Questions about evil

Elisabeth asked:

What is the definition of evil?
Where do you think it originated from?
Why do you think it continues?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I wonder about the definition of evil. It seems to me that, in ordinary usage, we use the term ‘evil’ when we just mean, ‘very bad’ or ‘irredeemably bad’. Some things are good, and some things are very good. Some things are bad, and some things are very bad.

Why is there ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Because human beings make value judgements. If you sip a drink and it tastes nice, that’d good. If you sip the drink and it tastes nasty, that’s bad. But if the ‘nice’ drink is poisonous, then you shouldn’t drink it because poison is bad. If the ‘nasty’ drink is prescribed medicine, then you should drink it despite the nasty taste, because it is good for you. In this way, value judgements are generated and refined, as we learn more and more about the world.

The question ‘where evil originates from’ can only arise if you assume that the world somehow ‘ought’ to be good, for example, if it was created by a loving God. Then we have the ‘problem of evil’, which has been discussed in these pages. It is not a problem for me because I am an atheist. However, hypothetically, if God did exist then I see absolutely no reason why God should prevent all bad things from happening. How can human beings possibly be in a position to judge?

I once bought a car, an old Ford Capri with 3 litre engine which claimed (it had the decal) to be a special model, the RS3100. I called a classic car specialist round to look at it. When I phoned later, he said that the Capri was in a state which, in the second-hand car trade, is called ‘evil’. An evil car is one that is so badly corroded with rust, that it is not worth the time or expense to repair. If it had been an RS3100 (which it wasn’t, it was a fake!) it might have been worth the trouble.

The question, ‘Where do evil cars come from?’ would be judged silly. Rusting is a natural process, and cars that aren’t looked after, or kept in barns for years and years, are prone to rust away. ‘Where do evil people come from?’ is not a lot different from this. No new-born infant is evil. People go bad. It would probably be a lot easier to prevent any more cars from rusting away than it would be to prevent any more people becoming bad, or evil.


Melissa asked:

In order to answer the question, ‘What is the difference between good and evil in a person’, what would I need to know to answer this correctly?

Answer by Henk Tuten

I’ll answer your question from an evolutionary point of view. Evolution distinguishes no good and evil, it selects on effect. But in evolution of humans (very recent evolution) different cultures developed. The Roman Christian culture presumes reality as created, some sort of ‘intelligence’ behind Christian reality. Anything that doesn’t fit the interpreted design is considered as conflicting and labeled as ‘evil’. Obviously this a cultural matter.

So first you need to know who asked this question. More specifically: what is the culture of that person.

Good and Evil are cultural judgements. For instance in many cultures what is considered homosexuality, is judged as ‘evil’. Because it doesn’t fit the cultural ways of handling reality, and causes fear and anger

Evolution doesn’t judge. Homosexuality survived, so it is there. Point.

Now you can’t give this person an absolute difference between a good and an evil, but you can point out that in his or her culture some behavior is not accepted (labeled as evil). And give examples in his/her culture of culturally evil behavior, and of the cultural rules.

You can’t offer an ‘understanding’ of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ , but you can offer an insight in the workings of the cultural rules.

Distinguishing Good and Evil is a conflict way of treating reality. There are other ways, but Roman Christian Culture was quite effective in almost completely destroying them.


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