I would describe evil as the absence of moral obligation. Since morality, Goodness, it seems, is peculiar to one species, it would be logical to deduce that Evil is peculiar to the same. One cannot exist without the other. That being the case, what exactly causes the absence of moral obligation? Nature? Nurture? Sex? Drugs? Rock and roll? Could it be...SATAN?!!?

A philosopher and naturalist named Robert Ardrey wrote:

"We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen."

I don’t think evil can be defined in terms of evolution, as Ardrey has suggested. Nature, left alone, without the intervention of human beings, thrives in perfect order. When animals kill, it is for a reason. Sex is for procreation. An ape might become violent, protecting its territory or its mate, but I’ve never heard of an ape torturing another ape for the mere pleasure of seeing it in pain. I’ve never heard of an ape clubbing its sleeping family to death.

So, let’s just say that Evil and Goodness are unique to one species--Homo Sapiens. Again, what causes one of such species to become Mother Theresa while another becomes Jeffrey Dahmer?

One can argue, and make a good case, that a person’s environment shapes his/her attitude toward morality. Abused children, for example, sometimes become abusing adults. But what about the kid who, for no reason we can ascertain, peels the skin off of toads for the pleasure of watching them suffer and die? What about the same kid who, mesmerized by flame, takes a book of matches and torches his own house?

Anyone who has seen children grow from infancy knows that each is born with a certain personality, certain talents, etc. With proper nurture, most grow to be responsible adults with a strong sense of moral obligation. Some, however, do not. Prisons are bursting at the seams with murderers, rapists, child abusers, arsonists, thieves, many of them from perfectly good families and with siblings from the same circumstances. Why did Johnny stab thirty-seven women and leave them in dumpsters, while brother Billy sits at home with his wife and kids and golden retriever and is never late to his job at the bank?

We like to explain Evil away with words like environment, upbringing, poverty, and even mental illness. We like to intellectualize, to deny that Evil exists. Or, if we’re religious, we can easily dismiss it as a supernatural phenomenon. But is any of that right?

I'm not buying Ardrey's explanation either. To say we all started out, millions of years ago, as selfish, scared, and aggressive, and then rose above it, is no more plausible than saying we all started out perfect and then fell. It's the same argument, really, only in reverse.

What is Evil? Where did it come from? How can we rid the world of it?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I know that Evil exists. Sure as I know that Goodness does. They exist side-by-side, in each of us, in that funky overgrown hunk of flesh between our ears. If we define evil as the absense of moral obligation, and agree that Goodness and Evil are unique among humans, then to deny that Evil exists is to deny that humanity exists. With the tools we have, and limited empirical data, we can only say that Evil and Goodness exist in varying degrees, dependent on the brain one is born with and the environment one is thrown into.

It’s one of the reasons I write fiction, to explore the dichotomies of the human experience.


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I think anyone is capable of anything given the right circumstances. A pedophile can raise puppies, love them, care fore them and use them as bait. A man of the cloth can pray for or prey on those most needy of his attention. Young men and women can be convinced to sacrifice themselves and each other for a romantic notion of love of country or heavenly rewards. Our characters come to life for readers through extraordinary circumstances that make them heros or redeemers or judge, jury, and executioner. Could I? Should I ? Would I ? It turns the page.
Very interesting, Karyn. Circumstances do indeed play a part. It's almost impossible to fathom some of the atrocities perpetrated against humanity during Germany's Nazi regime, for example. But, were many of those involved merely victims of the circumstances they were unwittingly thrown into? Did some of them think, somehow, that they were actually doing the right thing? Has history taught us anything? Is killing other people ever the right thing to do?

Or is it the unescapable evil that is part of our being?
I think most people would consider the murderer the bad guy, and the character who brings him to justice the good guy. We can sympathize with the bad guy sometimes, and there are usually shades of gray on both sides, but it would be difficult not to recognize murder as an immoral choice, and seeing that justice is served as a moral one.

