It is clear to many, perhaps most, that evil abounds in the world today. Yet the concepts of evil are varied to the point that among their extremes there may be no agreement at all on what constitutes evil. I admit to being on or near a semantic extreme myself. In any case, given all the worldwide killing and corruption, I would like to put down some thoughts about how I judge that something or someone should be labeled evil. In doing so I don’t seek agreement, but a reasoned critique would be welcome.
Having a clear thought about what is and is not evil is important, because we tend to react differently when we confront what we judge to be evil as opposed to, say, ignorant, misguided, arising from a different yet acceptable perspective, or a purely random happening. We don’t want to ignore evil, knowing evil gnaws on us, especially if we consider it our duty to oppose or eliminate it. And it does so even if it’s not our duty but that we see the opportunity and have the means to diminish it. Also, we feel good if we have successfully struck a blow against evil. Most religious traditions exhort us to deal with evil through scriptural prescriptions that range from turning away to facing it head on and doing some things much more proactive.
1. For me evil involves an agent/agency of evil that is sapient or at least sentient – sapient in the sense of being wise or knowing its role in promulgating the evil act, and sentient in being conscious of oneself but not necessarily aware of one’s role.
2. Evil must have a target or a victim that is at least sentient enough to be capable of suffering the effects of evil. The target may or not be intended by the agent to suffer the consequences of evil. The target need not perceive the identity of the agent(s) of evil.
3. Evil must cause its target unjust suffering and/or pain. The injustice of evil must also be apparent to and communicable by those who witness evil or hear its report. Most importantly, absent the notion of justice, the idea of evil has no meaning.
4. Ultimately evil is in the eye of the sentient and sapient target and/or the witness to it. Universal evil is a rarity among humans.
5. An agent of evil need not believe that the consequent he causes or catalyzes is in his own eyes evil. Here we understand that agents of evil come in many flavors and functions. Agents are also those who perceive the evil, have the ability to prevent the evil impacting its target, and yet let the evil proceed unimpeded. And abetting agents do not instigate the evil but merely support its progress.
6. With or without noble motives an agent can enable evil through ignorance. Therefore enduring ignorance that enables and/or inflicts unjust pain is evil.
Resisting evil, even unto its destruction, is perceived as being just, responsible, dutiful, and/or noble. Therefore it is easier to marshal a cohort to fight something that can be ascribed and accepted as being evil, because evil usually evokes a strong emotional response in people. For that reason evil is often invoked by demogauges seeking popular support for a political or commercial agenda. In such cases the desired supporters are also made to believe that they are the targets of the posited evil.
In this light we see that evil abounds and more so as the world becomes tightly connected. Daily we are made aware of purposely or carelessly inflicted pain which we are told is unjust. In contrast, without such widespread evil, good works and acts of altruism would not be celebrated. Evil has also been the classical progenitor of religions whose adherents’ most beseeching prayer to their god(s) is ‘deliver us from evil.’
Yet in spite of experienced evil or feeling helpless in its affront, we also continue to teach the stoic and character-building palliative best captured in the Chinese proverb, ‘Pain makes a man think, thinking makes a man wise, and wisdom makes life bearable’ - which we apply to both just and unjust pain.