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Evil, in many cultures, is a broad term used to describe what are seen as subjectively harmful deeds that are labeled as such to steer moral support. Evil is usually contrasted with good, which describes acts that are subjectively beneficial to the observer. In some religions, evil is an active force, often personified as an entity such as Satan or Ahriman.


The modern English word 'evil' (Old English Yfel) and its cognates such as the German 'Übel' and the Dutch 'Euvel' are widely considered to come from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed form *Ubilaz, comparable to the Hittite huwapp- ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European form *wap- and suffixed zero-grade form *up-elo-. Other later Germanic forms include Middle English evel, ifel, ufel Old Frisian evel (adjective & noun), Old Saxon ubil, Old High German ubil, and Gothic ubils. The root meaning is of obscure origin though shown to be akin to modern English 'over' and modern German 'über' (OE ofer) and 'up' (OE up, upp) with the basic idea of "transgressing".

Philosophical definitions

Western philosophy


In Western philosophy, evil is usually limited to doing harm or damage to an object or creature. Socrates (in Plato's early work) argued that which we call evil is merely ignorance and that good is that which everyone desires.Benedict de Spinoza said that the difference between good and evil is merely one of personal inclinations: "So everyone, by the highest right of Nature, judges what is good and what is evil, considers his own advantage according to his own temperament... ."

The duality of 'good versus evil' is expressed, in some form or another, by many cultures. Those who believe in the duality theory of evil believe that evil cannot exist without good, nor good without evil, as they are both objective states and opposite ends of the same scale.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung, in his book Answer to Job and elsewhere, depicted evil as the "dark side of God". People tend to believe evil is something external to them, because they project their shadow onto others. But from a psychological point of view to be evil is to refuse to acknowledge the weaknesses in one's own personality. Jung interpreted the story of Jesus as an account of God facing his own shadow.

Philosophical quandaries about evil

Is evil universal?

A fundamental question is whether there is a universal, transcendent definition of evil, or whether evil is determined by one's social or cultural background. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, maintained that there are certain acts that are universally considered evil, such as rape and murder. On the other hand, it is hard to find any act that was not acceptable in some society. Less than 150 years ago the United States of Americamarker, and many other countries practiced brutal forms of slavery. The Nazis, during World War II, found genocide acceptable, as did the Imperial Japanese Army with the Nanking Massacre and the Hutu Interhamwe in the Rwandan genocide. Universalists consider evil independent of culture, and wholly related to acts or intents. Thus, while the ideological leaders of Nazism and the Hutu Interhamwe accepted (and considered it good) to commit genocide, the universally evil act of genocide renders the entire ideology or culture evil.

Views on the nature of evil tend to fall into one of four opposed camps:
  • Moral absolutism holds that good and evil are fixed concepts established by a deity or deities, nature, morality, common sense, or some other source.
  • Amoralism claims that good and evil are meaningless, that there is no moral ingredient in nature.
  • Moral relativism holds that standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice.
  • Moral universalism is the attempt to find a compromise between the absolutist sense of morality, and the relativist view; universalism claims that morality is only flexible to a degree, and that what is truly good or evil can be determined by examining what is commonly considered to be evil amongst all humans. Author Sam Harris notes that universal morality can be understood using measurable (i.e. quantifiable) metrics of happiness and suffering, both physical and mental, rooted in how the biology of the brain processes stimuli.

As Plato observed, there are relatively few ways to do good, but there are countless ways to do evil, which can therefore have a much greater impact on our lives, and the lives of other beings capable of suffering. For this reason, some philosophers (e.g. Bernard Gert) maintain that preventing evil is more important than promoting good in formulating moral rules and in conduct.

Is evil a useful term?

There is a school of thought that holds that no person is evil, that only acts may be properly considered evil. Psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg claims that the root of violence is the very concept of "evil" or "badness." When we label someone as bad or evil, Rosenberg claims, it invokes the desire to punish or inflict pain. It also makes it easy for us to turn off our feelings towards the person we are harming. He cites the use of language in Nazi Germany as being a key to how the German people were able to do things to other human beings that they normally would not do. He links the concept of evil to our judicial system, which seeks to create justice via punishment—"punitive justice"—punishing acts that are seen as bad or wrong. He contrasts this approach with what he found in cultures where the idea of evil was non-existent. In such cultures, when someone harms another person, they are believed to be out of harmony with themselves and their community, they are seen as sick or ill and measures are taken to restore them to a sense of harmonious relations with themselves and others, as opposed to punishing them.

