By in Spirituality

The Manchester Armchair Philosophers Ask What Is Evil Tuesday January 20th 2015

Venue – The Royal Oak, Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton, Manchester.

Our first monthly meeting of 2015 dealt with one of the central big questions of ethical morality.

Going round the room asking members for quick individual definitions it was clear that virtually no one had an immediate definition of evil to hand, as most attendees simply deferred saying anything for later.

My introduction was rather lengthy – a reduced version of an essay published by me, which I halved in length and which still over-ran somewhat. It had originally been planned for me to co-present the subject with another member who dropped out and left it to me.

To summarize my intro. We all know evil acts and evil people; tyrannous dictatorships, wars, genocides, molestations, mass murders, tortures, etc., but evil is beyond the hurt such human injustices cause as we can suffer and die from natural causes too; sometimes earthquakes are called a ‘natural evil’.

Religion gets problematic as it means that God(s) allow evil, fail to prevent it or that God is him(?)self evil. Epicurus was well aware of this dilemma which makes gods either powerless to prevent evil befalling us or the gods are actively making evil happen. If there is a Satan, can God stop him? Dos God even try? Is God Satan?

Many Christians see evil as a warning from God to change our moral behaviour. Lightning damage to York Minster in the 1980’s as AIDS awareness was becoming public was exploited by the archbishop of York as a divine condemnation of homosexuality and casual sex. Such narrow thinking limits our ability to understand serious issues.

Religionists see evil as a human exercise of Free Will. Goethe’s Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles for scientific wisdom. Frankenstein creates a monster in trying to play God creating life. Adam & Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Prometheus gave us fire and independence from the gods.

Atheism presents its own problems as without gods we are responsible for our own humanity and inhumanity. Here problems arise right away in defining rationality as someone intoxicated or insane may not be wilfully evil.

New ideas and changes can be seen as evil. The printing press was opposed by religionists; luddites tried to smash the looms and steam engines; the great revolutions of France & Russia were seen both as evil uprisings and as the solution to old established evil regimes; change equates with evil.

Crime is committed to create change – the thief hopes to get more money; the sexual predator seeks empowerment and to satisfy lusts; evil is often a short-cut fast track route to change, bypassing laws and socially accepted norms.

Nietzsche believed that keeping us in conformity was evil; the very obsession with morally confining our behaviour was like putting wild animals in a zoo; reducing tigers to trapped, domesticated ruined versions of themselves. Our schools and prisons to Nietzsche do the same to people.

A wilfully evil person often tries deliberately to overcome moral safeguards most of us set in place. Brady & Hindley (The Moors Murderers) consciously studied Hitler, De Sade and Nietzsche and set out to overcome their moral coding by steeling themselves to commit brutal crimes against the children they abducted.

Such crime can come of having too much freedom, and thinking in a liberal society. Many harsh political regimes become so in condemnation of the anything goes social values and decadence around them. The Nazis grew on waves of social contempt for the weak, but liberal Weimar Republic. Similarly with the French Revolution response to the weak kingship.

The collapse of the Iron Curtain, Berlin Wall, etc., was the reverse – a liberal condemnation of a harsh over-moralistic over-protective regime, but now Russia faces waves of undiluted capitalism that faces little opposition. We overcome evils with a new order but eventually the new order over-reaches itself too, and becomes the new evil order.

Similarly with individuals, evil is too much or too little. A naughty child told off by his parents is acceptable to most of; the naughty child left unsupervised is seen as neglected, while the parent who tries to beat the child into changing behaviour is seen as beastly – evil is extremes.

Evil destroys – theft takes away; vandalism breaks, war and murder kills. The opposite of destruction is creativity, art, poetry, construction. Evil is a negation, a desperation, changes without control or direction, too much freedom or too little. The good is somewhere in between the extremes.

Discussion asked if evil is so subjective a term as to be meaningless but other words would take its place as euphemisms. Good & naughtiness lacks impact. A child taking cookies from the jar without permission is being naughty but hardly evil. Pol Pot wasn’t just a bit of a bad boy.

We asked if evil is unforgivable or if the wicked can be redeemed as with Darth Vader, or even Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Regained. Dangerous criminals like John McVicar have reformed.

Movies often make the evil doers unambiguous; as with cowboy films where the bad guy always wears a black hat and the hero a white one. We are left in no doubts about the intentions of a Blofeld or Dr. Evil. Life is sadly more ambiguous as seen from many praising Margaret Thatcher while others saw her death as a chance to call her an evil-doer.

Good = beneficial to society. Evil = detrimental and harmful to society. Evil involves wilfully and intentionally allowing, causing or turning a blind eye to the suffering of others.

I asked how evil we might be ourselves. If the attendees of the meeting were marooned together on a desert island would we degenerate to savagery as the kids did in William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies? I fear we might.

Do we need evil in the World to be able to measure the exceptionally good beside it?

One member reminded us that evil spelt backwards is live. It is of course also an anagram of vile.

Evil is an ambiguous troubling and even taboo subject for many but a greater understanding of it may be essential for humanity.

Arthur Chappell

Image Credit » Photo - taken by me - The Royal Oak pub sign, Chorlton - since replaced

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scheng1 wrote on January 25, 2015, 7:33 AM

Agree on the part that discussion about evil is very subjective. Sometimes people will forgive a murderer after hearing his side of the story.

msiduri wrote on January 25, 2015, 9:07 AM

One book you may find interesting is Susan Neiman's "Evil in Modern Thought." She looks at the question of evil both in the idea of human acts and in natural disasters: evil is something that threatens the our ability to make sense of the world. It's very deep and take a bit to get through, but it's quite well written and germane to you points.

seren3 wrote on January 25, 2015, 12:46 PM

Looking at the vile mess the world at large is in, it is hard to believe there is no evil. A very thoughtful essay!

mrsmerlin wrote on January 25, 2015, 2:17 PM

I think that evil is an overused word in the same vein as love. People use it without really thinking about their words. To me evil is about intent - if someone means to hurt another person or cause deliberate upset for nothing but their personal benefit. Sometimes people do things that others see as evil but their intent was pure, it is just that things didn't go as they had planned. That person isn't evil because their intent wasn't evil

MegL wrote on January 25, 2015, 2:50 PM

You have made some very interesting points but I think the question of "evil" will remain a perennial discussion point

Squidwhisperer wrote on January 25, 2015, 3:14 PM

It's a very problematic word. Works fine in comics and myths and such, but in our daily existence I would suggest that a huge amount of very bad behaviour - otherwise termed evil - is grounded in various psychological dysfunctions - whether narcissism or psychopathy or terrible impulse control or paranoid schizophrenia or just utter stupidity/ignorance. I've never felt the word helps in clarifying much of anything. Maybe as msiduri alludes to in Neiman's book. Evil is maybe literally "beyond the pale."

Squidwhisperer wrote on January 25, 2015, 3:16 PM

Good point re intent. About the only behaviour that seems to really fit the e-word to me is sadism - the deliberate intent to cause harm to someone else for one's own pleasure.