Why Call It Evil?

An interesting fact about evil, according to experts, is that it wasn’t so bad when it was young.  In fact, the root of ‘evil’, the Indo-European “upelo,” merely meant “exceeding proper bounds.”  Even in Old English, ‘evil’ was used as a fairly bland, general-purpose negative word, encompassing very nasty things or behavior, but also applied where today, we would probably use “bad”, “defective”, or “unpleasant.” The use of ‘evil’ to mean exclusively “extreme moral depravity or wickedness” only arose in the 19th Century.  Word Detective.

From the Online Etymology Dictionary-Old English “yfel” – “bad vicious, ill, wicked, (coming from Proto-Germanic words, like ubilaz). The sense of the word today, extreme moral wickedness became common in the 18th Century.

This lecture will consider the concept of evil and how it is defined. We shall interrogate what evil is and if contemporary people should even use the word.  Evil is a contested word in the present day, particularly in secular quarters. To some atheists, “evil” is a word that seems medieval, dramatic and naïve. They are of the opinion it should not be employed any longer.  There is also the question whether “evil” conveys a concept that is exclusively religious or supernaturally “loaded.” Some thinkers are beginning to query whether “evil” exists and if it is real.

Other thinkers, including secular philosophers and psychologists, insist that “evil” exists, in the same way that the words honest or courage exist.  Still others believe that “evil” is a character trait and a moral property of certain acts.

I intend to provide short accounts of what various world religions regard as evil and how they believe it came into the world. I shall be glancing at what many philosophers agree are two main types of evil, with some subgroups attached.  The lecture will return to the topic raised in an earlier lecture, “Arguments for and against the Existence of god,” at AtheistScholar.org. The philosophical and moral disputes between theist and atheist thinkers about what is generally termed, “The Problem of Evil” have not waned with the coming of modernity.  The existence of god is a vitally important issue, since most thinkers agree that certain types of evil exist in the world.  Questions are consequently raised concerning how evil came into the world and why such an all powerful being does not act to prevent it. Such issues have given rise to debates, books, speeches and articles from both sides of the divide. The lecture will conclude with interrogating whether the term, “evil,” is a romanticized concept that masks the often explicable character and motives of those who commit extremely heinous acts.

Here is Luke Russell from his 2014 Evil: A Philosophical Investigation. It is important to keep in mind as we proceed that the “common core of most philosophical accounts of evil action is the claim that all evil actions are extreme culpable wrongs.”When thinkers move beyond that core definition, there is considerable disagreement about when an action can be called evil.

Russell has separated accounts of evil into two separate categories, which he calls psychologically thick and psychologically thin views of evil. Most of the philosophers who have addressed the problem of evil fall into one of these two camps.  Hannah Arendt is the best known advocate for the psychologically thin view of evil. She held the idea that for an action to be deemed evil, it must be an extremely culpable wrong. Many philosophers are of the opinion that the thin definition is sufficient. But some philosophers, such as Colin McGinn and Hillel Steiner, are apologists for a disparate view of evil that may be termed a psychologically thicker one.

Such “thick” philosophers argue that an action is evil only if it is both an extreme culpable wrong and meets extra psychological conditions as well. They maintain that an act must not only be an extremely culpable wrong but that it must be accompanied by such conditions as malice, sadistic pleasure, knowing defiance and so on. Thick accounts trouble me because the extra conditions imposed are sometimes not part of an extremely culpable act. For example, Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor and author, stated that Rudolph Hoess, the commander of Auschwitz, “…never enjoyed inflicting pain or killing: he was no sadist.” But Hoess would seem to be a supreme example of an evil man ordering evil acts- he was the man in charge of a Nazi camp that systematically murdered Jews. By considering Arendt’s views, Hoess’ acts could be considered evil. If one accepts the psychologically thick view, his actions must be considered culpably wrong and criminal, but not evil.

Luke Russell believes that there are eight common intuitions about evil. 

The first is that saying an action is evil is a means of expressing very strong moral condemnation of that action. Number two is that evil actions are morally wrong. Number three is that the person who performs an evil action is blameworthy and properly held responsible for that action. Number four is that evil actions are extreme and never merely trivial. The fifth intuition is that evil actions are incomprehensible. (This fifth category is problematical- if one looks deeply enough, evil actions often become completely comprehensible.) The sixth intuition is that evil actions can be banal. The seventh is that there is a psychological hallmark of evil actions, and the eighth is that evil actions are qualitatively distinct from ordinary wrongs.

As we consider the question of evil, it is important to keep in mind that most evil persons who commit unconscionable acts do not understand their actions as morally culpable. A torturer may see himself as performing acts necessary to gain information or intimidate rebels.  He may believe that he is serving the higher goal of protecting his country. Parents who beat their children, sometimes to death, see themselves as trying to save their children’s souls and keep them from going to hell. It is quite possible to carry out acts that most people consider evil in pursuit of a goal, from the idealistic one of trying to protect one’s religion or political party to the banal one of trying to relieve boredom.

Luke Russell has offered a concise and inclusive definition of evil that is worth considering. He contends that “…all evil actions are connected in at least one of a specifiable variety of ways to actual or possible extreme harms.” He goes on to argue “… the actual or possible harms need not be maximally harmful or so extreme as to be life-wrecking.”

Russell believes that we can be guided by our own intuition on a case by case basis, with some reference to the spectrum of harms. The lack of more specificity is troublesome, but he believes that it is necessary because it is sometimes difficult to separate evil acts from egregiously wrongful ones.

Let me elaborate on Russell’s ideas with a few examples. Most people consider murder an evil action. But the social scientist, Howard Becker, has pointed out in his 2014 book, What About Mozart? What About Murder?, that murder cannot always be considered evil. He states that while he was discussing definitions of deviants and deviant groups, a colleague challenged his position. This man asked Becker: “What about murder?,” claiming that murder was deviant behavior. But Russell and Becker point out that there are many types of killing that are nearly always exempt from the concept of murder.  Such exemptions are usually extended to slaying enemies during warfare, when a soldier kills for his country. There is killing committed to save another person’s life or one’s own life. There are many thinkers who define certain kinds of killing as justifiable homicide. They would not label such justifiable homicides as either evil or wrong.  I would agree.

