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What is Evil?

  • Mar 31, 2014 · 7:00 PM
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  • Gavin

    It looks like someone changed RSVP to No at the last moment, which opens up a second spot. I am second on the waitlist, but this location is difficult for me to attend without more time. Maybe someone further down the list can make it.

    March 31, 2014

  • louis

    Will be late but coming

    March 31, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Theology treats Evil on a different footing and in my opinion , is not conducive to rational and independent reflection of examination.We can understand evil influences and evil deeds as human failing without the underpinning of Religion or Theology.

    March 26, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      Does anyone know if the translation of 'evil' is accurate?

      March 31, 2014

    • Cathbha

      The Latin is "malum" in the Pater Noster, which just means "something bad", and the Greek uses "poneros", which can be every bit as vague, meaning anyhing from "bad, useless" to "vile", "sickening", "wicked", "villainous", "ill", and so on. The phenomenon is "poneria", and derives from a verb meaning "to work hard/be all shagged out/feel like crap" to "work hard at/gain through toil". Go to the OT, and the Hebrew is no more helpful, as the terms used are every bit as generic, especially the noun ra', which can describe anything from a bug, bad food, to a disaster and mass extinction. The Gaelic for evil is "olc", and that is etymologically related to an Indo-European word for starvation and hunger (cf. OCS alkati), while in Welsh and Breton it is "gwall", from the same root as Gaelic "feall", meaning "to betray/do a bad turn". In Gothic the term is "ubils", same as "evil", and that just means "bad feeling" (in the Our Father the term is "das Böse"). The same goes for Slavic languages.

      1 · March 31, 2014

  • Jo R.

    Sorry, work emergency. I have to cancel like a scoundrel. :(

    March 31, 2014

  • Jonas W.

    Hello, I've had a cold all weekend and had unpredictable bouts of fever. I still intend to show up - but if someone would really like my seat instead - you can message me (or just crash the meeting as I may not last through all of it and leave early).

    1 · March 31, 2014

    • Audie

      Maybe you should stay home. Ok, away from us?

      March 31, 2014

    • Audie

      LOL! Just kidding Jonas, don't stay away. Come and share with us what you have.

      1 · March 31, 2014

  • Todd

    Is the term evil used to define some acts which we can not explain or do not understand why a person would do something like that? Could our level of knowledge increase to the point where we understand the genetic traits, and bio-chemical requirements for a person to do evil? Would evil still exist as a human condition if we are able to create an evil vaccine that would eliminate acts of evil? Would it be an evil act to remove the free will to be evil?

    March 30, 2014

  • Todd

    What happens when Societies get the definition of evil wrong? It would be interesting if one could assess civilizations throughout history and see if there is any association with how successful a society is and how they defined evil. (Of course we would be evaluating them based on our current standards which would involve some bias. As well what would be our definition of success. For this I am thinking of societal longevity and the average standard of living.) It would need to look at the overall types of things that were accepted and considered evil with this assessment. Perhaps it may be possible to see how some societies that were extremely successful evolved and their definitions of evil changed and led to the fall of that civilization. Perhaps there is no association with societal success and the societies definition of evil. I believe there is some relation between the success of a society and how they define evil.

    March 30, 2014

    • Todd

      Example: What happens if a society of pacifist (who have defined violence as evil) encounters a warrior society (that believes violence is a necessary part of evolution to eliminate the weak)? If the warrior society eliminates the pacifist one, would this mean the warrior society had the better definitions and the pacifist had a poorer definition of good and evil?

      March 30, 2014

  • Todd

    Do people need to be reminded of what life can be like when evil occurs?
    Do we need to experience evil to avoid indifference? Do we need to see the impact of evil acts so we proactively strive to do good and prevent evil? Do evil actions reoccur when societies become complacent and forget how awful life can be when evil is ignored, downplayed, tolerated, or redefined as acceptable?

    March 30, 2014

  • Todd

    Is physical pain humans feel a good metaphor for evil? People think of pain as bad and undesirable. If people did not feel pain they would be less likely to avoid things that are harmful to them. People would burn them selves more often, and puncture themselves more easily because they did not receive timely feedback that these actions are harmful. Thus feeling pain is good because it helps us do what is best for us. Is evil a bit like that for people and society in general? Does society need to be reminded of evil acts so we can actively determine what is bad and proactively try and avoid and prevent those evil events from happening again?

    March 30, 2014

  • Todd

    Why does it matter what Evil is or how it is defined?

    March 20, 2014

    • Todd

      I think for many of us it is important at a personal level to help us understand the world.

