What Evil is
So anyway, is there some sort of scale of badness that culminates at “Evil”? I think it’s generally accepted that evil is the worst kind of bad but I still feel that it’s not terribly well defined. In a strictly dichotomous sense, it’s the opposite of “Good”, but there are numerous superlative terms that exceed “good” in their representation of goodness. If we go back to the concept of a scale, then it might be possible to talk about Good and Evil in strictly paradigmatic terms, so that on one end is the most Evil thing/act imaginable, and at the other end the most Good thing/act imaginable.
Presumably, then, in the middle is “Neutral”, neither Good nor Evil. I’m struggling to think of something that would fall under that category. Beige, maybe. The vacuum of space. Ricky Ponting’s retirement. I really don’t know.
The thing about this scale (which, incidentally is making me think of this which is very distracting) is how it can be made divisible. How much easier is it to define “slightly good” than “slightly evil”? How much further up the scale of Good is “Fantastic” than “Wonderful”? This, at least, is relatively easy to answer. What’s happened is those two words in particular, but also “Awesome” and “Brilliant” and others, have ended up being misappropriated by lazy and unimaginative language users and mixed into a slurry of words that in some sense or other relate to the relative goodness of something. That’s not what they meant originally, it’s just how they’ve come to be used.
So let’s return to the paradigms: At one end of the scale is the most evil thing/act of which one can conceive, and at the other is the most good thing/act of which one can conceive. Now, St. Anselm, in his Proslogion presented his ontological proof of God’s existence. The gist of it, if you can’t be bothered following the link to Wikipedia, is that if God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived, then surely it’s greater if such a thing exists in reality. Ergo, God exists in reality. QED. Atheists and other philosophers (such as myself) like to poke fun at this argument in all sorts of imaginative and entertaining ways. But then atheists also like to quote Epicurus in somewhat unfair terms because it suits their needs. Both arguments fall down in similar ways but you know those kooky atheists, they just don’t care. When there’s a cheap shot to be had, they’ll have it, by gum! (Just as an aside, the sport of atheist baiting, whilst generally thought to be outlawed under anti-trolling legislation no-one really takes seriously, is actually a wholesome sport the whole family can enjoy. Why not give it a try?)
I don’t know how helpful it is to draw a comparison between Anselm and our scale of Good and Evil, except to say that by using this same logic, if the most Evil thing of which one could conceive actually happened in the world, then it would actually be the most Evil thing, and therefore the real definition of Evil itself. The same applies to the notion of Good.
“Ah ha!” I hear you exclaim, “This notion of what is Good and what is Evil is entirely subjective! There’s no way humanity could possibly agree upon what’s most Good or most Evil!”
Let’s take humanity out of the equation, then. Let’s try and conceive of what is Good and what is Evil in a universe minus humanity.
Tricky… How about just trying to conceive of the universe minus humanity?
Can’t be done. Mr. Descartes told us that at the end of the day, the mere presence of a “thinking thing” to ask the question “So, this is nothingness, eh?” proves that it’s not really nothingness.
So, the “Problem of Evil“. When taken out of a human context, it ceases to be a problem. It’s quite possible to conceive of a universe existing without human beings around to observe it, but utterly impossible to conceive of a universe in which either Good or Evil exist without human beings around to make judgments about the goodness or evilness of things.
Good and Evil are not creations of God, they are concepts created by humans. Some humans at some points in history have believed actions they took to be entirely Good, whereas others thought they were Evil. Taken out of human context, they are merely actions. We don’t call tigers evil for killing and eating furry animals, even human animals, furry or otherwise. But Hannibal Lechter? Evil as an EVIL THING. Strangely, cannibalism in “primitive cultures” generally isn’t seen as evil, just “primitive”. Hitler is generally attributed responsibility for the deaths of around six million people, and is thought to be Evil personified. The Spanish ‘flu pandemic claimed nearly 50 million lives but isn’t considered evil. Why? Because we believe Hitler was motivated to do bad things, whereas the ‘flu virus is just a virus, and doesn’t have motivations.
Perspective is everything.
So, in the end, what has been the point of this little ramble? Just to address these ideas of Good and Evil and give them some perspective. Calling someone or something (e.g. a country or government) Good or Evil is meaningless, because those terms rely upon a moral point of view that is far from universal. Besides, you can’t have one without the other, and in the space between these two opposite concepts are innumerable other concepts that better and more effectively describe the world around us. We’re better off trying to explore those concepts and the vocabulary that go with them, than to try and paint the world in black and white.