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In religion and ethics, Evil refers to the morally objectionable aspects of the behaviour and reasoning of human beings — those which are deliberately void of conscience, and show a wanton penchant for destruction. Evil is sometimes defined as the absence of a good which could and should be present; the absence of which is a void in what should be. In most cultures, the word is used to describe acts, thoughts, and ideas which are thought to (either directly or causally) bring about affliction and death — the opposite of goodness, which itself refers to aspects which are life-affirming, peaceful, and constructive.

Perhaps evil is best represented in the human situation in the form of unprovoked hatred against and coupled with an aggressive impulse to cause harm to another person or group (ie. sadism). Such hatred can be aroused from within the individual or group through jealousy, wrong teachings or due to unexplained extra-personal forces.


The modern English word 'Evil' (Old English Yfel) and its current living cognates such as the German 'Übel' are widely considered to come from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed form *Ubilaz, comparable to the Hittite huwapp- ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European form *wap- and suffixed zero-grade form *up-elo-. Other later Germanic forms include Middle English evel, ifel, ufel Old Frisian evel (adjective & noun), Old Saxon ubil, Old High German ubil, and Gothic ubils. The root meaning is of obscure origin though shown to be akin to modern English 'over' (OE ofer) and 'up' (OE up, upp) with the basic idea of "transgressing".

Psychology of evil[]

Some psychologists, psychiatrists,neuroscientists and iology|sociologists]], have attempted to construct scientific explanations for the development of specific characteristics of an "antisocial" personality type, called the sociopath. The sociopath is typified by extreme self-serving behavior and a lack of conscience as well as an inability to empathize with others and to restrain himself from, or to feel remorse for, harm personally caused to others. However, a diagnosis of antisocial or sociopathic personality disorder (formerly called psychopathic mental disorder), is sometimes criticized as being, at the present time, no more scientific than calling a person "evil". There is much debate over this, however. Some, most prominently Robert D. Hare, author of Without Conscience, consider psychopathy to be a widespread disorder quite distinct from antisocial personality disorder.

What critics perceive to be a moral determination is disguised, they argue, with a scientific-sounding name but no complete description of a mechanism by which the abnormality can be identified. In other words, critics argue, "sociopaths" are called such because they are first thought to be "evil" - a determination which itself is not derived by a scientific method.

Research into sociopathology has also investigated biological, rather than moral, underpinnings of behaviors that societies reject as sociopathic. Most neurological research into sociopathology has focused on regions of the neocortex involved in impulse control. Some other research seems to indicate that sociopathy may at least partially be related to a lack of ability to realize the true consequences of one's actions.

Philosophy and ethics[]

The definition of what is considered "Evil" otherwise may differ according to point of view. In the Western world, some philosophers reject the idea of evil. Plato, for example, argued that that which we call Evil is merely ignorance and that which we call good is merely that which everyone desires. Those who assert a more universal code of ethics view Plato's definition as one based merely on situation and based on ethics or values. Plato's criticism is thus itself criticised as an attack on ethics itself, suggesting that philosophy can have meaning and value without ethics and the honor associated with ethical belief. Benedict de Spinoza was even more radical, according to him the concept of good and evil is merely one of personal inclinations: "Such things as please us, we denominate good, those which displease us, evil."

In some belief systems, evil consists of a willful deviation from a code of laws (written or unwritten) or moral standard, usually ascribed to a deity. According to this definition, people who, for example, reject a certain belief or engage in practices against this code are engaged in evil acts. According to other belief systems, evil consists of intentionally doing harm, and so-called "victimless crimes" should not be considered evil or immoral. It is important to note, however, that followers of the first definition believe that these "victimless crimes" do indeed have victims, usually the moral soul of the person committing the act.

The duality of 'good versus Evil' is expressed, in some form or another, by many cultures. Those who believe in the duality theory of Evil believe that evil cannot exist without good, nor good without evil, as they are both objective states and opposite ends of the same scale.

A similar term, malice (from the Latin malus meaning "bad"), describes the deliberate human intent to harm and be harmful. "Evil", by contrast, tends to represent a more elemental concept; a disembodied spirit that is natural and yet abominable. Whereas "malice" is specifically concerned with the act itself, "evil" is the cause of a malicious act.

