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What is Evil?
October 20, 2002 6:12 AM   Subscribe

What is Evil? The question of evil has fascinated humans since the dawn of humanity, and today the topic is of increasing relevance. Consider a page on African evil, a discussion of the Top 10 Evil people of all time, and a compelling page on the seemingly evil acts perpetuated by Americans. What are your views on evil?
posted by Morphic (38 comments total)

 
Anyone else sorta bothered that there's a surname ("Tepes") which means "The Impaler" in the Romanian language? Just how many of them *were* there, anyway? Enough for a surname, anyway...
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:22 AM on October 20, 2002


Without good there could be no evil, so it must be good to be evil sometimes.

Doesn' have much relevance, but I just saw the Siuth Park movie :)
posted by Mossy at 6:40 AM on October 20, 2002


Without good there could be no evil, so it must be good to be evil sometimes.

I don't buy it, even in jest. For there to be altruism, must there also be greed? To this non-spiritualist, greatness of character, goodness, generosity is not contingent on some being uncaring, rapacious or deceitful.

Evil is, at its core, a disregard for others. Good is the realization that other people matter, sometimes more than you yourself do.
posted by bonehead at 6:50 AM on October 20, 2002


What is Evil?

This is Evil...

Without good there could be no evil, so it must be good to be evil sometimes.

or as a bunch of very wise women said "He's Good-Bad but he's not evil."
posted by jonmc at 6:53 AM on October 20, 2002


What's up with the double link on What is and Top10--which is the weakest link of all, by the way-- and Mother Theresa on the Good top ten? Pinwheel's link here might give one pause.

Very rightly is it said that she tends to the dying, because if you were doing anything but dying she hasn't really got much to offer.

This is interesting because, first, she only proclaims to be providing people with a Catholic death, and, second, because of the enormous amounts of money mainly donated to rather than raised by her Order. We've been unable to audit this - no one has ever demanded an accounting of how much money has flowed in her direction. With that money she could have built at least one absolutely spanking new, modern teaching hospital in Calcutta without noticing the cost.

The facilities she runs are as primitive now as when she first became a celebrity. So that's obviously not where the money goes.


If that assertion is true, she's on the wrong list. As for the In These Times piece,--kinda light in the loafers, as Johnny Carson might say...

posted by y2karl at 7:23 AM on October 20, 2002


Silly rabbit. Evil is whatever George W. says it is. You better watch out, or they'll discover MeFi has "links to Al Qaeda."
posted by fleener at 7:28 AM on October 20, 2002


Evil to me is when one person treats another like an object or less than human. Slavery, killing, exploitation are some examples.
posted by stbalbach at 7:36 AM on October 20, 2002


There is No evil but my ex wife. All else can be explained and accepted.
posted by Postroad at 7:50 AM on October 20, 2002


A Fairly comprehensive clinical view.

Sociopathy versus Evil kind of becomes a tom-ay-to vs. tomahto debate and evil sounds better and puts the onus on the perpetrator of the atrocity, so I prefer that word.
posted by jonmc at 8:06 AM on October 20, 2002


No no fleener, evil is whatever George W. does.
posted by schlyer at 8:07 AM on October 20, 2002


*visits Top Ten lists, returns shaking head in disbelief*

This topic sure makes people lose their ability to think critically, or at all. Torquemada the evilest person of all time? What does that even mean? Hitler in the #3 spot? Sure, whatever you say. (And if you scroll down past the lists, you get readers' comments, the first of which begins by saying that Hitler wasn't all bad.) MetaFilter is good for many things, but dissecting the essence of evil probably isn't one of them.

adamgreenfield: Tepes* (pronounced "tsepesh") isn't a surname, it's a descriptive term; Vlad Tepes is quite literally Vlad the Impaler (tepes is based on tep [tsep] 'prickle, thorn'). Most people didn't have surnames in them days.