Torture is another contested action.  Most people would agree that gratuitous torture is wrong. But if the word, gratuitous, is removed from the concept of torture, thinkers diverge. There are those who believe that torture undertaken to elicit information about an imminent attack on a city is morally correct, or reprehensible but necessary. Others argue that such a scenario would be very unlikely.

A terrorist, say, would quite likely lie if he believed that an attack committed by his group was about to take place almost immediately.  According to experts, however, this proposed scenario belongs more to the world of film and television than to reality, and so becomes moot.

Todd Calder brings up the difficulty of labeling an action with an unworthy motive behind it as evil, although it is morally wrong. He calls one such example, “the case of the Malicious Hirer.” Say that a person in charge of personnel at a charity hires a qualified candidate over another well-qualified candidate because the first candidate is a celebrity who has the potential to bring more money to the charity.  In some quarters, this act might be considered a choice to bring about a greater good.

But now Calder changes the scenario to be considered. What if the head of personnel hires one well qualified person over another well qualified person solely for the purpose of causing the rejected candidate to suffer? Calder believes that such a motive rises to the level of evil.  I would not agree. I consider such an act unjust, unfair, petty and reprehensible, but not evil.  Other actions that many people would consider morally wrong but not evil are lying to get out of jury duty, shoplifting, malicious gossip and so on. Card presents the case of people who have been implicated in the perpetration of “… evil on others, by cooperating with their oppressors.” Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps during World War II sometimes had the job of preparing other prisoners for death in the gas chambers. Card finds their actions blameworthy but not evil.  I agree.

It may be seen from the examples I have just provided how difficult it is to label an action as evil rather than immoral, deplorable, blameworthy, despicable and so on.  If you recall from an earlier lecture, “Atheist Ethics,” at AtheistScholar.org, there are two important views with regard to unethical behavior or acts. Before we continue with the discussion of evil, I would like to discuss the two schools that most ethicists embrace.  Their definitions encompass most acts, from those are considered evil, to those that are blameworthy and unethical. The 18th Century philosopher, Kant, was a deontologist.  He argued that a lie, even to help another person, is always wrong. A consequentialist, such as the 19th Century John Stuart Mill, was of the opinion that an act should be judged by its consequences.

For example, consequentialists claim that a lie told to detour terrorists from chasing and killing an innocent person, should not be considered wrong.  But deontological ethicists would counter their claim with the following argument.  Say that I am in a house where I believe an innocent person is also in residence.  Terrorists arrive looking for him and I tell them he has just left, and that he may be found up the street.  Unbeknownst to me, the innocent person has left the house.  If terrorists look for him in the street, find and murder him, deontologists would claim that I was responsible for his death because of my well-meaning, but unethical, lie. But would I be considered evil? Would my act be considered evil? In some quarters, I would be considered morally wrong rather than evil.

But now let us return to the question of evil. I mentioned earlier that one of the intuitive beliefs about an evil act or a person who commits an evil act is incorrect. 

The belief that an extremely culpable act is inexplicable or that the perpetrator who commits it is incomprehensible is not correct.  A few evil acts may be unfathomable, such as the murders committed by serial killers. But the majority of acts that people consider evil are explainable, even if the reasons for committing them are inexcusable.  It is important to keep in mind through this lecture that explanation is not justification. We shall see that there are reasons for the commission of most acts that are considered evil. There are patriotic reasons, religious reasons, ideological reasons and personal reasons for committing atrocities. The wrong doers have what they consider are perfectly good justifications and cite them when they are brought to justice and questioned.  We shall be discussing the intelligibility of evil actions when we consider whether the word, “evil,” should be used, especially by secular thinkers. But for the present, I would like to list the two most important classifications of evil, along with two of their subgroups.

There are two primary types of evil. The first is moral evil, which is an umbrella term for all willful acts of human beings, such as murder, rape, genocide and so on. The second type is natural evil, which refers to all natural disasters such as famines, floods, earthquakes and any disasters not committed by humans. Some thinkers believe that since natural occurrences are neutral, caused by physical phenomena of some sort or other, they should not be included under the category of evil.

Then there are two sub types, which derive from moral and natural evil. The first is physical evil, which includes physical pain or mental anguish, such as fear or grief. 

The second is metaphysical evil, which includes what may be called imperfections and chance. Imperfections include either mental or physical deformities and chance includes such evils as the guilty going unpunished. One view of god held by some religions creates a significant dilemma, which is called The Problem of Evil. The belief in a god which is all-loving, all powerful, omniscient and morally perfect as opposed to what humans can observe about the imperfections of their social and natural world creates grave dissonance.

Before I turn to the arguments between theists and secular philosophers about the Problem of Evil, I would like to explore the explanations given for evil by several of the world’s religions.  The religions may be subdivided into three major categories- dharmic, dualistic and monotheistic. Pantheist or dharmic religions generally regard evil as unreal. The dictates of karma (see Immortality at AtheistScholar.org) are responsible for the suffering of people’s present lives because of their former ignorance and accumulations of suffering in previous existences. Dualistic religions generally believe that good and evil are two opposite entities, and that one did not create the other. Good and evil are rivals and each acts according to its own nature. Monotheistic religions usually personify evil. They frequently locate its source in an entity or being which falls from its good status because of misusing free will , and on account of some negative character trait, such as pride, rebellion or envy.  

Hinduism believes in many different views of evil, with varied scriptural explanations. The Upanishads embody a pantheistic view of the world, and make use of karma to explain evil.

