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What is Evil?

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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God
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What is Evil?

#1 Post by God » August 1st, 2007, 10:33 am

"Evil" is one of those words which, like "spiritual", is somehow claimed by goddists as "belonging" to them. As if they alone have the right to define the nature of evil and what is its cause.

A fundamental thing they do is to personalise it. I mean, to identify it with a person, usually in the form of Satan. My bet is that most Christians (and for all I know muslims as well) think that Evil was "created" by Satan. This allows them to say that anyone doing an evil thing is "possessed" by Satan.

Of course, there are (it seems to me) a number of basic types of evil. There is the evil born of ignorance. Stuff which people do because they simply have the wrong idea about how things work. I suppose global warming, for example, could be said to basically fall within that category. Caused by mankind, but not as a deliberate act of will.

Then there is ego evil. That's where people such as Hitler and Stalin probably fit. Going about doing great harm in order to satisfy their own megalomania. And countless other smaller gits going around messing things up because of their own little ego trips (current controllers of a certain humanist internet forum, for example?).

What else? There's natural evil, like the great tsunami a few years ago. Earthquakes, etc. Just chaotic stuff happening which we have little or no control over.

Someone cleverer than me would probably be able to organise the categories more carefully, but I'm hoping it''ll be generally understood what I'm getting at.

The idea that at the heart of every evil thing that happens there is a little red demon with a three-pronged fork bringing it all about is clearly ridiculous. Yet "evil" as a concept definitely exists, and seems to relate to goddism and religion generally, and I think it's probably a topic worth discussing.

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#2 Post by Alan C. » August 1st, 2007, 5:44 pm

I don't think we would have either "evil" or "sin" without the bible, both are just bible concepts.
That's not to say we wouldn't have people doing bad things, they just wouldn't be referred to as "evil" or "sinners".
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#3 Post by Moose » August 1st, 2007, 5:46 pm

I think that evil is just what secular people mean by something more than ordinarily bad or unpleasant.
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Re: What is Evil?

#4 Post by Moonbeam » August 1st, 2007, 5:49 pm

God wrote:"Evil" is one of those words which, like "spiritual", is somehow claimed by goddists as "belonging" to them. As if they alone have the right to define the nature of evil and what is its cause.
Really? I thought people just use it to describe people and intentional acts of exceptional badness. I don't think people generally use it to describe natural disasters or things like global warming. It's generally reserved for sex offenders, murderers and dictators.

Do all Christians actually believe in Satan?

I suggest moving this to E & M forum.

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#5 Post by Curtains » August 2nd, 2007, 12:08 pm

The concept of evil varies according who is using it.

For (some) religious people, evil exists as a metaphysical force which is against the will of God. The 'will of God', of course, is whatever the religion decides it should be. But everything that is against the will of God has one cause: evil. I think the tendency to imagine evil in the humanoid form of Satan is simply human nature - it makes the idea easier to understand.

There is no such thing as this evil. It doesn't exist as a metaphysical force - it exists only as a moral category. This is how the rest of us tend to use the word.

For me, the problem of evil is the best argument against the existence of God.

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#6 Post by whitecraw » August 2nd, 2007, 1:21 pm

The modern sense of ‘evil’ (‘extreme moral wickedness’ – sometimes symbolised by ‘the Baddie’ in morality tales) is a product of the 18th century. Prior to that, it wasn’t even used primarily as a noun. ‘Yfel’ was primarily used adjectivally in contexts where we would use ‘bad’, ‘cruel’, ‘unskilful’ or ‘defective’; though it was also sometimes used nominatively as a general synonym for ‘harm’, ‘crime’, ‘misfortune’, or ‘disease’ (just as the adjective ‘cool’ is nowadays often used nominatively as a general synonym for anything that’s judged fine or excellent, highly skilled or clever or socially adept, or having great facility – though I’m told by my offspring that it’s no longer cool to use ‘cool’ in this way).

In general, prior to the 18th century, ‘evil’ functioned as the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike or disparagement, but had no theological connotations. The nearest equivalent I can think of in modern Scots is ‘bastardin’. But now it functions primarily as a noun to denote extreme moral wickedness, which is sometimes symbolised in popular culture by mythologised figures like Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Myra Hindley, Dennis Nilson, etc. and figures from literature like Satan, Mephistopheles, Voldemort, Blind Pew, and so on.

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#7 Post by Lifelinking » August 2nd, 2007, 7:32 pm

cool thread...


Some time ago I read "People of the Lie: the Hope for Healing Human Evil" by M Scott Peck


I was trying to knock together the main points that Peck was making, when I stumpled on a Wiki entry that had done the work for me http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._Scott_Peck#Evil
Evil
Scott Peck discusses evil in his book People of The Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil. He describes in some detail several individual cases involving his patients. In one, a moderately impaired neurotic patient pseudo-named George, made a 'pact with the devil' to alleviate his symptoms. As a psychiatrist Scott Peck makes an uncharacteristic moral judgement about George's therapeutic pact and was ultimately successful in treating him.

