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Last updated: Aug 24th, 2011


What is evil?

The nature of evil is an age-old question that has puzzled philosophers, theologians, and everyday people for millenia. It seems very difficult to answer the question in a strictly logical way, and it seems equally difficult to answer the question exhaustively. Nevertheless, there are still many situations in our world in which there is a general consensus about what evil is. Evil is generally seen as the opposite of good. Evil always seems to be connected to some sort of harm--either pain or suffering, or destruction of something, or infringing on someone's freedoms.

Over time I have realized that evil comes down to one fundamental thing: it is always tied to a denial of or distraction from the focus on the inherent worth of all human beings. The more subtle and gradual forms of distraction from this inherent worth are often the most sinister, as they can go unrecognized as evil progresses to massive scales.

The banality of Evil:

Evil is often tied to harm or destruction, sometimes just on its own, and sometimes paired with a sense of personal gain. It is hard to imagine evil without it being tied to some sort of cruelty (desire to inflict pain or suffering) or greed (desire to seek personal gain); however, the majority of evil that persists is tied to neither.

Evil is so commonplace, and the way it is carried out in most cases is so routine that often, evil can be described as "banal"; Hannah Arendt coined the phrase in her discussion of Adolph Eichmann, an administrator in the bureacracy of the Nazi death camps. If evil acts are made to seem mundane and routine, people come to accept and carry them out without thinking twice about them. However, the banality of evil does not just apply to scenarios in which an evil mastermind (in our example, Hitler) is controlling a massive bureacracy and popular opinion: evil can exist and thrive in complex social systems with no mastermind, such as the complex global market economy. Many environmental and human rights atrocities are carried out in such a way that all agents of the evil are unaware of their role in the scheme.

Is evil opposed to thought, knowledge, information, consciousness?

The greatest atrocities that have ever been carried out in the history of humanity have been inextricably tied into social structures which enabled people to carry out evil acts without questioning them. Most evil persists because the agents of evil (at each step of the process) are unaware of or at least disconnected from the way their actions negatively affect others.

A deep awareness of everyone affected by our actions is strongly opposed to the concept of the banality of evil. By becoming aware of how our actions affect others, directly and indirectly, we can keep ourselves from becoming agents of banal evil. In addition, being aware of how our actions affect others is tied to our being empathic and connected to other people, which will also discourage us from being cruel or greedy. Knowledge, awareness, and connectedness to others is the best remedy for evil. We will not commit evil acts so long as a sincere focus on the inherent worth of all people guides all our actions.

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