Karma is brought about by ignorance and it is karma that causes suffering. One’s ignorant acts from past lives cause an accumulation of karma that will create suffering of some sort in the present. Since this particular Hindu view is that the beginning and end of the world is cosmic and eternal, evil is also considered eternal and suffering must be born. If one successfully attains enlightenment one breaks the cycle of eternal rebirth and attains some sort of merging with the eternal.

Buddhism is somewhat different in its view of evil. It rejects the definition of the Upanishads, the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. Buddhism thinks of evil as stemming from the process of constant becoming. It is a continuation of ignorance, a failure to realize the world is not permanent and that the self is an illusion. Those illusions lead to constant suffering. The Buddha proclaimed that the whole of existence was suffering.

Dualistic religions such as Zoroastrianism locate evil as an equally powerful entity with good. Both good and evil are eternal and in conflict. They both created the world and humans must choose the good, which must defeat evil continually. Gnosticism and its various outgrowths were religions which were dualistic and were considered heresies by the Catholic Church. But they were originally Christian.

Christianity views god as an all powerful being, the creator of everything but not of evil.  The birth of evil is generally located in the world of angels, created ex nihilo, out of nothing, by god in time immemorial and with free will. According to Christian scriptures, angels had mind, feeling and will. They were not limited to a physical body. 

An angel, Lucifer, was proud and wanted to be more powerful than his created status- he wanted to be as god. So he and all his angel conspirators were thrown out of heaven.  It was Lucifer who brought evil into the world, not god.  We shall be discussing the Problem of Evil and man’s free will later in the lecture. With regard to Christianity, evil is the privation of good.

In Judaism, evil comes about through man’s bad actions, but it is understood that god has created both for his own purposes. Satan tests human beings, accuses them, and is not a powerful force.  He is under god. Nevertheless, his temptations are a danger. People can choose between good and evil with their free will.  In Judaism, full responsibility comes at about age thirteen for boys (bar mitzvah) and about twelve for girls. There is much emphasis placed on following’s god’s commandments and obedience to the various collective religious laws. Those laws are compiled in the Torah, Talmud and other scriptures. Natural evil comes about by disobedience to such laws.

In Islam, Satan is not an angel, but is considered a jinn. Jinns are a race of supernatural creatures. When god ordered Satan to bow before Adam, he refused. Islam believes that evil arises when a person chooses to follow his own will rather than to submit to god’s will. It is understood that while Satan may tempt the believers, the faithful must, with their own free will, reject him. Human victory over evil will allow people to enter paradise. There are some clerics who say that there is no genuine evil, but that humans think it exists because they do not understand the working out of god’s design. Submission to god’s will is necessary rather than attempting to puzzle out god’s intentions.

Please keep in mind that my description of some of the major religions’ beliefs is attenuated due to time constraints. There are many sects and theologians within the perimeters of each faith who hold slightly different views or opinions about many issues, including the Problem of Evil. The bibliography at the end of this lecture has references listed for more comprehensive information and the Web contains some worthy discussions about the Problem of Evil. 

The confrontation with evil, which often involves suffering, is frequently what causes humans to reflect on the meaning of life. So the question of evil, in all its various manifestations, is a touchstone in most religions. However, none of the religions have produced a satisfactory answer about human suffering and evil, so the issue continues to be discussed, debated and written about by religious theologians, atheist thinkers and philosophers.

The concept of the Christian god, a being who is considered by its believers to be all beneficent and morally perfect, omniscient and all powerful, necessarily gives rise to the expectation that he would not create evil or allow evil to triumph over good. Christian hopes are centered on such a notion of god, along with the expectation that death is not the end of human existence. There is also the hope that not only will evil not be allowed to triumph, but that justice will prevail in the end.

Atheists and atheist philosophers, seeing the various evils that have flourished in the past, and that continue to create misery and suffering in the present, have concluded that god does not exist. 

Michael Tooley, an atheist philosopher, argues that just because the argument from evil is so often based on the perfect conception of god, does not mean it must be confined to that supposition. (Furthermore, he believes that, properly formulated, the argument from evil may also tell against a wide range of possible deities with finite knowledge and power who are less than perfectly good.)

There are two strong arguments against the existence of god, the deductive one, which is very well known, and an inductive one. The inductive argument, which I shall discuss in a few minutes, is less striking, but it appears to be more logical and convincing in the final analysis. I shall explain why, but first I would like to focus on the deductive argument concerning the problem of evil.

The first argument vis-à-vis evil and the existence of god has been attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus (341 -270 BCE), and then elaborated on by later thinkers. At present the argument is usually stated in this way. Since god is, by definition, morally perfect, he will want to prevent evil.  Because of his omniscience, he will also know about any evil about to come into existence.  Being omnipotent, he will have the power to prevent evil.  Therefore, if god exists, he will be willing and able to prevent evil. The argument concludes with the statement that if god exists, there will not be any evil. But since evil does exist, it is obvious that god does not exist.

Epicurus went further, and argued that if an all powerful god could prevent evil and chose not to, he would be evil himself.

If god chose to prevent evil and could not, he would be weak, not omnipotent. According to that argument, if one chooses belief, one must accept a weak or evil god.

Deductive formulations carry the assumption that “no evil is ever logically necessary for some good state of affairs that outweighs it.” But the claim is not necessarily true. Some theists argue that evil is necessary and the world is a better place for its existence. With evil and subsequent suffering, they insist, people will have an opportunity to develop character and courage. Theists argue that if all evil were eliminated, the world would be an infinitely worse place because humans would not have the opportunity to develop those positive traits.

Such an explanation is not very convincing, but theists state that logically there may be cases where the necessity for a greater good outweighs the occurrence of evil.  That is why the Problem from Evil becomes challenging for atheists when they argue from the deductive point of view. The inductive, more often called the evidential, or probabilistic argument, is the more telling contention. It is the more modest claim that some evils that exist in the world make the probability of god’s existence very small.

