On Evil

My wife asked me to write on this subject as a result of the diary/thread Pact Of Lies. I realized that my thoughts, and response, were really too much to go into in a comment.

Lots more below the fold.

This is not meant to single anyone out; this passage just inspired my response more than any other:

Years later, I now also contend that by attempting to label others “evil” is to try to distance ourselves from acknowledging our own darker sides.

I am not Christian, or even any sort of monotheist. However, if I have one critique of my larger religious/spiritual tradition (the New Age movement), it is that so many of us often have the inability to accept the fact that evil is real.

First, I hasten to add that like any good neopagan, I don’t believe in One Lord of All Evil, a big bad we can blame for all the sins of the world. I do believe there are spirits who have succumbed to greed, jealousy, pain, sorrow, whatever, and certainly concede the likelihood that some of them are bloody powerful. Yet I am firmly convinced that the sorrows of this world are of our own making.

Before we can truly deal with evil, however, we must wrestle with the actual definition of “evil.” According to the dictionary, evil is primarily “morally bad or wrong; wicked” and “causing ruin, injury, or pain; harmful”. Something my wife and I have done our best to drum into our son is that emotions are not evil — actions are, deliberate and harmful actions. Our dark emotions give us the potential for evil — and here I will agree with Unknown Quantity’s quoted passage above, in the sense that we must not believe that we ourselves are not capable of evil. Yet that potential — those emotions — are not the same thing as evil itself. It is giving in to those emotions and acting on them.

Evil is doing harm. Evil is causing misery. Evil is mocking the bereaved and torturing the innocent. When we give free reign to our most vile impulses, when we succumb to hate and fear, that is where you find evil.

Now, I am sympathetic to the notion that “people” are not evil, just their actions. “Hate the sin and love the sinner,” etc. I firmly believe that redemption, rehabilitation, whatever you want to call it, is possible for even the most corrupt, blighted soul. Nevertheless, what do you call it when someone does evil routinely? What is it when someone supports evil, enables evil, creates evil as a matter of course? I would argue that we are talking about an evil person at that point. Not someone who will therefore always be evil, but as long as the pattern of that person’s soul is a thing of cruelty and hate, it is right (and possibly necessary) to call what we see evil.

By that definition, I think it is entirely fair to call the Bush administration evil. Not the worst evil the world has ever seen, surely. Even allowing that there are many shades of gray when one is the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, however, the deliberate actions of this administration have caused widespread misery — and it seems clear that many of those actions have that direct intent. They fight terror with terror, monstrosity with monstrosity, and don’t care if the victims of their sadistic wrath are thousands of miles away from America’s true enemies.

In the book my wife referred to in the thread quoted above, I divide cinematic villains in a few basic ways, but for literary (or roleplaying) purposes there are two basic styles: “who says we’re evil?” and “evil and proud of it.” This gets into what they really believe, BTW, not just what they say. Few people are actually willing to admit to themselves that they’re evil. As a result, most villains — both real and imagined — fall into the former camp, and I was going to say the same about this lot. Then I remembered what should be an infamous Cheney quote:

“Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?” he asks. “It’s a nice way to operate, actually.”

Says it all, doesn’t it?

One final note. While it was my disagreement with the quoted passage that created the springboard for this post, I am highly sympathetic to the notion…because I have spent most of my adult life wrestling with my “dark” side. (Since Taoism influences much of my metaphysics, I have issues with the term “dark side;” to me, it’s more like a raging inferno, ablaze with fury and destruction. Still, I understand its usage here.) Of course, I am living evidence against it, since I know all too well how close to the surface evil can be even in some good people. On the other hand, I am also anecdotal evidence; how many people can really admit they have the potential for evil within them?

As an answer to that, I leave off with the work of better creators than I: the words of James T. Kirk.

We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers…but we’re not going to kill…today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill…today!

(/) Roland X
Death is lighter than a feather.
Duty is heavier than a mountain.
This is why evil is easy and good is hard.


From my point of view (4.00 / 3)

all “evil” is the result of pride, it’s ego run amok. The majority of those who practice it as their predominant characteristic would deny that they are evil, they think they are serving the greater good, not realizing that their ego twists their perception of what the greater good is. The other group you mentioned, the “evil and proud of it” folks, they are damaged souls. Through pain and suffering their egos seek revenge.

For an insight into evil as the natural result of ego-gone-mad, check out this article [1]. Note especially the psychology of the boys, as evidenced by their statements. The quote “When I’m God, everyone dies.” is especially telling.