*There should be little comma-like hooks under the T and s, but I don't know how to get them -- I even went to Romanian sites, and they don't use them, so I'm guessing those letters aren't available for internet use, but I know nothing about these matters.
posted by languagehat at 8:26 AM on October 20, 2002


Interesting but intrinsically troubling assessment, jonmc. troubling from the social construction point of view--1. Failure to conform to social norms --not to mention the common characteristics of psychopaths there listed:

Glib and superficial charm; Grandiose sense of self-worth; Need for stimulation; Pathological lying; Conning and manipulativeness; Lack of remorse or guilt; Shallow affect; Callousness and lack of empathy; Parasitic lifestyle; Poor behavioral controls; Promiscuous sexual behavior; Early behavior problems; Lack of realistic, long-term goals; Impulsivity; Irresponsibility; Failure to accept responsibility for own actions; Many short-term marital relationships; Juvenile delinquency; Revocation of conditional release; Criminal versatility

That casts a wide net.

And fantastic and uninviting behavior with and sometimes without drink as one of the indicators of sociopathy is a bit of a headscratcher.

The concept is on the right track but the example at hand is a little too voo doo and vague.
posted by y2karl at 8:29 AM on October 20, 2002


The "Top 10" site has correspondence between the author and a couple of Romaninan readers, who claim that Bill Clinton is indeed more evil than Adolf Hitler and Vlad the Impaler.
posted by einarorn at 8:36 AM on October 20, 2002


ZIP: Hey boss, um, can you tell the difference between good and evil?
MOK: (snorts something from his ring) Ziiiiiiip, try to realize, there is no longer black or white, good or evil. We've evolved beyond that.
ZIP: Uh, but Uncle Mikey says we should know the difference between--
MOK: We all must have our own personal view of right and wrong.
ZIP: but but but is what we are doing evil?
MOK: Of course not! Remember Zip, 'evil' spelled backwards is 'live.' And we all want to do that.

posted by titboy at 8:37 AM on October 20, 2002


y2karl--well some of the traits, I suppose, are merely supplemental traits, that by themselves are no indicators of sociopathy. I've been known not to "conform" to some "norms" myself.

The important parts of the equation as I see it are these:


Sense of entitlement; Unremorseful; Apathetic to others; Unconscionable behavior; Blameful of others; Manipulative and conning; Affectively cold; Disparate understanding;

I mainly chose that particular link because the others definitions of Anti-social personality that I found on the web were far sparser and less informative.

Actually I remember watching a documentary on organized crime killer Richard Kuklinski where an FBI agent describes Kuklinski to a colleauge by saying "this guy kills people like you go to the toilet," or words to that effect. That may be as succint a description as any.
posted by jonmc at 8:39 AM on October 20, 2002


This is old, but I think it is appropriate... The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord.
posted by titboy at 8:44 AM on October 20, 2002


The deeds and characteristics typically associated with evil are those which encourage choas. Murder, rape, disregard for your fellow man, all of these things demonstrate a breakdown of organized society and as such are labeled evil. Good comes from that which encourages order.
For instance, Terrorists are labeled evil by the American government because they bring economic disruption and violence to our society, while Al-Queda labels America evil because their freewheeling capitalist actions threaten breakdown of more traditional religious law. Fighters on both sides claim to be good and promise to restore order to our societies.
You dont have to take my word for it, ask Egypt
posted by sophist at 8:53 AM on October 20, 2002


i'm with stbalbach, evil is the inhumane (except perhaps the very capacity of inhumanity is human? i dunno :) or like the failure to treat people with kindness and empathy!
posted by kliuless at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2002


Terrorists are labeled evil by the American government because they bring economic disruption and violence to our society,

Right. Not because they kill innocent people. Way to live up to your name, sophist.
posted by jonmc at 9:04 AM on October 20, 2002


um i think 'kill innocent people' fits under the umbrella of 'violence' :D yes? no!
posted by kliuless at 9:10 AM on October 20, 2002


Haven't read it yet--it sits cold and lonely on my bookshelf--but Lyall Watson's Dark Nature (a short review here) seems relevant. Watson intends the book to be a biological look at evil. In it, he argues:

It's only natural, says naturalist Lyall Watson, author of Dark Nature. He believes that evil is inherent within the natural order and that the behavior we see in serial killers, sadists, and genocidal dictators reflects certain natural principles. It's not that these people are monsters set apart from ordinary people, it is that they manifest something in the system gone awry. In other words, nature is tentatively balanced at best and when anything within the status quo challenges the equilibrium, what might be considered good in some contexts can become bad, or evil.