      March 30, 2014

    • Todd

      I think it is also important at a society level. It helps the society decide what is acceptable and what is not. It provides some guidance to members of the society as to what will be tolerated and what will not be.

      March 30, 2014

  • Gavin

    Howdy, folks. This event is only a day way. If you have RSVP'd to attend, but now cannot, please update your RSVP so that those on the waitlist have a chance. Thanks in advance.

    March 30, 2014

    • Christo

      Thanks Gavin, I plan on going. Because of the waiting list, I am wondering if it makes sense to organize another get-together with the same topic.

      March 30, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Evil is basically a human concept. It is a tendency which is prone to occur in any one. Thus it is human, and that is why one should be watchful and guard against it. It is a mark of some form of deprivation in human character.

    March 29, 2014

  • Todd

    Is evil only a human concept?
    Does Evil exist naturally? Can a wolf be evil? Can a disaster be evil?
    Can someone be evil without doing anything evil?
    Is an evil person only determined by their actions?
    Is someone evil only if they do evil things?
    Can someone do evil things and not be considered evil?
    If someone has done nothing evil but is contemplating doing evil, are they evil?

    March 13, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      Well we would think the mouse or salmon, or ant with no legs in pail of water would think their tormentors are evil... but I really don't think the intent is do "evil" in cats and orcas, I suspect boredom or having fun and not really having an ability to identify with concepts like good or evil are at play... so about those ants, is a child or adult that pulls off those legs and then pops the ant into a pail of water evil ... if the ant itself likely doesn't think of it as evil?

      March 20, 2014

    • Christo

      Evil from monsters are, in my opinion, not the problem.
      The problem with evil is that it resides in the most ordinary of humans. Victims of evil are very lucid of this. To quote the scientist Privo Levi, a Jewish-Italian Auschwitz Survivor: "Our tormentors were not born criminals nor monsters, but ordinary men".

      1 · March 29, 2014

  • Jo R.

    This might be a bit off topic, but I wonder how having a particular and definite word for evil might influence our concept of it. In French, there's no one word that I feel is truly equivalent to the word "evil". In the context we're talking about here, it would be referred to as "Le Mal", but "mal" can be used to mean so many other things, like hurt, wrong, sickness, that it doesn't feel like a thing in its own right. I'm reminded of an article (that I can't find now) about how the way different languages construct sentences can lead to different attitudes regarding agency and blame. For example if Tom is jumping on the bed and breaks it, in english we might say: "He broke the bed", but other languages might say "the bed broke," and consequently place less blame on Tom.

    1 · March 20, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      Oh, I think I am, I'm just not buying the argument that "for the war effort" is a valid excuse if your definition is evil "intended harm"... at best I can see it saying it is an evil we will accept because we think we need to do it, not that it isn't evil by definition... maybe I'm too much of a mathematician, and I'm starting to get a better understand of Spinoza and Goedel in nay case...

      March 24, 2014

    • Christo

      A missing equivalent to the word evil would make this conversation impossible in French. Perhaps the language of love has no room for it! In French, I tend to use the words "le côté sombre" or "le côté obscur" to designate "Evil".

      March 28, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Opposite of Good in the sense that it is destructive while Good is constructive; Good is uplifting whereas Evil is demeaning.

    March 28, 2014

  • Jonas W.

    Taking some inspiration from Ranga's comment - I would like to raise another facet: We probably all agree that evil is an opposite of a good, but how we characterise the opposite of good has different implications.


    For instance, here are three different conceptions of what evil represents:

    1. Good vs. Temptation: "I have needs and desires, fulfilling those desires can naturally lead to immorality or harming others."

    2. Good vs. Incompetence: "I have a need for being praised, I don't know how to get it in my personal life, so I'll become Führer"

    3. Good vs. Tragedy: "A subject in a world of objects which obey historical processes and physical limitations will encounter a variety of situations where it is not fully possible to realise the good. Evil results from the mixture of freedom/morality and causation/determinism"

    March 28, 2014

    • Robert

      Main point I want to make is you can't get around the psychological subjective dimension. If you try and just legislate it aside, whether by social, legal, religious or military means, you will do nothing to affect the amount of evil. It's easy to see how today's legal conventions are constantly outstripped by modern chaos and innovation -- forcing people back upon their own beings, into the realm of individual conscience. A good evolution in many ways, if challenging and confusing. Hard and fast rules become the opponent of seeing moral reality in this unfolding climate. Yet, at the same time, unchecked moral relativism is ineffective in another direction. So, we are asked to stretch into what once seemed impossible: individual subjective search for objective community.

