Thursday, 25 October 2012

Do Atheists Believe in Evil?

I recently wrote a little contemplative piece on why theists might think that atheists are evil and got some interesting feedback, some involving me being directed to a place I don’t believe exists and which I suspect the people wishing me bon voyage don’t believe exists.  Oh well.

There was also an intriguing response to an assertion that atheists don’t believe in evil.  Apparently I am wrong in that.

I certainly don’t believe in evil, but perhaps I am being too literal or philosophically rigorous about the term.  Or I am just misusing it.

I seriously don’t think that an agent can be inherently evil, evil (as I understand it) is associated with acts, specifically deliberate acts which are contrary to what is known and understood to be “good” or “right” where there is no overriding justification (such as a higher good).  Conceptually, you could have a person whose acts are preponderantly evil and, for convenience, you could label that person as “evil”, but I don’t think that person is inherently evil since their “evil” derives from their actions.

The question that then arises is “Are there people who commit evil acts under this definition?”

I’d say no.  Not even a violent psychopath is literally evil. For a psychopath, the suffering of others doesn’t register particularly highly or he simply doesn’t care.  Note that most psychopaths aren’t actually violent, despite their poor rap in popular culture.  It’s quite likely that more than a few princes of industry are psychopaths, along with politicians in general.

Remember to commit an evil act (at least in my conception of the term), you must know and understand that there is a good or right way to act, within a broad context, and must act deliberately in a way that is contrary it.  Perhaps examples might help explain.

When it comes to examples of evil, most people like to use events like the Holocaust or perhaps Jonestown.  Not me, so let’s look at “Who Shot Mr Burns?” (Spoiler warning!)

There are two acts that are worth considering as potentially evil: the stealing of candy from a baby and the shooting of a person.

When Mr Burns tries to steal a lollypop from Maggie, it’s not an evil act.  It’s a purely selfish act, he considers that his well-being is more important than the child’s.  Many acts which we might be tempted to brand as evil are, in fact, just very selfish.  The person involved counts the good involved with the act as overweighing the bad, for example if I were intensely selfish then a moment’s peace for me would be worth a lifetime of suffering for you.  This certainly isn’t nice, but it’s not evil.

Burns often seems clueless about human motivations, which would also indicate that his act was not evil.  Particularly ignorant, perhaps, but not evil due to a lack of intent.

When Maggie shoots Mr Burns, it’s not an evil act either.  As an infant, one could say that Maggie could not properly comprehend the consequences of her actions.  That said, there is a hint that she might have deliberately shot Burns.  If she did so, then again, it would have been a selfish act if Maggie calculated that the benefits of having a lollypop outweighed the costs of shooting Burns.

We could take a Sam Harris type of position, arriving at a humanist and atheist conception of evil: “An evil act is one that intentionally increases overall balance of suffering”.

But does anyone actually do that?  Really?

Perhaps there is some twisted person out there who gets a kick out of making people suffer.  A few politicians come to mind …

The thing is that such a person would cause suffering in proportion to the amount of satisfaction she got out of it (I’m thinking of Ann Coulter here).  It returns to selfishness again: my satisfaction is more important than yours and is served by your suffering.

So, is evil really just selfishness?  I don’t think so, I think that when people invoke the term “evil” they mean something more.  And if it does mean “selfishness”, then we’ve already got a perfectly serviceable word for that phenomenon.


  1. As you discussed, I think it really depends on what you mean by evil, the definition of the word varies, and therefore my position on whether or not evil exists also varies.

    If you are talking about people being evil, or being inherently evil, I don't think evil exists. This is more of a cartoonish version of evil. The idea that someone is evil to the core is just silly.

    But in some sort of colloquial sense, I think we can say that certain action are evil. And I don't think selfishness is good enough, there are certain selfish acts that I think could be described as evil, while others I would not call evil. Let's return to Mr. Burns stealing that candy from maggie. (that was an awesome sentence to type out)

    Mr. Burns saw that Maggie had that candy, and he wanted it for himself, he is definitely selfish. He knows that Maggie wants that candy for herself, but he doesn't care, he wants it. In fact, I would argue that he is more interested in taking it from her than he is in simply possessing it "Stealing candy from a baby? That sounds like a lark" This is not only selfish, but also, I would argue, evil.

    Suppose the situation were different, suppose they were both in the store, both wanted to buy the candy, but there was only 1 left. If Mr. Burns knew maggie wanted it but he jumped in front of her to get the last one, thus depriving her of it. This is clearly selfish of him, but much harder to argue it is evil.

    A third situation, suppose Mr. Burns is at the store and there is one box of this candy. He wants them all, he knows if he takes them all no one else can have any and doesn't care. Again, selfish but I would say not evil.

    1. Evil as a concept applied subsequently to events (or even people based on their actions) has some sort of utility in a figurative sense. I think there is a danger in using it though, in the same way as there is danger in saying that a bumble-bee's wings don't appear to be particularly well designed for flight. As a person who reckons that evolution is an accurate description of how life on this planet got to be here, I understand the use of the word "designed" to be figurative, I don't imagine a bunch of designers late on a Friday slapping together the bumble-bee in the last couple of minutes of the working week before rushing off to happy hour. But someone who is still confused about evolution and intelligent design might take the use of "design" as somehow affirming that a designer is in fact involved, and that even evolutionists concur.

      Using the term "evil" implies a negation of objective good which (in the eyes of some) can only be derived from some sort of god.

      That all said, I think perhaps "unacceptable" might be better than just selfishness. Everything that we might tend to label as "evil" is really just something that we consider highly unacceptable, isn't it?

    2. That is a pretty good point, and I think selfish versus selfish + unacceptable captures the idea I was going for quite well.

  2. If you are a moral relativist then I guess unacceptable would be an appropiate term for such actions, given unacceptable is a judgement from a society. I have spent many years arguing against universals but for the first time I think there may exist one. That would be;

    any action which has the intention of inflicting harm on another for the sole purpose of gaining pleasure from their suffering would be considered wrong.

    I say it is universal because regardless of context it would be deemed as wrong. Even an executioner in a society where execution is something acceptable would not consider it right the executioner did it simply because he gained pleasure from seeing the person suffer.
    And no a sadist torturing a masochist does not fall into this category since the masochist is not suffering, but rather enjoying the pain.

    Evil is a word which describes not only the action but the intention of the action where you meant to cause harm so you gain pleasure from their suffering (not that we can truly know the intention unless they state it).


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