Watson believes that evil is commonplace and widespread, not uniquely manifested in the oddball person. It's also not confined to the human species. He himself has observed cruelty in animal behavior with finely honed predatory skills and even the killing of offspring. Starting with the notion that evil involves overstepping bounds or going beyond due measure, Watson thinks that at the heart of evil are influences that destroy the integrity of the whole. Thus if "good" is defined as whatever encourages that integrity, then whatever pulls it apart is evil.

--as summarized here
posted by claxton6 at 9:32 AM on October 20, 2002


There is a diffrence between evil deeds and an evil person. An evil deed can be done out of ignorance and lack of understanding. It is forgiveable. An evil person is someone who knows they commit evil and does it anyway. This is why we see men like Hitler as evil while we see troops who fought for Hitler as misguided. Its how we forgave the country of Germany and let it get on with life after the War without prosecuting the entire country for war crimes. To do otherwise, like what happened after WWI, would have been an evil act its self and arguably that created the atmosphere for Evil men like Hitler to take power.
posted by stbalbach at 9:33 AM on October 20, 2002


Heh - I was browsing through the local half price bookstore here and came across The Book of Lists - volume 2, I think - published in the late 70s. They had a few yearly lists of history's greatest villains, as voted by visitors at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. The thing that struck me funny was that on two or three of the yearly ballots, Richard Nixon finished in the top five, along with such "greats" as Hitler, Stalin, and Idi Amin.

I was too young to appreciate much of the shenanigans of the Watergate era, but what I have heard doesn't quite put Tricky Dick in that class of vermin. I guess people were really good and pissed at him.

Odd what the perspective of time will bring, no?
posted by John Smallberries at 11:14 AM on October 20, 2002


The idea that "evil" exists as a force is more commonplace, but no more reasonable than the belief that the saints had magical powers. There are things that are deleterious to a particular society and they have to be prevented, but there is no such thing as evil in an objective sense. If there was, different cultures in different contexts would all have arrived at similar conclusions about what it is. The fact that Mao can kill 20 million of his own people and be revered popularly as a hero shows that we're not all observing the same phenomenon when we try to describe evil.

You'd think there would be some core activities that everyone would agree are evil. But no, every activity can be sufficiently justified if the conditions are right. The concept is entirely constructed, subjective.

I mean, look at the guy who made the list. His criteria for evil gave "...additional weight to those people who actually enjoyed and personally participated in the utter horror they produced", which is a decision which alters the list from what a lot of people think it should be. To Sinclair Lewis (I'm thinking of Babbitt), real evil was the banal kind that didn't enjoy, or even necessarily realize what it was doing was wrong. Who's right? Whoever you happen to agree with, I expect.

It pisses me off that people throw around the term so loosely, as though it were a legal matter. We can have serious debates about what is right and wrong to do, but not about what is good or evil.
posted by Hildago at 11:59 AM on October 20, 2002


evil person is someone who knows they commit evil and does it anyway

I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who knew they were commiting evil. Mass murderers on the scale of Stalin and Hitler believed they were doing good, for instance. Even people who call themselves evil either generally believe that they are serving some greater utility, that they are being forced to do it, or that there is really no such thing as good or evil and they are merely performing activities in an empty universe.
posted by Hildago at 12:04 PM on October 20, 2002


“Starting with the notion that evil involves overstepping bounds or going beyond due measure, Watson thinks that at the heart of evil are influences that destroy the integrity of the whole. Thus if ‘good’ is defined as whatever encourages that integrity, then whatever pulls it apart is evil.”

