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.