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.

Thoughts?

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I have to side with Ray, Steven, and Christa. We're animals. Animals who grew bigger brains because we started killing and eating other animals. We will always have a dark side. Good and Evil are religious/societal concepts.
I find it easiest to deal with good and bad on a practical level. To me, "good" usually means unselfish, mindful of others and the world around you, and "bad" is the opposite--self-absorbed to the point of putting your desires immoderately ahead of others'. Since everyone has tendencies to both selfish and selfless behavior depending on the situation, there's no need to paint anyone as excessively heroic or villainous. I find excessive characters harder to believe.
Right!
I'm digging this thread. Lots of insightful comments here!
I disagree with your definition of evil being an absence of moral obligation. As you stated, evil is needed for good to exist, and if goodness is moral, then evil must be too.
As Scooby Doo once said: Rhuuh?

Oh, I get it...

God is love. Love is blind. Stevie Wonder is blind. Therefore, Stevie Wonder is God.

LOL. Actually, I see what you're getting at, John. Good point. Anyone (smarter than me) care to address that logical conclusion?
I just wanted to see if anyone out there still believes in the concepts of absolute right and absolute wrong. It seems most of the responses are from a "moral relativism" point of view, and that's okay. I can respect that, even though I don't necessarily agree.
...humans over time have devised certain rules for human conduct, and that some of them make sense and some of them don't, and that they're constantly evolving.

I agree. I just think there are certain acts that are universally considered evil, regardless of culture, religion, etc. The origin of such evil (nature, nurture, sex, drugs, rock and roll, Satan, a chemical imbalance in the brain...) is largely irrelevent. Those who commit the acts have to, in one way or another, be eliminated.

Evil, in my opinion, has tended historically to arise as the result of moral absolutism: the big institutional genocides of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were all sold to the people who carried them out as right/wrong, good/evil, us/them propositions--so it's probably a good thing that many of us are wary of that kind of thinking.

I agree with this as well. But, In the strictest sense of moral relativism, you contradict yourself here. If the poor guy with the bad childhood and a chemical imbalance of the brain isn't evil, then, by definition, neither is the lynch mob. In both cases, the perpetrators are doing what they think is the right thing. I would say that both acts are evil (for lack of a better term) and that, as a civilized society, we have an moral obligation to thwart such aberrant behavior.
Humans do their darkest work as a matter of consensus—it's one of our defining characteristics.

True. But it's always nice to have a central character to blame (Hitler, Bin Laden...). In my wip, a charismatic religious leader has recruited a secret army of assassins to pave the way for the second coming of Christ. My right-wing loony-tunes preacher, of course, thinks he's doing the right thing, and has convinced his followers they're doing God's will. So, from a moral relativist's POV, is this character evil? Or, is he merely following his own (perverted, IMO) moral code, as valid as any other? Hmmm...
You can't blame everything on psychosis. There are thousands of perfectly sane (from a clinical standpoint) people among us who would go to war against the Antichrist. With the right charismatic, anointed leader, presenting compelling evidence from the holy scriptures, there's no telling what they might do. Yes, even in 21st century America.

The preacher character in my story is the villain, but he's not psychotic. Although I guess one could argue that any faith-based compulsion is a form of mental illness. Then, when you get down to it, we're all mentally ill in one way or another.

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