This jibes somewhat with Delbanco’s post-religious theory of evil in The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. He explains his theory of evil partially this way:
What is evil defined as?

Well, for me I think the best I've been able to do with that question is to try to recognize and come to terms with the reality of the fact that there are human beings who are able, by convincing themselves that there's some higher good, some higher ideal to which their lives should be dedicated, that the pain and suffering of other individuals doesn't matter, it doesn't have to do with them or that it's... That they're expendable, that it's a cost that's worth making in the pursuit of these objectives. So evil for me is the absence of the imaginative sympathy for other human beings.

The absence of a moral imagination, the ability to see what the consequences of your actions are to someone else?

Yes, the inability to see your victims as human beings. To think of them as instruments or cogs or elements or statistics but not as human beings.
His theory actually has two parts to it. This part is solely about evil committed in serivce of an ideal, the other part deals with casual killers and the like.

It’s still pretty fair, because it works both ways. The discussion quoted here took place on September 12, but the words very easily could be about any conflict in history, for example, the slave owning South (Blacks treated as a race that wasn’t quite fully human) or the Maori invading and trying to destroy the Moriori. One Maori, quoted in Guns, Germs and Steel, described it this way:
We took possesion ... in accordance with our customs and we caught all the people. Not one escaped. Some ran away from us, these we killed, and others we killed—but what of it? It was in accordance with our custom.
The Moriori, from this perspective, were not people—they were obstacles in the way of the fulfillment of a custom. They were dehumanized, the way slaves were nothing more than mere property; the way Israelis are seen as nothing more than usurpers and thieves; Palestinians as beasts; the way Americans, in the eyes of a certain brand of fascist, are imps of the Great Satan.
posted by raaka at 12:47 PM on October 20, 2002


there are human beings who are able, by convincing themselves that there's some higher good, some higher ideal to which their lives should be dedicated, that the pain and suffering of other individuals doesn't matter, it doesn't have to do with them or that it's... That they're expendable, that it's a cost that's worth making in the pursuit of these objectives.

Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.


posted by trondant at 2:39 PM on October 20, 2002


What about images of evil; what does it look like? Why is it so easy to tell who is good and who is evil in popular culture? Are there universals?

(thanks Hildago. I was just about to post those same contentious points.)
posted by statisticalpurposes at 2:57 PM on October 20, 2002


What about images of evil; what does it look like?

Vigo the Carpathian (background) from Ghostbusters 2 was a pretty evil painting. I'm pretty sure that's the most evil image you're going to get. It tried to possess Sigorney Weaver's baby for goddsakes, and this one wasn't even an alien.
posted by Stan Chin at 3:11 PM on October 20, 2002


For there to be altruism, must there also be greed? To this non-spiritualist, greatness of character, goodness, generosity is not contingent on some being uncaring, rapacious or deceitful.

Evil is, at its core, a disregard for others. Good is the realization that
other people matter, sometimes more than you yourself do.

Your's is an Altruistic view as opposed to a Psychological Egoistic view.

posted by over at 3:33 PM on October 20, 2002


For there to be altruism, must there also be greed? To this non-spiritualist, greatness of character, goodness, generosity is not contingent on some being uncaring, rapacious or deceitful.

The question sets the tone. If you are going to ask, "what is evil?" then you have to have a clear definition of what 'good' is. If you are going to place altruism and generosity under the umbrella of 'goodness', then those things which are not altruistic, etc. can be considered evil. The action, thing, or person are not inherently good or evil, and cannot clearly be labelled as such, until you define the terms of categorization, and you cannot define one without instantly defining the other. Once you define what something is, you instantiate what it is not. So, once you call an action altruistic, you have created actions which can be labelled selfish. While an action, in and of itself, is not contingent on the existence of some other action, once you create a term to use as a convention in the discussion of that action, it certainly is. You cannot create a definition of what something is unless you relate it to something else (what it is not).

