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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Well, ethics are an individual thing. The examples you cite seem to me to relate to a lack of civilization or education. Mankind progresses slowly in some places. We used to have human sacrifices every time an important man died. But we progressed. What is lacking in those modern horror stories is not so much religion as a lack of empathy for another human being. The ideology becomes more important than the rights of another being to go on living.
Stephen said: 'Take honor killings in the Middle East. Is it evil?'

To which you replied: 'The examples you cite seem to me to relate to a lack of civilization or education. Mankind progresses slowly in some places.'

You don't really mean that, do you?

Don't get me wrong - we have honour killings in the UK, too, and I don't support, condone or understand them. They horrify me. But I would hesitate to condemn them as 'a lack of civilization or education'. Just as whilst I disagree with them on every level imaginable, I would hesitate to categorise murders of doctors by anti-abortionists (in the US for example) in the same way.

I tend to think that in both those examples, I see folk whose world is fundamentally different to mine. Does that make them evil? Or does it make me so, because I wouldn't kill for either cause?

Maybe I should just go invade somewhere. Teach the natives the missionary position and denigrate their worthless gods.
I did mean what I said. Fanaticism is faith-based. Civilized people condemn killing human beings for religious reasons.
Maybe it's because I'm uncivilised and/or uneducated, but your argument makes no sense to me. It just seems like prejudice and elitism.
So the 47 Ronin story would be a sign of lack of civilization for Japan then, because if that wasn't an honor killing, I don't know what is.
The 47 declared war on a corrupt system. I suppose we could condemn war as uncivilized. They acted in defense of justice and individual rights and to protect others from being hurt by the same villain. We could get into a discussion about when killing is justified -- somewhat reminiscent of the "assassin novel" issue. Notice that the Japanese tale is ultimately tragic.
That's a good point, but you also talked about ideology becoming more important than the rights of another being to go on living. Doesn't fighting against a corrupt system fall under that category? The ronins' reasons were more important than the villain's right to go on living.

The Middle East fanatics are fighting against something that they feel is corrupt too, right? They feel that America, or perhaps the West in general is going against them, and they feel that anyone against them should die. So they have their own reasons too.

I don't see what the difference is.
I'm not sure that I agree that there is an increased taste for violence. I'm also uncomfortable with your "lack of civilization" comment. Those human sacrifices were a cultural thing. The ancient Aztecs would probably find many of the things that we do on a day to day basis evil and abhorrent. Just because we are educated doesn't mean we have the keys to the elevator to the moral high ground and get to tell other cultures that what they do is evil.

I know what I think of as good and what I think of as evil, and on a lot of those many people would probably agree with me, but someone from another culture or religious belief might be totally baffled by my views.

Bringing this back to crime fiction, I love really evil characters - ones I would be horrified to meet in real life, but they have to be real fleshed out characters and not just evil for evil's sake. I don't find Hannibal Lecter interesting. But I love Willeford's Freddie Frenger. Now, if you asked that blithe psychopath what was good and what was evil, he would come up with a totally different viewpoint. He doesn't see himself or the things he does as evil. He does things because he has to, or because people annoy him. He's not just a cardboard cutout. He's got his good points too :o) Books which draw the characters either all good or all evil I find flat and uninteresting. I like both my heroes and my antiheroes flawed.
On the whole, there is a lot to be said for keeping an eye on the "moral high ground." What is the alternative: anything goes? we must respect cultural differences no matter what? I think that's carrying PC a bit far. I don't know the character you refer to, but naturally murderers think themselves justified. Sometimes they even love their pets.
Oh I'm VERY un-pc. I just don't think that being educated makes a person better qualified to distinguish between good and evil than someone 'uneducated'.
And what does educated even mean anyway? Does having a degree automatically make someone educated? I know I don't feel any smarter because of one.

I agree with you, Donna. Keeping an eye on the moral high ground would be okay if there were definitive standards for that, but whose moral high ground are we keeping an eye on? If our moral values are different, who's to say which one is the "high ground"?

If I can say that my morals are the ones to live up to, then you have just as much right to say that yours are the ones to live up to. So I think respecting other people's culture is necessary if we ever want to live together peacefully. And I would laugh in the face of anyone who thinks the West is educated in other countries' cultures.

(And that's my briefest ever Crimespace comment :o) )


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