Defining evil.

A question often left out when talking about evil is that of objective evil. Is it possible for us to hold such a view rationally? It seems we have these vague intuitions which scarcely hold up when questioned further. Hitler was evil. Killing an innocent man is evil. Yet, Hitler certainly didn’t think that his orders were evil, and we can all imagine a situation in which killing an innocent is not only not evil, but in fact is the good thing to do.

How do we define evil then? We can argue (in my personal opinion quite rightly) that Hitler was simply misguided, however I don’t think anyone can successfully argue that there can be no scenario in which killing an innocent person is not wrong. Therefore, it seems like, at least in this world, there can not exist an objective evil.

Perhaps though, a different notion. Can we have an idea that is both subjective, yet also universal to all human beings (or for the sake of inclusiveness.. all rational beings)? I think so.

It seems inconceivable that any rational being would allow itself to be killed without a just cause. It is in our instinct to protect ourselves if someone was to jump at us with a knife. I haven’t ever come across a society or culture in which an individual would not be able to defend oneself from an assailant.

So then, is taking an individual’s life without a just cause always an evil?

It seems it is. He will be judged, however if the cause was deemed just it seems that there should be no repercussions. If the cause is deemed unjust there will be consequences.

But this is only one evil, merely scratching the top of the iceberg so to speak. I think it’s a valuable research topic.


~ by majorshake on September 19, 2011.

2 Responses to “Defining evil.”

  1. I don’t necessarily feel that Hitler was evil? Granted, he wasn’t a very nice person, and should have been killed for his treatment of the jews, but he helped Germany and the germans out immensely, cutting hyperinflation, and causing Germany to go from zero to villain; from hundreds of people dying per day to being able to take on all of the world’s power houses at once.

    Evil is the flaw of not being able to comprehend others; doing wrongful activities when the participant is fully aware of the consequences. Satan in Paradise Lost; he understands the effects that tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit are, but he enjoys it, and makes her flaunt her looks.

    ..and to an extent, Eve in the same epic; the understands that by eating the fruit, she was condemning herself. She then feeds Adam the fruit, so that if she gets killed, Adam will suffer the same fate.

    Both characters understand the implications of their actions, but fail to act just-fully to them.

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    • I agree with you that evil is knowing the right thing to do and then doing something else. However, unless we speak of these paradigm scenarios like Satan in Paradise Lost, it seems we can’t have a notion of evil.

      It is very easy to be skeptical of whether evil can truly exist in our world. Taking any case in which we intuitively consider a person to be evil it is possible to find reason to doubt that conclusion. Like you said with Hitler, he was a monster in his treatment of the Jews, however he was a great leader for Germany, taking it out of economic slump. That aside, clearly, he did not think that any of his policies were wrong. Which would eliminate the possibility of calling him evil if “knowing an action is wrong and still doing it” was the necessary qualification for being evil.
      Yet, we want to consider Hitler evil, and I don’t think our moral intuitions necessarily need to be wrong in that respect.

      I think we can add the enormity of the wrong to the qualifications. Surely, ordering the deaths of millions of people is an evil action?

      Which leads to another possibility. People, due to their propensity to justify their actions, at least to themselves, can either never or very rarely be evil. Actions however, can clearly be evil. Killing an innocent man is either evil or a seriously morally wrong action. Killing 10 innocent men surely is much less seriously morally wrong and much more evil (in a ratio between the two as it were). The person who commits these crimes, can think they are fully justified in killing them, but the justification would need to be very strong. If society would deem the justification not strong enough we want to be able to hold them accountable, yet it seems that because the person would be found to be deluded about their justification, we could simply say that they were simply deluded about the strength of their reasons. Thus taking them off the hook morally.

      The action of killing innocent people though, still remains evil.

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