Where, then is evil?

St. Augustine asks: Where, then is evil? What is its origin? How did it steal into the world? What is the root or seed from which it grew?

My answer: Any instance of one creature deriving pleasure from the suffering of another is evil.

The basis for this definition is straight-forward; the implications, radical and complex. Pleasure is something we seek in and of itself. As such, it is never sated. So if I take pleasure in harming, there might be no end to how far I will go to satisfy that urge. And the more intense the pleasure, the more extreme the measures I will take. So if harming others becomes a craving, it also becomes monstrous and immensely damaging, in the worst cases increasing the suffering on our planet to horrific proportions.

By this definition I cannot think of anyone who has not indulged an evil impulse at some time or other in his life. Fortunately most of us are soon checked by an innate sense of abhorrence from committing truly awful deeds. I might take a moment’s pleasure in cursing the ‘bastard’ who has crossed me in some way or another, I might even assault him, if my outrage is inflated enough, but the perverse pleasure I derive from my acts of vengeance are soon assuaged and I stop the abuse. I may even feel guilty and stupid after the fact for having lost my temper.

Though we usually restrain ourselves, and even regret our lapses, the ‘root or seed’ of evil St Augustine looks for can be found in these impulses. For if the natural restraint that checks our retribution is removed, or if the object of our hatred is portrayed in such a way that anger overwhelms restraint, then we can easily spiral into a viscous cycle of hatred, punishment, retaliation and self-justification through even greater savagery, greater evil – and there are those among us who have no innate restraints, and are very adept at manipulating our baser motives to their own purposes.

Is hatred, then, evil? Not necessarily. I can hate someone without wishing them harm. I can take steps to protect myself from someone I hate without crossing the line by insisting on ‘punishing’ them. We don’t have to love our enemies, and it would be naive – even irresponsible – to believe we can go through life without making any; but the moment we take pleasure in an enemy’s downfall we have crossed the line from opposing what we perceive to be an injustice to very likely committing one, and to initiating a pattern of retribution and counter retribution.

To fully understand how pervasive evil might be, we have to consider forms the pleasure of evil takes. Some instances of taking pleasure in the suffering of others are obvious. Mass murderers, who torture their victims; people who go out of their ways to abuse animals; megalomaniacs who make murder and maiming state enterprises. Countless instances of these kinds of behaviour can be identified and continue to make headlines. But our propensity to evil pervades society in subtler ways, and unless we develop a lens for it, will continue to undermine even our good intentions.

One example will suffice. Recently I read of a prominent person saying that the poor in our community need a ‘helping hand.’ The comment, made with what appeared to be the best of intentions, rankled. It sounded patronizing and self-satisfying to me. Was that well wisher, in fact, taking convoluted pleasure in the misfortunes of others, feeling grand by offering what was really the most miserly of reliefs at the same time as he spoke out against the dangers of encouraging people to wallow in their poverty? At the very least there was a redolence of evil to his kindness, the possibility he was knowingly offering meager relief purely as a ruse to avoid really address the issues of poverty and homelessness, and that he was feeling pretty clever about having ‘managed’ the situation in a politically astute way. Without accusing the person outright of harboring those kinds of Machiavellian sentiments, I have to be alert to the possibility because I don’t doubt for a minute those kinds of tactics are deliberately adopted.

So what should we do when we encounter or suspect evil? The most important thing is to avoid falling into the trap. Evil is a pleasure that likes to perpetuate itself; the moment I ‘rise to the bait’ by trying to undermine and injure the person who has angered me, I am joining in a game that has no boundaries and very few rules. All to often winning, by vanquishing a foe, becomes the goal, bearing little relation to the larger issue that first brought the contestants together.

In the end, evil itself has to be classified as a condition, a state of being, not a moral issue; and every step – short of countering another’s evil with our own – has to be employed to effect a cure.

Showing 4 reactions

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  • commented 2016-03-01 21:30:34 -0800
    Thanks for you comments, Ulrich and Wayne (I can’t figure out how to respond via replies to your replies, so I’m just going to post to the general conversation). A few remarks will refine my thinking.

    The notion of ‘evil’ as ‘sin’ is not part of my world view. Christianity and other religions would define evil as a punishable transgression against God’s law. As an atheist I do not come from the same perspective; as an ‘existentialist’ I go a step farther. I think the notion of ‘morality’ needs to be challenged – if by morality we are talking about an enshrined, idealized rule or law that all right thinking humans are obliged to adhere to.