To God belong the east and the west: Whereso ever you turn, there is the face of God. For God is all-Embracing, all-Knowing.

by dervish on Sun Dec 18th, 2005 at 15:12:45 PDT

That’s Reflecting God (4.00 / 2)

By Manson.  One of the best rock songs ever!  “You’re world is an ashtray.”

I feel sorry for the cats that snap in school, because that could very easily have been me.  Definitely not evil, just confused.  To me the only evil is the judgment of another human (or society as a whole), as evil.  The whole plank in the eye before you go for the speck.  

Saying a person is evil is like passing judgment on a stone sculpture before the artist has a chance to finish it and the artist is God.  I have faith that maybe not now or maybe not even in this lifetime, but that God has a purpose for every person and that purpose is good.

I don’t believe that people can do good either though, because I prescribe to a version of psychological egoism.  It’s all shades of grey until you do the will of God.

by Elijah on Sun Dec 18th, 2005 at 16:28:02 PDT

I have to question you here (4.00 / 2)

When I look back to the adolesence of myself and others I can understand being driven to violence.
I do not advocate or excuse the violence, but I can undresrtand.  Many kids are misfits who are persecuted on a daily basis for years.  And the authority figures seem to choose the persecutors who are often the schools Golden Boys over the misfits.
Where does the evil lie when after years of unrelenting harassment, you finally exact revenge? I think thee is enough fault to go around.

by empathy on Sun Dec 18th, 2005 at 17:40:29 PDT

I used this example (4.00 / 2)

because adolescents in particualr are prone to exaggerated self-importance, it’s a part of their normal development. When you combine that with “evil, class 2” above, this is the worst-case result that you might get.

While the teasing might be an “evil” act as well, I don’t think it quite ranks up there with murder.

And of course we can understand it… we are all capable of it.

To God belong the east and the west: Whereso ever you turn, there is the face of God. For God is all-Embracing, all-Knowing.

by dervish on Sun Dec 18th, 2005 at 22:20:36 PDT

Of course there is (none / 0)

a difference in degree.  I guess what makes me so crazy is the way that our society excuses and ignores the agony that some young people are in.
I sort of feel about it like I do about terrorism or riots.  Yes, the behavior is unacceptable, but why do we refuse to address the conditions that incubate peoples desperation, anger and hopelessness.

by empathy on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 11:34:49 PDT

I haven’t seen Bowling for (none / 1)

Columbine in a number of years, but if I remember it correctly, I agree with Moore’s point that the violence among teenagers reflects the violence among adults. We adults tend to cover it up more, justify it more (it’s for the Iraqis’ own good, etc).  

But then, is there increasing violence in schools nowadays? Seems that there is. Is that because more people stay throughout high school, rather than drop out to work? Or is it because there’s less discipline? Seems like the conservatives are right on that one… but then, in my neighborhood, it was the Republican leaders in the school district that favored and catered to the bullies (their little reflections).

by Erin on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 16:00:45 PDT

great diary (4.00 / 3)

It is a powerful issue.  I can get on board with the idea of evil actions but think the idea of evil people is dangerous.  Though there sure does seem to be people who have surrendered themselves permanently to the dark.

by empathy on Sun Dec 18th, 2005 at 17:44:16 PDT

Doing harm (4.00 / 4)

Evil is doing harm. Evil is causing misery.

I agree with you that one definition of evil is repeatedly demonstrating evil actions that do harm. However, I’d point out that our thoughts are just as real as our actions. Wishing harm on somebody or just hating somebody, in and of itself, is evil because it harms the person wishing it. It poisons them.

To make it a little more concrete: I hate the current resident of the White House. Sometimes when I’m catching up on the news and reading about the latest dubya folly I get infuriated. And, yes, sometimes I want to throw things at my TV/Monitor.  However, I also believe that hating them for it is evil. I am doing harm to myself just by thinking that I want to want to throw things at my TV.

Now, that said, how I channel that hatred is another issue entirely. If I choose to just sit and complain about it, I’ll end up a worse person. But if I choose to give my time or money to “fight the good fight,” then that hatred actually becomes a useful emotion. See my signature…

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

by risasperson on Sun Dec 18th, 2005 at 18:26:16 PDT

Worse.Poisonous thoughts (none / 0)

poison the thinker.

by loggersbrat on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 09:38:25 PDT

Evil is as evil does B^) (4.00 / 3)

Thanks for this opportunity for further discussion.  I think “evil,” like “God,” is an emotionally loaded word, so used most cautiously.

