A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Even so one might ask, "How can malaria, which kills millions each year,
not be called evil?"
I try to turn that around and wonder how the
evolutionary process could produce us and fail to produce the
mosquito and the malaria parasite or something similar? The same process
produced the honey bee, the butterfly and antigens in our bloodstream. We
are only one of many millions of life-forms on earth. Some of these forms
are more successful than we are. What's so special about us that we should
complain about a process God put in place?
Some would retort that this is no comfort to a parents
whose child has been killed by malaria. I would respond, "Why not? How can
we accept life in this world, but only on our own terms? Besides, grief at
such a loss is itself a natural process, to be dealt with, lived with and
overcome as well as may be. The death of a child by natural processes
isn't the end of life on earth. Are we so egotistical as to imagine that
we are more important than any other life form? And anyway, if we're worth
our salt we can if we wish destroy malaria eventually, just as smallpox
and poliomyelitis have been destroyed."
My statement may not be typical, but it does demonstrate
the difference between one contemporary outlook and the older one which
lays everything at God's door in what might be termed an immature way.
There remains a much more serious and difficult
question: How can God allow evil to be perpetrated by humans? This
is sometimes known as the "Auschwitz question". How can a good God allow
the degree of human evil which resulted in the death of some six million
Jews in concentration camps during World War II?
Such suffering can, I think, rightly be called "evil"
since it appears not to be the outcome of a natural process, but rather
the result of wilful human choice. Surely, we ask, it must be right to
call the perpetrators of such deeds "evil"?
It's important, I think, to go back to basics at this
point. We must ask a number of preliminary questions:
- On what basis and against what standard is any
human act to be called evil?
- If we can agree what the standards are, then why
and how do people perpetrate evil deeds?
First, the standards. It appears, according to Roy
Baumeister (and I rest heavily on his research at this point
) it isn't as simple as it seems.
 Evil, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
This seems a silly thing to propose. It goes against everything we know
about the nature of evil, doesn't it? But the research shows that those we
call evil never think of themselves in such terms. They have their reasons
- often good ones - for doing what they do. Whose values are to prevail?
Why should the identified victim's point of view always be taken?
 Most of us, when we address evil, demonstrate strong
stereotypical positions. There is for all of us a myth of pure evil,
almost always perceived as coming from outside our own sphere. That is,
are never evil. We are always the victims of evil deeds. It's always the
other person who's evil. We always have right and good reasons for doing
what we do - unlike those we identify as evil.
 When we examine the reasons for what we call evil
actions, it's always a matter of judgement to call them "good" or "bad".
Every society has differing judgements about such matters. Who is to judge
which are right and which wrong? Although it may seem
obvious to an outsider, who is to say with absolute certainty that an act
of genocide in East Africa is evil? It is an undoubted tragedy. But who
can unravel all the elements which contributed to it? How is it that those
who did the killing don't necessarily think of themselves as evil? The
evidence is that they have great difficulty is doing so.
It should be apparent that evil isn't, as so many think,
simple or easy to pin down. Even to define it as an act which
intentionally harms another without their consent leaves many grey areas.
Having opened up doubts, I think it remains clear that
there are evil acts and evil people - though there isn't an external
"force" of evil in some sort of spiritual or metaphysical sense.
A central question for any caring person attempting to
be "good" (whatever that means) is, "How, given the subjective nature of
evil, do I avoid becoming evil myself? If people we call evil don't
perceive themselves that way, might it not be that I am evil without
[A] It might be that I am evil in the eyes of
some. For example, some Christians regard this website as satanic. Perhaps
they are right and I am indeed evil in writing these things.
[B] Given that we define evil for ourselves, that there
appears not to be an absolute standard by which to recognise evil, there
is a definite process by which we all may come to carry out evil
behaviours. Studies of those who have committed atrocities like mass
murders or torture reveal a gradual progression. Small acts of cruelty are
followed by crueler and crueler acts until a person is completely
desensitised to the sufferings of others. In other words, the way to evil
is down a gentle slope. Nobody becomes "evil" overnight.
