What Is Evil? A Look At Behavior & Rationalization

Even when the answer to this seems clear with major historical figures, it’s still a matter of perspective. Was Hitler evil? A lot of the world saw it that way, but those on his side would’ve argued they were fighting for “right”.

It seems this way with any major conflict: perspective is everything. One man’s hero is another’s villain. One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.

When I started pondering this I was tempted to cite examples of people like Charles Manson (or any number of serial killers) as examples of clear evil. But society often labels these people as sick or addled with mental illness — in a context suggesting that you can’t apply the same moral judgement to them as a result.

It makes sense for that type of example. The type of person that goes on a murderous rampage is probably not in his or her right mind.

This comes up even in less severe situations all the time.

In a recent discussion with a friend we were recanting tales about someone we know locally who is, in my opinion, essentially a con artist. He lies indiscriminately and wears a warm smile to anyone useful to him. Once you’re of little value to him you’ll see a very different person, like the facade falls away once it’s no longer worth it to maintain. When he makes mistakes, he’ll throw anyone nearby under the bus to disappear into the night to strike again. When speaking of clients he’d done wrong, his nonchalant response at one point was, “There are hundreds of new businesses born locally every year that haven’t heard of me.”

So basically, there’s always another sucker?

I might have classed his behavior as somewhat sociopathic, but my friend saw him as simply “a confused person who has made some unfortunate choices.”

I see his behavior as pathological, a pattern that speaks to an entire lifestyle, so through my own lens it’s not simply a brief series of choices. As clear as that had seemed to me, to hear that my friend saw it so differently made it clear that even in that case a person being evil wasn’t cut and dried.

What is evil? Philosophical questions about society and life.It was as illuminating as it was simultaneously nebulous.

If we can’t label someone responsible for millions of deaths as evil because of perspective…

If we can’t label someone who emotionlessly murders (or feels satisfaction doing it) as evil because of mental illness…

If we can’t label compulsive liars and toxic people as evil because everyone makes mistakes…

Then what is evil? Does it even exist?

Are humans even capable of straight up evil then? Or have we created enough exclusions that basically any “wrong” act can be empathized with?

Evil shows up everywhere in culture, from stories to religion. Evil, as an abstract topic, is something to be fought and avoided. All of us fight an internal struggle against it each day, trying to walk the line and be a good person. When we mess up, we mostly say that makes us human and accept each other as imperfect but trying to be better.

But as much as evil is something we hold up as a cautionary tale, it seems fairly difficult to actually point at a given person with the label. Is there an act or pattern of behavior that is innately evil then? Behavior that everyone would agree is bad but also cannot be dismissed as a mental illness, such that we can truly hold the person responsible?

And if there isn’t and it’s just a concept rather than a tangible attribute, where does that leave us? Does it even matter beyond academic curiosity?

What do you think?

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4 Responses to What Is Evil? A Look At Behavior & Rationalization

  1. Martin Watkins August 11, 2017 at 7:43 pm #

    OK, so, say I get possess of at my dog and breast him almost to death. Does that make me evil or just lost control of my better judgement for a moment?
    What if I decide to go out and try to cause an accident so that I can sure someone and get lots of money. Am I evil or just a person with bad judgement?
    Hitler was an evil person. Why did he think it necessary to kill all the Jews? There is no good reason other then he was pure evil.
    Was he mentally sick! Are serial kills just mentally sick? Maybe, but what they do is evil. There are many people in the world that are mentally unstable, but they don’t go around killing. They know better. So then evil is what makes one kill, even when they know better.

    • Brian Watkins August 12, 2017 at 1:05 am #

      I think it’s important for me to point out that I wasn’t defending Hitler or anyone else in this post. It is and has been my opinion that these people were all indeed evil men. I wrote this post because of my surprise at how differently a lot of people view it, and how that difference of viewpoint seems to make it hard to definitively say so.

      I can say that despite someone else’s interpretation I still believe someone is evil, and perhaps my viewpoint is more informed than theirs so I believe I am right. But past a certain point I have to ask what inherently makes my assertion more valid than someone else’s. In specific cases it’s easier to argue, but looked at in a broader sense it gets nebulous. My main point was really to address that murkiness.

