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Original Question

What is evil?  Is there any such thing?  Or is there only selfishness, pettiness, sloth, etc?  At what point can we say that someone is evil, instead of saying that they have made some bad/negative/unloving/whatever choices? --DouglasReay

Ok, I think perhaps before I ask any more questions, it might be helpful if I gave an answer to my original one.

I think there is such a thing as evil in that one can act wrongly in a way you describe.  I don't think there is such a thing as an evil force, and I don't do so blindly, it's a guess from experience. I grew up believing in the devil, so my current thoughts are not something I've just assumed. I think there's nothing so destructive as human stupidity and blindness, but by their very nature they are unfocussed and uncontrollable, so I don't think there is such a thing as non-abstract evil. Basically, I don't see it in the world (although one might expect that a clever Evil would be good at hiding itself). I also suspect that by denying the existence of this force, I am preventing it from affecting me, not permitting it access, having seen the effect fantasy has on some people - SunKitten

As to your comment about people being evil, I want to quibble. There is a very fine line between saying someone is evil and someone's actions are evil. By saying someone is evil we are falling prey to the habit of stereotyping and binary judgements - even if we just mean someone is more evil than good, it's a slippery slope I would rather not step on. In any case, I don't know the secrets of another man's heart. I can't judge save on his actions, and one can be just as condemnatory and far more accurate by describing actions as evil rather than a person. Therefore, I would not say someone was evil, but I would describe their actions as evil if necessary. Actions are at least mostly public and are rather easier to judge than the state of another's head - SunKitten

Finally, I don't think anyone is irredeemable, but maybe I'm just naive. I think I prefer being naive to being a cynic, however - SunKitten


Malignancy, I'd say. A person is evil if their life goal is to cause harm for the sake of it. An action is evil if the motivation behind it is to do harm. Or at least, these these things are a (large? common? defining?) subset of things that are evil. - MoonShadow

So if someone hates a particular group, and takes enjoyment from seeing harm come to them, and funds organisations targetting  that group the way others will go out of their way to support a favourite charity, is that person evil? --DouglasReay
Malignant, probably. Evil? I don't know. I can't really judge such things, especially in contrived examples. *shrug* I don't think it's something that generalises particularly well. - MoonShadow

What if they believe that their hatred is justified?  That the group they target is in some way inferior, malignant itself, or in some other way worthy of being targetted? --DouglasReay
Surely then their *goal* is to do good, and their *method* involves doing harm? - MoonShadow

And would they be any less evil if they acted exactly the same, but without being motivated by hatred - more in sorrow than in anger.  If so, why? --DouglasReay

Opposite of good?

Let me see if I can phrase my question in a different way.  In various RolePlaying games there was a concept of "Alignment", which was a set attribute of your character, like race or gender.  A good character was benevolently motivated.  It would go out of its way to cooperate, protect the weak, serve truth and justice, and so on.  A neutral character was one who was mainly motivated by self interest, like an economist's ideal person.  It primarily did what would benefit, amuse or be easiest for itself.  An evil character is the mirror image of good.  An anti-paladin to match the good paladin.  One who would go out of their way, even sacrifice their very life, to cause the maximum harm because it was harm, because it was evil, because evil was what they felt irrevocably called to. --DR

And this view of evil corresponds very well to how we see the term used in every day life, when tabloid newspapers say someone is evil, that is the resonance they are trying to elicit. --DR
I don't think the above definition of evil corresponds to real life... no one does evil for the sake of it.--ColinLeung
Don't they?  Surely there is at least as much evolutionary advantage in evil instincts as good ones?  Yes, altruism (like an uncle dying to defend a nephew) is supported by evolution.  But surely so would that same uncle dying to kill off an entire competing neighbouring tribe? --DR
Take someone who's universally known to be evil... say Hilter. I'm sure he thinks he is doing the right thing, and he thinks that he is sacrificing this generation for the better of the future of Germany etc. And I think he didn't just kill all the Jews for a laugh... it's just a way to rally the country or something like that... politics. --ColinLeung
Do people really know why they do things?  Haven't you seen people invent plausible rationalisations for their own comfort? --DR
(PeterTaylor) It strikes me that in general (exceptions for e.g. WebComics/Freefall where Sam is corrupted towards good) if you have to rationalise something for your own comfort that's probably because your conscience / your subconscious / the HolySpirit is telling you that it's evil.

