Now you might say evil is “immoral” or “wicked” or some other word, but this merely shifts the question. For then I must ask, What is immoral? What is wicked? It would not be an answer—you would be running in circles—if you said that what is “evil” is “immoral”.
What I’m after is an objective, non-circular definition. There are several possibilities. Incidentally, although many do not, atheists do hold with an absolute definition. The difficulty, as you will see, is justifying these definitions.
But first…This question riles. The immediate reaction, I have noticed, is to evade, to shift the burden, “Well you tell me your definition!” or “Oh yeah? Which religion is the best?” or “I don’t need some imaginary sky pixie to tell me!” or “Let me point out some evil or silly things that religious people said were or weren’t evil.”
Ouch! Touched a nerve, did we? All of these are non sequiturs, and weak ones at that. Full of emotion, though. I think it’s because people translate the question “What is evil” to the accusation “You are, or might be, or your beliefs cause you or others to be, evil.” That itself is another non sequitur, a distraction. But if it makes you feel better, I am casting no stones nor even aspersions. Indeed, like the person who denies gravity is still stuck to the ground, so too the atheist who rejects evil is still bound by absolute good and evil (let him who readeth understand).
That some religious act or espouse acting badly is not proof that evil doesn’t exist. Neither is it proof that some atheists act, or espouse acting, morally. That an atheist or theist holds the correct or incorrect moral belief is not proof of anything except that that atheist or theist holds the correct or incorrect moral belief, and that others don’t. Obvious, you will say; and you are right, but statements which bear repeating.
The same fallacy put differently: a person might say what is true and act against that truth, as the murderer who admits what he does is wrong. This does not make—obviously does not make—murder non evil.
Emphasis on another beloved fallacy. I will not tell you my definition, for it is beside the point. I am asking for yours. It is, as said, a non sequitur, to demand that you first start with my or with anybody else’s definition before you can answer. Suppose you asked me to define a triangle. Would you accept my answer, “You tell me your definition first! Ha!”? Would you say to yourself, “Wow, that Briggs is a clever guy. He really got me with that zinger!”? Or would you say, “Why can’t he answer a simple question? What’s he trying to hide? Maybe he doesn’t know the answer.”? And then suppose I insist, “Evil is lack of the number 14”. Does this absurdity therefore make your definition, whatever it is, correct? I pray you answer no.
Here are the possible positions for non-absolute evil. Have I missed any? Like, say, yours?
Evil does not exist except relatively
Different groups of folks will disagree whether an act is evil. Fads change. Views are malleable. What is evil to us was or is not evil to them. This viewpoint boils down to “Evil is what the majority of this group of people say it is.” The minority must suffer or at least acquiesce. This requires a majority but is not dependent on it. Agreement could be defined at some cut-point greater than the majority; say, an act is evil if two-thirds agree—but then at least a majority must agree with this shift, so we’re right back to a majority.
This view depends strangely on geography as well as, more obviously, time, points not well appreciated. Consider that majorities and minorities can be created wily nilly by finding just enough who agree with a view (and a minority which does not), regardless of where or when those others reside. So that, right now, if you can find at least one more who agrees that it is not evil to slit the throat of a third, then the act is not evil. And it doesn’t have to be now. You could appeal to a historical personage who also wanted the third person eliminated. This at least makes defining evil in practice easy. (It is no argument to say “Nobody does this” because (a) that is irrelevant for definitions and (b) it isn’t true: small groups often decide what is evil.) No matter what, it can’t be all people across all time, at the very least because we cannot now poll the people who will but have not yet lived.
Geographic and time barriers must be appealed to, as in for example “The majority who exist within the USA now”, but this is arbitrary, since these borders are arbitrary (and shifting) and so is the time horizon. Yet these boundaries are absolutely required if this view is to work. Odd, that.
If this view of evil is accepted, then these two situations are logically equivalent (logically): a majority in a specific culture and time thinks it an evil taboo to eat a certain fish, and Germans in 1940 thought it fine to dispose of unwanted people. Of course, others, calling on different geographies and sets of peoples, can point back and say eating the fish was not evil but burning the people was, but this decision is just as arbitrary and subject to revision as the original beliefs. Future geographically grouped people might again decide it is good to ban the fish and burn people.
It might be that the mental conflict of holding to this geography-time absurdity causes to group people to fall into “us” and “them” as a way to relieve the mental pressure, holding that morals exist for “us” but anything goes for “them.” However, this is psychology and not philosophy, so whether this is true is not of real interest here.
Might makes right
This is only slightly different than “evil is relative”, except here a majority is not required, merely muscle. In fact, any minority, even a minority of one, is sufficient as long as it is strong enough to impose its views on the minority. Time enters absolutely (muscle can only affect the now), and the geographical boundary requirement is no longer absurd (there are natural limits to reach).
Immediately, then, this view is more coherent, though certainly more objectionable if you are on the receiving end of the fist. What the muscle decides is evil is evil. The beleaguered can (mentally, anyway) disagree, but what are they going to do about it?
If this view is correct, then it becomes impossible to judge history. Whatever anybody got away with through force of arms just was not evil. Now, those put upon might disagree vehemently with this definition of evil, but unless they can build up enough support to overthrow their overseers, then it’s tough cookies for them.
The mighty may also hold to the correct view of evil and still be mighty, or again they may hold to an incorrect view. The question before us is, Is whatever the mighty say is evil defined as evil? Clearly not.
