Understanding Evil

October 17, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

It is a much mentioned, but little understood concept. Any individual in the world is likely to have strong conceptions of “evil,” but very few could define it, or ascribe a cause to it.  Dictionary.com defines “evil” as “morally bad or wrong,” and also “causing ruin, injury or pain.” While the word “immoral” is more commonly used to connote the first definition (“morally bad or wrong”), colloquially, the word “evil” is most often used to convey the sense of the second definition (“causing ruin, injury or pain”). Realizing that the phrase “evil” is subjective and has many implications, in this essay I will use the word “evil” to convey the sense of the second definition.

From time immemorial, some humans have been perceived to have the tendency to cause harm to others for no apparent or rational reason. These humans, we assume, like to take pleasure in the pain of others.  Thus, what appears to be an alien sensibility to us, one which is characterized by an inexplicable perniciousness, is termed as evil.   Why “evil” humans are different from the rest of us is not understood by most people.  Evil, they assume, is just an inborn quality. And because it is inherent to the individuals who possess it, people believe that the only way to stop them is to their exterminate them, or at the very least incarcerate them, so that they remain away from a society that they could destroy if given free rein.

But is evil indeed an inherent characteristic? Or is it a mentality inculcated by way of the environment in which one is raised–the unique circumstances one had to deal with? More importantly, are good and evil concepts independent of one another, or inter-related to one another?

I believe that all actions perceived as evil are rooted in the desire for good in some way or the other.  I will explain.

The best analogy that illustrates the point was made by a TV evangelical named Ramesh Richard, who has been referred to by his website as, “a global spokesman for the Lord Jesus Christ.” While his show is cluttered with unsurprising references to the Bible and Jesus, his discussion of the nature of evil truly struck me. He showed the audience a piece of paper with a hole in it. He then compared the paper to “good” and the hole to “evil”. In the absence of the paper, there is no hole, just as in the absence of good, there is no evil. That was an ingenious way to get his point through. Evil, to me, simply does not exist as an independent concept. I view it more as an aberration from good, or to be more precise as a perverse reflection of the frustration at our inability to attain the good, the pure.

One characteristic shared by all human beings is jealousy. On a beach we may watch a young boy break down his brother’s sand-castle when it is better than his. In doing so, he is not exactly angry with his brother for building a better sand-castle than him. He is angry at a strange system, a happenstance, that appeared to reward someone else with a better sand-castle even though he himself had tried his level best to build one. All “evil” actions are marked by these very feelings of frustration. I do not think I need to provide any evidence to substantiate my assertion. Why don’t you, my readers look into your past and remember actions which had shades of so-called “evil” in them? Was it not the helplessness, frustration, and your want to gain power over the situation that caused you to commit the deed?

What is it then, that separates those who commit heinous crimes from those do not? Every one of us is confronted with our own insecurities; yet we do not all end up as criminals. We observe numerous people who emerge from the most miserable conditions as decent, productive citizens. Are difficult conditions, thus mere excuses given by criminals for their lack of responsibility?

Perhaps what further distinguishes destructive human beings from others is empathy. When one can anticipate the pain one would be inflicting on a victim, one is much less likely to undertake an action which causes such an effect. However, some people are simply accustomed to “switch off” in these matters. This is not merely done by top criminal minds but even ordinary individuals. The famous Millgram Experiment demonstrated how ordinary individuals, when pressured by authority, can train to desensitize themselves from the worst kind of torture they inflict upon others, and in many cases, enjoy it. The Stanford Prison Experiment is an even more startling example of how ordinary human beings can be transformed into unforgiving ‘monsters’. These monsters are not only far away human beings.  They can be people like you and me.

To some people these studies only serve to strengthen their demands for more stringent punishment to criminals. The logic they follow is, if anyone is capable of committing heinous crimes, the punishment should be extremely stringent, so as to dissuade these human beings from even contemplating these crimes. Thus, instead of approaching the root of the problem and understanding the cause of these violent impulses in human beings, punishers believe that threatening criminals is the best solution.

Imagine a person who has peptic ulcer disease, and is restrained to a room, screaming in pain all day. These screams serve as a major disturbance and nuisance to the people around him. Instead of trying to treat the illness and relieve his problem (and with that, their own problem), they simply walk to the room, and repeatedly warning the man to shut up and eventually punishing him severely. They care less about the causes of aberrant behaviour and focus only on threats and other external means of control.

Almost all conventional socio-cultural channels of thought today seem to characterize evil as opposed to (or pitted against) good. There is an aggressing “criminal,” and there is a “victim.” Very few try to also characterize the criminals (or “wrongdoers) as victims. Note though, that even religion does not see evil as a completely independent of good. The New Testament states that Satan, who promoted evil on earth, is a fallen angel. Here is one more case of benevolent being, who under the influence of circumstances (in this case, jealousy) took up malevolent action.