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Evil as a religious concept[]

Most ancient polytheist cultures lacked a concept of "evil" as a human quality or as a quality of human actions, or if they had such a concept, they did not place as much importance on it as have their monotheist successors. This was also the case in many indigenous cultures, which had a concept of wrong doing, but deities, when present, were much closer to embodiments of elemental forces of nature. In the world of the Odyssey and Iliad epic Greek poems, for example, there are acknowledged human virtues such as honor, faithfulness, and vengeance (which later became a sin in Christian thought) but no direct corollary to the modern concept of Evil. Likewise, Homeric characters are subject to judgement by the gods, but that judgement is often questionable as the gods themselves have imperfect, human-like characteristics.

In a number of religious traditions, human beings are considered to be "governed" by an innate bent towards selfishness and pride; qualities that are considered Evil (see original sin). In others, humans may be considered naturally good, and Evil to be a 'force' that tempts them away from their natural state.

Evil may be personified in the form of a figure of evil, such as Satan or Ahriman. Polytheistic pantheons often have trickster gods, such as Loki, which don't personify evil, per se, but are often associated with "the Devil."

Judaeo-Christian religions[]

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Evil is related to the concept of sin — "sin" translated in Hebrew is chata which means "missing the mark" (a term from archery). Evil is defined in Thomistic metaphysics as the absence of a "good" which could and should be present; it is a lack of something that should be present. The Evil of gluttony, for example, is marked by the results of obesity. The goodness that is missing in the glutton is self-discipline and temperance. The results of Evil are usually experienced as Evil over the long term but may be experienced as short term "goods". The cultivation of the good requires the long view.

In Judaism and Christianity, Evil comes from disobedience to God. Judaism stresses obedience to the God's laws as written in the Torah (see also Tanakh) and the laws and rituals laid down in the Mishnah and the Talmud. In Christianity, some sects stress obedience to God's law. Other sects emphasize Christ's statement that love of God and love of your fellow man is the whole of the law. Still others emphasize the idea that man is irremediably Evil, and in need of forgiveness.

In some Abrahamic faiths, Evil is personified as Satan, a challenger of the law or will of God. Satan is defined in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek writings collectively as the devil, the adversary, false accuser, slanderer, the counterfeit, a liar, a murderer, one with no truth, the serpent, the Evil one, the tempter, and a prowling lion seeking someone to devour. These faiths also teach that spirits or demons may possess humans or animals and tempt them to do Evil. It is argued by those who follow the documentary hypothesis and higher Biblical criticism that this concept of Satan developed over time. Hebrew "haShaitan" seems originally to have been the accuser, a title given to the prosecuting attorney at the court of the divine Yahweh. He still has this character in the Book of Job. It is argued that the larger role of Satan and his identification with Lucifer, later associated with the snake in the garden of Eden, occurred during the period of the Babylonian captivity and subsequent exposure to Iranian beliefs.(1)[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Some forms of Christianity, as well as Judaism, do not personify Evil in Satan; these Christian sects instead consider the human heart to be inherently bent toward deceit, although human beings are responsible for their choices, whereas in Judaism, there is no prejudice in one's becoming good or Evil at time of birth. In Judaism, Satan is viewed as one who tests us for God rather than one who works against God, and Evil, as in the Christian denominations above, is a matter of choice.

Judaism and Christianity both focus on individual repentance of sin, but in Judaism, repentance requires the forgiveness of the injured party, and thus is rather difficult in some cases, such as murder, but for other crimes, if one is sincerely asked for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement by someone who has truly repented, it is a religious obligation to forgive. In Christianity, the nature of repentance is highly dependent on sect. Jewish beliefs and Christian teachings say each person will give an account of all their actions, including faith and obedience.

Some cultures or philosophies believe that Evil can arise without meaning or reason (in neo-Platonic philosophy this is called absurd Evil). Christianity in general does not adhere to this belief, but the prophet Isaiah implied that God is ultimately responsible for everything including Evil (Isa.45:7 "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create Evil: I the LORD do all these things.")

In the Bible, the story of Job is a bold example of how Evil exists and seems at times to be victorious, although according to Christian beliefs, all have sinned and fallen short of the perfection of God (Romans 3:23), and the price of missing the mark of perfection (sin) is death. The crucifixion of Jesus was the sacrifice of a sinless, superior, and good being for the sins of mankind; thus, salvation from death occurs in understanding this idea and making the Christ Lord over one's life.

An important belief that has been emphasized by some Christian leaders relating to the belief that "all have sinned" and "sin separates Man from God" is that these beliefs imply a certain equality of all humanity; no one is no "more evil" than any other person. The murderous are in the same category as the saintly, and the rich are no more worthy of attention than the poor (James 2). The only difference between people, in terms of Christian salvation, is that some have made the commitment to Christ and that others have not.

