“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.” ~ Socrates
Good versus Evil
A typical setting where good and evil are all too familiar household concepts is offered by religion: God versus the devil, believers versus heretics … . But it does not end there. As the above quote demonstrates, the Greek sages apparently did not shy away from using it either.
So how generally applicable are the terms good and evil?
Good, virtuousness or righteousness versus evil, viciousness or unrighteousness are two diametrically opposed qualifiers used for morally judging an action committed by some intelligently- and willfully operating agent (e.g. a human being, or “God”). To say that some act is good is to voice approval and encouragement of that act, whereas to say that some act is evil, voices disapproval and condemnation. The judgment labels good and evil can however be affixed relative to some moral framework deemed applicable. For example, some religiously defined moral frameworks consider it good to stone women to death as a proper punishment for adultery or even rape. Some systems of morality consider is good to persecute entire peoples that that system deems undesirable at best and detrimental at worst. Likewise some moral systems consider it evil to allow women to enjoy equal rights as men, whereas other moral standards generally considers it good that women are allowed equal rights and equal status relative to men. In other words, what is consider good for some moral standards may very well be considered evil in others, and vice versa.
This article is not about moral relativism however. I believe that treating one’s fellow human being disrespectfully and harmfully constitutes universal evil whereas treating them with kindness and respect constitutes universal good. In order to have universal applicability, a universal morality must incorporate the service to universal human rights, rights that are to be upheld irrespective of race, creed, gender, political preference, sexual orientation, income bracket etc. This means that a universal moral standard necessarily has to be independent of any and all of the existing and possibly competing moral standards, whether they be religious or secular.
This article is about identifying three distinct classes or degrees of evil, judged according to a universal moral standard.
Can Nature be Evil?
Just a quick note on the causative agents of evil. I am implicitly referring to evil perpetrated by human agents. But more generally, I could have referred to evil being perpetrated by intelligent agents, not necessarily human. It is important to recognise that evil can only be committed by intelligent agents. The idea that evil can be committed by natural agents is fallacious.
Can natural disasters be called evil? No. It is meaningless to ascribe evil to their causes unless there’s an intelligent agent behind their expression. It’s quite well-known that today the weather can be technologically modified and it’s been widely speculated that HAARP installations may trigger earthquakes and tsunamis. And then there’s another controversial phenomenon known as chemtrails, in which military aircraft release a multitude of poisonous chemicals in order to supposedly modify the weather and supposedly offset the effects of Global Warming. In these instances, whenever there’s an intelligent operator behind artificially induced “natural” disasters or acts of “weather modification” that inflict harm or cause material damage, the operators behind them can indeed be held culpable and their actions are to be branded as evil.
But when these disasters are entirely natural, it makes no sense to attribute evil to them. For example, when a lightning strikes your neighbor dead, you cannot sue the cloud or clouds “responsible” for issuing that fatal lightning. When an earthquake hits and claims scores of lives and does untold damage you cannot hold the involved tectonic plates responsible for any sustained losses.
Likewise when someone dies by a gunshot-wound, you cannot hold the death-precipitating bullet responsible. You cannot even pin the sustained death on the gun that fired it. No, it’s the person who willfully aimed and fired the gun who you should be looking for. Bullets don’t have the will or power to kill people, guns don’t have the will or power to kill people. No, it’s people who have the will and power to kill people. Bullets, guns, cannons, poisons, etc. are only the means to carry out acts of killing. The killer, or perpetrator of evil in general, is never a thing, or nature, it’s always an intelligent agent, intentionally acting to either inflict harm or to assist another agent in doing so.
Does Evil Equate to Ignorance?
Does evil simply equate to ignorance as Socrates would have us believe when he uttered the phrase mentioned up above?
I for one, do not think so. To argue against Socrates, let’s focus on the “only evil is ignorance” part. Consider mentally challenged people: mongoloids, retards, imbeciles, and the like. Surely they can be regarded as being ignorant. Would Socrates then regard these people to also be evil people?
Consider next the following thought experiment. Say a leader with great political skills arrives on the scene and manages to become the head of a powerful nation or empire. Unfortunately however, he also turns out to be a very authoritative and ruthless leader, holding sway over his people with a rod of iron. After a period of successful rulership, it so happens that the mental health of the leader starts to deteriorate. But since the people, including the staff, are too afraid to intervene and seize control through a coup d’état, they grudgingly but cowardly allow the leader to deteriorate into a sure state of mental retardation. And because of his newly gained mental deficit, his ability to make rational and just decisions is of course severely compromised. An unavoidable consequence is that under his now troubled command a lot of poor decisions are made and because of it a lot of his people die and suffer. So here now we have a leader who is both ignorant (because of the infirmity of his mental condition) but who nevertheless, also retains the capacity to act with (political) power.
