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The thing about evil

  1. Jan 16, 2004 #1
    I am currently working on an essay about evil. My basic premise is that evil is only meaningful in the context of community. That is, evil is defined as an action or event that works to the detriment of some predefined community. I am trying to show that many of the problems that our species face result from misunderstanding the nature of evil. For example, many people believe that the definition of evil is defined and imposed divinely. God said don't do this or that and if you do it that action is evil. The problem with this belief is that it doesn't say why disobedience is evil. This leads the devout to pursue PERSONAL righteousness in a letter of the law fashion. We should ask ourselves why it is important that we not murder, lie, covet or steal. The obvious answer is that a community cannot exist if its members are involved in commiting murder on its own members. Thus the question 'why' leads us to an idea of community righteousness. Devout individuals should always be seeking to further the community's best interest. Furthermore, devout communities should be avidly pursuing the individuals interests. Selfishness, whether individual or communal is the motivation that precedes evil as defined here. We can also look at this from a slightly different perspective. We can look at communities as individuals in a larger global community. This is where the above discussion really gains impact. Think of all the actions advocated by organizations, religions, philosophys, nations that offend the above standard of evil. Ironically, each group is able to label the actions of its opponents as evil. Logically, this is possible only if we accept the idea that evil is entirely subjective each community. That is that each community's definition of evil is determined internally. I prefer to believe that evil is valid only if objectively defined. Finally, while I have limited this discussion to evil in terms of humans a very similar argument can be made to a community in terms of other non-human inhabitants of our world, or even other worlds.
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  3. Jan 16, 2004 #2


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    I agree as far as you went.

    But if we describe evil as what is bad for the community, there is an argument for a "divinely imposed" defintion of evil. A divinely imposed code may be easier to impose and maintain than a code derived logically. Unconditional acceptance in some societies is easier to maintain than enlightened acceptance. The latter requires a degree of intelligence that may not have been prevalent in the earliest communities, and a degree of education that is not present in many modern communities. It may be a choice of a logical, flexible system of laws that is too unwieldy for the community or a rigid, possibly out-dated system that they can make work.

    I do believe this is the first argument I've ever made in favor of religious tyranny over secular, rational law.

  4. Jan 16, 2004 #3


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    Good and evil are myths for simpletons and children.

    I don't believe that there are evil people.

    When politicians talk about evil empires and evil people, they're really just trying to dehumanize them. Evil junkies, evil dictators or evil empires, the notion of evil is used to justify inequitable inhuman thoughtless measures.

    Ultimately, evil is not about what someone does, but about getting other people to do something for you. Evil is a broad brush that demagauges paint their targets with. In any war, both sides are evil, and God is on both sides.

    If you don't believe me, you can always compare the 'evil' people of history with the great historical leaders of the U.S. You may find that several of the US presidents readily meet criteria that you have set up to quantify evil. The US practiced genocide against the natives, incarcerated Japanese during World War II, and practiced the most ruthless bombing and torpedoing campaigns in history.

    Thus if you start trying to define evil in terms of moral absolutes, or societal values, you will only fail.
  5. Jan 17, 2004 #4
    Hmm. Both interesting replies. Njorl is playing the devils advocate but has mysteriously ended up on the side of "god". Ironic that. It does seem that community requires the active participation of all its members. Not sure that I believe that "people" are not educated/enlightened enough to understand the concept of evil in terms of community. I suppose the strongest argument against this notion is the fact that communities were "invented" by "ignorant" people. Many communities of primitive peoples get along quite nicely. I would not for example expect to find a lower crime rate in an industrialized nation than I would in an tribe of Australian aborigines. However, your point emphasizes the idea that the nature of evil is misunderstood. I believe that religions especially thrive on the misdirection of "divinely" inspired morality. Nations are actually a step closer and base their definitions of evil on some "rule of law".
    NateTG, I find your response a little baffling. If good and evil are simply myths and don't exist, so what if the US killed off the natives? On the other hand, I absolutely agree with you concerning dehuminization. It is a basic strategem to dehumanize your opponent in order to get what "you" want. This is a selfishly motivated action and is appropriately defined as evil. I agree with you, that the history of the United States is spotted with leaders whose actions I would define as evil. As far as your objection to moral or societal absolutes, I would contend that in any system the only absolutes are those characteristics that define the system. In the case of humanity, I consider it reasonable to accept the axiom that humanity is inherently social. Religion has been a vehicle that has by and large supported human society. However, morality has an essential subjective religious component that is obviously not absolute in form. Morality is ethics dressed in holy clothes. However, there ARE social absolutes and from these arise a definition of evil. For example, one social absolute is that if you kill your neighbors child you cant really expect her to help put out the fire consuming your house. My wife is needlessly telling me to be sure to thank you both for taking the time to reply. I do appreciate your responses.
  6. Jan 18, 2004 #5


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    Well, if you're callous, you can look at it as a society that was unable to adapt to a changing environment. Alternatively, I doubt that most of the people who were participating in this genocide considered their actions evil.

