What Is Evil?

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

- Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

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Hannah Arendt famously called it banal, and many have cautioned against using the label. Evil sceptics tell us to be wary because this label adds nothing to our understanding of people or actions; and worse, that it creates an irredeemable sub-human underclass. But some people are still not convinced that dumping the term altogether will lead to a clearer view of human nature. Australian philosopher Luke Russell, for one, believes that evil does exist.

Listen to The Philosopher's Zone episode on The Complexity of Evil

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For a student of evil, Stephen Colbert’s exchange with Bill O’Reilly on “The Late Show” two days after the Orlando killings was an education. “This guy was evil,” O’Reilly said of the gunman, Omar Mateen.

Colbert immediately asked, “What is the proper response to evil?”

“Destroy it,” O’Reilly answered. “You don’t contain evil, because you can’t. You destroy evil. ISIS is evil, and Mateen is evil.”

O’Reilly’s attitude toward evil exemplifies the ethical justification for the most consequential American policy decisions of the past 15 years — and, if we consent, for those that will be made in reaction to the Orlando massacre and others like it. Recent history and philosophy have taught that violence is the surest outcome of blithely ascribing the quality of evil to another. At best, this process may supplant the thing we brand evil for a time, but the notion that evil can be “destroyed” is an ethical version of a fool’s errand. We have an opportunity now to reassess the politics of evil and to consider responses to it that would mitigate rather than amplify human suffering...

Continue reading Steven Paulikas' article: How Should We Respond to 'Evil'?

Further Reading

During the past thirty years, moral, political, and legal philosophers have become increasingly interested in the concept of evil. This interest has been partly motivated by ascriptions of ‘evil’ by laymen, social scientists, journalists, and politicians as they try to understand and respond to various atrocities and horrors of the past eighty years, e.g., the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and killing sprees by serial killers such as Jeffery Dahmer. It seems that we cannot capture the moral significance of these actions and their perpetrators by calling them ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ or even ‘very very wrong’ or ‘very very bad.’ We need the concept of evil.

To avoid confusion, it is important to note that there are at least two concepts of evil: a broad concept and a narrow concept. The broad concept picks out any bad state of affairs, wrongful action, or character flaw. The suffering of a toothache is evil in the broad sense as is a white lie...

In contrast to the broad concept of evil, the narrow concept of evil picks out only the most morally despicable sorts of actions, characters, events, etc. As Marcus Singer puts it “‘evil’ [in this sense] … is the worst possible term of opprobrium imaginable”...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on The Concept of Evil by Todd Calder

Bonus Webcomic

Evil Time - SMBC

Related Topics

 Ethics | Moral Responsibility | Punishment

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