      March 28, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      Could good and evil be determined in terms of the action's impact to your life's goal or reason d'etre? re changing view of what good (and evil) is could be reflected in the changing view of the source of morality for our Western society (re Nietzsche's "God is Dead" statement that a belief in God no longer affects how people live their lives, aka their morals, life goals, etc.)

      March 28, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    If one does not invoke religion or appeal to Theology, Evil is ever present as a tendency or temptation and it is destructive. So one should attempt to overcome it. You are right in observing that Evil might be inherent in humans, just as kindness or compassion is. It is like a farmer who tills his soil with two bullocks yoked. If one of the bullocks is replaced by a water buffalo, the buffalo will drag the farmer to the swamp while the bullock to dry ground. A clever farmer must keep the two beasts under control so he can till the ground without being pulled in opposite directions. So Good and Evil are two tendencies inherent in all humans and like the farmer humans should keep them balanced.

    March 27, 2014

    • Christo

      And yet somehow, I dare say that most people on earth are not sociopaths. We don't give humans enough credit.

      March 27, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      well we like to think that is the case, but the level of hunger, war, strife and violence in this world would argue against that I would say... we just agree for mutual appeasement that we aren't mostly socipaths.

      March 28, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    I based my comment on the problem which arises of "which Theology"are we going to posit as THE one, if we went that route. If by RELIGION we understand the vehicle for human relations to GOD then religious perspectives DO offer a route to understanding about and dealing with the effects of "EVIL".

    March 26, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    I agree with your definition of Evil.

    March 26, 2014

  • Phyllis

    I've been following the posts and wonder if a person who makes a conscious decision to do nothing to challenge the status quo (Hitler) because doing so would result in their death, are they evil by omission? They are making a conscious willful decision to not challenge the evil, so is choosing to live considered active consent to the evil that exists? So living makes you evil? Does this make sense?

    1 · March 24, 2014

    • Jonas W.

      I'd argue that this is the case. Although choosing to die is also an evil - so there is a tragic choice here between an act of omission and an act of commission. Your example raises the very interesting issue of consequences as well - would challenging the status quo actually work to change things? Or to put it in more horrifying terms - is it worth cooperating with the Holocaust in order that you may live to do some good after the war?

      March 24, 2014

    • Robert

      And I would argue that it is not so important whether or not the act of omission is committing evil or doing evil. What matters is that this omission assists in the furthering of the general climate of evil -- which again, acts like a force. We cannot successfully say that the bystander must take a certain action or otherwise be labelled evil. That is simply imposing one's morality, and moral judgement and consciousness must remain free for each individual. We can say that it is important or interesting how much conscience a person (bystander) has or brings to bear in a certain situation. And this maybe can tell us more about the propagation of evil, but not whether the person is evil. Is cowardice evil for example? No, it cannot be. It is something else. Even though evil finds it useful.

      March 25, 2014

  • Jonas W.

    Ah, to further ‘provoke’ discussion:

    Some would say that these things are immoral, rather than evil. To this I would question as to why evil should have such a narrower definition relative to immorality?


    In many languages the word evil is related to the word for a bad thing. Evil is generally used for the most harmful form of immorality. Philosophically we can choose to define or redefine this word to be more precise – but why would we make it more precise in this way?


    Some would say that these things are immoral, rather than evil. In other words – the necessary and sufficient conditions for the holocaust were a moral failure, but the only true evil was done by those who directly gave the orders or carried them out (as opposed to bystanders or anti-semitic ideologues etc.)

    March 24, 2014

    • Jonas W.

      I would argue that it is evil to define evil so narrowly that the real causes of most of the worst acts in human committing them are excluded.

      To close, I’ll quote Edward Yashinsky: “Fear not your enemies, for they can only kill you. Fear not your friends, for they can only betray you. Fear only the indifferent, who permit the killers and betrayers to walk safely on the earth.”

      1 · March 24, 2014

    • Robert

      Good! So we can determine another hint or aspect about evil. It promotes and benefits from indifference. Another way of saying this is that goodness, by definition, must be active.

      March 25, 2014

  • Jonas W.

    Against an ‘intentional harm’ definition of evil:

    The central argument against the intentional harm definition is a simple one – it could not prevent the Holocaust. Allow me to outline the argument:

    - While some individuals involved in the Holocaust caused intentional harm, they were relatively few in number, and such individuals could be expected to exist in any society.

    - The critical issue with the Holocaust is that a few individuals were allowed to commit crimes against humanity. The issue is not these individuals, but the necessary and sufficient conditions for their actions.

