The Nature Of Evil

By Jessica Pham

If we do not assume that God exists, it appears we no longer have a source of morality; the notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ become ‘meaningless’. This is the amoralist viewpoint: evil does not exist; it is an invented entity which has no tangible form in reality. Although we appear to encounter it in our everyday lives, it can be argued that this is simply a religious notion to encourage us to be the opposite: good. The portrayal of Satan and Hell in the Bible are juxtaposed against God, Angels and Heaven to show us, basically, which side we should be on. Another amoralist argument is that it does not tangibly exist though the media use the word to sell newspapers: it draws our attention and makes explicit that the individual who has been branded by it has truly overstepped moral boundaries.

So what is ‘evil’? The basic definition is something which is ‘morally bad’. Yet immediately problems arise here: moral codes can differ greatly between cultures and religions, so does a universal perception of evil even exist? If we consider the ‘moral relativist’ view, evil is defined by local ideas and customs. Thus, what we consider evil in England may in fact be the norm in other countries. Take Yemen, for example. In June last year, the Los Angeles Times reported of a case where a 10-year-old girl sought a divorce from her 30-something husband, who ‘beat her and forced her to have sex’. Ultimately, the girl had to pay him compensation to be divorced under Sharia Law. It is a delicate issue: if only local perception of evil applies, what can be said of the Nazi regime? The contemporary belief in Germany was that Hitler was doing a good thing, which suggests under moral relativism that Hitler was not evil at all.

This notion appears absurd: merely believing you are doing good does not justify evil acts. So let’s consider the moral universalism perspective. The idea is that something is considered evil if that is the general consensus amongst all human beings. In consequence, although Hitler was not considered evil on a local scale, the rest of the world perceived his actions as evil. Moral universalism indeed appears consistent here.

But the question remains: how do we determine if someone is evil? The definition ‘morally bad’ is of little help, considering that theft, whilst universally considered morally wrong, is not often referred to as an act of evil. In contrast, a child abuser, rapist or murderer is often branded ‘evil’ in English media, underlining that there are different extents of evil. Strictly speaking, theft is evil. However, the media saves the e-word for attention-grabbing headlines about more depraved individuals. This is reinforced by the argument that certain wrongs, due to human frailty, are more easily condoned than others. All human beings are innately flawed: jealousy, for instance, could have been the underlying reason for resorting to theft, when complemented by a hunger for a better lifestyle. Then again, a husband who murders his wife out of jealous possessiveness is not given the public’s mercy; it is difficult to determine why some acts are considered more evil than others.

For now, with regards to the media at least, there appears to be a common criterion. Perhaps some morals are more important than others: murder is therefore severely immoral, whilst theft is to a lesser extent. In addition, it appears that individuals labelled as ‘evil’ have often abused a position of power or out of character. Evil can therefore be seen as not only breaking the moral code but being deviant from the norm. Vanessa George was a nursery school worker, described as ‘an angel… lovely, really friendly and happy to help’. Does this sound like a paedophile? Indeed, George was recently convicted of sexual assault and the making and distributing of pornographic images of children under her care. This is evil.

Vanessa George’s example illustrates that no one is incapable of committing the most immoral acts. The two 10-year-old boys who abducted and murdered James Bulger in 1993, in the most brutal of circumstances, raise the question of what drives people to evil. Can we be born evil, by the fact of human nature, or is it nurtured by the environment around us?

It seems hard to believe that a newborn baby could ever be considered evil. Yet there are some inherent diseases which cause personality or mental disorders which in some cases result in acts of immorality. Research by Oxford University in 2006 indicated that almost a fifth of homicides and attempted homicides were committed by people with severe psychiatric disorders. Nonetheless, these individuals are often not portrayed by the media as ‘evil’ to Vanessa George’s extent or that of the James Bulger murderers, for instance. Outrage in both of these cases resulted because the wrongdoers were entirely unexpected culprits.

Some schools of thought believe that although humans are born good, we are ‘bound to destroy it’. Hence, as babies we are somewhat a ‘clean sheet’ but by human nature, become increasingly immoral until we reach a balance that is our own moral standard. Although human flaws can be suppressed, no one is ever entirely free of jealousy or pride, for instance – and everyone has lied at least once in their life. It is therefore argued that humans are inherently evil and have the potential to commit evil acts.

It must be noted, however, that outside influence is required for these human frailties to be manifested in their most extreme forms. Psychologist Alice Miller, noted for her extensive research on child abuse, argued that Hitler’s ‘brutal’ authoritarian upbringing significantly contributed to his later ‘mercilessness’ and ‘contempt for human beings’. This reinforces the nurture argument: we are shaped by the events and people around us. No one can be truly evil without an outside influence.

Perhaps the James Bulger murderers were too young to be conditioned to extreme ‘evil’; rather, they were influenced by a horror film and acted out of childish whim. As for Hitler, that he ‘set out to do what he thought was good’ was also noted by actor Will Smith and many scholars, debating the nature of Hitler’s villainy, would agree. In contrast, some say that this was merely a ‘mask’ to allow Hitler to justify his knowingly evil acts. With so many counter arguments, it is clear that for most of us – amoralists aside – the nature of evil is a difficult one to discern.

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