A Humanist Conception of Evil

“Evil” the most powerful term of moral condemnation. Worse than “wrong”, “bad”, or even “wicked”, saying something – an act or an individual – is “evil” is the most forceful negative evaluation we have access to in the ethical sphere.

The word carries connotations which makes some atheists and Humanists concerned. Some worry that it implies some sort of transcendent moral judgment which naturalistic frameworks of value cannot justify. Something is “Evil with a capital E” only if it transgresses some transcendent Moral Law – and since we don’t believe in Moral Laws we should eschew the term, they argue. Others are uncomfortable with the strength of the condemnation the word carries, feeling that it is never OK to judge someone to be “evil” because that precludes the possibility of their rehabilitation. “Evil”, to them, is a brand which scars forever. Some simply think the word is too highly charged to be used in ethical discourse.

I think these concerns philosophically unfounded, avoidable in practice, and debilitating when it comes to persuasion and movement-building. Philosophically-speaking, it is true that the term tends to carry “religious” connotations in today’s society (this is largely because secular discourse has abandoned moral terminology in its public argumentation, as I argue below). That does not mean, however, that it cannot be made meaningful within a naturalistic framework: all is required is a defensible definition which captures easily-agreed-upon cases of “evil” and which helps adjudicate difficult cases. I will attempt such a definition here.

The second objection is easily dealt with: we can simply judge actions to be “evil” (or not), and refrain from using the term to apply to people at all. As far as it is used to describe people, we can interpret that to mean “someone with a history of evil actions”, which both maintains the distinction between actions and individual character, offering the possibility for a person to “redeem” their evilness, while allowing us to understand what might be meant when – as often occurs – a person is judged to be “evil”. A similar approach to this might be the following view of what it means to be “a criminal”: it is best to take this to mean “someone who has engaged in criminal activity”, rather than “someone who will always engage in criminal activity because of a flaw in their character”. This is both more precise and limited a claim, and also likely to be more accurate (since a person’s actions are, to a large degree, influenced by their social context, if you change the context you will likely change the patterns of action).

Finally, one of the great weaknesses of broadly progressive social movements is their avoidance of morally-loaded language. We tend to frame our arguments in instrumental terms which try to explain the overall benefit of our proposed policy or action, while scrupulously avoiding condemnations of those who take a different position, or even actions or policies we believe to be harmful. We have too frequently handed the quiver of moral language to conservatives, restricting ourselves to an abstract, technical language which does not enflame the heart. Reasonably afraid of the dangers of judgmentalism, we unreasonably avoid the language of moral judgment. This limits our ability to persuade others of our point of view and limits our ability to rouse our supporters to action. Few words have such power to inspire opposition to something as does the term “evil” – and our opponents will liberally use it if we do not. This is a weapon we should not lay down.

The concept of evil is, I argue, both salvageable and valuable. What might a Humanist approach to evil look like? I think it must satisfy a number of conditions.

Evil Requires Wrongdoing

This may seem to obvious to be stated, but clearly the term “evil” carries, in ethical discourse, a negative valence. We do not use the term “evil” to describe actions of which we approve. Rather, “evil” requires wrong-doing of some sort.

Evil Requires Intentionality and the Capacity for Moral Judgment

Simple wrong-doing, however, is not necessarily “evil”. Evil, I argue, requires intentionality on the part of a moral agent. An agent of change which acts without intentionality can be “bad” but not “evil”. Tornadoes are not “evil”, even if they destroy whole towns. Accidents – even ones which cause the death of hundreds – are not acts of “evil”. If a grizzly bear eats a child, this may be a heartbreaking tragedy, and certainly harm has been caused, but it is not, I think, an act of “evil” because we do not judge that the bear is acting with intentional as an ethical agent. Likewise, human beings who lack the mental capacity to make informed ethical judgments are incapable of “evil”, even though they can perform actions we would judge to be “wrong” (it is difficult, too, to imagine young children acting “evilly”. Perhaps this is one reason why depictions of children as “evil”, like Damien in The Omen, as so disturbing). In situations where we judge someone to have acted in an evil way, we tend to be talking about intentional acts made by a morally capable agent.