Pragmatism and utilitarianism
Evil is that which does not work. What works? Depends on the situation or goal. If you aspire to build a road through the jungle, then whatever works toward the goal is not evil, including (say) “recruiting” slave labor and all that that entails. If you say not then you must still define the context of works. That which is evil keeps society from working, perhaps? Intolerably vague or viciously circular. Maximum happiness? So that if ninety-nine people would admit glee (and all others are indifferent) at your demise you would, as a good little utilitarian, submit to the knife being drawn across your neck? Or would you say to the approaching mob, “What you’re doing is wrong!”? So much for universal pragmatism! Least amount of pain? What about those who like pain (and whom many support for so liking it)?
And just what is pain? The suffering and aches causes by exercise or practice? Clearly you could eliminate much pain by outlawing sports (progressives are after football even now). Is pain a fatty liver in late adulthood so that it is right to forbid, by force and cause pain, the pleasure-giving drinking of 16.1 ounces of soda pop? Can pain include mental distress, as advocates of euthanasia argue? Can pain be ascribed to a certain configuration of neurons in the brain, thus including both physical and mental distress? If so, then we’re back to wondering about those people who spank each other for (what they call) fun. Optimal brain states must then necessarily differ from person to person. And that means my brain state can conflict with yours, or that mine is maximized when yours is minimized (Mwahahaha!). This isn’t a joke; it is an objection, and a clear one—and a devastating one.
Either pragmatism has as its goal something external to people but desired by them, like good roads or effective weapons, and therefore anything goes to bring these goals to fruition, as hoped by socialists; or pragmatism is maximizing or minimizing some internal function, like pain, lack of hunger, or “brain states”, but then there is no way to resolve contests between people except by appealing to geographic-time relativism or might.
There is a good reason philosophers reject pragmatism, and that good reason is its incoherence. There is no way to infrangibly define any floating system of ethics based on what “works.” As a bonus, I left the best objection for last. Who—who exactly—gets to define “works”? (Me? Mwahahahaha!)
Evolution and biology
We don’t know how it did it, but evolution (which we are all accepting as an observed fact, at least arguendo: by this I mean it is a fallacy to chirp on and on about people not accepting evolution because here it is a truth) equipped us with a sense of right and wrong. Evil is doing what is wrong evolutionarily, in the sense evil harms our fitness or reproductive abilities or something like that. Thus abortion, same-sex “marriage”, euthanasia, pornography, adoption, contraception, masturbation and so forth, since they all each of them harm one’s own reproductive success, are all evil. Right?
Now it is only an observed correlation, and beside the point philosophically, but it is a curious correlation that those who hold with atheism tend (tend) to hold positive views of the list just given. There is philosophical meat to be had, though. Because the disagreement means what? That people disagree! And we are done; this disagreement just is the proof evolution cannot decide what is evil. For if we are all here by evolution (and we are) then how is it evolution causes you to give one definition of evil and me another? This can only imply that whatever views we have are arbitrary, or that if one view does happen to match the correct definition of evil it does so only accidentally (and how do we judge?).
There is no way to list which behaviors are in accord with evolution and which not, not if you say evolution causes behaviors, because then all behaviors are caused by evolution. There is no way to “reach above” or “step outside” evolution and do something at variance with it. We are “stuck” in the evolutionary stream of events. What “feels” like evil to you isn’t really evil, it’s just a feeling caused by evolution. That my feeling differs from yours is therefore no conflict (to evolution), for who said evolution had to be consistent? Variation is, after all, what drives evolution. That some of us “feel” it’s swell to slaughter others of us is what increases our fitness (or whatever).
Evil doesn’t exist
Evil doesn’t exist. It’s only an opinion. What happens, happens. The universe is cold, pitiless, indifferent. Best to hold a gun and say you are against guns (so others don’t have them). Hunker down and stay away from danger zones. Get away with what you can, for nothing really matters in the end. Imagine all the people coming together as one? Hey, a good thing to preach because it keeps me safe, which means that evil is really bad things happening to me.
Even this doesn’t work as a definition, not if the “me” proviso is included. Saying what is evil is bad things happening to you means you have a universal goal: yourself. What happens when the other guy, who has the same goal and his eye on your wife, acts on his belief? Who arbitrates? We are at a combination of might and the vague hope enough other people agree you and yours are worth protecting. As the kiddies say, good luck with that.
No, the only coherent view is to say evil doesn’t exist, which necessarily must include admitting whatever happens to you (or to anybody, including to your kids, if they haven’t been aborted) is not evil. It isn’t good, either. It just is. And that is just what I set out to prove.
There are other possibilities, but all appear to be variations on the main themes. Tradition? That’s geographic-time relativism. Introspection? Same. Conclave-type agreements? Same. Evil is what is against the law. More might than relativistic tradition, but both are there. Evil is what is immoral? We already did that. Everything boils down to floating, oscillating, at-sea opinion or muscle, which is opinion expressed with force or believable threat of force.
Update Please don’t let’s rely on the I-don’t-about-your-tone fallacy, perhaps the internet’s most common. If you can’t address the actual arguments above, then please say so.
Update Many responses. Very few answering the question, “What is evil?” If you’re response does not include this, you have failed.
Be nice. Remember, we’re just chatting. Just to keep us sane, I beg you will start your comments with the same headings I used. As in “Evolution and biology: here is why I think you are wrong, Briggs.” Otherwise we’ll all get lost. See also the header above. Server troubles cause me to clear each and every comment by hand. That is why yours isn’t yet showing. It will.
Update Comments appear to be restored. I’ll be mostly away from the computer today, but have some access. Let me know if you’re having trouble.