A few years back, I went through a rough patch, largely through the lies and misuse of power of one man.  The losses I experienced – of friends, job, reputation – were almost more than I could bear.  But I was determined not to turn bitter, and not to let hate ruin my life.  At one point, as I was talking with another of this man’s victims, she pointed out how many of us had experienced spiritual growth directly related to the harm he had perpetrated upon us.  So, were his actions evil?  Was he evil?  Or was it all part of a bigger plan for our lives?

I’ve been through abuse, rape, abduction, harassment, discrimination…. and I wouldn’t call any of the men behind any of it evil.  Sick, themselves abused, misguided, living in fear, but not evil.  What could make someone choose destruction, choose to do harm?  I firmly believe it all boils down to fear, the flip side of love, which is something they learned along the way.

And I found that when I forgave myself, learned to love myself, that I could forgive those who had done me harm.  In fact, there no longer seems to be anything which needs forgiveness, since in the long run I have benefitted all out of proportion to the harms.

In my world view, when we call someone evil, that pigeonholes them and puts a filter over our eyes and perceptions.  It makes it easier to hate them, which forces us off our paths to Creator.  Why give them any more power over our lives?  When your life is blown away to the point that you understand that the only thing a human can control is his/her attitude — then it becomes clear that hate is a waste of time, an investment of your energy with a guarantee of no return.

Sorry, I’m tired and losing my train of thought, so best call it a night.  Thanks again to x and Roland for these diaries, I hope we continue the exchange of views.

by Unknown Quantity on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 02:09:48 PDT

Once in a dream (4.00 / 3)

I met a man on the street who stopped me to ask directions.  When I looked in his eyes & started to speak,  a sensation of fear went thru me.  He was The Devil.  I spouted some gibberish, which momentarily confused him, & I ran away.  I awoke calling on the Archangels, saying, Gabriel! Raphael! Uriel! Michael!  And in my half sleep I felt that the Angels responded.  I sensed that Michael ran into that dream with his sword drawn & slayed the Devil.

I studied Kaballah for many years, & those Archangels are called on to be present in rituals and meditations.

I also experienced a glowing light in my peripheral awareness sometimes as I was drifting into sleep.

In Tarot, an element of Kaballah, the Devil is anachronistic.  It is a combobulation of forms, goat, ox, human, lion… It is pictured in the posture of the Heirophant,  but the man and woman have loose chains around their necks, tethered to the Devil figure’s half cube throne.  It represents the eye, seeing the phenomenal world, accepting it as all there is.  The word associated with Ayin-Eye-The Devil is Mirth.

I always took this to mean that the Devil is a deciever, & seeks to confuse you, & that the response to the Devil is to laugh your ass off at how absurd & ridiculous he is,  & get your ass out of there.

But these are details of training.  The Archangels will always work for me, but are the Devil & the Archangels aspects of our own beings?  

As a marginal Buddhist these days, I believe they are aspects of ourselves, projections.

When Jesus met Satan in the dessert, enticing him with riches & power, was it his own dark side he battled & overcame?

Taoist teachings  might reach a similar conclusion.

Finally, I must add that encountering Evil embodied is a frightful thing, even in a dream.

The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.
Kalhil Gibran

by x on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 03:16:55 PDT

I think all scriptural figures are aspects of our (4.00 / 3)

own psychology to one degree or another, it’s what makes the stories relevant to our own lives and situation.

The devil especially though, you are right on.

To God belong the east and the west: Whereso ever you turn, there is the face of God. For God is all-Embracing, all-Knowing.

by dervish on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 05:30:02 PDT

Another aspect (none / 1)

is incomplete understanding, or willful ignorance.  The half cube throne is like a half truth, or incomplete perception, perhaps unwillingness to look at the whole picture.   By extension this is lack of empathy & compassion.  Selfishness & self interest,  extreme disregard of others’ needs or interests.

It seems to me that evil is unsustainable because of its absence of love & caring.  It consumes its host.

I’m rambling now, but the subject is interesting.  

The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.
Kalhil Gibran

by x on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 19:55:50 PDT

A point I think some missed (4.00 / 3)

And I hope I capture my hunny’s intent correctly, but I don’t think he said (or implied) that someone who is evil now will be evil forever. There’s no blinder in calling a spade a spade, if at the same time you recognize that the spade always has the chance to turn into a heart/diamond/whatever (the analogy sort of broke down :-)).