The secular position involves two claims which the theist must respond to. The first claim is that there are enough facts about evil in the world to make a prima facie case that the existence of god is unlikely. Tooley carries the argument one step further in this manner: “… the situation is not altered when information about such facts is conjoined with all the other things that one is justified in believing.

The existence of god, therefore, is also unlikely relative to the totality of what one is justified in believing.”

The theist will often refute both statements. Atheists often argue that when all facts concerning evil are combined with everything else we are justified in believing, there is a very low likelihood that god exists. But there are theist thinkers who go so far as to make the sweeping claim that there are no facts that make it likely that god does not exist. That point of view is generally titled total repudiation, and theists typically mount two rejections of the secular, or atheist, position. Their first approach is the development of various arguments that attempt to prove that for every evil found in the world, every one, some state of affairs that exists makes it necessary, or morally sufficient for god, omniscient and all powerful, to allow evil to be in the world. 
There is a second, less drastic approach taken by theist thinkers, which is to claim a defense, which usually consists of the argument that there is a likelihood that there are facts which would justify such an all powerful being to allow evil to exist in the world.  A defense is easier to undertake, because it only states that we likely do not know what the reasons might be. A defense is different from a theodicy in that a theodicy attempts to specify what that god’s reasons might be. It is a more difficult justification, but some theologians have attempted it.  We shall be glancing at both of these positions shortly to see if they are sound.

I would now like to go over some of the arguments which are total repudiations of the Problem of Evil. Alvin Plantinga, Charles Hartshorne, and Norman Malcolm are some of the well- regarded theists who purport to believe the ontological argument for the existence of god is sound. 

The notion was first conceived by Anselm in 1078 CE and consists of the claim that the human mind can conceive of an all-powerful, omniscient and morally perfect bring but cannot conceive of a being greater than that. No matter what body of evidence provided, the ontological argument would claim that there is zero probability of god’s non existence.

I have always personally believed the ontological argument unsound. The thinkers who reject that argument are not all atheists. Guanilo, an 11th Century theist, mounted an interesting refutation of the ontological argument. He said that one could conjure up notions of a perfect island, a perfect unicorn and so on, as well as a perfect being. The human mind can conceive ideas of perfect things, such as unicorns, which do not exist in reality. Atheist thinkers have added to Guanilo’s objections. They state that one can imagine a perfect solvent and at the same time imagine there is a perfectly insoluble substance. Note that arguments like the solvent are as logically correct as the ontological argument and yet they generate contradictions. Therefore non-believers find the ontological argument unsound.

The second rejection is that there exists “no best of all possible worlds.”Theists agree that this world of ours is not the best one, that ours contains evil. But they maintain that fact is not a good argument for denying that an all powerful, omniscient being that is also morally perfect, does not exist. They claim that for every possible good world, there exists a better one. For atheists, the fact that there might be better worlds without limit is irrelevant.

They state that there is evil in this world, with its attendant suffering, and maintain that it would be morally wrong for an omniscient, all powerful and perfectly moral god to permit such a state of affairs. Moreover, why would a being, perfect in all ways, make various worlds and keep having to improve them?  Such a tinkering god appears to be less than perfect and all powerful.

The last significant refutation is a popular one among theologians and theist philosophers. The argument of human epistemological limitations is one of the best rejections. It proceeds in this manner. Suppose there are evils that exist in this world that, judged by human moral standards of right and wrong, would be morally wrong for an omniscient, all powerful and morally perfect being to allow. However there might well be, and probably are, morally perfect reasons for allowing such evils to exist which humans are unaware of. There is a strong likelihood that the perfect being has reasons which we are unable, with our human epistemological limitations, to perceive or understand. The atheist thinker will counter that since we humans cannot discover or see the justifications for evil in the world, how are we then able to believe there are justifications?  Can a sound atheist claim can be made that there are no god-justifying reasons for evils that lie beyond the scope of human cognition? I shall discuss this question presently.

I would now like to turn to the theistic defenses for the problem of evil. They involve the same claim we have just discussed- that there are sufficient reasons to justify that every gratuitous-seeming evil might be necessary. We do not know the reasons that the perfect being has for allowing evil.

As I mentioned earlier, the defenses against the Problem of Evil are less difficult to argue because they do not need to specify what that being’s reasons might be.

Defenses raised by theists usually involve stating that there are such a large number of arguments on their side that even if they do not prove god’s existence, still provide excellent evidence for it.  They argue that such cumulative positive evidence outweighs the negative when considering the Problem of Evil. What is the rationale behind that sweeping claim? They can then insist that atheists must examine all the evidence for the existence of god, especially the traditional evidence, and prove every argument unsound. The fact that atheists do just that does not seem to daunt them.  Many continue to pretend that secular thinkers have not disproved all the evidence for god’s existence.

Let me use Alvin Plantinga as an example of such a disingenuous approach. Plantinga insists that “He (the atheist thinker) would be obliged to consider all the sorts of reasons natural theologians have invoked in favor of theistic belief- the traditional cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments, for example.” But as Michael Tooley contends, many of the traditional arguments for the existence of god have nothing to do with the Problem from Evil. The standard arguments for the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, or even the Necessary Being, make no claim about the moral perfection of that being. The claim that the order of the universe is proof of god’s existence does not hold up either. The universe we humans observe, with its mixture of good and evil, chance and contingency, does not offer support for a morally perfect, even a very good creator. The same is true of purported miracles and of religious experiences.

They are not veridical and therefore do not provide evidence for a defense of god’s existence. Atheists have easily turned back such arguments.  Theist defenses and refutations all fail.

Now I would like to turn to some theodicies. Plantinga states that in the last analysis, most theodicies strike him as “tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.” One popular, but wrongheaded theodicy concerns natural laws. Theists state that if humans are to have decisive actions, events in the world must take place in a regular way. Regularity can only come about through natural laws. Natural laws give rise to events harmful to humans. While natural laws do give rise to natural evils, they are justified because a world without natural laws would be much worse than our present world.

