This month the UU Salon asks - What is evil?
Outside of fiction, I don’t normally think in terms of good vs. evil, but rather right and wrong. There is an implication in the use of the word evil that implies a universal standard. An action cannot be sometimes evil and sometimes good, but it can be sometimes right and sometimes wrong.
I do not believe in an omnipotent judge with a universal standard who determines which acts happen to be evil, but I would define evil or wrong as intentionally harming others. Sex is not evil, but sleeping with your best friend’s husband is, not because of the act but because of the harm done to your friend and the trust betrayed. We could quibble here about violence committed in self-defense, but I am totally willing to harm someone who is trying to hurt me or my family. I can live with that.
Where does evil come from? Desires to help and to harm others are intrinsically part of human nature and we choose which compulsion to follow on a continual basis. People are not inherently evil, but hold tremendous capacity both to help and to harm. Evil is not an independent entity that acts upon us, but it is a result of selfish choices we make. Good and evil are both aspects of human nature.
Nature cannot be evil as it does not possess free will; nature merely is. I find funny that we are often happy to ascribe goodness to nature when we like it. We may believe that a warm sunbeam is good or a beautiful stretch of coastline is good, but we don’t say a hurricane is evil when it kills so many people. This is a good reminder to me that while I may enjoy certain aspects of nature very much, nature just is. The universe exists, but it does not have good and evil sections.
I do not know who first said it, but I have often thought my favorite definition of evil is the absence of empathy. If you truly try to understand another person or creature, you do not want to hurt him or her. Empathy is a big things with me, but the more I learn about sociopaths the more I wonder if that definition is adequate. I am not in any way a mental health expert, but if my understanding of the current research is correct and sociopathy is an incurable condition is which the subject is not hard-wired for empathy from birth then we need to rethink this. If we believe in the inherent dignity of every person then we cannot declare that anyone born a sociopath is inherently evil. OK, I went off on a rabbit trail with that one, but I have been mulling this over lately.
Evil actions do not bring about our eternal damnation, but they do make us miserable. Currently, I do not believe in any type of afterlife, so I am not afraid to go to hell if I am bad, but evil does distract me from what I am supposed to be doing with this life of mine. I can’t make the world a better place if I am harming others. I can’t raise happy healthy daughters if I take out my aggressions on them. I can’t have a meaningful marriage if I abuse my spouse. The things that are important to me are not achievable through evil.