    A clear definition of morality would take up more time and space we can devote to it here, but I will hazard a short description: Morality is a system of beliefs and behaviours based on a person’s physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences and understanding of the world. It expresses how he feels others should be treated, and how he should be treated in return.

    The point is: Morality isn’t an externalized, unchangeable ideal, existing outside the human condition; and the extreme moral judgement of an action, or even a thought, as ‘evil’ is not, ultimately a moral response in that sense either.

    Does such an existential stance leave its proponent open to a charge of amorality, or worse, immorality? I don’t think so. But that’s, perhaps, a conversation for another time.
  • commented 2016-03-01 10:07:44 -0800
    Hmmm. I, actually,, don’t believe in ethics, morality, good, evil, and things like that except as personal preferences (non-cognitive position), and therefore nothing grounded in any objective or even grandly multi-subjective reality. However, I like to try to figure out, if there were such things, what they might look like. I love this stuff.
    Somewhere, long ago, I ran into “gratuitous suffering” as a working definition of evil. This is, of course, not the same as your proposition. In some ways your definition encompasses the gratuitous definition, and in other ways it does not. The problem with the gratuitous definition is that aspects of your indirect benefit or pleasure are not addressed (for if there is some utilitarian purpose for someone then it’s not gratuitous and thus not evil). I’m really going to have to think on the definition you propose (as I need to do on many of these things, not being the quickest puppy in the pack). And I think that your definition also misses some things. For example, in a Sado-masochistic relationship there is an argument to be made that that Sadist is in a state of evil (deriving pleasure from the suffering of a being), and further, that the masochist is also in a state of evil (deriving pleasure from the suffering of a being, namely him- or herself). I would argue then, that these folks are born in a state of evil (similar to what used to be thought vis-a-vis being born homosexual). Note that these are the most straight forward kinds of issues, being direct. And this is only a first problem with the position proposed. Any recursive or self reflective state of pleasure being derived from suffering shares that problem.
    Now if you mix consent in with your proposal to try to avoid these problems, then you open up an entirely new Pandora’s box of issues (eg. Rousseau, Hobbes). And if you try to remove the reflective aspect, then still another Pandora’s box (eg. That one could not commit an evil act against oneself).
    Still and all, nothing is simple, and I like your proposal as a starting point for some very pleasurable conflicted (and thus painful) thinking I will have to do for some period of time. I thank you for that.
  • commented 2016-02-27 11:56:00 -0800
    Good points all, Craig, both here and in the blog post, however, there is something to be said for a bit of justified schadenfreude at events such as Dick Cheney’s public ridicule (I suspect he does not experience embarrassment as that would require some kind of moral compass) at having shot his lawyer or the death of a self-righteous promoter of evil from a position of vast power such as Antonin Scalia.
  • commented 2016-02-27 08:03:03 -0800
    This definition of ‘evil’ is new to me. I have been reading The Confessions of St. Augustine as part of my background work on a novel titled Stained Glass. Long story short, I am trying to get myself into the mindset of a 19th Century Anglican priest. I only formulated this interpretation of the word ‘evil’ yesterday; so it isn’t surprising that I would want to refine it today.
    It seems to me now that the ‘pleasure’ we take in committing evil acts can be either direct or indirect. For example, if I am so misanthropic that I delight in torturing people, and am only disappointed when they die because it ends my ability to injure them further, that is evil in its most direct and perverted form.
    If, on the other hand, I am the CEO of a mining company, that has discovered a rich vein of ore, which happens to lie directly under the homes of a long-settled village, and I displace those people, knowing it will cause them suffering, then I – and anyone who knowingly engages in the enterprise with me – am deriving indirect pleasure from an act that causes suffering, which ads a component of evil to my enterprise.
    The importance of this interpretation is that ‘evil’ is not a ‘sinful’ act that places us out of alignment with the will of God; it is any action – motivated by perversion, or greed, or jealousy, and so on – through which we derive pleasure from the suffering of another. The nuance I am pointing to here is that the pleasure that motivates evil can be either direct or indirect, the effects can be just as evil.
    The permutations of this interpretation need working out!

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