    March 24, 2014

    • Jonas W.

      - In any society you can find someone willing to run a concentration camp, but only some societies create the political and social climate where such individuals are allowed to act. The central issue is related to acts of omission, not commission.

      1 · March 24, 2014

    • Robert

      This is more interesting, feels like it is getting somewhere. Hannah Arendt writes about this too, the 'banality of evil'. Clearly, with WW2, we feel that Evil was occuring, operating. Yet it is not clear that in all cases there was neatly associated 'harmful intent'. This reveals something about the nature of Evil. It acts as a kind of force. There can be less conscious awareness than one might expect there to be considering the amount and degree of 'harmful' results. This example also shows that conscience needs to be not omitted when having a non-superficial discussion about evilness. And consciousness too! Because one of the vehicles Evil will use to ensure it's success (as seen from Holocaust) is that many people become less aware of what they are doing... less 'morally agentive', whatever that means. Also, that people feel more and more bereft of moral choices in a given situation.

      March 25, 2014

  • Todd

    Is there good without God? Is good an attribute of God or can good exist without God.

    March 14, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      since we were discussing it in some detail without mentioning god, and it was you who mentioned god later on, then I'ld say no, god isn't required for good or evil... but yes as we have theists and atheists someone usually drops that name into the discussion...

      March 16, 2014

    • Robert

      I don't think it is necessary to discuss God in order to discuss goodness. But also, since topic is 'What is Evil', I don't think we know yet whether we need to discuss goodness in order to discuss evil either.

      March 25, 2014

  • Todd

    If evil involves humans doing something that is immoral and cultural norms decide what is morally acceptable then different cultures will define evil actions differently.
    What happens when two different cultures interact and the actions of one culture are defined as evil by the other? How do you determine if an evil act was done if one culture believes an act is normal or expected. Does the majority rule? Does the local law rule?

    March 13, 2014

    • Robert

      I agree with the mess which results... so therefore I would say that the premise is not good enough, namely that 'evil involves doing something immoral'.

      March 25, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Can a symbol be evil? Or is it just the concept behind the symbol, or is it the person using the concept and/or symbol?

    March 25, 2014

  • Phyllis

    All actions have consequence, a person is responsible for their own decisions but can they be responsible for another person's response to that decision. So if I choose flight over fight to survive, am I by omission, evil? I cannot confidently determine how another person responds to my decision, so if I am unable to determine their action to commit evil, can I really be identified as evil because of that person's evil actions?

    I think you confuse the word cooperation with decisions around survival, I don't agree with that connection and believe it is not a solid argument.

    March 25, 2014

  • Phyllis

    Jonas, my thoughts on tragic choice and cooperation. Or is the 'tragic choice' related to our genetic predisposition when threatened, those being fight or flight. As with any living creature, evolution is about responding and adapting to our surroundings. So if all creatures are programmed to respond in one of two ways to threats, would that not suggest that all living beings are evil by nature of their existence?

    I would suggest that is not the case with nonhuman animal and that for humans, we are the only living creatures who consciously make decisions to do evil (commission). Also that decisions of omission about survival in such situations as the Holocaust cannot be grouped with a definition of evil.

    March 25, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Another tact, can evil be useful? Obviously as a example of what not to do, but can it be useful in other ways?

    March 13, 2014

    • Jo R.

      What was his intent?

      March 21, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      Early English critics called him evil, more modern traditionalists say he was a realist telling it as it is as a mean to critique Aristole's and similar philosophers' imagined Republics, others say he wrote to get a job from the Medici's and others that he was being ironic ... he supposedly was a funny ironic person according to his other writings etc.

      March 21, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Sooo…is evil sin?

    March 13, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      it is if doing something immoral is sin and evil...

      March 13, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      is evil sin... I'ld say yes it can be, but it isn't a necessary condition... depends in part if you believe sin exists

      March 16, 2014

  • Nick B.

    Unfortunately I'll be away. (And incidentally: evil is live spelled backwards.)

    March 12, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      which is an intersting thought, how can you identify evil (assuming it actually exists), if it fiendishly clever and pretends to be good (same assumption) until the appropriate time, and if so are they still evil while they are doing only good?

      March 13, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      now of course it would seem "obvious" that a truly evil person would ask just that question...

      March 13, 2014

  • James

    Evil seems to be an archetypal force that resonates throughout mythology, but has the (decidedly potent) effect of forcing a sentient being to face their demons. This seems to happen only after the subject has invited the influence of evil into their sphere of manifestation.

    March 12, 2014

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