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Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil...But What's "Evil"?

tangerines's picture

At the end of our discussion on Thursday, our group briefly talked about the word “evil”. Several people said that they avoided using the word because it had religious connotations, and others said that they used it to describe instances when people acted without humanity. Someone (I believe OrganizedKhaos?) gave the example of a cannibalistic murderer as someone she would term evil. I think that in general, though, evil is a subjective term (the ick-factor of the cannibalism aside, which I think it's safe to say is unappealing to most people).

For example, some people oppose the death penalty believe it's “evil” to take a life, regardless of the reasons. Some support the death penalty because they believe that some crimes deserve the ultimate punishment, and that in those cases, taking a life is justified. Depending on your beliefs, you might think that it's “evil” to play God and kill someone, even a murderer or rapist. Or you might think that it's “evil” to allow a proven rapist/child molester/murderer to live.

Your personal beliefs define what you consider to be evil. In Papua New Guinea, where cannibalism was practiced until the 1950s, cannibalism was considered an act of love and preservation. Before death, people would bequeath their more “precious” organs to beloved family members as an act of love. A commonly used greeting was “I eat you” - because you cared for someone so much that you wanted your body to sustain them when you were dead. This is a far cry from our society's Silence of the Lamb feelings about cannibalism.

Whether the term “evil” has religious connotations also depends on your beliefs/background. One of the biggest lessons I've learned from this course (and the GIST course, now that I think about it) is that you can't ever assume that you know exactly what someone means, because so much of how we interpret and understand information depends on individual experiences.


OrganizedKhaos's picture

evil revisited...


I too believe that the word evil is subjective and the meaning can change depending on its user and place. In class we were trying to find definitions of what evil meant in regards to how we used it, if we did in fact use the term. To me the term evil would be applied to someone or some action that has the deliberate intention or effect of causing harm or destruction, usually specifically from the perception of deliberately violating some moral code. I used the example of a cannibalistic murderer to evoke the sentiments of how evil is often times viewed in our society more generally. This was not to say cannibalism on a whole is evil. In anthropology we learn that everything has a meaning and place within the context of that society and culture, thus it wouldn't be relativistic to pass judgment on a ritual that makes sense within the culture of a Papua  New Guinea group. Meade, a well known anthropologist wrote and great piece on cannibalism, where she was able to show the reasoning behind cannibalism and show how our practice of war in comparison was unjust.

Examples like these show how views on what is just or evil or fair vary by culture and background. This can be linked back to a topic we discussed at the beginning of the year where “the crack” fits in to explain the disagreement or opposing views. Besides the definition of evil, a question that I have been thinking about a lot is whether everyone is capable of evil, and I do not think I have been convinced one way or the other as of yet.


themword's picture

I guess my response does not

I guess my response does not directly respond to the above, but I did find the  discussion of "what is evil" and how we determine what and who is evil to be very interesting, and I think I may write my paper about it. The term is very strong, and its connotations are common (most people have a common sense/idea of what it means). I believe our definition of evil is more about association. We may call somebody evil, but what are the characteristics that define that person as evil. I believe that a lot of people use the label of evil as its definition. If I were to write my paper on evil, I would talk about its use in a political sense. I had two readings for another class yesterday, and whenever I saw the word evil, I thought about our discussion. The readings had to do with terrorism and the United States. Both use the term to describe each other because it creates a common perception that people will understand and believe. There were many examples of its use in a religious sense, which we talked about on Thursday. This determined why people did or did not use the word.

Anne Dalke's picture

you might want to check out

Roy Baumeister's Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, which was the topic of a discussion of the Slippery Brain Sodality on campus a few months ago.

ewashburn's picture

 This discussion of evil

 This discussion of evil reminds me of the situation Professor Dalke posed to us in the first couple of weeks of class, when we were discussing The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail. For those of you who weren't in this discussion group, the situation went something like this: 

Two adult siblings, a brother and a sister, are vacationing together in France. They are staying in the same hotel room, because it's cheaper and, after all, they're family. One night, they have an enjoyable evening of wine and conversation, and get a bit drunk. In the course of that conversation, they decide to have sex with each other. The next morning, they discuss their experience, conclude that they both enjoyed it, and decide never to do it or talk about it again. Was what they did wrong?

Our class was somewhat divided about this situation. Many people instantly voiced a visceral disgust, while others wondered why it was anyone's business whether it was wrong. Those who voiced disgust often connected it to their own personal awkwardness upon hearing that story; one person said something to the effect of, "God, that would make family dinners even more awkward!" The problem with trying to define evil, and the problem with trying to rule on this situation, is that it is so subjective, both tangerines and vlopez have stated. Everyone has their own cultural and personal boundaries, and the likelihood that one deed with transgress everyone's boundaries and be labelled universally evil is highly unlikely. 