Psychologist Albert Ellis makes a similar claim, in his school of psychology called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT. He says the root of anger, and the desire to harm someone, is almost always related to variations of implicit or explicit philosophical beliefs about other human beings. He further claims that without holding variants of those covert or overt belief and assumptions, the tendency to resort to violence in most cases is less likely.

Prominent American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck on the other hand, describes evil as "militant ignorance".The original Judeo-Christian concept of "sin" is as a process that leads us to "miss the mark" and fall short of perfection. Peck argues that while most people are conscious of this at least on some level, those that are evil actively and militantly refuse this consciousness. Peck characterizes evil as a malignant type of self-righteousness which results in a projection of evil onto selected specific innocent victims (often children or other people in relatively powerless positions). Peck considers those he calls evil to be attempting to escape and hide from their own conscience (through self deception) and views this as being quite distinct from the apparent absence of conscience evident in sociopathy.

According to M. Scott Peck an evil person:
  • Is consistently self deceiving, with the intent of avoiding guilt and maintaining a self image of perfection
  • Deceives others as a consequence of their own self deception
  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto very specific targets (scapegoats) while being apparently normal with everyone else ("their insensitivity toward him was selective" (Peck, 1983/1988,p105))
  • Commonly hates with the pretense of love, for the purposes of self deception as much as deception of others
  • Abuses political (emotional) power ("the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion" (Peck,1978/1992,p298))
  • Maintains a high level of respectability and lies incessantly in order to do so
  • Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency (of destructiveness)
  • Is unable to think from the viewpoint of their victim (scapegoat)
  • Has a covert intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury

He also considers certain institutions may be evil, as his discussion of the My Lai Massacremarker and its attempted coverup illustrate. By this definition, acts of criminal and state terrorism would also be considered evil.

Is evil good?

Anton Szandor LaVey, the late founder of the Church of Satan, asserts that evil is actually good (an often-used slogan is, "evil is live spelled backwards"). This belief is usually a reaction to evil being described as destructive, where apologists claim that definition is in opposition to the natural pleasures and instincts of men and women.

Even Martin Luther allowed that there are cases where a little evil is a positive good. He wrote, "Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play, talk bawdy, and amuse yourself. One must sometimes commit a sin out of hate and contempt for the Devil, so as not to give him the chance to make one scrupulous over mere nothings... ."

It is not uncommon to find people in power who are indifferent to good or evil, taking actions based solely on practicality; this approach to politics was put forth by Niccolò Machiavelli, a sixteenth century Florentine writer who advised politicians " is far safer to be feared than loved."

The international relations theories of realism and neorealism, sometimes called realpolitik advise politicians to explicitly disavow absolute moral and ethical considerations in international politics in favor of a focus on self-interest, political survival, and power politics, which they hold to be more accurate in explaining a world they view as explicitly amoral and dangerous. Political realists usually justify their perspectives by laying claim to a "higher moral duty" specific to political leaders, under which the greatest evil is seen to be the failure of the state to protect itself and its citizens. Machiavelli wrote: "...there will be traits considered good that, if followed, will lead to ruin, while other traits, considered vices which if practiced achieve security and well being for the Prince."

Sociological views on evil

When a person acts in such a way as to use others as means to achieve one's own personal ends or fails to consider the consequences of his or her acts upon the lives of others, it is considered to be psychopathic or sociopathic. The view taken by Walter Wink, the Christian theologian of non-violence, is that such acts are "evil". In 2007, Ph.D Philip Zimbardo suggested that people may act evil as a result of a collective identity. This hypothesis, based on his previous experience from the Stanford prison experiment, was published in the book 'The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil'.