    Typically, the behaviors that are considered reprehensible which are associated with it, like genocide, mass starvation, and germ/biological warfare are things that we bring up fearing backfires or retaliation.

    I suppose what I mean is that evil is not so much nonexistant as it is arbitrary - what one considers evil is a matter of opinion in the same way that flavor preference is a matter of opinion.
  7. Feb 2, 2004 #6
    These are all excellent responses but it spawned a question that I must ask. What if a person does evil acts, which in this case are acts that do not benefit the community from the public point of view, but does them with good intentions in mind? An example would be if he set out to kill everyone. This would be considered very evil to the public eye but HIS view is that he is setting them free from a corrupted world full of evil influences. He is killing people to grant them freedom from the inevitable pain and suffering that everyone experiences during their lifetime. Even though the community sees him as a man with evil intentions, he does this to benefit them. Do you think his reason is a justifiable one? Is it indeed a matter of opinion? Does this make his acts evil just because the community has failed to see the truth behind it?
  8. Feb 2, 2004 #7


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    How? For example, in your detriment based definition, how can you objectively define detriment?

    By extension, in your opinion, is the idea of evil valid, considering that every action is likely to be good and evil in near equal measures....?
  9. Feb 2, 2004 #8


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    From my position, the notion of 'evil' is at best purely relative, that is, the person, or the action is evil when someone says so. Providing a situation where there are differing value judgements doesn't really weaken that position.

    The example that you are giving illustrates the notions of absolute evil when it uses 'evil acts' without qualification, and 'evil to the public eye' which is about a relative notion. Really what this example boils down to is two people John Q Public who considers the act evil, and Jack T Ripper who does not, and asks whether such an action is evil in an absolute sense. Clearly a notion absolute evil does not make sense unless one of them is incorrect.

    Sociologically speaking, you could certainly achieve a 'consensus' notion of evil based on polling where a particular act or person or thing has an evil value between zero and one, but you would have to demonstrate that your measurements are repeatable within some reasonable degree. It would be very interesting to see if some sort of calculus of evil is possible - for example to predict the evil value of two independant acts.

    Depending on circumstances I would be willing to describe this person as socially defective, callous, or ignorant rather than evil. I would also say that this person represents a hazard that should probably be eliminated.

    Historically, there have been times when groups chose suicide over getting tortured to death - for example at Masada. I expect that the people chosen to do the killing were considerd to be the heroic and unfortunate ones rather than evil.
  10. Feb 3, 2004 #9

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    I diagree that selfish should be associated with evil. Every action is self centered in some way, and selfishness is just an extension of that. To strive to get the most for yourself is in itself not evil. What would be evil would be to act to stop someone else from getting what they what irrelevent of what you got for doing so.

    If everyone is out to look after theirselves (I believe this to be the case), then the worst thing you could do to someone else, would be to stop them from getting what they want. Being selfish doesn't necessarily entail this (although it usually does to some extent), while specifically going out of your way to stop someone else getting what they want does necessarily entail it.

    But I don't think this has anything to do with evil. I do agree that evil only makes sense as a perspective based judgement. An action may only be evil from certain perspectives. My shooting a bullet isn't evil from anyones judgement. But my shooting a bullet at you may be evil from your judgement, may be evil from ths communities judgement, and may be entirely reasonable from my judgement. Evil needs to be judged by a perspective.

    There is no objective evil definition.
  11. Feb 3, 2004 #10
    - if there is no God.

    In the absence of a higher reality, this is the position that makes the most sense.
  12. Feb 5, 2004 #11
    You said (original post, paraphrased) that divinely imposed by laws from God would not define evil because it has to have evil first defended first as disobeying. However that would not be a problem. Let me explain. If you start off with existence, You ether have things or you have a ‘true absence’ (by this I mean not just an absence of things but also an absence of nothing, Which we do not have a word to truly describe the complete void there would be because in realty even a void would be more there the ‘true absence’) or there would be something (it does not matter anything). Next you have the question (which in having the question proves there is something or at least a nothing) is there any sore of logic or order. It must come from some sort of ‘intelligence’ because something cannot come from nothing. And that ‘intelligence’ (weather in a being or just simply an existence) would define all things such a right and wrong, logic, natural laws of physics and the like. And the ‘intelligence’ would by definition be God and therefore God would impose (or better define) evil to all other things (or possible absence of things). You assumed that there would be laws above God but to truly be God you must be self-defining and therefore define all outside things
  13. Feb 7, 2004 #12


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    If you accept moral relativism, let me ask the question

    Is it ok, in any culture throughout history, to rape, torture and kill for pleasure?