Intentionally Doing Wrong is Not Necessarily to do “Evil”

Here is where my argument becomes more complex and more likely to be contested. That some action is performed intentionally to cause harm to another is not enough alone, I suggest, to make an action “evil”. Consider: someone acting out of rage and despair in response to a wrong done to them – even someone who kills another in a fit of fury – has done something wrong, and intentionally so. The wrong they have committed – taking the life of a person – is perhaps the worst of all wrongs. But I would still hesitate to label the action “evil”: although it is wrong it is at least understandable, and we can put ourselves into the position of the perpetrator and imagine how we might react were we to experience a similar wrong. Likewise, I would hesitate to call the actions of even a violent insurrection against an oppressive government “evil”, although harm is being cause, intentionally, to people. “Evil” seems to require something more.

Considering Archetypal Cases of Evil

Let us consider some archetypal cases of “evil” which most would agree to be members of the category: the holocaust; the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur;  the state terrorism of Soviet Russia. These are all, I think, uncontroversial instances of evil. What do they share? It seems to me they share at least the following characteristics:

  • They involve not just singular attacks against individuals, but systematized, targeted attacks against specific populations.
  • They are perpetrated by the powerful against the relatively disempowered.
  • They are not just acts of violence, but acts of outright dehumanization, in which the targeted populations are vilified, humiliated, and demeaned based on their membership of a particular category (race, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, class etc.).

I think these characteristic are all significant, particularly the third: it is dehumanization – the reduction of people to things – which seems to me particularly definitional of the activities I consider to be “evil”. Killing other people – for instance in a war or, perhaps, in a duel (as used to happen not so long ago) – is certainly wrong and worthy of moral opprobrium, but how much more wrong is it to, as a person or group in a superior position of power to another, exercise one’s power in such a way as to deny them their personhood, and strip them utterly of their dignity such that literally anything you do to them can be justified? That, to me, is evil.

In light of these features, and the concerns explored above, I propose a working definition: Evil is the systemic, targeted, purposeful dehumanization of others to such an extent as to render actions done to them morally negligible.

Consequences of this Approach

This approach to “evil” has consequences for ethical discourse and activism which I think highlight the value of using such a definition. First, it focuses our attention on the extreme danger of dehumanizing people, and particularly the danger in dehumanizing people who are part of a marginalized group. Many of the world’s greatest atrocities began with subtle processes of dehumanization which, over time, accumulated to the point that what was done to the people in question was not even considered wrong by the perpetrators. Dehumanization is a path down which we should not tread one step, not least because evil is contagious: being dehumanized leads us to dehumanize others, perpetuating cycles of violence.

Second, it stresses the structural nature of evil. As I understand it, evil is not just people doing bad things to each other. Rather, structures of power, inequality, and injustice are central to determining whether evil is being done. It is a fact that power is unequally distributed throughout the world and withing different societies, and those power differentials matter a great deal when adjudicating the harm done by different sorts of immoral actions. Targeting those already sidelined by a society is particularly dangerous and immoral because it reinforces structures of power which are already harming them. Furthermore, recognizing the structural nature of evil enables us to recognize our responsibilities as agents opposed to evildoing: we must oppose the structures as well as the specific actions we abhor. It is of some good to speak out against specific occasions in which structural inequalities of power spill over into outright evil acts, but without dismantling the structures themselves the potential for evil is always there: the boulder looms precariously atop the slope, threatening to roll down and crush those huddled at the bottom at any moment.

Third, this definition places an emphasis on the systematicity of evil. As opposed to acts of rage or even targeted wrongdoing against an individual, evil seems to me to include a more coordinated, systemic attack on groups and members of groups. Thus the dark tendrils of its effects delve far deeper than into just the individuals affected: evil creates a climate in which any member of that group, whether they have been subject to direct harm or not, lives in fear of harm at all times purely by dint of their group membership. Evil thus pervades and contaminates social systems, corroding bonds of trust, promoting suspicion and fear.

Toward an Ethic of Humanization

I end with a question: what does it mean to actively humanize others? One approach toward reducing the amount of evil in the world, which would go beyond merely opposing instances of evil when they occur, would be to actively promote conditions which prevent evil from occurring at all. Given the nature of the definition I have suggested, I propose that this would require active humanization of the other, a process in which people separated by differences are required to confront the personhood of other people in a forceful and undeniable way (such a project is similar to some of the principles underlying Ghandi’s concept of satyagraha). Such practices could be seen as preemptive strikes against evil, as they would work to prevent the structures of dehumanization which facilitate evil actions from arising. Identifying successful programs of humanization should be a central Humanist goal.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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