What's even more problematic for me, though, is the stigma of that word "evil." By now, I'm sure you've realized that I'm a bit of a humanist, and I have reservations about using the word "evil" because of its connotations of irreversability, and its polarizing effect on other humans. To label the act of another human being as "evil" is to pretty much exile that person from the rest of human society, and to label that human as "evil" regardless of their desires for redemption. If, as Peck says, evil is a choice, then the person who chooses to do evil can also choose to repent and do good; but if the word "evil" is applied to that person, then that person will never get the chance to do good, because they will be stigmatized as evil.

vlopez's picture


I completely agree with you that the term "evil" is indeed incredibly subjective.  The psychiatrist, Scott Peck, goes about describing various patients in his book People of the Lie in order to understand this term "evil".  In short, he concludes that evil people are self-righteous; therefore, they cannot accept criticism (as it would hurt their narcissism) and they maintain a certain appearance of power even if they don't really do anything worthwhile.  They lack empathy thus seeing people as tools to be manipulated. 

This is a very interesting characterization, I think, because it applies to people.  But as was described in the post, some people may view situations, such as the death penalty, as evil.  So, even though I think Peck's attempt to define evil is a good one and many of the characteristics he uses I myself would attribute to someone I thought to be evil, I believe evil deserves a broader definition.  I wouldn't know where to begin to define evil, but I do believe you'd know it when you see it, regardless of your beliefs/experiences.

Another point Peck makes is that evil is a choice.  This I find more difficult to grasp because I, like hope, believe there is duality in everyone of us; therefore, we all have some good and evil within us.  We all have tendencies to lean towards one or the other, I believe we tend to lean towards the evil side.  If we were all to have a tendency for the good, we would not need institutions or organization to keep us in check, such as the government and religious groups. 

ashley's picture

Tendencies = Choice

I wanted to touch on vlopez's last paragraph. While I can agree that there is duality in each of us, I don't think that these tendencies mean that the choice is taken away. I think it is precisely because there is this duality and tendencies that evil is seen as a choice. If each person was only one way and really could not help it, then it wouldn't be very possible to choose a life of good or evil. But, if we are conscious of each of these and what each entails, we can better judge how to react in every situation. While one might be leaning towards the evil side in a certain scenario, they still are able to choose that which is seen as more righteous. Yes, it might take more self control and it might be harder than simply giving in to the evil, but it is doable.

The question here seems to be, can we control evil? I would tie it back into a question of previous discussions; can we control happiness? I would think that for each individual it would be different and each would interact with these notions of evil and happiness in different ways. But I think if we have this sense of outer self looking in on ourselves, that would help us manage each of the situations. We could have an objective view of ourselves and provide input for ourselves. Advice could be given such as, "this really should not require you to be upset", helping oneself see that it is okay and optimal to be cheerful. In the same manner, if we are able to see consequences to others and ourselves, our objective views could steer us towards choosing a path of good over evil. Even if initially leaning towards evil, it can be overcome by an awareness of the situation. I feel that with narrow view points of a particular situation we would have blinders up that would impede us from seeing the greater picture. The greater picture is what lets us make the choice of taking the path of happiness and taking the path of good, because we can see what we ultimately want as the outcome.

Sarah Schnellbacher's picture

No real evil

I agree with your comment on the duality of evil. The problem being that if there is a little devil and a little angel on our shoulders, do we always side with the same religious icon? If we think of the many worlds theory, then there should be a universe comprising the truly evil and truly good who have always picked the same side. In many worlds theory, a new universe forms for every decision made. Thus every time the angel and devil perch on our shoulder, two new universes form, one containing a somewhat better us and the other containing a more evil us. I think we all contain some good and some evil depending on the compilation of our actions and thus no one is truly evil. I'm sure that even Hitler held the door for someone at some point and despite massacring the Jews he did give a country in ruins hope and provided us with the highway interchange. If even our pinnacle representations of evil did at some point do good, then how can we claim that anyone is truly evil?


vlopez's picture

I thought this Hitler example

I thought this Hitler example was very interesting. Because I am sure, as you are, that he did something good at some point in his life.  But does that really matter compared to that one terrible thing - the holocaust - he did?  I think we can claim someone is evil by establishing two columns: the good and the bad.  Then, whichever outweighs the other, determines if the person is good or evil.  What if there's a very small difference?  Well then, I would look at the tendencies and which actions the person takes more pleasure in performing. 

I don't know if the way I've set things up is agreeable or not, but it seems to work in my point of view.

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