When someone consistently behaves in an evil manner, IMO it’s fair to call them evil. When they stop doing evil, then it is no longer fair to call them evil. I didn’t say “if” because I think everyone will get their act together eventually, even if it’s not until after leaving this incarnation.

Bush and his ilk are, IMO, evil. I don’t hate them (though I very much hate what they do). I pray for them to find their way back to the light, to stop being evil.

by Morgan on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 08:42:32 PDT

Evil is a word (none / 1)

As humans we try to understand and interpret the world around us. We invent words and categories and then try to generalize and pigeonhole our experiences to expedite “understanding” and “comprehension”. Evil is a subjectively interpreted experience, not a thing. To say that that evil exists outside of our subjective experience is an oversimplification.

Is it evil for a lion to pull down a zebra and feast on it? Is it evil that a person sneezes and spreads typhus or the plague? Is intent the difining criteria? And do you really know of anyone that intends to be evil? Or is it just possible that what is interpreted as evil is the result of some other intent, which the actor might possibly perceive as “good” in their own (skewed) understanding of the world?

Evil is a word. And trying to understand and define that word as if that word in itself has some universal and predefined meaning is to confuse the map and the territory.

None of us here will settle on one set and agreed upon definition of evil. Therefore, to say that “evil exists” or even to narrow its scope to some entry in a dictionary is to ignore the trap that all words are: Shortcuts for experiences that differ from culture to culture and individual to individual.

Evil is just a way of saying “this is unjust”, or “this sucks” or “I cannot understand your motivation, so I will lump you or your action(s) into a category that defines intentional harm, even if that harm was really truly unintended, only I am not privy to that info”.


Yet I am firmly convinced that the sorrows of this world are of our own making.

Well I guess that excludes disease, untimely death, accidents, natural disasters and any serendipitous event that causes suffering…

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” –Albert Einstein

by Marcus Junius Brutus on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 09:29:35 PDT

Everything we discuss here, (4.00 / 2)

amd everywhere, is “just words.” God, Faith, Politics, Life, the Universe, Everything — words. So should we stop conversing and debating and trying to understand? “X is just a word so it’s pointless to discuss it” — OK, so why are we here (as in on SP, not life in general)?

No one said they had the only true definition. The dictionary reference was as a starting point, not a “this is it.”

And strawman is also a word.

by Morgan on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 09:42:25 PDT

Yes indeed (4.00 / 2)

I certainly did not intend to shut down the discussion by pointing out the obvious about words. Next, someone will want to know when I stopped beating my wife….

My point in bringing up the map/territory issue is to point out my opinion that there is no objective good or evil, just subjective experience and labeling.

By discussing what is evil, we make a shortcut into dangerous territory.

To say that “Bush is evil”, rather than to say that his actions have harmful consequences is easy and emotionally gratifying. But I seriously doubt that Bush thinks that he is evil or that what he is doing is not somehow justified based on what he values. I also seriously doubt that most terrorists believe themselves “evil”. I’m  pretty sure most of them believe that they are promoting a just cause.

As potential victims of terrorism, we must call such actions evil. But if we were the victims of generations of oppression, repression and suffering, in desperation we might promote rebellion too. Do you think the British saw the colonists in America as evil?

I’m pretty sure that Native Americans saw many white men as evil. But it sure took Hollywood a long time to get away from calling “Indians” anything else than heathen savages…

I guess what I am asking is, if the definition of evil is indeed entirely subjective, then what can the label be other than a tool for harm itself? “This book is evil. Burn it.” “This terrorist is evil, let us suspoend the coinstitution”. In the name of what is “good”, much evil is perpretrated.

None of us has a corner on what is good or evil, therefore we need to be very careful about what or whom we confer those labels.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” –Albert Einstein

by Marcus Junius Brutus on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 10:14:16 PDT

typo (none / 1)

Should be suspend the constitution

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” –Albert Einstein

by Marcus Junius Brutus on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 10:16:41 PDT

I don’t get… (4.00 / 3)

How “we call this thing evil” must lead to “so we have to destroy it,” which is where all your examples seem to go.

Roland already stated that very few “evil” people see themselves as evil, so there’s no disagreement on that point.

And I’m stuck by this comparison:

…there is no objective good or evil, just subjective experience and labeling.


