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An article by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

What is evil?

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What is Evil?

An article by Marty Kaplan caught my eye, titled: "Is There Such A Thing as Evil And is Trump It?." 1

A lot of people seem to be thinking about President Trump and evil (or Evil) recently, as a result of the policy to separate children from their illegal immigrant parents at the U.S./Mexican southern border. Comments that Trump has made in his Twitter rants have triggered the same thinking. Some have equated Trump with Hitler.

We need to remember the story about "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" lest we start accusing people of being evil when they are simply bad or narcissistic people, and true EVIL loses its sense of real horror.

Dictionary definitions aren’t much help in leading us to an understanding of what evil or Evil is. One definition states: profoundly immoral and malevolent. Malevolent means: hostile, rancorous, venomous, vicious, vindictive, malignant. Evil causes serious harm and suffering.

Not all harm or injury caused is evil. We don’t apply the term to poisonous or thorny plants, or dangerous animals or destructive storms. We apply the term to the actions of people.

I think evil appears in many shapes and disguises. Some see Evil as a living entity, a supernatural Being. For those folk, a person can be possessed by an Evil spirit or the Devil himself. Theologians have discussed this aspect for centuries. I will avoid this understanding of Evil for this essay.

I agree that there are some people that are EVIL. Psychopaths and sociopaths seem to not be bothered by a conscience.  Many appear to have no empathy.

Captain G.M. Gilbert, the Army psychologist who interviewed the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazis after World War II said:

"In my work with the defendants I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men."

I am not thinking of these extreme cases here.

I think Trump is bothered by a conscience. But it isn’t a conscience that expresses empathy for others. It is a conscience that looks out for Trump, attempts to keep him from getting hurt. Yet many of Trumps actions, designed to protect himself actually are what makes him viewed as a pariah by many. Though I don’t think he has enough self-awareness to realize this. Does this make him evil?

I will focus on a "lessor" form , or more "common" form, of evil. This form of evil is NOT understood to be a living entity of some sort, separate unto itself that can take possession of people against their will. People that commit these forms of evil involving possession don’t look evil, they seem like perfectly normal folk and that makes the evil they cause difficult to understand. And perhaps, this makes the evil they do seem so much worse. Perhaps this is where the idea of possession originated. The evil action seemed so out of character that the only explanation some people could come up with was the possession by some outside entity. This also excuses (in their minds) their own actions or another’s actions. ("The Devil made me do it!")

Here I will be looking at evil as an extreme side of human nature -- the extreme opposite to the good side of our nature. This form is connected to a human being’s actions and/or to their intent and raises the questions:

  • Can an action be evil where there is no intent?

  • Or is it the intent behind the act that makes the action evil?

Or is it the harm that is done? Is an action that causes mental distress or a beating that causes bruises but no permanent physical damage an act of evil or just bad behavior?

Isn’t this some of the reasoning that went on over the arguments about the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques.". Many of the techniques were about causing psychological harm, not permanent physical harm, and were not seen by the perpetrators as being wrong and definitely not evil. I wonder if "the ends justify the means" reasoning was at work there?

I believe that "Once you become that which you abhor, you have lost the war." This means that once you abandon your own professed principles, for "the greater good" or some "greater" purpose, once you "do unto others what you find abhorrent in their actions", you have succumbed to the evil side of your own nature and lost the battle for the moral high ground. You have violated the Golden Rule which forms the core behavioral rule in so many of the world's religions.

Does a claim of ignorance (as in "I didn’t know that would happen"), excuse an action that causes great harm? Especially when an average person should have or would have known better? Is it evil to claim you have the right to believe whatever you want, when those beliefs harm other people? Is it evil to distort or misrepresent what another person says or the findings of science or history when those words and findings don’t support your personal beliefs? Or do we want to say that people that do these things are wrong, or bad, or misguided -- but not evil?

To begin to think about these questions consider the following scenarios.

  • The person that yells fire (where there isn’t one) in a crowd and causes a stampede that causes death and/or great injuries.

  • The anti-abortion protestor that screams hateful words at women entering family planning clinics.

  • The hate monger that stirs up passions in a fiery speech and then claims they didn’t mean to cause the riot or acts of violence and the deaths and injuries that occurred.  They claim they aren’t responsible for what someone else did.

What about cyber bullies? Consider the story of a woman that hounded a teenage girl until the girl committed suicide. The woman insisted she wasn’t responsible. Was she? Does age make a difference in determining whether an action is bad behavior or evil behavior?

Is President Trump responsible for the rise in hate crimes in this country? His tweets and speeches have certainly stirred the passions of his base. Shouldn’t a president try to raise us up, try to appeal to our "better angels" rather than pandering to our baser instincts and the "devils" in our nature?