My interest is twofold.  The first part of the question I asked was "Does evil exist?".  By which I mean more than is the semantic term "evil" useful or well defined.  I'm not entirely sure, but I guess I mean is there such a power that stands facing good, or is it just a perjorative phrase used to describe the lower orders of neutrality, something that differs only in quantity not quality from spending no money in charity and all on luxuries for yourself? --DR
Actually, I don't think either evil or good exist as separate 'forces'. I can't actually say why, though - put it down to WAFF :). If your inclination is to think that good and/or evil do exist as separate forces, why? - SunKitten

And secondly, when does a person become evil?  I think we can put off to a seperate wiki page the discussion as what the source of our knowledge is about whether a particular action (such as eating babies) is evil.  Assume, for the sake of this second part of the discussion that there is such a thing as evil and there are some actions (or actions combined with motivations) that are known to be evil.  Does that allow us to make the jump to be able to say that people can be evil?  And if so, what does that mean? --DR
Again, I don't think people can be described as 'good' or 'evil' because they are very binary definitions and people are complicated. I'm not even sure that all actions can be defined as good or evil. The closest I would get is to say that a person appears to be acting in an evil manner. This is because I think motivation has to be taken into account when judging an action as good or evil, assuming one can judge actions, and often enough I don't know my own motivation, much less anyone else's.
Does that make sense? - SunKitten
I think that, as soon as you start to look into the matter, you have to say that actions are rarely inherently evil; it's the motivations and thought processes behind them that make the difference. --M-A

MJ vs MoonShadow

At the risk of turning this into another difficult debate (and believe me, I have the FlameRetardantSuit at the ready) - accepted definitions of 'evil' (and indeed 'good') - being as they are claims to a universal morality - fall into one of two categories:

(refactoring todo: snip my bile, refactor Mike's responses into above, including the excellent final posts in their entirety - MoonShadow)

"This is good, and this is evil. How do I know? God told me. Or, this book told me, and God told me this book was written by God. Or, this book told me, and a human I trust told me this book was written by God. Or, I just feel it, and I think that's God telling me. Or, everyone around me says this is good, therefore they must all think this is good because God is telling them so. Do you not believe in God's truth? This book is God's truth. It says so, and it says "good" is what God says it is. What I am telling you is God's truth. Why are you not believing me? Clearly, you are rejecting God. Can you point to someone that thinks this clearly evil thing is good? No? Oh, you think it's good? Hey, everyone, look at him - he thinks this is good. Clearly, therefore, he is evil and needs to know God." Conversations such as these go in endless circles, never getting anywhere. --MoonShadow
How do you obtain an understanding of morality such as the one you describe, and know that it comes from God rather than humans, so that you can give definitions of good and evil based on it that aren't circular and that actually mean something (as opposed to buzzphrases like "God is Good" and "God's truth is greater than ours", which - independently of their truth - are not generally helpful on their own and unexpanded outside the context of philosophical debates)? I think this would be the most helpful, useful direction for you to expand your statement in - how do you turn the buzzphrases into something meaningful, and justify that? In other words, saying "things God thinks are good" doesn't answer "define good" unless you also say what God thinks and how you know that that's what God thinks, as opposed to what you think. If you are basing your argument on something which clearly isn't God, such as a book or another human's words, you then have to justify why you think those things are acceptable to base it on. If you are basing your argument on things which are ambiguous (pick any biblical issue where Christian opinion is divided over readings), how do you know which one is true, and how do you know that that's what God thinks rather than what you think? Presumably all these other people who think that the other thing is what God thinks are wrong - what makes you think you are less fallible?... I could go on for ages. Which reopens the whole KnowingGodsWill can of worms and is probably best expanded on there... does that lot make any sense? --MoonShadow