Laws exist because crime exists. If there were no such thing as murder, for example, then we wouldn't need laws to define it and outline systems of punishment for it. We constantly define and judge each other in moral terms. Good and Evil are, of course, theological terms, extreme and on opposite ends of the moral spectrum; but, since human beings invented the terms and since most of us would agree that it behooves a society to establish laws, I don't see where humanity is lost by giving one character positive human traits and another character negative ones. You can argue semantics but, when you get down to it, the fact is, some people fall toward that negative end of the spectrum we recognize as Evil, while others fall toward the positive end we recognize as Good.
I think it's usually characters' methods and motives that cause us to label them good or bad. If a character is motivated by greed, for example, and commits a premeditated violent act to achieve his goals, then it's pretty clear that the character falls toward the Evil end of the spectrum.

I agree that we should flesh our characters out in 3D as much as possible, though.
Sorry to say, I totally disagree, Ray. Mind you, I dislike books that preach at me and I have generally little respect for religious judgmentalism. But human beings have emotions and reason and these are directed toward assuring survival and a degree of happiness. Logic (our parents?) tells us that there are good behaviors and bad (evil?) behaviors when living with others, and that those who harm others should be identified and constrained from continuing.
Mysteries, of course, are based on this assumption. Novels that fit more comfortably under the tag "crime novel" may get away with elevating crime, the criminal mind, or amoral protagonists to become entertaining and thus acceptable. Come to think of it, soap operas have done this for years. Most of their major characters have committed crimes and been rehabilitated to live happily ever after. It makes a good story.
What bothers me in crime fiction is when these qualities are capitalized, as if to say they are absolute, Manichean parties that you join or the name of a species that you are born to. Too often (for me) it's a way of making violence entertaining by giving us the opportunity to take sides the way you might do in a sports match. "Go Goodness! Kill Evil Scum! Mutilate, titlillate, wait till we retaliate! Gooooo team!" It's violence without consequences. When you make Evil a different species, or attribute it to cosmic forces, it excuses us from being involved except as loyal fans of Team Good.

A book that really got me thinking about this was a serial killer thriller with Da Vinci Code overtones. An ancient manuscript revealed that the bad guys were actually descendants of a fallen angel or some such thing who had committed miscegenation with humans. So in effect, evil killers were a subspecies, a genetically different strain. Pure eugenics, and way too reminiscent of the ugly stuff that was so popular in the first half of the twentieth century that justified unimaginable violence as genetic cleansing.

Whether this kind of absolutist separation of Good and Evil is based on morality or science or social science, it makes me deeply uncomfortable. That's why I like writers like George Pelecanos who portray good and evil in small caps, with real reasons behind characters actions, but real choices made, too. Portraying evil people as monsters only lets us enjoy their antics without ever having to wonder about our own choices.

As you say, exploring the human experience is what makes me interested in crime fiction. Using Good and Evil as a simplistic false dichotomy is almost always an indicator of bad crime fiction for my tastes.
I don't know. I think a lot of people enjoy a clear delineation between the hero and villain. James Patterson has sold more Alex Cross novels than Carter has liver pills. Good vs. Evil works for me, especially when Good wins.

Putting my flak jacket on now...
I didn't mean when *you* capitalize the words, Jude! I'm a peaceable person. Nonviolent. Only in books do I appreciate it. Besides, it's way too hot to wear Kevlar.

I can't stand James Patterson, though I realize millions love his formula (and countless writers imitate it). It's partly the writing style that puts me off, but it's mostly the emptiness of the formula. It's a bit like fundamentalist forms of religion, which also seem empty to me though comfortingly they have all the answers.