Thus, Christianity may recognize that even malevolent beings might have been benevolent in the past.  On the other hand, Christianity seems to argue that once a person acquires a malevolent nature, he is beyond help, or redemption. Thus, after Satan became anti-god for whatever reasons, God, in his infinite wisdom, simply could not find it in him to talk to Satan and clear out the misunderstanding that had developed. Once Satan had strayed, he had become the permanent enemy of good. This attitude, of labeling evil with permanent labels, seems to be characteristic of most human beings today.  Many people in positions of authority dismiss a reformative approach to criminals as being impractical or unrealistic.

Even those who concede that criminals can be reformed into good human beings feel that these people simply do not deserve to be reformed. What have these human beings done, they contend, that they deserve our resources for reformation? These people see good and evil actions as business deals. Do good to me, and I’ll do good to you, and hurt me, and I’ll hurt you back.

But a question arises, exactly why would you want to hurt back someone who hurts you? “It’s human nature,” is the most common answer. In my opinion, this is true. In fact, this retributive justice, designed to satisfy the carnal and unthinking urges in man, seems to be the foundation of all systems of justice across the world. “An eye for an eye” is not  so much a maxim based on calculated, rational thought, as it is a validation of the primal urges of a man, which simply wants to strike back when struck.

Thus, my question is this: which approach is better suited to dealing with criminals and the concept of “evil” in general? We may claim to live in a civilized world, which operates on rational principles and thought. But are we being entirely ‘rational’, or thoughtful when it comes to our approach towards those we abhor? Admittedly, it is difficult for humans for rise above their “natural” primal urges. But is it even possible for us to truly become rational human beings who restrain these primal urges, see through the criminal, emphasize with him and feel sorry for him?


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Category: Culture, Good and Evil, Language, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

I am Sujay Prabhu, 22, living in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Among other things, I enjoy reading non-fiction, listening to podcasts, watching world cinema, watching plays, and trekking. I believe skepticism is a most vital trait, needed not only to dodge schemes of charlatans, but also to lead a fulfilling life. I live in a country where superstitions and useless rituals reign supreme, and ‘miracle-men’ make a fast buck spouting irrational philosophy, backing it up with laughable magic tricks to fool the masses about their ‘powers’. The few people who study their surroundings, try to look beyond the obvious, and subject their own beliefs to scrutiny, are those that earn my admiration.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Calling someone "evil" dehumanizes them so it makes it much easier to, say, execute them, or even condemn them to a life of crime after a single offense. I think it also helps to rationalize "evil" acts that we cannot fathom doing ourselves. Even though an ordinary person can behave in a disgusting and malicious way, as in the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments, it seems far more comforting to claim that only inherently "evil" people commit such acts.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    It is easeir for people to personalize–or should I say Personify–something like evil because it puts it in the realm of the manageable, however illusory that may be. As Hannah Arendt so ably described in her book EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM, evil seems to be more an emergent property of systems put in motion, which catches people up in them as actors who obligingly play their part.

    Certain ideas may be evil. Certain conditions may be. The problem is teasing apart the volitional element from what is actually the case.

    Because of the story of the Fall, "disobedience" has been the starting point of most exigeses on evil, but it gets complicated by moral dissent issues, where disobedience becomes a heroic element.

    Evil seems to me to be a kind of meme that floats freely and contributes to certain actions in such a way that bad things occur as consequence. Beyond that, it may be a kind of insanity–Hitler could easily be defined as evil, but not in all aspects of his life, apparently. But he was also pretty obviously cracked in some fundamental way.

    It's possible to posit a condition of so-called "bad wiring" that converts otherwise "normal" pay-offs for certain actions into reinforcing rewards where for most people the action would be repugnant. But how do you describe such a condition in moral terms? Wiring is wiring.

  3. bob harder says:

    Why would you want to hurt someone back who has hurt you? It could be human nature.

    It could also be a wake up call to the person that hurt you. It may help them realize their behavior is unacceptable and there can be repercussions.

    I've met quite a few criminals (unfortunately) over the years,and there seemed to be a common thread among them. When they first started out, for whatever reason, they were not called on for their bad acts. Stealing is a far easier way to "come up" than working for a living, if you don't get caught!

    It's human nature to try and find an easier way to accomplish your goals.If they were "hurt back" right in the beginning of their criminal careers, many of them may very well have chosen a different path.

  4. Julie Rumbarger says:

    This actually is true to the teachings of the Christ message, am speaking of the new testament that is. He ( Christ ) went into the seeming evil people and saw that in fact there was not a hole in the paper, he could see through this garden of good and evil and personify omnipotence in it's truest sense. thank you for this, brilliant piece of work.


    Saint Clair Shores

  5. Alexander says:

    Evil is not redeemable, so claims Sarte and I agree. It is a permanent state of life along with goodness. The “other” pole, so to speak.
    Think about Abraxas, the old deity representing good and evil simultaneously.
    That is the essence of humankind. It can never change.

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