Profoundly Immoral and Wicked
I had never once considered what it meant to be ‘evil’ until very recently. It wasn’t something I ever considered to be debatable; good was good, evil was evil. Watching enough Tarantino films brought the possibility that everybody was evil in some way, but they never caused me to ask “what makes them evil?”
Knowing you’re doing wrong
Let’s assume that good or evil is defined by your actions, ignore good/evil aspects of thought for the time being. The line that must be drawn first is one between those who cause pain but do not realise it and those who realise they are causing damage but continue anyway. Ignorant causers of pain can not be labelled as evil, as far as I believe; it is the intent of causing damage which defines somebody as being evil.
Consider a fireplace in a campsite. The fire can burn those around it, but it seems illogical to point at the fire and shout “evil!” It is just a natural thing. Now consider a person or other animal picked up a stick set alight by the fire, dropping the stick in range of one of the tents. Could this be a concrete example of evil? Not really, the carrier of the stick may have no intent of burning the campsite. The intent of the carrier is what separates the evil action from the act of ignorance.
Causing harm without having an end
There are many examples in history however where causing pain with intent has been viewed as “good” by many people. Wars, genocide, prisoner torture: all seen as “necessary” actions at some point or another, acts supposedly working towards a common good. While all were causers of unimaginable pain and suffering, both physically and mentally, it can be disturbingly easy to put yourself in the position of the torturer and see yourself as just. What brings that sense of Justice? The torturer can point to a reason why they are causing the pain, a reason that will contribute more to the common good and redeems the pain caused.
Regardless of the validity the torturer’s reason has, can they really be pinned down as being truly evil? That is questionable, but if the answer were no then the only evil actions in the world would be those committed by a Sadist. Those that cause pain without any reason but with intent. It’s difficult to find examples of these people since descriptions of their acts can always be spun to have some kind of reason. A school yard bully comes to mind, not stealing money or trying to gain social prestige, but just enjoying the act of humiliating others. An act of rape could be another example, of a man not trying to satisfy his personal urges, but enjoys more the shame he is inflicting on his victim. This I find is the true essence of evil.
Looking to Google
The top definition for evil on Google is ‘profoundly immoral and wicked’ 1. This suggests that evil is a very flexible term, that there is no true concrete example of evil, since morality is itself flexible from person to person. A democratic approach could be taken to define something as evil. If the majority of people believe that a person’s actions are completely immoral then they are by definition evil. This seems to be a popular opinion of what evil is since it doesn’t excuse the actions of the immoral even if they intend to be moral, however it is completely objective and the validity of the opinion is based on how many people are on the accuser’s side.
It can be thought that these days, in order to be evil, you need to be up against a crowd of people sharpening their pitchforks. If no crowd ever appears then you can’t possibly be evil. People can believe this as their ignorant actions harm the lives of countless others in small ways. An example of this was pointed out in a very excellent talk by Maciej Cegłowski, which is transcribed online. In the latter part of his talk he looks to silicon valley, where money is thrown from venture to venture in an endless competition for prestige. All the meanwhile the homeless population of San Francisco is rising every year 2. While millions and potentially billions of dollars are thrown on grand projects in the area such as space programs, human immortality and smartphone apps; people are struggling to gather ten dollars while living on the streets. In this modern world these projects may never be defined as evil. Who doesn’t like space programs? As long as people do enjoy these grand projects, the mob of pitchforks won’t appear and the venture capitalists will continue to operate, believing that their actions benefit mankind.
Even then, going back to my earlier definition of evil, they aren’t sadists. They don’t want to cause pain and if pinned to the ground they would never say that they don’t care about homelessness. Are they just simply ignorant of how much benefit they could give? Am I ignorant to the importance of their projects?
So are evil people sadistic, immoral or just ignorant? Or could they perhaps be a combination of the three? Saying that people are only evil if they are sadistic is too strict I find. This excuses about 80% of modern cases of evil and still leaves that remaining 20% on questionable terms. Immorality is the other extreme, it is too loosely defined and could be pinned on anybody in a variety of situations. Ignorance with power and a weakness for personal gains gives rise to what we currently see in silicon valley; but even as it pains people can it really be evil?
It just gives rise to a big personal conflict, and makes me wonder if evil exists at all? Could it not just be something planted in me as a child? Perhaps all people that are seen as evil were just misguided in intricate ways. Perhaps it isn’t something worth thinking about too much.
I find the use of the word “wicked” in this definition quite funny, since the top Google definition for wicked is “evil or morally wrong”. I thought recursive definitions were only something that existed in code. The second definition of evil I find is surprisingly “extremely unpleasant”, like an unpleasant sight or smell. I have never heard the word used in this way, “the smell of that fish is quite evil” just sound bazaar.↩