Notice this theodicy makes no attempt to explain moral evil, which does not arise from natural laws. But the claim that a perfect being could not change the boundary conditions, or initial conditions, of the physical world, is ridiculous. A world could have been created without non-human carnivores and humans could have been created vegetarians. That would have eliminated much non-human suffering. The same excuse has been proffered by theists to account for animal suffering and predation- that it would be impossible to make a physical world without such conditions.  A perfect being could have created an infinite plane where populations expanded, as well as the natural resources.  A perfect being could have created a world without horrible pain or viruses, and so on.

A second important theodicy places great emphasis on libertarian free will.

Claims are made that such free will is vitally important for humans to possess, that with it they are able to choose whether to perform good or evil actions. Theists argue that human choice, the choice to do right, should be outside the power of god. So they conclude, it was better for god to create a world where humans have free will. Aside from the difficulty of ultimately defining free will, most people would say that it is a moral imperative to intervene when a person is about to commit, or is committing a grave evil.  Therefore why would a morally perfect creator either not intervene at such moments, or better yet, create a world where people did have free will, but no power to torture or kill people? A final failure of this theodicy is that it does not take into account natural evils, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and so on, as well as most diseases.

C.S.Lewis and Plantinga have made some suggestions to the effect that what appears to be natural evil may be due to the immoral actions of supernatural beings. But did god then give those beings free will as well as the desire and the power to create horrendous evil, suffering and death? This argument is very unsound.  It makes no sense, even when mounting a defense of the importance of libertarian free will. The probability of the existence of earthquakes, volcanoes and animal suffering being caused by malevolent supernatural beings is extremely low.

Theodicies such as the one John Hicks has framed are as unsatisfactory as the ones we have just perused. Hicks and other theists make a claim that involves libertarian free will and spiritual growth.

Hicks argues that people have been placed in a world designed by god, with all its attendant evils, as an opportunity for such spiritual growth as to make them ultimately fit for “communion with god.” Hicks then attempts to demonstrate that since soul-making is an excellent thing, god is justified in creating a world that would make that happen. He states that our world is indeed designed to bring soul-making about.  So he is able to conclude that if we view evils as a problem it is because we desire what he terms a world that is a hedonistic paradise, which is a totally mistaken idea.

This theodicy does not stand up to scrutiny. Why is it necessary for humans to undergo horrendous suffering for soul-enrichment? Such suffering, even at the end of life, falls equally on people of excellent moral character as well as vicious moral character. The claim makes no mention of people born with extensive disabilities and no thinking brain to process their suffering condition. How can we assume that they will attain soul-enrichment? People die young, without the chance to develop excellent moral characters; children suffer, either from disease, adult wickedness or natural conditions, and often die without being able to develop a moral characters and so on. The soul-enrichment argument is not sound.

Hicks’ theodicy does not take into account animal suffering and predation.  Why has a world been created that contains such evils? Murray, in order to defend animal suffering and predation, argues that a physical world could not have been created without such afflictions. He tries to minimize animal pain by claiming that animals do not have a developed pre-frontal cortex like humans and he hints that they do not suffer as much pain. 

This claim involves specious and incorrect reasoning. It is a cruel theodicy, and like the others, does not make sense under scrutiny.

Now I would like to turn to the inductive argument for the non existence of god.  It makes a more modest claim than the deductive one, and yet it is not easily refuted by theists.  Please keep in mind as I follow Tooley’s excellent development of the argument, that he grants certain points to theist claims. He is not engaging in an apology for them. Rather, he is endeavoring to make the argument clear.  I am most gratefully indebted to Tooley’s article and discussion.  He points out at the very beginning that there are two properties of which we humans might have no knowledge- the right-making ones, and the wrong-making ones.

Tooley states two claims: (1) “…that there are cases, say, of a young girl being brutally beaten and murdered, where the action of doing so is seriously wrong and not counter balanced by any right we are aware of. But the question is whether we are justified in an inductive move from this claim to conclude that an additional claim is true. (2) There are cases where allowing a young girl to be brutally beaten and murdered where the wrong- doing properties of allowing this murder, both known and unknown, are not counter balanced by any right, both known and unknown.  If we follow this inductive argument, we can infer that god, at least as defined as perfectly powerful, omniscient and perfectly moral, does not exist.  It is not likely that any god exists.

Tooley points out that it might be true that we humans do not know what he has called the right-making properties and wrong-making properties of an action.

But here is what we do know. If we knowingly allow a brutal murder to take place, “…we would be doing something that possessed a wrong-making feature, an event that would make the failure to intervene morally wrong, and seriously so.” “But,” he states, “when we humans contemplate such occurrences {such as murder}, none of the right-making properties that we are familiar with are both present and sufficiently weighty to make it morally permissible for one not to have intervened, if one could have done so.” 

According to theists, we cannot know the motives, in other words god’s motives for this action, which Tooley calls A, allowing a young girl to be brutally murdered. He states that there are four possibilities to be considered.  (1) Action A, allowing the killing, has both unknown properties, wrong and right, so they will cancel out, and A will be considered by humans to be morally wrong. (2) A might have the unknown right-making property but not the unknown wrong-making property. In that case, and we shall see it is the only case, A may be morally permissible.  (3) Action A has the unknown wrong-making property but not the unknown right-making one. So the Action A, the killing of the girl is very wrong. (4) It is even possible that A does not have either of the unknown morally significant properties, right-making or wrong-making. In this case, A, the killing of the young girl, is “morally wrong to precisely the degree that it initially appeared to be.”

Tooley then points out that if only one of the possibilities we have just discussed can be morally wrong, the probability that it is not morally wrong is shown to be less than half.

With a second possibility found to be morally wrong by human judgment, the probability that the action is not morally wrong is less than one third. Now take all the events that are allowed to happen in the world that are morally wrong, and we shall see that this observation calculates to one conclusion. Since our odds go up with each event, the odds of the possibility that god exists are very low. 