Yet I am firmly convinced that the sorrows of this world are of our own making.

Well I guess that excludes disease, untimely death, accidents, natural disasters and any serendipitous event that causes suffering…

How is “[IMO] the sorrows of this world are of our own making” substantially different from “[IMO] there is no objective good or evil, just subjective experience and labeling”? I’m asking because I don’t see a real difference there, but others might.

Bottom line I guess, is that it’s not the labels that are the problem, it’s what we do with them. If one person says “He’s evil, and I pray he gets better, or at least out of power so he won’t be able to do as much harm,” that very different from the person who says, “He’s evil, so I have to hate him or try to destroy him.”

Bearing in mind that, as has been said before, “evil” is a somewhat subjective term, is based on a pattern of willfully destructive behavior, and is not irredemable.

Oh, one I forgot earlier: bringing in animal behavior is non-productive IMO. A lion pulling down a zebra to eat and a human getting their kicks torturing an animal are two very different things.

FTR, I probably won’t be responding for a while since I need to get offline and get some stuff done around the house, so if I don’t keep up the morning’s pace it doesn’t mean I’m ignoring anyone :-).

by Morgan on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 10:49:04 PDT

I disagree. (none / 0)

SOme things humans do are pretty clearly evil–except to the ones doing them.

Classic example: the death camps of the holocaust. What else can you call murdering millions of people becasue you didn’t liek their race, religion, sexual orientation?

The saddest fact, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, was that the  officers who ran them were so utterly ordinary. They were hsubands and fathers who hugged their chidlren and kissed their wives and compartmetnalized the mosntrous evilt hat they did to others.

Perhaps even scarier is that the experiments at Yale  on how easily people will do evil if ordered to by an authroity figure ina white coat  and the Stnaford prison expermient  show that we almsot all have the capability to be good little Nazis. In the Yale experiments,m when told to shock fellow students past the point of safety, only a handful of peopel even questioend the order and only one or two refused and walked out.

We can see that at work in Darfur.

Worst of all, those who do evik evik usually have sound justificatiosn fro it—the big Lie. “We need the lkands of thsoe tribal Africans”.  “Thsoe Jews are polluting our Master ARce.  We are better so we deserve to rule the world.”  “Blacks are not quite human, so it’s Ok t oenslave them. ”  Thsoe Irish are barely human. They’re too stupid to even grow potatoes. WHy shgould we halp them, lazy, alcoholic Paddies that they are?”  “We are Japanese, the chidlren of a goddess.  We shoudl own the wghoel Asian contient.”

If there is an embodiment of evil–and there may be–we created him out of our own selfishness and casual cruelty. A thought form that fed on our lies and our meanness.

Evil always wears a human face.

But I think that it is possible for event he worst to redeem himself and overcome what they ghave doen (if reibncarnation is real; otherwise Hitler is doomed).  George MacDonald, in hsi novel Lilith, has God waiting aptiently for Lilith to get her shit togehter–ebcause not until she,t he last soul left unwilling to receive and accept His love,  lets Love in, can the unvierse end.

Yes, there is Evil.  Biut it won’t always be with us.

by irishwitch on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 21:27:51 PDT

The absence of love (4.00 / 2)

To me, evil is simply a lack of love.

“I am too much of a skeptic to deny the possibility of anything.” –T.H. Huxley

by Tejana on Mon Dec 19th, 2005 at 14:01:01 PDT

I’ve always thought (none / 0)

that M. Scott Peck got it pretty much right in People of the Lie.

And I have occasionally described my rather meddlesome stepfather as able to do more damage with a single good intention than most people can with malice aforethought.

My original mother-in-law was rather self-absorbed, rather than evil; but the effects of how she treated my husband can ONLY be called evil.  He’s a decent soul an/pd (miraculously) sane, but the treatment he received at her hands was a far larger factor in our divorce than he will ever be wi/plling to believe.

I can’t find it in me to wish her truly ill (the worst I can come up with is that she have to face what she has done to contribute to the miseries of her own life – my ex’s father is certifiable, so she’s never actually had to); but I don’t know that I will ever be willing to forgive her for what she did to her son.

by loggersbrat on Tue Dec 20th, 2005 at 09:49:56 PDT

[1] Link originally went to http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20051218/ap_on_re_us/school_plot;_ylt=Ao8_D49zBqjN.4HEYn9ERo.s0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTA3ODdxdHBhBHNlYwM5NjQ-

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