Most of his conclusions about the psychiatric condition he designates 'evil' are derived from his close study of one patient he names Charlene. Although Charlene is not dangerous, she is ultimately unable to have empathy for others in any way. According to Scott Peck, people like her see others as play things or tools to be manipulated for their uses or entertainment. Scott Peck claims that these people are rarely seen by psychiatrists and have never been treated successfully.

He gives some identifying characteristics for evil persons. Discussed below are Scott Peck's views.

Evil is described by Scott Peck as "militant ignorance". In this it is close to the original Judeo-Christian concept of "sin" as a consistent process that leads to failure to reach one's true goals.

An evil person:

Projects his or her evils and sins onto others and tries to remove them from others
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
Is unable to think from other people's viewpoints.
Most evil people realize the evil deep within themselves but are unable to tolerate the pain of introspection or admit to themselves that they are evil. Thus, they constantly run away from their evil by putting themselves in a position of moral superiority and putting the locus of evil on others. Evil is an extreme form of what Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, calls a character disorder.

In a discussion on group evil, Scott Peck talks about the My Lai Massacre tragedy during the Vietnam war:

In the spring of 1972 I was chairman of a committee of three psychiatrists appointed by the Army Surgeon General, at the request of the Chief of Staff of the Army, to make recommendations for research that might shed light on the psychological causes of MyLai, so as to help prevent such atrocities in the future. The research we proposed was rejected by the General Staff of the Army, reportedly on the grounds that it could not be kept secret and might prove embarrassing to the administration and that "further embarrassment was not desirable at that time". (Chapter 6, "MyLai: An Examination of Group Evil")
Scott Peck makes great efforts to keep much of his discussion on a scientific basis. He says that evil arises out of free choice. He describes it thus: Every person stands at a crossroads, with one path leading to God, and the other path leading to the devil. The path of God is the right path, and accepting this path is akin to submission to a higher power. However, if a person wants to convince himself and others that he has free choice, he would rather take a path which cannot be attributed to its being the right path. Thus, he chooses the path of evil.

Peck's writings on evil are to some extent based on accounts of apparent demonic possession and exorcism by Malachi Martin. However the veracity of these accounts has been questioned (see Fr. Richard Woods OP, National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005 [1]).
I quite like Peck's writing though this was an area where he was perhaps guilty of some rather muddled thinking.

I rather liked the term 'militant ignorance' though.

I wonder whether in human terms we can equate evil with a conscious and wilful absence of empathic understanding, a deliberate rejection of compassion?
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#8 Post by God » August 3rd, 2007, 11:20 pm

Lifelinking wrote:I rather liked the term 'militant ignorance' though.
Hey! I think I've been accused of promoting that somewhere. Not those exact words, but a good likenes in terms of meaning. Yeah - clayto. Re my comment about "understanding" goddists. In the ... um ... Abortion thread. No. Right to Life? Hmm :thinks:

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Evil

#9 Post by clayto » August 6th, 2007, 9:11 pm

Yes God, what you were advocating does seem to me well labelled as 'militant ignorance'! (note use of term 'seem').

Many Christians do not believe in Satan / the Devil as 'an objective reality'. When I was a Christian convert (from Buddhism) 40 years ago I can't recall meeting many Christians who saw the Devil as anything other than symbolic or a personification of Evil ---- but that was before the upsurge of modern fundamentalists / evangelicals.

Evil and Sin are not the same thing. Sin is disobeying the will of God (no not you!) and by extension the Church. Thus a person who does not keep the Sabbath is Sinful, but not Evil, being unchaste is Sinful not Evil. Evil is something which would be very bad (as some people have said, 'wicked', but is this not a synonym?) whether or not God existed. Only the most blinkered religionist would argue that mass murder and torture requires there to be a God for it to be Evil. Evil unlike Sin has an intrinsic quality and I find it one of the more objectionable claims by some religionists that non-theists cannot recognise Evil when they see it. As a Humanist I explain that I don't believe in Sin but I certainly do believe in the existence of Evil, it is all around sadly. Evil is quite widely recognised in different cultures / times for what it is, demonstrating the 'universal' humanistic understanding of what is morally right and wrong as explained by Dawkins. (This could be opening a big debate!)

As for its psychological basis for Evil, that is another issue.

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#10 Post by Compassionist » August 8th, 2007, 8:52 am

:)

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#11 Post by Lucretius » August 21st, 2007, 1:16 am

I try not to use the word evil. It suggests some kind of cosmic source that all bad things can be traced to. This is clearly not the case. As the saying goes "One persons terrorist is anothers freedom fighter". Evil is purely subjective. I think I could describe certain actions that the vast majority and even 100% of this forum would consider morally abhorrent, truly disgusting and might call it evil.

For instance take paedophilia. Today this is probably the most hated act in our society. This is clearly coming from an area of emotion because surely killing a or beating a child is worse than groping them. I would suggest that what some priests put in a childs mind(psychological abuse like at a hell camp for instance) might even be worse than certain levels of sexual abuse (sodomy obviously being more traumatic that groping). Today most people would call paedophilia evil, are these people really evil? If so, why? In ancient Greece it was common place for a boy to learn from an older man about sex and bisexuality was a norm. Evolution has created humans with a spectrum of sexuality and through history societies have demonised certain sections of this spectrum.