For the French philosopher Michel Henry, God is the invisible Life that never stops to generate us and to give us to ourselves in its pathetic self-revelation. God is Love because Love itself in an infinite love is Life. By consequence life is good in itself. The Evil corresponds to all what denies or attacks life, it finds its origin in death which is the negation of life. This death is an inner and spiritual death which is the separation with God, and which consists simply in not loving, in living selfishly as if God didn't exist, as if he was not our Father of us all and as if we were not all its beloved Sons, as if we were not all Brothers generated by a same Life. The Evil peaks in the violence of hatred that is at the origin of all the crimes, of all the wars and of all the genocides. But the Evil is also the common origin of all those blind processes and of all those false abstractions that lead so many people to misery and exclusion.

1. Sanders, E.P., "The Historical Figure of Jesus", Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, p. 115 (1993).


Main article: Zoroastrianism

In the originally Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, the world is a battle ground between the god of good, Ahura Mazda, and the god of Evil, Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. The final resolution of the struggle between good and Evil was supposed to occur on a day of Judgement, in which all beings that have lived will be led across a bridge of fire, and those who are Evil will be cast down forever. In Iranian belief, angels and saints are beings sent to help us achieve the path towards goodness.

Is evil universal?[]

A fundamental question is whether there is a universal, transcendent definition of evil, or whether evil is determined by one's social or cultural background. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, maintained that there are certain acts that are universally considered evil, such as rape and murder. On the other hand, it is hard to find any act that was not acceptable in some society. The Greeks held favourable views regarding homosexual relationships between male youths and adult men. [1] Less than 150 years ago the United States of America, Great Britain, and many other countries practiced brutal slavery of the African race that lasted for over 400 years. The Nazis, during World War II, found genocide acceptable, as did the Imperial Japanese Army with the Nanking Massacre. Today, there is strong disagreement as to whether homosexuality and abortion are perfectly acceptable or evils. Therefore universalists consider evil independent of culture, and wholly related to acts or intents. Thus while the ideological leaders of Nazism accepted (and considered it good) to commit genocide, the universally evil act of genocide renders the entire ideology or culture evil.

Views on the nature of evil tend to fall into one of two opposed camps. One, moral absolutism, holds that good and evil are fixed concepts established by God, nature, morality, common sense, or some other source. The other, moral relativism, holds that standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice. Moral universalism is the attempt to find a compromise between the absolutist sense of morality, and the relativist view; universalism claims that morality is only flexible to a degree, and that what is truly good or evil can be determined by examining what is commonly considered to be evil amongst all humans.

A looser definition of evil describes it as death and suffering, whether it results from human or from other natural causes (e.g., earthquakes and famine). In other words, it is not merely the intention to do evil, but the end result, namely, harm to others, that is evil. This is sometimes referred to as "natural evil," and some philosophers hold the position that this is an inappropriate use of the word "evil," as it is without intent.

As Plato observed, there are relatively few ways to do good, but there are countless ways to do evil, which can therefore have a much greater impact on our lives, and the lives of other beings capable of suffering. For this reason, some philosophers (e.g. Bernard Gert) maintain that preventing evil is more important than promoting good in formulating moral rules and in conduct.

Some people define being evil as not only inflicting pain and suffering but also as performing an act for either solely selfish materialistic reasons (i.e. power or wealth) or because they are sadistic and derive pleasure from the act. Under this definition of evil, a person who commits morally wrong acts for sincerely benevolent reasons would not be evil, even if most people disagreed with the means thus justified. Disregarding whether the ends were to be considered morally wrong they would not be classified as evil, so long as they truly believed in the pursued higher goal. This does not mean the actions could not be viewed as morally wrong, just that there would not be an evil intent in them, as the intent of the actions is a key factor. Thus, for example, Osama bin Laden would not be evil as his motives are based on his (presumably sincere) belief that western civilization has become corrupt and evil. Absolute ignorance of the concept of morality would also render a person completely morally neutral.

Regardless of the source of their definitions, most human cultures have a set of beliefs about what things, actions, and ideas are undesirable. Undesirable circumstances are often categorized as evil within some cultures. Natural evils generally include accidental death, disease, and other misfortunes, although some cultures see these occurrences instead as a healthy part of the natural order.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Moral evils generally include violence, deceit or other destructive and antisocial behavior toward others, although the same behavior toward "outsiders" of the group may be considered "good." War provides many examples, and "God is always on the winning side."

