Sunday, 4 November 2018

What Is "Evil" Anyway?

I found this Twitter thread insightful, given its assumptions. I think that, perhaps inadvertently, it highlights the difficulties of honest discussion of evil in a secular context. The author laments:

It is beyond us, today, to conclude that we have enemies whose moral universe is such that loyalty to our own morality requires us to understand it and them as evil.
That is, evil means moral principles (and the people who hold them) which are incompatible with our own. That definition is honest and logical, and I think probably the best one can do under physicalist assumptions. Unfortunately it makes evil entirely subjective; it means other people can accurately describe us and our principles as evil in just the same way as we describe them as evil. All "evil" must be qualified as "evil according to me" or "evil according to you".

This is a major problem because (almost?) nobody actually thinks or talks about evil this way in day to day life, neither explicitly nor implicitly. Instead we think and act as if "evil" is an objective fact independent of the observer. Try tacking on to every expression of moral outrage the caveat "... but I acknowledge that other people have different moral assumptions which are objectively just as valid". It doesn't work.

Christians and many other monotheists avoid this problem by identifying a privileged frame of moral reference: God's. Our moral universe may or may not align with God's, or perhaps we don't care, or we may have trouble determining what God's is, but at least it lets us define evil objectively.

The Twitter thread raises a further issue: when one encounters evil people — people whose moral universe is incompatible with our own — what shall we do? Without a privileged frame of moral reference, one can't honestly seek to show them they are wrong. At best one can use non-rational means, including force, to encourage them to change their assumptions, or if that fails, perhaps they can be suppressed and their evil neutralized. This too is most unsatisfactory.

The Christian worldview is a lot more hopeful. We believe in a standard by which all will be measured. We believe in God's justice for transgressions. We believe in redemption through Jesus for those who fall short (i.e. everyone). We seek to love those who (for now) reject God's moral universe ... a group which sometimes includes ourselves. We see that even those most opposed or indifferent to God's purposes can change. These beliefs are not purely subjective, but grounded in objective truths about what God has done and is doing in the world.


  1. Hi Robert, my first thought is that not every one who thinks differently to me is evil; they may hold different values but it may be a bit much to describe them as evil. Many atheists put some Christians to shame in their care for others, simply because they believe that all we have is each other. Secondly, we need to make sure that we have understood God's Word and standard's correctly. We need to believe that he will lead us in to ever greater understand of what is right.

    1. Those are good points.

      I think the definition of evil I lifted from the Twitter author is quite subtle; one could say that even if someone holds to moral principles that are different to ours, they're not necessarily *incompatible* with ours. For example, following Paul, they might believe vegetarianism is morally necessary, while we don't, but that doesn't make them evil.

      More importantly, even if we, as Christians, identify someone's moral outlook as evil in some aspect, we don't let that define our view of them --- Jesus died for them too, we love our enemies, and to your last point which I wholly agree with, we hesitate to judge lest we be judged.

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  3. Long ago in high school, I decided that if I truly understood something, I could write a computer program to do it. By that standard, I do not understand moral principles. I think I have some stories that I believe give moral guidance (such as the story of the good Samaritan), but any moral guidelines that I have tend to have words that would be hard to make a computer understand, like loving-kindness or justice. I have attempted to make a sermon out of thoughts like those twice ("If I had a map I'd be using it already" and "Morality without a book" on ) but I suspect if I made a computer program to define moral principles, the result would be evil, despite my best efforts.

    1. I think you're probably right, if only because computer programming is so error-prone :-)

  4. Evil to me are actions undertaken or words spoken that are abhorrent to the word of God. Evil is dark, omnipresent, and real. I recall as a student at Auckland Grammar in New Zealand, a student committed an atrocious family murder in the 80's. It made me shudder to think about what happened and the effect it had on his family and the people affected. It was an act of evil. It is incredible he was out of prison after only 10 years. Had it been in the US, he'd likely be serving life without parole.

    "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" - Scottish philosopher, David Hume.