My point isn't to defend paedophilia but to try and state that words like good and evil are simplistic and the world is covered in shades of grey.

Governments try to use words like EVIL and TERROR to control the population through fear.
"Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." - H.L. Mencken

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"Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so

#12 Post by Compassionist » August 21st, 2007, 8:46 am

"Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so." - Shakespeare.

I would classify actions to be life-promoting or life-negating rather than good or evil.

The android Roy (Rutger Hauer) in the film 'Blade Runner' saves the life of the blade runner (Harrison Ford) even though the blade runner was trying to kill him and had killed several of his friends, including his girlfriend Pris. For me, this epitomises the height of ethics - loving your enemies. The android does the life-promoting thing even though he received life-negating actions. Of course, the android did kill Eldon Tyrell and J.F. Sebastian on Earth, as well as others in off-world colonies. So, he is not entirely life-promoting, nor is he entirely life-negating.

Yes, Lucretius, politicians often use emotive words to manipulate people.

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#13 Post by God » August 21st, 2007, 11:13 am

Lucretius wrote:I try not to use the word evil. It suggests some kind of cosmic source that all bad things can be traced to.
Like many words, the word "evil" is susceptible to misunderstanding, misuse and manipulation. I basically see it as suggesting forces of "chaos" as opposed to "order", but with the addition of the possibility of a degree of wilful malevolence. It also has the attraction of being an anagram of "live", which I think adds a certain piquancy to its meaning. I think the language would be diminished without it, but it needs to be used with care.

O gosh, I do hope that doesn't come across as "sanctimonious".

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#14 Post by Lucretius » August 21st, 2007, 11:56 am

I would suggest that no one ever has done something in the name of evil. Everyone who ever committed an "evil" act probably thought it was good.
"Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." - H.L. Mencken

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#15 Post by God » August 21st, 2007, 12:21 pm

Lucretius wrote:I would suggest that no one ever has done something in the name of evil. Everyone who ever committed an "evil" act probably thought it was good.
Ah, but they were "possessed" don't y' see? :wink:

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#16 Post by Compassionist » August 21st, 2007, 12:49 pm

:)

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#17 Post by God » August 21st, 2007, 1:03 pm

Compassionist wrote:The whites who had black slaves considered it to be 'good for the slaves'!
I do get a bit miffed about this constant harping on about "white" slave owners. Slavery has, I believe, been a fairly constant feature of most civilisations throughout history, sometime with and sometimes without skin colour differentiation between slave and owner. I don't see why I should be identified as kin to slave ownership on account of the colour of my skin.

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#18 Post by Compassionist » August 21st, 2007, 1:59 pm

:)

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#19 Post by Felicia » August 24th, 2007, 7:45 pm

I don't believe in evil. It seems like a cop out, an easy way to stop thinking about the actual issues in any situation. Take slavery - a dreadful abuse, yes, but black people had slaves too. Take paedophilia - something like 70% of paedophiles were abused as children (why else would they so confuse the age at which one has sex?). Take crime - I can't remember the statistic but it was overwhelmingly more than half that a huge proportion of our criminal classes were in care or had some other kind of deep disturbance in their childhood.

M Scott Peck is right to characterise people who lack empathy as having a character disorder and that its often incurable. There's a frightening study of psychopaths undergoing therapy and actually behaving worse when they get out, because they understand more about people's motivation and therefore how to manipulate them. There's a story about the eminent psychoanalyst Bion being asked what would Hitler have been like if he had been analysed. He thought for a while and said, he would have won the war. (I've got another take on this one, though - if, as is really the aim of therapy, Hitler had become more empathic about the Jews, he might well have won the war, because it was after all Jewish scientists who made the discoveries about atomic bombs - he really shot himself in the foot, trying to get to rid of them).

If you go a few steps further and look at what happened to such monstrous people in early childhood you might begin to approach an explanation for such aberrant behaviours. I am not saying that such people should not be locked away: clearly, we have to be protected from them. But lets not confuse keeping society safe with the idea of righteous punishment. It makes us feel better to view the other as evil, bad, reprehensible or whatever. Then we can feel we're not so bad. This is group psychology, and is particularly endemic in religious societies, who are so excellent at looking down on others. Where I do not agree with Scott Peck is his idea of free will, that people can make a choice about what they do. I admit that it feels like we're making choices, but what happens is surely dictated by the combination of the genes we inherited and what ever we've experienced in our lives. Nothing else is possible. We operate at the point of a pyramid of experience and actually there is no choice ; we do what our experience and genes lead us to do.

So, for many reasons, I think the word evil belongs to fairytales and religions. Its just too simplistic.

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#20 Post by Lucretius » August 25th, 2007, 5:37 am

Things like mistrust, jealousy, competitiveness, greed, manipulation, lust, and anger are all things innate our species. These aren't social institutions due for reformation. As soon as we understand this we can study the parts of our humanity which we find morally abhorrent. Study them and better understand them. Calling things good and evil is simplistic indeed.
"Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats." - H.L. Mencken

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