Is it proper to call ignorance, while lacking the power to act, evil? I don’t think so. Ignorance combined with a complete denial of the power to act, as exemplified by a mute and paraplegic mongoloid, equates to practical harmlessness and so it would be improper to attribute evil to them. Moreover, to persecute certain people considered evil, when they actually do harm to no-one, is itself an act of injustice. Indeed it is an evil act. Think for example of the grave violations of human rights that transpired in Nazi Germany when the mentally infirm were subjected to so-called mercy killings (“euthanasia”) under scientifically bogus eugenics programs.
Therefore it is proper to only speak of evil if and only if ignorance is coupled with the power to act.
But even then, not all harmful acts could deservingly be called evil. It is the nature of intention that is also a determinant. If an act is motivated by a deliberate intention to cause harm, then the act clearly and rightfully can be called evil. If there is no such intention but indeed harm is unintentionally or accidentally inflicted, it would not be righteous to attribute evil to what then proves to be but an unfortunate act of misadventure.
“It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake.” ~ H. L. Mencken
“Everyone who is not understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey must be blind or wrong in his head.” ~ William Golding
“Good can imagine Evil, but Evil cannot imagine Good.” ~ W. H. Auden, A Certain World
Three Degrees of Evil
I hope to have demonstrated that the equation of evil to ignorance is not justified, yielding at best an inadequate definition. A proper definition of evil has to incorporate intention as well as the power to act.
Keeping in mind the preceding considerations, I suggest the following three-pronged definition of evil.
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” ~ Oscar Wilde
1.Evil by Intent
An individual or organisation commits first degree evil, if that individual or organisation intentionally inflicts harm to another individual or organisation.
Examples: murder; theft; deliberately promulgating falsehoods; persecution of people, e.g. eugenics; hurtful discrimination on the sole basis of race, gender, income bracket, etc.; war; voluntary support of governments or companies that are responsible for first degree evil.
It may be fortuitous to distinguish between various orders of severity, as first degree evil committed by children by and large is not as severe as that committed by adults. Moreover, the severity of a genocide blots out that of one single murder, although of course any single life should never be undervalued. So one could introduce three sub-degrees: junior, senior and major. Where the junior sub-degree refers to evil committed that has no lasting or traumatic effects on the victims, e.g. kids harassing other kids. The senior sub-degree designates the act of inflicting of traumatic evil on 1 to 10 people, e.g. rape of a woman or murder of a person. One speaks of major 1st degree evil when more than 10 people are traumatised one way or another, e.g. a genocide or war.
“It is always good men who do the most harm in the world.” ~ Henry Brooks Adam
2.Evil by Unwitting Complicity
An individual or organisation commits second degree evil, if that individual or organisation supports another individual or organisation committing first degree evil in such a way that the former is not aware the latter does so.
Examples: unwitting officials/bureaucrats of governments engaged in committing first degree evil; unwitting employees of companies that are more-or-less secretly engaged in committing first degree evil.
“He who does not punish evil, commands it to be done.” ~ Leonardo Da Vinci
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke
3.Evil by Apathetic Witnessing
An individual or organisation commits third degree evil, if that individual or organisation is a witness to an act of first or second degree evil but chooses to not intervene.
Examples: bystanders witnessing people suffer and/or die (through rape, murder, starvation etc.) and choose to walk away without coming to rescue in whatever way available, e.g. by calling the police or provide food and shelter; witnessing corporate crime/corruption and choose to not report it to the authorities.
“Fear is the only true enemy, born of ignorance and the parent of anger and hate.” ~ Edward Albert
What Causes Evil?
To finish up, I want to briefly meditate on the underlying causes of evil. In other words:
Why do people intentionally hurt other people?
Apart from probably a relatively few honest and self-aware psychopaths and sadomasochists who do recognise that what they are doing to their fellow human beings can, in fact, justly be branded as evil, I suspect that people for the most part do not realise that their actions may be classified as such, at least not as immoral or unjust evil. People who see themselves as victims or potential victims may relatively easily manage to rationalise away their acts of aggression, acts that can be called evil by objective standards, by reinterpreting them as acts of revenge or even self-defence. As such they likely regard their hurtful actions as morally sound (“good”) rather than morally unsound (“evil”).
Nonetheless, people do need to be properly motivated in order to commit evil, as attempting to inflict harm on other people generally does not come without risk or cost. After all, people who are attacked may put up a resistive fight and strike back as they fend for themselves. And so the would-be perpetrator of evil, realising that he may get hurt due to his act of aggression, must be properly motivated to deal with any possible adversity. The ideal motivator for promulgating an assault on a fellow human being is plain and unadulterated fear, i.e. fear for getting hurt or sustain suffering in general. If you fear that your would-be victim is itching to strike you too, you may consider it in your best interest to strike preemptively. If fears run high enough, e.g. most notably fear for one’s own survival, the discouragement to attack for fear of being hurt or worse may be overridden by the seemingly understandable decision to strike the “enemy” before he strikes you.