If you look, I was proposing that a higher moral authority is a necessary condition for the ideas of good and evil to be meaningful in any universal sense (which I would contest is how they are generally used), and that to use them otherwise is meaningless.  I did not propose this condition to be sufficient, only necessary.
If you look, I was asking you precisely how this helped to define good and evil in a meaningful and relevant way, and giving examples of things that do not help to define good and evil in a meaningful and relevant way. - MoonShadow
If as you state, the view of that higher authority is not knowable,
Please don't misunderstand. I state nothing here. The fact that you are proposing that higher authority is relevant implies that you believe it is knowable, and I am therefore asking you to clarify, listing along the way some common lines of reasoning that I do not believe would serve to do so. Do you disagree with something I listed? If so, what and why? Or if not, do you think I have exhausted all possible arguments? If not, could you provide a different one? In short, I am asking you to expand on what you believe, and why. - MoonShadow.
then good and evil do indeed remain meaningless concepts.  In relating to the rest of your statement, you suggest that it belongs in KnowingGodsWill.  Correct me if I'm misreading it, but what you wrote above appears to reflect a change in your understanding (or maybe it merely makes clear a misunderstanding on my part) - in that page you put forward the concept that we know God's will through prayer and 'hearing' him or 'feeling' his will, or something of that nature - the important part being a personal communication.  Above, you seem to state that it's no more possible to conclusively derive God's will from that than from study of the Bible or indeed anything else.  This is precisely why it comes down to having faith, because otherwise you return to the agnostic position of being unable to know anything that may exist outside the box of physical existence.  If one is to claim any belief in God, it can only be by faith in a revelation from God.  If God, his nature, his character, his will, has to be worked out entirely by our logic we've nothing to get hold of since, by definition, we have nothing that is definitively divine against which to compare our propositions.

In any case, to set up such logic as the ultimate arbiter of reality is similarly an act of faith.  This faith is threefold - firstly the faith in human ability to discover truth and use logic in general.  Secondly, faith that a given use of logic is not flawed, that logic has been applied correctly.  Thirdly, (as we've touched on many times before) the faith in the axioms.  Assumptions and faith are a part of any thought - faith in human rationsality.  If one places that faith in logic alone and leaves no place for God's clear communication, one will conclude that it KnowingGodsWill is in fact impossible.  If this is not the conclusion of your position, please clarify your position as I can't see how from my current understanding of it, any other conclusion can be drawn.

My personal opinion is that bringing up faith or God's communication in a logical debate is meaningless because these things are subjective. God may or may not be able to convince you of something by communicating with you; I will never convince you of that thing by saying things like "God told me it's true" or "I have faith it's true", because you just respond "well, He told me something /I have faith in something different", and we are stuck. It's because of this "we are stuck" that I think this belongs in "KnowingGodsWill" - I don't like the "we are stuck", and I want to get to the bottom of how we become unstuck. If someone believes that the meaning of good and evil is based on nothing but faith, I do not see how I can meaningfully have any sort of debate with them on the subject. However, my position is not the issue here. I am asking you to expand on your position - because I did not see the relevance of your initial statement to an objective definition of good and evil and moreover I explained why I did not see it, - not attack mine, although feel free to do so as well if you wish. Do you believe there is such a thing as a definition of good and evil? What do you think it is? I feel that "It's whatever God thinks it is" is unhelpful on its own because it just turns those questions into "well, what do you think God thinks it is and why do you think God thinks that?"; - those are the questions I would like you to answer! - MoonShadow

OK, I'll give it another try.  In my original statement, I wasn't in fact trying to make any statement about how one could become unstuck on KnowingGodsWill - more to the point out the inevitably subjective nature of any definition of good and evil that does not make reference to God.  It was trying to cut quickly to the fact that any debate on this is quickly going to get to 'what universal moral authority is there' and proposing what the answer was going to be.  And yes, my definition of good and evil would be 'as defined by God' - or 'like and unlike God's character' - we're going to get into how God's character is as it is, and I'm not going there.  Leading to the conclusion that the debate about what is good and evil is meaningful only in connection to KnowingGodsWill because good and evil are only meaningful if we can know God's definitions.  I was planning to leave that debate to the other page, but it sort of took root here a bit - I suspect that some misunderstandings led to this (Gomen...)  Is that any clearer?
Rather. But as far as I'm concerned, you still haven't actually answered the question - how do you define "good"? Or, taking what you've said so far into account, what do you think the word is defined to mean by God? Because I don't think that just saying "it's whatever God defines it to be" is actually, by itself, a very useful answer. It doesn't seem like a definition that will help me understand what you are trying to say when you use the word in conversation with me. This is what I have been trying to get across - can you see what I'm getting at? - MoonShadow
Perhaps I understand what you're driving at... What I'd say I mean by good is obedience to God's will, hence the inextricable link to the debate on KnowingGodsWill.  Conversely, evil is disobedience to God.  But different from the concept of sin, in that it isn't related so much to conscious obedience or disobedience, but to closeness to God's character, so that godly characteristics may be described as good in someone who makes no effort to obey God, even though in that lack of effort they are still sinful.  Now you have my definition (albeit a bit woolly still, my brain isn't doing precision today), I'm sure that pulling it apart will provide things to do in bored moments :) --MJ