What good and evil is has everything to do with relativism. The moral and societal agreements that people enter into ultimately define the terms.
posted by mikhail at 5:56 PM on October 20, 2002


Tepes ...there, that wasn't so hard, was it? (Actually, that may not show up for everyone...)
posted by gimonca at 7:32 PM on October 20, 2002


Well, now it's not showing up for me, either. It worked in preview, really it did!

Ampersand-octothorpe-354; and Ampersand-octothorpe-351; should be the entities you want. I think metafilter is translating them over to T and s during posting.
posted by gimonca at 7:35 PM on October 20, 2002


Ţepeş. Once you've got the preview, you have to go through again and change all the characters that have rendered in the edit window back into their HTML entities; if you submit the entry with the rendered versions still in the edit window, it won't work.
posted by Acetylene at 9:01 PM on October 20, 2002


Should there be a difference in evaluating 'evil' people on scale?

Looking at the list, you have 'world leaders', mainly. And then you have Holmes and Rais thrown in at the end. And Tomas de Torquemada leading it off kind of doesn't fit with the rest of the group.

Looking at Stalin, Ivan, and Khan - I would compare them to Napolean or many of the Roman Emperors. They brutally came to power against heavy opposition, crushed and eliminated that competition, then moved to create states at the expense of their own populace and those who resisted.

What puts Hitler out from the rest in many people's minds, other than the leader of the Inquisition, is the unrelenting focus on one group and the systematic elimination of that group on a massive level.

But, looking at it from a different perspective, Hitler and Eichmann didn't come up with this new idea, they just came up with a 'faster' way to execute millions.

England subjegated and tried to eliminate the Scotts, for example. One way was the 'deflowering' of women by an English noble the night of her wedding. The Romans placed any that resisted them into slavery as a population, as did many societies based on conquering - Incas, Mayans, Mongols, Zulus, etc.

Perhaps you do need to judge each of these 'leaders of state' in the context of the world they lived in at that point in time. I still think Vlad, Stalin and others would come out as being 'evil', but Vlad may not rank so high, as his contemporaries were people like Ivan and Khan. Ghengis Khan's tactics are still widely considered to have been unique and extremely effective - brutal and horrible, but not necessarily uncalled for in his time.

And what about leaders of state that aquiesed to men they knew would massacre their people, to save themselves? And for men like Khan or Vlad - if they had not done what they did, would they have survived, or been killed as their predecesors?

This kind of 'list' I think needs to be broken up.. individuals like Holmes, Dahlmer, Jack teh Ripper and so forth need to examined apart from leaders of state. Maybe for situational context because leaders of state issues are much more complex than 'simple' murderers and torturers.

In this frame, I think Tomas de Torquemada would stay along the list with people like Holmes as opposed to being a leader of state (which may also be why he was considered 'more' evil than state leaders).
posted by rich at 7:44 AM on October 21, 2002


clowns are evil. mimes doubly so.
posted by tolkhan at 1:07 PM on October 21, 2002


"I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone who knew they were committing evil."

An interesting point Hildago, as it seems there are varying degrees to evilness. From looking at this thread and responses within the link, there are obviously varying opinions on what is considered evil, and what is not. If you tip the scales too far in either direction, you win the popular vote between good and evil, such as murder is often viewed as incredibly wrong, yet when judging sexual orientation there is a mixed opinion and various paradigms.

I guess my point is there are many opinions on such an encompassing ideology that it's hard to put it into a universally accepted context. Maybe that's a good thing, as never knowing where evil may pop up can keep you on your toes (for some reason I'm thinking of a toaster oven...Time Bandits?). Many individuals accused of ultimately evil doings are singled out because of their physical actions. And then many are accused due to their influence over those that perform the deeds.

For an interesting study that is attempting to classify evil on a scale, check out depravityscale.org. I didn't take the survey however as it required more information than I'm comfortable submitting.
posted by samsara at 2:06 PM on October 21, 2002


Evil can be defined as any deliberate breach of the golden rule.
posted by walrus at 7:18 AM on October 22, 2002


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