Indeed, it is in a cultural atmosphere of fear that evil thrives best. When people live in fear–fellow human beings, especially strangers–are not rarely regarded as a liability and a threat. Therefore, acts that by objective standards can be regarded as evil, may through the eyes of fear be reinterpreted as justified acts of self-defence. When society is plunged into a collective state of fear and the people are trained to be in awe of their leadership, the local totalitarian establishment, it is likely considered a great honor to be given an opportunity to rise within the hierarchical ranks of that establishment, even if it’s in name and status rather than promotion of position or rank. It is in a face of fear and shame that evil atrocities, such as honour killings following the bringing of familial disgrace, find relatively easy expression.
Honour killings, e.g. the backward custom of persecuting rape victims, are considered justified if the victim is regarded to be a libelous member of the family (typically deemed a “whore”) who then are deserving of death after supposedly bringing shame to the family with her supposed penchant for fornication or generally violating familial code of honour. The occurrence of honour killings demonstrate that the perceived status of the family is valued higher than the lives of its (female) members. Risking acts of condemnation from the community, whether likely or not–the patriarchal head of the family proves to be more concerned with the fear of bringing shame to the family, than he is concerned for the well-being of the people he is supposed to look after.
This strange and de facto anti-human attitude is akin to narcissism–malignant self-love, in which the narcissist is pathologically obsessed with his own mirror-reflection, a mere image- or surrogate derivative of the self. And rather than tending to matters of importance, substance rather than image, the narcissist prefers to ignorantly wither away as he caters to inconsequential superficiality. Likewise the patriarch is also blindly focused on merely defending the name (image) of the family–something that compared to safeguarding the well-being of his family members, should also be deemed inconsequential. By holding the name of the family in higher regard than the well-being of the family members, the head of the family can be said to have a narcissistic mentality.
Only a culture in the grip of a suffocating fear for social disapproval could possibly foster such phenomena of detrimental self-delusion. If society were loving in character then the fear for social condemnation by one’s neighbours and peers would be redundant; there would be no risk for bringing shame to the family and honour killings could be regarded to not only have no purpose, they could be recognised for the real affronts to civil and humane conduct they really are. Indeed, an ambiance of love nurtures a relaxed social environment with a natural abundance of tolerance, a desire for understanding and willingness to forgive. The heads of family could then recognise the virtue of being able to care for all family members rather than vindictively persecute the ones who supposedly bring shame to the family.
In the face of imminent danger it is generally considered a good strategy to sacrifice one’s individuality for gaining a group-identity in a bid to ideally enjoy increased survival prospects relative to the more vulnerable “loners.” A consequence however is a revocation of responsibility for one’s actions. When you are part of a military unit for example, the unit commander assumes responsibility for all the members of the unit. You are simply to obey his orders. It is under such responsibility-neglecting circumstances that a whole new class of evil atrocities finds way of expression. By having the possibility to basically switch-off your conscience as you merely follows orders or just do your job, you are in a position to commit acts that you would normally prevent yourself from doing.
In 1971 the psychologist Philip Zimbardo based an experiment around the following question: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? The results were shocking as it was shown that normal or “good” people can easily act in an evil manner. Another related psychological test was conducted by Stanley Milgram, who wanted to find out if normal people could be brought to administering lethal shocks to strangers. As was the case with Zimbardo’s experiment, the results were again unpleasantly surprising as it turned out that the majority of people were in fact capable of doing so, as long as they were relieved of having to answer for their sadistic actions.
Other ways of promoting the expression of evil is to degrade or even dehumanise human beings, who are deemed undesirable or inimical, as inferior or subhuman (e.g. “untermensch”) beings. Indeed, an effective technique to motivate one group of people to kill another group of people lies in the success of convincing members of the former group that members of the latter group are not even human but virtual animals. After all, it’s generally considered no big deal to kill a filthy swine, a disease-carrying rat or a pesky roach. See my article Five Steps to Tyranny for more on this.
Why do people fail to come to the rescue of other people who are in need of help?
Fear also lies at the heart of answering this question. I will just leave it by saying that people unfortunately are too cowardly and/or too self-absorbed to be willing to help people-in-need, even when they able to. Under some circumstances, when in general the cost of helping is estimated to be higher than the benefit gained by the receiver of help, it is understandable that people prefer to either walk away or go look for more able potential rescuers. But other than those exceptional circumstances, there is little excuse for able people to refuse to help out.
As to the reasons for the reluctance of people to help other people, cowardice is just another form of fear and selfishness can also be viewed as fueled by fear, namely the underlying fear that other people end up with more goodies than you will and the ensuing animosity for people elicits a fear to socially connect with people. This is what narcissism is all about, in which people are extremely self-absorbed not necessarily because they think so highly of their own external appearance but because they are too afraid to intimately, rather than superficially, connect with other people. Cowardice convinces a person that the perceived cost/risk of helping out is too high, whereas selfishness fails to provide the necessary sympathetic connection between the person and people in need. Needless to say, both factors may reinforce one another–in fact, as they are they both grounded in fear, they often do.
We can thus see that both ignorance and fear lie at the heart of the promulgation of evil. In order to overcome evil, we must first recognise that indeed ignorance and fear are its root causes. Until the moment that we manage to do so, we have no way of preventing or even mitigating its expression.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7