Human evil means two different things. It means evil action and it means evil intent. In dealing with evil, we have to decide in every case which meaning is more important.
Evil action I define as that which results in significantly more human harm than human benefit. Harm or benefit, which I am not specifically defining, is measured in degree, numbers, and duration.
Evil intent is the intent to evil action.
When we call someone evil, we generally mean they are defined by evil intent sustained over a long period of time. When we understand evil intent to be caused by temporary stress, we tend to not to define that person as evil. This category includes the parent who is so tired of a crying baby that he or she shouts angrily at the child or thrusts it roughly into the crib. The worst cases, though dramatic, are extremely rare. In all I believe this type of intent to contribute only very little to the actual evil done in the world.
I believe that truly evil people are also rare, not insignificantly so because of the amount of harm each one can do, but much less common than we tend to think.
Evil action is unfortunately extremely common. These two premises together mean that a lot of evil, I think most of it, is done by people whom we do not regard as evil themselves, even temporarily.
So how do we deal with evil?
We must deal with it in a practical manner, by taking each situation of evil action and looking for the human root cause. If we persist in seeing evil people as the cause, we are probably wrong. If we are wrong, we are not getting to root cause, therefore we have very little likelihood of being able to do anything about it.
In other words, we are far better off treating evil as action rather than intent. Even if evil people are involved, there aren’t likely to be very many of them. The larger the measure of the evil, the more it is likely to be mostly done (or facilitated) by people who are not evil, so the principle of evil as action still leads us in the more useful direction.
We like the Batman vs Joker, Good vs Evil mythology, because it’s simple, but it’s not the way the world works in general.
It can be disconcerting to think this way, because we eventually have to admit that we ourselves are often the source of evil action. When a whole lot of us align evilly, even in small, unthinking, individual ways, we can create a whole lot of evil. That’s not fun to think about, but we must.
The other side of that coin is that we can also undo a whole lot of evil and create a whole lot of good by a whole lot of us acting simply in conscious, caring ways.
February 11, 2009