Remember that not only are the events that are morally wrong an extremely high number, so is the population of the world, which at this writing, is about seven billion. Nevertheless the possibility that theists will be convinced with such logical proof is extremely low.  Logic is not a strong point among religious believers.  (For people interested in a more involved discussion on the Problem of Evil by Tooley, please see the Bibliography at the end of the lecture at AtheistScholar.org for the reference to his excellent lecture.)

Now I would like to turn to the discussion of evil by two contemporary thinkers. We shall discover how far certain contemporary psychological and philosophical discussions of evil have taken us from the god dilemma involved in the Problem of Evil. Many modern thinkers have advanced from harboring the simplistic notion of an all powerful being involved in the creation of evil, or believing that an evil adversary of that being gave rise to evil in the world.  Roy Baumeister’s 1999 Inside Human Violence and Suffering, is concerned with the problem of human suffering, or what we have termed, moral evil.  

Baumeister states: “The prototypes of human evil involve actions that intentionally harm other people- that is the focus of my book.”

He omits genuine insanity as well as natural evil in his discussion. He believes that genuine insanity is relatively rare and seldom the cause of violence.  Instead of using the term, temporary insanity, he speaks about loss of control due to emotional distress as a motivation for violence.  Please keep in mind during this portion of the lecture, that explanation is not justification. I cannot repeat this caution enough. Baumeister’s observations are attempts at explaining moral evil and not in any sense justification for such acts.

The psychologist also interrogates the term, “evil”, and like many other contemporary thinkers, finds it too grandiose. He states that he uses it because it is a traditional term. However he believes that there are many petty cruelties and minor transgressions in everyday life that involve deliberate interpersonal harm, the kind that he is examining in his book. Baumeister is a master at eliminating any romantic notions concerning evil and his book offers a thorough deconstruction of the word.

The writer makes some interesting observations. For example, he believes that much of the immediate cause of violence committed by people results from the breakdown of their inner controls. He states that it is not necessary to come up with new reasons for violence because humans already have plenty of reasons.  He argues that just because evil seems to have increased does not mean that it has become more powerful or exigent.

Rather, he thinks that when the self-restraints of people are weakened in some manner, an increase in violence results. He is of the opinion there is a possibility that conditions in the modern world have changed and that the inner controls are not as strong for some people. He argues that evil, or violence, is a combination of nature and nurture, that one cannot be prized over the other.

When evil is deconstructed and deprived of dramatic romanticizing, the rather prosaic reasons for its existence emerge. That is Baumeister’s purpose in writing his volume. His goal is to show causal motivations for evil rather than engaging in moral analysis. He wants to discover the causes and motivations for the harm done by one human being to another one. He does not invoke the supernatural.

The author makes an important observation. The magnitude of the evil committed is much higher in the eyes of the victim and much lower in the perpetrator. Say I am robbed at gunpoint of my money and some personal valuables.  I have lost personal items important to me, felt violated and afraid, and might have long-lasting psychological after effects even though I did not suffer physical injury. The odds are high that I will believe that the robbery was an evil of great magnitude.  The robber, however, has not received much actual value by robbing me.  It is important to keep in mind that most offenders are trying to get money for personal expenses, drugs and other reasons. They have practical reasons for holding a gun on someone. They are not usually interested in frightening their victims, except to achieve their aims.

The person who robbed me might spend the cash he stole, but the personal items, like jewelry, will bring him much less profit.  He also faces the moderately high risk of being apprehended and serving time in jail for his offense.

 I, since I am the victim, am committed to seeing the robber incarcerated for a very long period. The perpetrator, who has not achieved much gain from his act, thinks what he did was a small thing.  He did not harm me physically and he achieved little personal reward.  He does not believe he deserves any jail time at all. There is great disparity between how a victim or a perpetrator describes an evil, or morally wrong, act.  Fortunately the law is on the side of the victim.  But Baumeister’s observation is important.  Perpetrators often do not see themselves or their acts as evil.  That is true as much for government officials who order genocide as it is for small-time robbers.

During the lecture, I am going to avoid graphic description of evils done to humans by other humans. The press reports such occurrences regularly and descriptions can be a distraction from the discussion of evil. They are “loaded” and misleading.  Commentators in print, on television and the web frequently describe violent acts as evil, inhuman, depraved and so on.  Many thinkers, Baumeister included, believe that this is the way most of us distance ourselves from culpability.  The use of negative adjectives suggests that such acts are somehow unrelated to human behavior and are deviations of the most heinous type. Religions also describe violent actions with hyperbole and overcharged horror, sometimes making the claim that Satan inspired them.

Despite my avoidance of specific descriptions of evils done by humans to other humans, I do want to speak about an incident in Colorado in the 1860’s during the Indian Wars. This story has been quoted by the historian David Stannard. A cavalry major reporting to Congress at that time told the members the following story. A group of soldiers attacked an Indian village one day during the wars. It was half-empty, and the remaining residents were old people, women and children. The inhabitants promptly ran away, and a small boy of about three years old was running just behind them, trying to keep up. The major watched one cavalryman get off his horse, aim at the child, shoot and miss. The child at that point was about 75 yards away. A second soldier came up, said: “Let me try the son-of-a-bitch; I can hit him.” He shot from a kneeling position and missed.  A third solider expressed “…confidence: he could hit the child.”  He shot and the little boy dropped dead.

Baumeister is not telling the story, outrageous and upsetting as it is, to focus on the victim, a little child whose life was cut short by meaningless violence. What he is attempting to do is focus on the perpetrators.  He explains that they were not enraged, not sadists, not satanic evil-doers, but average young males.  The psychologist believes that several elements motivated their violent act. He states that they were attempting to carry out a routine task, that they were devoid of empathy and moral reflection and that a large motivation for them was egotism.  Furthermore, he believes that the routine task they were performing contained an element of boredom. They had become used to killing Indians during the wars. 

