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.