Yes, that's basically the same thing you've said three times now. Now, you know I read the Bible, go to church and all the rest of it. But pretend for a minute that, like about half the people reading this wiki, I don't. "X thinks that 'good' people are people that try to put others' wishes before their own, desire to cause no harm with the actions they do, want things they do to make other people happier.." "Y thinks that 'good' people are people that obey God's wishes, and that God wants us to do things that improve each others lives and so on and so forth.." "Z thinks that 'good' people are people that do what God wants them to full stop." Having heard these, I have a clue what X and Y might mean when they tell me someone is good, and I have a clue what sort of people X and Y might class as good; with Z, however, I am left knowing pretty much the same amount about what they think "good" means as I did before. When they use the word in conversation with me, they might as well be saying "flirble" or "grune". Please, can someone else who understands the problem try to get it across? I can't seem to think of any other way of saying it. - MoonShadow

AlexChurchill will have a go.  Mike, the problem is that you're repeatedly saying "evil is disobedience to God", "good character is that which is close to God's character" and suchlike, without saying what those characteristics actually are, or what behaviour is thus appropriate.  If you're wanting to leave that to a different page, by all means create a different page and link to it.  But by leaving it unsaid and just repeating the above over and over again, you're coming across as avoiding the issue.  --AlexChurchill

OK.  I'm loth to say I understand, given the above but I may be at least making progress...  The only answer I can give that will take less than a day to write is NIV: Mark 12: 28-31 - which I think is related to what MoonShadow was saying at the beginning, but puts a basis other than WFF for so doing.  To understand what is involved in that love takes us back to KnowingGodsWill - and to flesh out my understanding of it in full would take me a very long time, which is why I haven't been doing so.
That's harsh. How do you justify "it puts a basis other than WFF for so doing?" Consider: A has WFF that "good is love". B says that actually, regardless of what A feels, there is an absolute meaning of "good", which is defined by God, and God defines this to be love. Can B justify this assertion by something other than WFF? I propose that the same WFF, conviction, faith, whatever you want to call it, is ultimately at the root of both worldviews. - MoonShadow

Which re-poses the original question doesn't it?
Oh, indeed. But it's still unfair to say "A is based on nothing but WFF while B is based on Certain Knowledge Of Absolute Truth" when B does not, in fact, have that advantage over A. - MoonShadow
Two reasons why I did so.  Firstly, because I misunderstood your point, MoonShadow, and was arguing on propositions I believed us to share - I didn't realise you were looking for something that was to be acceptable by all the wikizens.  Secondly - aren't we back to the absolute statement that AbsoluteTruth? is unknowable, then? --MJ
I don't think we're going to come up with a universal definition for good and evil, but it would probably be unusual to do so given the lack of universal definitions.  A universal definition of any term requires identical axioms for everyone.  Even if we change the sphere from 'univeral' to 'for all ToothyWikizens', we are unlikely to get too far.  Perhaps a universally acceptable statement would be that if 'good' and 'evil' are not derived from any higher moral authority then they are in themselves axiomatic qualities defying further definition on the assumption that everyone understands them.  In the end, logic is not going to iron out axiomatic differences on this or on any other issue, making it quite useless to try to define anything at all. --MJ


I watched a discussion about good and evil on UkReligionChristian recently, and it threw up a
couple of interesting points. The original question was whether good and evil are defined by
God, or are separate concepts which God adheres to (assuming God's existence and goodness).
The problem with God defining good and evil is that one then has 'it's good because I say so,'
which isn't very satisfying, and leads some people to ask questions like, 'if God said rape was OK,
would that be good?' The fact that this view allows questions like this is disturbing and, to
my mind, invalidates the option.
The problem with God adhering to a higher standard is just that - God is then subject to the higher
standard. This doesn't really fit with the Christian viewpoint of God.

