197. Should We Abandon the Concept of Evil?

I take the concept of evil very seriously and have written many posts on it over the years. But some think we should abandon the concept of evil altogether. In this post I want to briefly take a look at both sides of this issue.

Evil-skepticism is the view we should abandon the concept of evil. According to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry “The Concept of Evil”, evil-skeptics give three main reasons to abandon the concept of evil: “(1) the concept of evil involves unwarranted metaphysical commitments to dark spirits, the supernatural, or the devil; (2) the concept of evil is useless because it lacks explanatory power; and (3) the concept of evil can be harmful or dangerous when used in moral, political, and legal contexts, and so, it should not be used in those contexts, if at all.” 

Evil-revivalists disagree and think the concept has an important role of play in our lives. Here are four common reasons revivalists give for retaining it, reasons which can also offer us motivations for our inquiry into evil:

“First, we should not abandon the concept of evil because only the concept of evil can capture the moral significance of acts, characters, and events such as sadistic torture, serial killers, Hitler, and the Holocaust. As Daniel Haybron puts it “Prefix your adjectives [such as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’] with as many ‘very’s as you like; you still fall short. Only ‘evil’, it seems, will do”….According to this line of argument, it is hard to deny that evil exists; and if evil exists, we need a concept to capture this immoral extreme….A second argument in favour of the concept of evil is that it is only by facing evil, i.e., by becoming clear about its nature and origins, that we can hope to prevent future evils from occurring and live good lives….A third reason to keep the concept of evil is that categorizing actions and practices as evil helps to focus our limited energy and resources. If evils are the worst sorts of moral wrongs, we should prioritize the reduction of evil over the reduction of other wrongs such as unjust inequalities….A fourth reason not to abandon the concept of evil is that by categorizing actions and practices as evil we are better able to set limits to legitimate responses to evil. By having a greater understanding of the nature of evil we are better able to guard against responding to evil with further evils.” (SEP, “The concept of Evil”)

I side with the revivalists since I think we can approach evil scientifically and philosophically in ways that avoid both obscure religious ideas and complete inexplicability. To be sure, the word ‘evil’ can and has been used to unjustly demonize others and forestall any real inquiry into a situation. In The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 (Polity, 2006) Richard J. Bernstein claims “There is an all too familiar popular rhetoric of “evil” that becomes fashionable at such critical moments, which actually obscures and blocks serious thinking about the meaning of evil. “Evil” is used to silence thinking and to demonize what we refuse to understand” (x). And in his book On Evil (Routledge, 2004) Adam Morton warns that employing this rhetoric of evil can make us evil: “The danger is this. Thinking in terms of evil can give us the same attitudes as evil-doers. They often think their victims deserve what they get, that they are worthless scum, inferior beings, or dangerously alien. They often think, in fact, that their victims are evil. Thinking in terms of evil can, if we are not careful, make us accomplices in atrocity.” (6)

And it is not just ourselves we should worry about. Carelessly attributing evil to others can, as Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out in 1880, actually make them evil as well: “This is how all states now confront each other: they presuppose an evil disposition in their neighbor and a benevolent disposition in themselves. This presupposition is, however, a piece of inhumanity as bad as, if not worse than, a war would be; indeed, fundamentally it already constitutes an invitation to and cause of wars, because, as aforesaid, it imputes immorality to one’s neighbor and thereby seems to provoke hostility and hostile actions on his part.”  (Wanderer and His Shadow, section 284). In his book Daybreak (1881) he puts the point succinctly: “To think a thing evil is to make it evil” (Daybreak, aphorism 76).

Obviously these are important insights which should make us wary about using the term ‘evil’ in irresponsible and inaccurate ways. But from the misuse of the term in some cases it doesn’t logically follow it can’t be used to correctly diagnose, prioritize, and more effectively respond in other cases. Of course, much more would need to be said about what evil is and how a particular account of it can make sense of things in ways that flesh out the above reasons for maintaining evil-revivalism. I think some of my posts do just this: for example, my post on natural and moral evil which includes some recent work in the science of evil (here), my three-part series on the privation theory of evil which I defend (here), and my extended series on the various forms of demonic evil (here).

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