Religious concepts of evil

Islamic theology

Judeo-Christian thought

Christian theology
Christian theology draws its concept of evil from the Old testament and New Testament. Generally in the Old Testament evil is understood to be an opposition to God as well as something unsuitable or inferior. In the New Testament the Greek word poneros is used to indicate unsuitability while kakos is used to refer to opposition to God in the human realm. French-American theologian Henri Blocher describes evil, when viewed as a theological concept, as an "unjustifiable reality. In common parlance, evil is 'something' that occurs in experience that ought not to be."

Jewish theology
In Judaism, evil is the result of forsaking God. (Deuteronomy 28:20) Judaism stresses obedience to God's laws as written in the Torah (see also Tanakh) and the laws and rituals laid down in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Some doctrines others emphasize the idea that humanity is, within itself, irremediably evil, and in need of forgiveness. (see Original Sin)

While some forms of Judaism, do not personify evil in Satan; these instead consider the human heart to be inherently bent toward deceit, although human beings are responsible for their choices, whereas in Judaism, there is no prejudice in one's becoming good or evil at time of birth. In Judaism, Satan is viewed as one who tests us for God rather than one who works against God, and evil, as in the Christian denominations above, is a matter of choice.

Some cultures or philosophies believe that evil can arise without meaning or reason (in neoplatonism philosophy this is called absurd evil). Christianity in general does not adhere to this belief, but the prophet Isaiah implied that God is ultimately responsible for everything including evil (Isa.45:7).

Non-Trinitarian theology
In Latter-day Saint theology, Mortal life is viewed as a test of faith, where our choices are central to the Plan of Salvation. See Agency Evil is that which keeps one from discovering the nature of God. Temptation is the constant desire to "force" others to do what we want.

Christian Science believes that evil arises from a misunderstanding of the goodness of nature, which is understood as being inherently perfect if viewed from the correct (spiritual) perspective. Misunderstanding God's reality leads to incorrect choices, which are termed evil. This has led to the rejection of any separate power being the source of evil, or of God as being the source of evil; instead, the appearance of evil is the result of a mistaken concept of good. Christian Scientists argue that even the most "evil" person does not pursue evil for its own sake, but from the mistaken viewpoint that he or she will achieve some kind of good thereby.

Zoroastrian theology

In the originally Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, the world is a battle ground between the God, Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd), and the evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (also called Ahriman). The final resolution of the struggle between good and evil was supposed to occur on a day of Judgement, in which all beings that have lived will be led across a bridge of fire, and those who are evil will be cast down forever. In Iranian belief, angels and saints are beings sent to help us achieve the path towards goodness.

Guanche theology

Guayota was the principal malignant deity and Achamán's adversary. According to Guanche legend, Guayota lived inside of the Teidemarker volcano (Tenerifemarker, Spainmarker), one of the gateways to the underworld. Guayota was said to be represented as a black dog, and he was accompanied by demons, also in the form of black dogs, known as Tibicenas. Guayota is the king of evil genies.

Evil in business and politics

Recently, the term "evil" has been applied much more broadly, especially in the technology and intellectual property industries. One of the slogans of Google is "Don't be evil," and the tagline of independent music recording company Magnatune is "we are not evil," referring to the alleged evils of the RIAA.

The term "evil" has been controversially used politically by several governments. In recent times it has been used in describing:

See also


Further reading

  • Baumeister, Roy F. (1999) Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. New York: A. W. H. Freeman / Owl Book
  • Bennett, Gaymon, Hewlett, Martinez J, Peters, Ted, Russell, Robert John (2008). The Evolution of Evil. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 978-3-525-56979-5
  • Shermer, M. (2004). The Science of Good & Evil. New York: Time Books. ISBN 0-8050-7520-8
  • Wilson, William McF., and Julian N. Hartt. "Farrer's Theodicy." In David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson (eds), Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer. New York and London: T & T Clark / Continuum, 2004. ISBN 0-567-02510-1
  • Vetlesen, Arne Johan (2005) "Evil and Human Agency - Understanding Collective Evildoing" New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521856942
  • A. B. Stapley, Elder Delbert L., "Using Our Free Agency". Ensign May 1975: 21

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