Baumeister emphasizes that the primary motivation of the soldiers was ego. Each one wanted to prove that he was the best marksman.  At some point, the fact that the target was an innocent child became irrelevant. The little boy was merely a bull’s-eye that each man felt it was necessary to hit. How else could they prove who was the surest marksman? The success of being the best shooter was all important to each man. The child had been dehumanized.

Research studies have shown that the first time a person commits a violent act he or she frequently becomes very upset. Many people develop symptoms such as nightmares, vomiting and so on. But with each repetition of violence, the perpetrator becomes less upset and more engaged with performing the task properly. It is important to keep in mind that people who must perform tasks that involve murder function better if they do not feel emotion. Sensitive perpetrators, as I have mentioned, frequently feel nausea, experience insomnia and suffer from a variety of other symptoms. The cavalry soldiers were not sadists; they were testing their prowess on a dehumanized target. They had probably killed, or tried to kill, numerous Indians. They had been ordered to and the killing had become routine. To dignify their likely boredom and moral vacuity with the romantic designation of evil is to do injustice to the term. The men who committed this terrible act were rather ordinary, bored and desensitized killers. One can see in this tale what a misnomer the word, “evil”, is when used to describe unconscionable acts.

Baumeister’s book discusses what he calls the Myth of Pure Evil.  Here are some of the erroneous assumptions he says people make about evil.

 It is important to keep in mind that such assumptions are very different from the actual causes of violence. People believe that the harm inflicted on other people by a perpetrator is intentional and, an important point, driven by the wish to inflict harm for the pleasure of doing so. There is also the belief that the victim is always innocent and good. But researchers have found that most violence is an escalating conflict between two antagonists.

Here are more falsehoods about wrongdoing. Evil, in popular mythology, is always outside our own group. It has existed from time immemorial and evil people are born that way. People think of evil as the antithesis of order, peace and stability. That is one reason that experts believe natural phenomena came to be regarded as evil- such occurrences as earthquakes, storms, tornadoes and so on brought harm and chaos when they happened. The last two myths are somewhat closer to the truth than the other categories. It is believed that evil people have high self-esteem. In Christianity, this belief might stem from the manner in which Satan is romantically pictured, as an angel who would “rather be first in hell” than under the yoke of god. Finally, there is a popular belief that evil people have difficulty maintaining control over their feelings, particularly rage and anger. The last two popular beliefs are often correct, but the other notions are very far off the mark.

Baumeister has read many studies of evil behavior and he has concluded that there are people who truly enjoy hurting others and creating chaos.  The best approximate figure any expert is able to assign to the prevalence of so-called evil people is about five percent of most populations.

Given that the world contains about seven billion people, five percent is quite a large number of individuals who are sadistic and who act on their feelings. But it is still a much smaller number than can account for all the violence, harm and chaos that people inflict on each other.

Many serial killers are sadistic, for example, so they might fit into the five percent mentioned. However, the latest information to come from experts who have studied these killers for decades is very disappointing. They have found no real explanation for the serial killers’ actions. The perpetrators themselves do not understand their own motivations and the experts have not discovered or understood them either.  Many serial killers do kill for the pleasure in their victims’ pain. But that is also why their violence often escalates. Their pleasure is often short-lived and unsatisfactory. 

Baumeister discusses torturers and their motivations. To gain power over their victims, to elicit pain from them and to get any sort, even useless, information from them demonstrates that a torturer has done a competent job. That is the true motivation of most torturers.  There are of course those few who enjoy the pain they inflict, but most of them are engaged in demonstrating that they are doing well at their task.

The most important thought that the reader can take away from Baumeister’s volume is that evil is not the romantic sadism described in fiction, in operas and in films. It is not flamboyant nihilism.  The Italian opera, Tosca, contains such a villain, who enjoys his powerful position and the evil he can inflict on others. 

Scarpia, the opera’s villain, loves the pain and suffering he causes and believes in nothing but his own depraved pleasure.  But the reality about evil is that it is most often perpetrated by ordinary people, and that it is grubby and terrifyingly human.

Baumeister lists the four principal root causes of evil. He argues that ordinary, well-intentioned people perform “… such evil actions when they are under the influence of these factors, singly or in combination.” The first motivation to commit what is regarded as evil is the simplest. It is to gain money and/or power. Violence seems to be, for the short term, an effective means to gain and sustain a power position. The second motivation is threatened egotism. Baumeister is aware that his claim is a contested one, but he argues that evil acts result when the wrong-doer’s high esteem is threatened. He maintains that the miscreant’s self-esteem is not based on any type of realistic assessment. When this fantasy is challenged and/or denigrated, the perpetrator resorts to violent means to avenge and reaffirm his self-regard.

The third cause of evil is well-known – idealism. The fanatical belief in a religion, political theory or party, reform theory and so on fall under this rubric.  When people believe that they are on the side of good and that their totalizing belief system is the only one that will make the world a better place, they feel justified using strong measures to put that system into place. The people who oppose them are seen as evil, and violence is believed to be necessary to root them out. The idealists do not extend much mercy to their victims in the process, and their acts are perceived as evil to those outside their belief system.

The fourth cause for evil actions is sadistic pleasure.  We have already discussed this motivation and its small number of actual practitioners.

Baumeister concludes that even though he has tried to offer his readers an understanding of evil, he trusts that they will continue to react to it with moral condemnation. His study of evil is one of the very best for thinkers who reject the supernatural notions of evil as defined by traditional religion. He retains the word, “evil”, as a kind of umbrella term for extremely culpable wrongs.  Readers are left with the need to interrogate the use of the word “evil” in the present day, especially its use by secular thinkers.

At this juncture, I would like to return to some of the earlier questions raised by this lecture. Does evil exist? Should secular people make use of the word? Is the word, “evil”, so replete with religious and supernatural connotations that it should be discarded?