When Dostoevsky wrote about evil, it had a disarmingly human face. When he wrote about a truly good man (Mishkin in The Idiot) the character was human, too: disabled by epileptic fits, ineffectual in solving problems, and he came to a sticky end. (He's one of my favorite characters in literature.) His Jesus (in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor) fell afoul of authorities because he wouldn't provide answers. Ambiguity as a capital offense. That's a moral approach that works for me. Don't avoid it, don't pretend morality doesn't matter, but don't give easy answers. We're all capable of evil, and we generally have the capacity to be good.
"When animals kill, it is for a reason."

People kill for a reason, too. It might not be one that makes much sense to anyone else, but there's a reason there. And when it comes down to it, we're animals, too. We just have brains that help us rationalize the illusion of civilization.

"Sex is for procreation. An ape might become violent, protecting its territory or its mate, but I’ve never heard of an ape torturing another ape for the mere pleasure of seeing it in pain. I’ve never heard of an ape clubbing its sleeping family to death."

Actually, they do. Chimpanzees in particular are known for their violent natures. They've been known to engage in gang rapes and murders, particularly males against females, but males against males has also been observed.

And beyond just procreation, the Bonobo chimpanzee has been found to engage in sex for what appears to be nothing but pleasure, though sometimes they seem to do it for barter, too, trading sexual favors for fruit, for example.

We're not that far removed from other animals.

Personally, I have a problem with the concept of evil. I'm with Ray on the whole theological construct idea. I think it pulls the responsibility of one's actions away and makes an excuse out of it. Like chalking up one's violent actions to alcoholism or drug use. There's always something more there than a simple label can define. Malevolence, cruelty, violence. Those are concepts I can get behind, but the idea of an overarching "good" or "evil" just doesn't make any sense to me. It feels too simple an idea and too restrictive to take into account the myriad motivations of humanity.

So, for me, basing characters on that kind of breakdown makes them seem flat and very one-sided. Dudley Doo-Right or Snidely Whiplash. And sometimes that can work in a story. I can think of half a dozen right off the bat where that sort of characterization does it justice. But most of the time it leaves me wanting more as a reader.
I'm with Ray and Stephen. "Evil" is just a high falutin' way of saying "not me." Of disassociating ourselves from our own inner darkness. People kill for the most noble reasons and help others less fortunate than themselves for dark and selfish reasons.

"Evil" is clearly in the eye of the beholder. A mouse thinks your cat is evil but you don't. An anti-abortion fanatic feels they are totally in the right for firebombing an abortion clinic and thinks the doctor who runs the clinic is an evil baby killer. Terrorists think they will go to heaven when they drive a car bomb into a rival embassy.

Personally, I find white hat / black hat fiction to be dull as dirt. As far as my reading, I'm all about shades of grey.
The way doesn't justify the means. Most writers of assassin series have worked very carefully at reserving assassination for cases where the target is guilty of horrendous crimes but cannot be touched or restrained by legal means.
The reader interest in assassin series is linked to the increased taste for violence, but most readers like their cake and eat it, too. In other words, they like the killing to be justified. Assassin books are essentially about eradicating evil in the most efficient manner.
Not sure that the mouse thinks in ethical terms. Or for that matter the anti-abortion fanatic.
"Or for that matter the anti-abortion fanatic."

Oh, I think the anti-abortion fanatic absolutely does think in ethical terms. I suspect most fanatics do. It might not be a particularly deep thought, but I suspect in many cases that the driving force is one of belief. That's the root of fanaticism, after all.

I remember trying to help a friend of mine with a philosophy class and he was having a lot of trouble with the idea of moral absolutism versus moral relativism. I couldn't get him to understand the relativistic concept because he was so staunchly absolutist. This is right, this is wrong. Trying to get across to him that what he considers evil and morally abhorrent others might see the exact opposite.

Take honor killings in the Middle East. Is it evil? I find the idea horrifying, but whole slews of people see it as a completely justified action. Evil comes from the point of view of the believer.

I would agree that a lot of writers and readers want the killing to be justified in some sort of moral context. It's a pretty common point of view. And I'm fine with that sort of book, as long as the characters are complex enough to keep my interest and are consistent in who they are.


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