bothers me – it’s the concept of objective, metaphysical, proscriptive “evil.”

Perhaps you’re saying this: there’s no such thing as good and bad. Or something like this: saints vs. sinners, who’s to say whether intentional cruelty is “bad” or whether selfless help-giving is “good” because it’s all just a matter of opinion.

Regarding gun control, socialism, etc. Perhaps you’re objecting to covert attempts to apply dishonest labels to opponents. If gun control is “evil,” then those who support it are supporting evil? That concept tugs on our emotions. But the problem is not the relativity of evil, the problem is that the opponents of gun control are dishonestly trying to muddy the waters by applying emotional labels. They’re not trying to clarify things so that simple solutions become obvious. This is a very common problem. A truth-seeker wants to know if gun control will make the world a better place or worse. Most people are the opposite of truth-seekers; they spontaneously take a position on gun control (etc.), they look only for the evidence which supports their viewpoint, and they refuse to view the evidence through the eyes of their opponents. They’re so afraid of being wrong that they start using all sorts of tactics which help obscure the issues rather than clarifying them.

I guess we have yet another behavioral spectrum here: truth-seekers versus truth-obscurers. Heh. Is one of these “evil”?!!!