Phillip Cole’s 2006, The Myth of Evil: Demonizing the Enemy, makes the claim that evil does not exist. Cole believes that it is part of the fictions we humans make up about ourselves. He thinks that the word, “evil,” marks a kind of boundary condition, with normal humanity on one side.  On the other side of the boundary are those whose acts are so horrendous, so unexplainable, and so incomprehensible that we label them inhuman and place them beyond our common humanity.

Coles states: “A possibility is to understand evil against the background of mythology, such that each time we describe someone as evil we are placing them within a mythological narrative, giving them a specific role to play in world history.” Evil, in this sense, argues Cole, is the grandest of grand narratives. 

However, the author is of the opinion that the boundaries between human and inhuman are beginning to collapse. There is a disturbing amount of people who seem to transgress their common humanity in the present day. Cole thinks that this fact threatens our view of our own humanity and underscores our own insecurity about who we are. It questions what we may be capable or incapable of doing. He goes on to say: “Bearing witness to the dreadful things so many people have done to so many others confronts us with the possibility that we have the capacity to do the same or worse.” Perhaps we use the somewhat outdated notion of evil to hide from ourselves. Perhaps society uses the word to hide from itself.

We hear and read experts, analysts, and media people declare that a horrendous occurrence perpetrated by someone cannot be explained because the person is evil and/or the act is evil. This is an excuse that absolves society from the obligation to inquire more deeply about such atrocities. It was evil, we say. He or she was an evil person. It is true that some acts and the motivations of people who commit them are so egregiously culpable that they are beyond any understanding or explanation. But we know from studies that such types fall into a very small percentage of people- about five percent, as I have mentioned.  We need to interrogate ourselves and our cultures before taking the comfortable fallback position of calling horrendous wrong-doing evil and inhuman.

Cole calls for a rejection of the term, “evil”, because he believes it is a highly damaging and inhumane discourse that we would be better off without. He believes this “monstrous conception” dominates the field and holds humans back from making sense of culpability and inhumanity. He also questions what we are so afraid of that it enables authorities, religious or political, to exploit our fears and insecurities so effectively.  They use the fear of evil to dominate and manipulate us and we permit them to do so. 

The author is especially astute about certain concepts of evil, such as the evil child and the evil Holocaust of the 20th Century. He demonstrates how children who murder or commit other atrocious acts are often portrayed as though they really are not children at all, but some sort of inhuman monsters. Cole points out that with regard to the Holocaust: “It is the monstrous conception of evil that is at work once more, in the anti-Semitism that drove the Nazi leadership and its supporters in their conviction that the Jewish people were a demonic enemy bent on the destruction of Germany, and of human civilization in general.”

He argues that we also find the same conception in the portrayal of the Nazi leadership and those who participated in the Holocaust. They could not have been “ordinary” Germans, but had to be depicted as some kind of demonic figures or presences. I am suspicious that such rhetoric soothes the underlying fear that we are all ordinary and that most of us are capable, given the right, or wrong, set of circumstances, of behaving in the same manner, and committing the same heinous acts.

Cole concludes that “… even if it is true that we depend on our countless little mythologies to get us through the day, or to drive us forward creatively, there are larger and more dangerous myths that we have to question and oppose at every stage.” The myth of evil, he believes, is one of these. His words resonate with many of us who have interrogated our own psyches. He says: “…we, the people, are the monsters, and it is our own fear that makes us so.”

I cannot fully agree with Cole.   Most of us sense, and fear, the capacity that we have for violence, for greed, for demonizing others, and for vengeful anger.   But our self restraints hold us back.  We have learned most of those inhibitions from doing evil because of the teaching of our families and our schools. I do not include religion as an influence against violence because it is often totalizing belief systems that urge people on to unconscionable behavior and the commission of atrocities.  This lecture series has pointed out, time and again, the wicked and devious behavior of religion and how society would be better off without it.

We try to deal with the dissonance we feel about extremely culpable acts and our own predilection to commit those same acts. But our attempts are often highly inefficient and ineffectual. This lecture is titled Why Call It Evil?  The word, “evil”, is a convenient shorthand term to describe egregious wrongs and wrongdoers, as long as we keep in mind that it is only a word, and not an explanation. But if we give in to the temptation to cast the description of heinous acts into a highly metaphorical language, we become part of the denial about the wrongs in our lives, our societies and our cultures. Those wrongs bring about suffering and countless tragedies. 

We can instead begin the long struggle to make the world a better place, to eliminate war, child abuse, poverty, starvation, torture and animal suffering.  We can eliminate the false vocabulary and belief system of religion from our lives and our children’s lives. Religion’s supernatural claims about evil are false ones.  Let us take the blinders from our eyes and the mythology from our minds.

We have tried to learn something about evil during this lecture and have set aside some of our moral imperatives in the process. I would like to urge us to resume our moral condemnation of wrongdoing. It is time for us to take up our moral values again, the ones we put in abeyance during the lecture.   I place great trust that we can resume the world with the conviction that evil is human and that much can be done to alleviate its tragic outcomes from our lives. 

I would like to close this lecture with quotations from two insightful sources.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”


“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Albert Einstein

Bibliography for Why Call It Evil?

In addition to the following volumes, please see the bibliography at the end of the lecture, What is Atheism?

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Penguin, 1963.

Baumeister, Roy F. Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

Calder, Todd. “The Apparent Banality of Evil: The Relationship Between Evil Acts and Evil Character,” Journal of Social Philosophy 34, 3:364-76.

Card, Claudia. The Atrocity Paradigm. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Cole, Phillip. The Myth of Evil: Demonizing the Enemy. Connecticut, London: Praeger, 2006.

Draper, Paul. “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists,” Nous 23 (1989).

Forrest, Peter. “The Problem of Evil: Two Neglected Defenses,” Sophia 20 (1981).

Kekes, John. The Roots of Evil. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Russell, Luke. Evil: A Philosophical Investigation. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2014.  Contains an excellent Bibliography.

Tooley, Michael. “The Problem of Evil,” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 302-310.  Contains an excellent bibliography.