No matter where we look in the World today, we see evil: in our neighborhoods, our businesses, our cities, our states, and pretty much throughout our country. Very few disagree that evil lives among us. But many of us see the evil acts taken by people and we automatically think — and sometimes say — “That person is evil.” Who can discount the fact that Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook School shooter), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech massacre), Omar Mateen (Orlando Nightclub), Stephen Paddock (Las Vegas), Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City) did not commit some of the most heinous acts in human history? No doubt those mass killings were pure evil. But were the people who committed those “evil” themselves or were just their ACTS of murder evil? Does/Can evil do evil by itself?
What Is Evil?
“Evil: the force in nature that governs and gives rise to wickedness and sin.”
Can a person — a human being — actually be evil themselves?
Since World War II, moral, political, and legal philosophers have become increasingly interested in the concept of evil. This interest has been partly motivated by definitions of “evil” by laymen, social scientists, journalists, and politicians as they try to understand and respond to various atrocities and horrors, such as genocides, terrorist attacks, mass murders, and tortures and killing sprees by psychopathic serial killers. It seems that we cannot capture the moral significance of these actions and their perpetrators by calling them “wrong” or “bad” or even “very very wrong” or “very very bad.” We need the concept of evil.
To avoid confusion, it is important to note that there are at least two concepts of evil: a broad concept and a narrow concept. The broad concept picks out any bad state of affairs, wrongful action, or character flaw. The suffering of a toothache is evil in the broad sense as is a white lie. Evil in the broad sense has been divided into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Natural evils are bad states of affairs which do not result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents. Hurricanes and toothaches are examples of natural evils. By contrast, moral evils do result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents. Murder and lying are examples of moral evils.
One school of thought holds that no person is evil and 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 would not 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, are seen as sick or ill and measures are taken to restore them to a sense of harmonious relations with themselves and others.
Psychologist Albert Ellis agrees, in his school of psychology called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. He says the root of anger, and the desire to harm someone, is almost always related to variations of beliefs about other human beings. He further claims that without holding those beliefs and assumptions, the tendency to resort to violence in most cases is less likely.
American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, on the other hand, describes evil as militant ignorance. The original Judeo-Christian concept of sin is as a process that leads one to miss the mark and not achieve perfection. Peck argues that while most people are conscious of this at least on some level, those that are evil actively and militantly refuse this consciousness. Peck describes evil as a malignant type of self-righteousness which results in a projection of evil onto selected specific innocent victims (often children or other people in relatively powerless positions). Peck considers those he calls evil to be attempting to escape and hide from their own conscience (through self-deception) and views this as being quite distinct from the apparent absence of conscience evident in sociopaths.
For horror movie fans, Michael Myers is the epitome of evil. Millions have looked in since the mid-70’s to Jamie Lee Curtis‘ character through multiple episodes tried to elude the non-stop attempts of her brother Micheal to murder her in their hometown of Haddenfield. Michael in the Halloween series is a psychopath who continually escapes from mental institutions to hunt down his sister. In the process, he brutally murders dozens of unwitting innocents, but never is successful at offing his sister.
The “Michael Myers” character magnifies the thought that there can be and are people who are literally evil themselves. Whether or not people ARE evil, when the perception of others is that someone is not simply committing evil acts when they slaughter innocents but those acts happen because that person IS evil themselves, thinking that people ARE evil can become fundamental. And when perceptually labeling someone as evil, those perceptions, and decisions made from those, frame the mental and emotional foundation of that person. That opens a human nature can of worms.
Let’s “cut to the chase.”
The former member of Congress who is a doctor, a former presidential candidate, former Democrat National Committee Chair, is a vocal anti-Trump pundit. In a recent MSNBC interview with several other guests, Dean illustrated how our today conversation about people being evil or people simply EMBRACING evil are viewed differently. Guess which way Dean applies “evil” to the President?
“I think in the end, Hope wins over Evil. But it takes a long time. Both of those work in humankind. That’s what this struggle is about: the struggle about Good versus Evil. And the President of the United States is Evil.”
Dean has in his opinion of President Trump taken the approach of not just assigning certain acts committed by the President as evil — Dean ascribes the President as evil.
M. Scott Peck in his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, uses the example published by Erich Fromm in describing evil in people who had necrophilia — which is “Obsessive fascination with death and corpses.” Fromm added to that definition of necrophilia. He broadened the definition of necrophilia to include “the desire of certain people to control others-to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, and to keep them in line.” Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person — “One who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual” — he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type,” whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.
Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.
Christianity and the Bible
Where to begin? Evil was introduced to the World in the Garden of Eden. Satan — who many will say is the embodiment of Evil itself — introduced Evil for the first time ever in human history. Adam and Eve were both Satan’s targets. It is much simpler for those who do NOT believe in Christianity or the Bible or certain parts of it to simply ascribe evil itself to people — not just acts people conduct from succumbing to evil.
For humans who believe in God, that Jesus is God’s son, and that Jesus died to bear and forgive all of humanity’s sins (evil), it is makes much better sense to disassociate sin (evil) from the sinner and evil acts from the person who commits those evil acts. In other words, People are not evil — bad acts that people commit against others is evil.
President Trump after the racial violence in Charlottesville made it clear he understands the difference. Instead of terming racist people at Charlottesville as “Evil,” he plainly stated that ALL “racism” is evil and that those that embrace racism embrace evil itself. The President did NOT say “racists are evil” — just their racism.
Hopefully sharing the words, comments, definitions, and opinions of the “experts” on the subject of Evil did not bog you down. One thing is certain: in this vitriolic environment in our nation, it is imperative that Americans find a way to turn it down a notch or two. Americans must learn to recognize ACTS of evil do not necessarily happen at the hands of EVIL people. Rather, those acts are EVIL ACTS. Instead of letting anger at the evil acts or words of others morph into evil acts of violence, we must find ways to separate in our minds and hearts the acts from the people. Believing in ourselves that certain people ARE Evil dehumanizes them to us. Think about what that really means: subconsciously we are saying that a person is Evil itself and therefore has no hope for change, forgiveness for committing acts of evil, and therefore has no chance of reconciliation. Who are we to make such a determination about someone else…or even about ourselves?
How can we accomplish this? The simplest way is to allow one’s personal relationship with God to intervene. How to do that?
A “relationship” defines two-way give-and-take between two people. To develop and exist for some period of time, any relationship must be built on communication. A married couple that plans on spending a lifetime together must really know each other — the good AND the bad. How can they make that happen? In only one way: communication.
A personal relationship with God is exactly the same. Communication to share thoughts and ideas, asking and getting answers to questions, reading what God has said through his prophets and leaders through the Bible — these are all ways to communicate with Him. Going to a church is a wonderful way to interact with others who have the same or similar spiritual ideas. But attending church — no matter how good the music or the sermon — cannot be a substitute for a relationship with God. A true relationship with God must have the same foundation of a relationship between two humans: understanding of each other that comes only through communication.
For Americans to “turn it down a notch,” Americans need to find ways to communicate with each other on a personal basis rather than standing across towns and states, crying that others are Evil. Think about this: if someone feels that another person who has committed one of the horrible acts mentioned above is actually Evil in person, it is virtually impossible to find common ground or any hope of ever co-existing. In that instance, how can anyone expect for there to ever be any commonality or mutual understanding or respect to be developed? We MUST learn to separate “acts” of evil from those who commit evil.
There’s a difference. We must find those differences, find our commonalities, and put anger and hatred initiated against us by others aside and push forward together. We must stop dehumanizing others by calling them Evil: Separate evil acts from the people who commit them.