What makes a person evil?

The first book I’m reading this year is Mark Rowland‘s memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf. For now, I will just say that it’s stories of having a wolf mixed with some philosophical musings. One of those musings concerned evil. He maintained that evil does exist, though not in a supernatural sense, and that it consists of “very bad things” and that people do those “very bad things” due to a failure on their part, both a failure of moral duty (to do the right thing) and epistemic duty (to properly subject one’s beliefs to scrutiny). He contrasted that with the modern view of evil which, he claimed, is seen as people doing “very bad things” because of an underlying medical or social issue. I think that both of those views are fundamentally flawed and want to describe a different way of viewing evil.

Let’s briefly consider the idea that evil actions are those actions which are very bad, i.e. at the extreme end of a scale of bad actions. Shoplifting a chocolate bar is bad but not very bad. It’s worse to steal a car but still not evil. Premeditated murder, especially if paired with some other crime, is now getting to the sort of thing we would nearly all agree is evil. But there’s a flaw; except for religious beliefs, there is no “objective” morality, so there is no objective and universal measurement which you can use to say something is bad. As there is insufficient evidence to support the claims of religion, we must discard it. We are left with secular morality.

Secular morality allows us to avoid the problems inherent in religious morality and can determine whether or not something is ethical by reasoned argument. For example, one would find murder unethical not because god said so but because it violates the autonomy of the victim or because the happiness of the murderer is outweighed by the unhappiness of the victim and the victim’s family and friends. These ethical frameworks are very powerful but their conclusions rely on the assumption that they are true.

There is no experimental way to determine morality. If you wanted to know whether an object were magnetic, you could simply get a magnet and see whether they stuck together. If you wanted to know which object moves fastest, you can simply measure their speed. But there is no property that can be experimentally measured to tell you, empirically, which actions are ethical and which are not. This means that all these moral frameworks rest on untestable assumptions and that there is no objective way to choose between them when they are in conflict. It may be that one is ultimately true or that they all contain some truth or that they are all completely wrong. It is not impossible that the ultimate purpose of the universe is suffering and, if that were the case, then cruelty and maliciousness would be “good.” Without objective morality, to define acts of evil as “very bad things” is nothing more than a statement that those acts are contrary to your belief system.

If you still believe that there is objective morality, I would ask that you consider morality over time. I would hope that most people reading this believe that men and women should have equal rights and be treated equally. If so, you will, like me, have a problem with the way women have been treated in Saudi Arabia; requiring male guardians in public, being forced to cover their body and so on. Happily, there have been improvement in recent years. However, we can’t be too sanctimonious about this as it was in the fairly recent past that our own societies maintained similar rules; for example, women in several European countries were fighting for the right to vote only 100 years ago.

My point here is not whether we have become more ethical as a society, it is that in all these situations, us today (I use “us” to include everyone with a broadly similar world-view to my own), us a century ago and those in Saudi Arabia today, all these people felt like what they were doing was good. We do not see ourselves as evil. Yet it’s unlikely that we are now the pinnacle of morality. Given what we know of history, it is likely that many of our own actions that we see as good and ethical today will, despite our best intentions, be seen as unethical and, perhaps, even as evil in the future. This should caution us against declaring that something is evil merely because it does not align with our current beliefs.

I’m not advocating for some sort of moral relativism where we just accept anything. I have my own moral principles which I follow and I will call out things which I feel are immoral and try to convince others to come around to my way of thinking. At the same time, I recognise that my own ethical framework is not objectively correct and I remain open to questioning and refining it as I go along. There is a certain tension between these positions though and it is difficult to examine moral issues, such as murder, dispassionately. I will try to illustrate how this can be resolved through a metaphor.

Imagine that we are lost in a forest and trying to find our way home. Out of the many different paths running through the forest, only a few will lead us where we want to go. Other paths will just send us deeper into the forest or travelling in circles. Now imagine our group comes to a fork in the path. Some people think we should go one way but the rest think we should go the other way. We will discuss it as a group and try to find a consensus. Perhaps an argument for one path is that it goes downhill and we travelled uphill as we left home. Perhaps there is a certain type of tree along the other path that we’ve only previously seen near home. If we can’t come to a consensus, we may eventually have to split up. You will have to decide whether you will take the path that you believe is wrong, trusting yourself to the group, or whether you will take the path you believe is correct and risk getting further lost.

The forest represents all the moral possibilities and home would be a true, objective and correct morality. Each path represents a different ethical system. We discuss right and wrong but eventually we have to make a choice. Do we do what we think is right or do we blindly follow those we feel are wrong. I think this metaphor helps because in the world of moral possibilities, we may see those with different beliefs as evil people. In the situation of being lost in the forest, we don’t see those that take a different path as evil. We may see them as misguided and pity them but it’s easy to recognise that we are all trying to find our way home. We may think that we need to take different paths to achieve it, but we are all working towards the same goal. Ethically, we all want to live in a good world and do what is good, even though we disagree what that is.

I hope at this point that you agree that there is no objective morality (or, if there is, that we do not know it) and that merely possessing different beliefs does not make someone evil. But that does that mean that there is no evil? No. To me, an evil person is the one who stands in the forest of moral possibilities at the fork in the path, believes that one way goes home and then leads people the other way. They know the difference between what is good and what is bad and they have chosen to do what is bad. I will not judge the person that murders because they believe it is right to be evil. I will disagree with them, try to stop them and convince them they are wrong but I will not say they are evil. They are doing what they believe is right just as I am doing what I believe is right and I can not say for certain who is correct. But the person who believes that it is wrong to murder and then murders anyway, that person can be said to be evil.

We should be tolerant of those who believe different things and have different morals. That doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them and we can, and should, argue vociferously for them to change their mind but we should recognise that we ultimately want the same thing. The evil person is not the one with a different belief system but the person who has rejected what they believe is good.

1 thought on “What makes a person evil?

  1. Pingback: 2022 Book List | Evidence & Reason

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