      We’re raised in a world where good and evil seem so black and white, and this is meant as simply an examination of how society makes it grey.

  2. Matthew Parent August 11, 2017 at 5:14 pm #

    Evil is “just” a concept but I think that’s actually a more powerful idea than evil being an inherent attribute. It means that we can adjust our definition of evil as our understanding and capabilities increase. I think a decent way to think or morality is that our ultimate aim is to reduce the net level of human suffering. Sam Harris discusses this idea in his book “The Moral Landscape” (which I’ve yet to read but I’ve seen him give talks). Viewed from that perspective we could define evil to mean “anything that increases the net level of human suffering”. This removes agency from the question of evil which is a point that can be debated but likely isn’t all that useful for the broader conversation.

    I also think you’re confusing a given person’s perspective on whether or not something is evil with whether or not that thing actually is evil. In the example of the local business man: If you knew more about this man’s behavior than your friend did, then your opinion is more informed. Furthermore, given this updated understanding of evil, we aren’t casting judgements on the man himself as being evil, simply noting that he does a lot of evil actions.

    Where it gets really interesting is viewing human society through this lens. I’m going to assert that generally a society is trying to reduce the net level of suffering it experiences, or humanity at least trends in that direction over time. Now we can think about punishments we’ve used historically. If we look at thievery we’ve tried all sorts of things from death, cutting off a hand, imprisonment, etc…

    If someone is a thief, why not just kill them painlessly? They can’t steal anymore and their death was painless so they didn’t even suffer that much. This is a valid perspective but it’s certainly not optimal. If alive, that thief could have gone on to help many other humans more than his thieving harmed others. We’ve since built this understanding into our legal system by making punishments grow in severity for repeat offenders.

    That’s certainly not to say our existing system is perfect. This perspective also makes the shortcomings of the US prison system painfully clear. We’re locking up large numbers of people for long periods of time that could be beneficial to society. The obvious question then is: What about the people you can’t rehabilitate (e.g. life without parole)? Today, the answer’s not terribly clear so I’m just going to ignore it. However, it’s entirely possible that we’ll be able to resolve this in the future via e.g. neurosurgery.

    So, was Hitler evil? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s irrelevant. He created a system that perpetuated evil at an unfathomably large scale.

    • Brian Watkins August 12, 2017 at 1:22 am #

      I like Harris’ idea to that and it’s something I’ll look further into.

      Rather than confusing a person’s perspective of evil with what is actually evil, I am asking the question that if evil is a man-made construct, then can it only ever be a matter of perspective? It seems so even by the rest of what you said. If so, how can I know what is “actually evil” in spite of someone’s perspective in a vacuum? This might be easier to do at a societal level where you can have majority consensus, but I find even the fact that there seems no universal consensus interesting in and of itself here.

      For me to confuse the two implies perception and an objective evil are separate things, which is how I’d always thought of it. But as you said, if we can adjust our definition of evil as a people then the idea itself is just an idea. So the notion of objective evil seems difficult when everyone’s values differ. For certain things there will be large agreement, but as I’d written, it doesn’t seem as cut and dried to me as it once had. So rather than confusing perception with what is objectively real, I’m asking how we can even know what is objectively true here. I feel you made a fair point answering, particularly from the logical societal standpoint of minimizing harm. Evil seems often defined emotionally, whereas perhaps it needs to be defined purely rationally to avoid the inconsistency.

      I think what also stimulated me to write this post is partially out of frustration. There’s almost a double standard with words that we freely call someone a “good man” because he does good on a regular basis by our definition of good (even when he also occasionally does bad things). But when he regularly does bad, or evil as we generally define it, we are reluctant to judge that person as evil. We tend to look at it as you said, that he made evilish decisions but is not himself evil. Yet in doing good a person can be considered simply ‘good’. I just find that curious about us humans, is all. For a word that is used offhandedly so often to frame our morality, it just seems strange that our ability to really define it remains so inconsistent when getting feedback from different people.

      I’ll restate that my intention was never to defend Hitler or anyone else referenced here. By stating how nebulous defining evil is I was not trying to then say that these people are not evil. In my opinion they all are. But society’s propensity to explain away things I and others might call evil can be frustrating, causing one to wonder what evil is if we have so many ways of avoiding actually looking at traditionally evil acts as evil.

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