Most cultures recognize many levels of immoral behaviour, from minor vices to major crimes. These beliefs are often encoded into the laws of a society, with methods of judgement and punishment for offenses.

Is evil a useful term?[]

There is a school of thought that holds that no person is evil, that only acts may be properly considered evil.

Psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg claims that the root of violence is the very concept of "evil" or "badness." When we label someone as bad or evil, Rosenberg claims, it invokes the desire to punish or inflict pain. It also makes it easy for us to turn off our feelings towards the person we are harming. He cites the use of language in Nazi Germany as being a key to how the German people were able to do things to other human beings that they normally wouldn't do. He links the concept of evil to our judicial system, which seeks to create justice via punishment — "punitive justice" — punishing acts that are seen as bad or wrong. He contrasts this approach with what he found in cultures where the idea of evil was non-existent. In such cultures, when someone harms another person, they are believed to be out of harmony with themselves and their community, they are seen as sick or ill and measures are taken to restore them to a sense of harmonious relations with themselves and others, as opposed to punishing them.

Psychologist Albert Ellis makes a similar claim, in his school of psychology called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT. He says the root of anger, and the desire to harm someone, is almost always one of these beliefs:

  1. That they should/shouldn't have done certain things
  2. That someone is an awful/bad/horrible person for doing what they did
  3. That they deserve to be punished for what they did

He claims that without one of the preceding thoughts, violence is next to impossible.

M. Scott Peck on the other hand, describes evil as "militant ignorance". In this it is close to the original Judeo-Christian concept of "sin" as a consistent process that leads to failure to reach one's true goals.

According to Scott Peck, an evil person:

  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto others and tries to remove them from others
  • Maintains a high level of respectability and lies incessantly in order to do so
  • Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency
  • Is unable to think from other people's viewpoints.

He also considers certain institutions may be evil, as his discussion of the My Lai Massacre and its attempted coverup illustrate. By this definition, acts of criminal and state terrorism would also be considered evil.

Is evil good?[]

Anton LaVey, former head of the Church of Satan, asserts that evil is actually good (an often-used slogan is, "evil is live spelled backwards"). This belief is usually a reaction to religious definitions of evil, which some think oppose the natural pleasures of life or the natural instincts of men and women. In the more extreme cases, however, this belief can extend to the claim that hurting others is acceptable if you can get away with it. It is not uncommon to find people in power who are indifferent to good or evil, taking actions based solely on practicality; this approach to politics was questioned by Niccolò Machiavelli, a sixteenth century Florentine writer and politician who declared in The Prince, "the ends justifies the means... The world consists mainly of vulgar people and the few who are honorable can safely be ignored when so many vulgar rally around the prince." The international relations theories of realism and neorealism, sometimes called realpolitik, about which Machiavelli wrote, explicitly disavow absolute moral and ethical considerations in international politics in favor of a focus on self-interest, political survival, and power politics, which they hold to be more accurate in explaining a world they view as explicitly amoral and dangerous. Political realists usually justify their perspectives by laying claim to a "higher moral duty" specific to political leaders, under which the greatest evil is seen to be the failure of the state to protect itself and its citizens. Machiavelli mocks : "[A prince] need not worry about incurring the disgrace of those vices without which it would be difficult for him to save the state, for if everything is carefully considered, it will be found that something which seems a virtue would, if practiced, become his ruin, and some other thing, which seems a vice, would, if practiced, result in his security and well-being."

When a person acts in such a way as to use others as means to achieve one's own personal ends or fails to consider the consequences of his or her acts upon the lives of others, this is considered to be psychopathic or sociopathic. If one accepts the Christian ethic that "by their deeds you shall know them", such approaches are Evil. This is also the view taken by Walter Wink, the Christian theologian of non-violence. Some authors, like the psychologist Benjamin B. Wolman, consider society as a whole to be moving towards a psychopathic mindset, but this stance has yet to gain wider acceptance.

See also[]


  • Shermer, M. (2004). The Science of Good & Evil. New York: Time Books. ISBN 0-8050-7520-8
  • Wilson, William McF., and Julian N. Hartt. "Farrer's Theodicy." In David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson (eds), Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer. New York and London: T & T Clark / Continuum, 2004. ISBN 0-567-02510-1

Further reading[]

  • Oppenheimer, Paul (1996). Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior, New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-6193-3.

External links[]

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  1. Nick Fisher, Aeschines: Against Timarchos, "Introduction," p.27; Oxford University Press, 2001