    Alot of this depends on the choice of axioms you pick, but it doesn't strike me as completely stupid to make the latter question an affirmative no.

    Note, I didn't say make rape torture and killing illegal, or morally wrong. But when it is for the cause of pleasure, then yes. B/c its hard to see a poitn of view where it shouldn;t be so. Amongst other things, It violates some of the basics of human evolution (we kill for survival, not pleasure).

    Then you might say, well is it the monsters fault for being born a monster? Yes, b/c humans are capable of reason.
  14. Feb 8, 2004 #13
    Let's just imagine a moral discretist-relativist

    Because moral relativism assumes relative, and not discrete, morality, to say it is discretely OK would not coincide with acceptance of moral relativism. In other words, your question doesn't make sense.

    Did you consider, perhaps, the point of view of moral relativism?

    And so we might qualify that as a framework of evolutionary morality, and not of moral relativism.

  15. Feb 8, 2004 #14
    everyone has thier opinion of evil, like everyone has thier own opinion of beauty. truth is we can see evil in anything even the same with beauty. Most people share the same view with evil and beauty. Hence murder as wrong in the laws of men, and Models as beautiful in the eyes of men. We all do the right thing, people just make it look like we are doing wrong.
  16. Feb 8, 2004 #15


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    Chris, if there is no human culture, value system, or logical treatise in the history of the universe which accepts that premise, (perhaps b/c it is so alien to our very natures) then may I make a bold statement and say its an axiom, even in the context of moral relativism.

    Moral relativism has to have a disagreement at some level, (this is right in one culture, but not the other)

    The only reason i brought up the biological/evolutionary point of view, is that not even in that context can it be justified (ok rape is out, since theres some debate about that)

    You would have to find a race (that doesn't exist by assumption) to justify that point of view.

    (btw im playing devils advocate here)
  17. Feb 8, 2004 #16
    In my opinion, every act is wholly self-centred, thus there is no such thing as a good or evil act.

    The very notion of good and evil depends on the assumption that there is something more than our own physical being (such as a soul that has moral impetus).

    A materialist would have problems using these labels. An 'evil' person would merely be someone lacking or posessing faculties of the brain or a personality type that is disinclined to the societal definition of 'evil'.

    And there also lies the distinction between morals and ethics. The latter does away with the transcendental, instead using a practical approach to determine right and wrong.
  18. Feb 9, 2004 #17

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    I agree that every act is self centered, and as such, evil and good can only make sense as the judgements of another perspective. What I do, is assumedly (essentially always) 'Good' from my own perspective: WHy else would I do it? It is for my own good. It gets me what I want.

    But that same action may be 'evil[' from someone elses perspective, or from the perspective of the state. Murder may be justified in your mind if someone just killed you whole family, but in the eyes of the state, it is always evil, no matter what you think....for instance.
  19. Feb 10, 2004 #18
    I disagree. Imagine yourself alone on some island. There are lots of things you can do, which may be even in your short-time interest, but are "evil" for your future survival.

    Thus, one of the main meanings of "evil", "bad for your own long-time interests", exists without any community context.

    This meaning of "evil" remains very important in the context of a community: It is not wise to lie too much or to kill without good reason, because people will not believe you once they detect one of your lies or will start to defend themself against you.

    In a community, other, new meanings of "evil" appear: "Be afraid of people doing evil things - they may do evil things against you in future".
  20. Feb 10, 2004 #19
    Things we do for survival we also do for pleasure - sex is the best example. So this argument does not hold.

    In egoism it is easy to understand why to rape, torture and kill for pleasure is not ok. Simply if somebody is doing this for pleasure, it is quite probable that he will rape, torture or kill you too. So, the person is dangerous for your health, and it is reasonable for you to do something against this danger.
  21. Mar 20, 2004 #20
    Between Good and Evil

    In general terms, my hunch is that morality is an absolute value. Indeed, as mortals, somewhere between nothing and infinity, we seem to have no choice but to make or effect value based choices---even though it is rare that we can be perfectly pure in either our intentions or our acts. It helps to intuit or identify with an intangible or spiritual purpose that is more enlightened than a cramped philosophy of personal selfishness. It can also help to rationalize agreement on three basic moral purposes: respect or love God or Being (Great Commandment), try to treat others as you would want them to treat you (Golden Rule, Rule of the Veil, Categorical Imperative), and follow your bliss (from Joseph Campbell). Just trying to harmonize those three guideposts would seem to lead towards a host of other commendable virtues. Reflection might make such purposes nearly self evident. Decent methods of socialization might strengthen application, but not perfection. Disregarding such fundamental purposes leads easily to personal and social ruin. Although evaluating specific, contextual applications is uncertain, making an honest, introspective, self defining effort is generally essential.
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