[C] Baumeister reports that "Egotism is an important
and pervasive cause of evil." Self-esteem is rightly recognised as
important for our physical and mental health. Egotism is self-esteem
gone wrong. It is a positive view of oneself and one's rights which
bears little relationship to reality. An egotist who thinks he or she
has been hard done by will be very much more likely to take out on
others his or her sense of injury. Such acts will appear completely
justified to such a person.
[D] An aspect of the myth of evil is that evil people
are supposed to enjoy hurting others. This, as researchers have
discovered, isn't true. Only the insane enjoy torture, for example - and
then only the very few. A paranoid schizophrenic can't be called evil
because normal human perceptions are absent. The rest of us do "evil"
things for what we think are very good reasons - and we don't
usually enjoy doing them. On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming
that sane people who do evil things suffer great harm. They are tormented
by what they are doing and experience enormous mental stresses. At best a
person can eventually become so hardened that the negative effects of evil
acts are no longer felt, though they usually continue all the same.
[E] Inflexible ideals are, the evidence suggests, a
breeding ground for evil behaviours. As a certain Henry Adams is reported
to have said, "It's always the good men who do the most harm in the
world." Baumeister writes, "Many of the greatest crimes, atrocities, and
calamities of history were deliberately perpetrated by people who honestly
and sincerely wanted to do something good." I would revise this slightly
by remarking that someone convinced of absolute truth and rectitude
must of necessity regard those who disagree with him or her as
inferior. It's but a small step from there to the start of a progression
of behaviours which lead to what we call evil.
The picture of evil which the data reveal is somewhat more complex than
I have laid out here. As with such matters, the deeper one goes the more
twists and turns are revealed. But I think it's fair to conclude the
- Evil can be explained satisfactorily by examining human behaviours,
at both personal and social levels. There is no need to posit external
"spiritual" powers which tempt us to commit evil acts. That we do evil
things is our own choice.
- Because evil is in the eye of the beholder, it seems we should be
cautious about labeling other people "evil". They are probably doing the
same to us - correctly from their point of view.
- Nevertheless there seem to be some behaviours which are regarded by
most people as intrinsically evil. It seems that they are those which
can't be thought of as in any way to the good of humankind. It proves
difficult to be precise at this point.
- There might be societies in which, for example, killing enemy
children is a norm. The killer may feel no ill effects from doing so
because the act may be fully justified in terms of what his or her
society thinks is good or bad.
- But I find it hard to imagine a society which deliberately set out
to destroy the natural environment as a matter of good behaviour. That
is, it's hard for most people not to think of such activities as evil
(if they consider the matter at all, that is).
- If ordinary people are to be concerned about evil, it seems that
their concern might have a dual thrust:
 Because it may not be as easy as some think to identify what are
evil behaviours and what are not, perhaps we might take some care about
jumping to conclusions about what is or isn't evil.
 A large concern will be to examine ourselves to check that what we
are doing isn't harming others by our standards and theirs. It
may be easier than we think to start down the slippery slope towards
evil. That is, confrontation, conflict and violence may always
be the easy way out. More difficult, yet more rewarding, may be the
effort to understand another point of view however strange it may be.
- Nobody would propose that we shouldn't pursue our lives with a
degree of drive and enthusiasm. But it appears that those of us who tend
to think we have final answers, who claim to have captured some or other
absolute truth, might beware. Evil acts seem to spring more easily from
fanatical idealists than from those who question the veracity of their
conclusions about themselves, other people, and what life is all about.
- Evil as a fruit of egotism presents a challenge. By definition, the
true egotist can't easily, if at all, be persuaded to seriously review
his or her sense of self. The potential for evil acts is patent.
[A different type of discussion is in Evil:
Another Approach. See also Graeme Hunter's challenging article
Evil: Back in Bad Company]
 Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, 1999