Some situations bring out the worst in people, think about mob violence. The person however has to be a ready and willing participant. And the fiery rhetoric is their license to act. Is Trump evil or just a "bad" or "misguided" or "ignorant" or "selfish" person?

Some try to separate the action from the actor claiming it is the action that is evil NOT the actor. I think our intentional actions are a reflection of who we are, on the inside, the state of our character, of our soul. I don’t think we can honestly separate the intentional action from the actor.

It is a consciousness of social norms that keeps the evil side of our nature constrained in most situations. I think our president sees himself as being above or not bound by the norms that constrain others. Does this make him evil? Or just a social pariah?

We must acknowledge that accidents with bad consequences do happen.  An accident here is an unintended and unforeseeable action. It comes back to the issue of intent.

The mothers who founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) realized that you can’t separate the actor from their actions. BUT they also realized the problem action was the intent to drive drunk. The drunk drivers didn’t intend to have an accident that killed or harmed someone.  So MADD focused on stopping people from driving drunk and promoted the passage of laws that made that action -- even where there were no accidents -- a crime. The laws have since been extended to driving under the influence of drugs that impair judgment and of distracted driving (such as texting while driving or talking on a cell phone). The person should have foreseen that an accident was a more likely while they were driving distracted or driving under the influence.

In regards to the Trump policy of separating children from their illegal immigrant parents the administration argued that their intent wasn’t to harm the children. Their intent was to deter parents from crossing the border illegally.

BUT their actions did harm the children. How could anyone look at the photos and hear the children crying and not think that they were suffering? So where does the evil lie?

I think M. Scott Peck in his book "The People of the Lie" can help us understand this issue. 2 The evil is connected to the lie. Or in this case the multiple lies that were told. And in the attempt, by some, to live a life built around lies. Without the lies that are told to justify and sanctify the action one wonders if the action would ever have happened? Would their conscience have kicked in and stopped them from causing harm? Perhaps it is because they don’t have a conscience , or a poorly developed one, that leads them to tell all the lies.

The Trump administration intentionally ignored the facts that are known about the harm caused by separating parents from their children. They intentionally claimed they were following the letter of the law when we are told by others there is no such law. They intentionally tried to blame the Democrats for the whole mess when we are told by others the policy was all their doing and they could stop it at any time. Perhaps they intentionally refused to consider all the ins and outs and consequences their action would cause? Does that make what they did, their actions, and themselves evil or just stupid?

Great wisdom can be found in many places. The Bible tells us in the Ten Commandments "not to bear false witness."  That means to not tell lies. And don’t forget the Golden Rule"

"Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you."

This is a teaching that is common to many religions. Confucius called it the Ethic of Reciprocity.

Sir Walter Scott in his book "Marmion", and Shakespeare in his play "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and in a made for TV movie of that play expressed the same message:

    "O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!" 3

One lie leads to another until you have created that "tangled web" of half truths and outright deception that distorts and misleads and the "truth" is hopelessly lost. Which by the way, is the intent behind lies -- o obfuscate, to hide or confuse.

Then there is the story of Pinocchio! Written in 1888. It is the story of a wooden puppet that wanted to become a real boy. In order to do so he had to stop telling lies and develop a conscience!

Can we distinguish between "white lies" and "evil lies"? Consider the people that hid Jews and runaway slaves and lied to the authorities about their actions.

Evil is connected to the INTENT of the lie or the lies that we tell ourselves and that are told to others. The lies that attempt to excuse our behavior or place the blame for our behavior on someone else. The lies that ignore the facts, in favor of "fake" news, that supports our bias and prejudice and justifies and sanctifies our actions. Evil is connected to the lies that distort one’s perception of reality.

I will end with a passage from Epictetus from a book "The Art of Living:" A new Interpretation by Sharon Lebell: 4

"Be a Citizen of the World.

One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our human contract is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, or rich, or well educated, but to all our human brethren. View yourself as a citizen of a worldwide community and act accordingly."

One can’t "pursue one’s own highest good" or the "good of a nation" by attempting to live a life or to build a narrative built around lies intended to deceive one’s self or others.

BUT is such deceit evil behavior or bad behavior? Are the perpetrators evil people or just bad people?

Perhaps evil is determined by a combination of factors, the lies, the intent behind the lies and behind the actions, the demonstrated lack of a conscience and/or of empathy and the result: the outcome, the actual mental and physical harm done.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Marty Kaplan, "Is There Such A Thing As Evil — And Is Trump It?," Forward, 2018-JUN-30, at:

  2. book cover M. Scott Peck, "People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil," Touchstone; 2 edition (1998-JAN), Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
  3. Walter Scott quotations, Brainy Quote, at:
  4. book cover Epictetus and Sharon Lebell, "The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness," (2013-FEB). Page 95. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.

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How you may have arrived here:

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Original posting: 2018-JUL-10
Latest update : 2018-JUL-28
Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys

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