One of the points put across in the original discussion was a third way of
looking at it; that ultimately, God and good are one - not in the same way that one can say 'I am
good', but in such a way that the previous two options are nonsensical. It makes no sense to ask
'does God adhere to a higher morality?' or 'is good defined by what God says?' Unfortunately, if
I think about this for very long, my brain starts trying to crawl out of my ears.

I think that not all things about God are knowable, in this life at least. My mind isn't big
enough. I think that if we follow this discussion far enough, we reach a point beyond which we are
not (currently) equipped to go. For me, that is described as best I can in the above paragraph.
That sounds like a bit of a cop-out, but it isn't.

If we can't ultimately know the mind of God in this life, then in this life we can't have
absolute knowledge of what is good and what is evil. That's why there are long lists in the Bible
and other places -they help by defining a broad range of good things and bad things. We are also
given a number of principles - 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and
with all your strength,' 'love your neighbour as yourself,' etc. (these are shared across multiple
cultures - I'm quoting the Christian ones 'cause they're the ones I know). We then have to work it
out for ourselves, using our minds and our experience. And, sometimes, we will have clashes
of opinion. Because we can't know the absolute, effectively good and evil are subjective in this
world. But I think that's only because the objective truth is not wholly knowable. Yet.

Does that make sense? - SunKitten

Free Will

I think the Bible? definition of Evil is useless... Everything we do is evil! Sinning is practically in our design spec. (We are created in God's image; God thinks he created everything, so he only does what he pleases. We think like him, we do what we please, and God defines that as sin.), and then he blames us for sinning. --ColinLeung
"God defines that as sin" - only when we do something that pleases us but not also him. Oh, and you missed out the fall, which explains why, from the biblical POV, sin is not, in fact, in our design spec. - MoonShadow

God gives us this thing called free-will, meaning that the probablity of we sinning will be greater than one. (oops, 'one' should read 'zero'...)
Sorry? You've lost me there. How can the probability be greater than one? ;) - MoonShadow
Each time Eve passes by the tree she will be tempted and have a chance of taking the fruit, so for x passes to the tree, as x tends to infinity, she will take the fruit and sin... it's inevitable. Anyway, since we are designed in the image of God, we will be drawn to the knowledge of good and evil.

Would it be fair to summarise that as "God gave people the ability to do evil and an infinite number of chances to do evil, therefore it is certain that people will eventually do evil and therefore God's design necessarily involves people doing evil"? If so, can I point out that there is an underlying assumption there that each decision on whether to do or not do evil is random, but the Bible? states that it is, in fact, not? If not, what did you mean? - MoonShadow
As long as there is a finite chance of doing evil, with an infinite possiblity of evil, evil will be done. If the chance of doing evil is zero, we have no free-will.
If it is the case that whether we do evil or not boils down to chance, we have no free-will. If it is the case that evil will always be done, irrespective of whether we choose for it to be done or not, we have no free-will. - MoonShadow
That's why I think that our design spec dictates that we will do evil one time or an other... it's not OUR fault, and we shouldn't be punished for it. It's like a putting a baby in a room with a very sharp knife, if the baby got hurt is it it's fault? That what's it like putting a creature with free-will in a world of temptation.
I'm sorry, I don't understand you. Do you think we've got FreeWill or don't you? If you do, please respond to the points I make above - I don't see how you can resolve the contradictions in your argument. If you do not, I disagree with you but I don't think I have a way of convincing you or being convinced by you, so we're stuck. - MoonShadow

FreeWill is... complicated. I guess what I'm saying is that for a certain event we get to choose to do the right thing or not to do the right thing... so for each event we have a choice. I try to model this choice as a probability... 1 out of 100 times (or more) say that you will make a wrong choice. So we do have free-will in that for each event we can do what we want, but since there is always a slim chance that we will do wrong, we will sin eventually. It's not fair really, it's not about how many times we have not since, it's about having sin more than 0 times...

..to which I respond (again) that if you say that people have free will, you can't also say that their choices can be modelled by probability - I see the two as mutually exclusive! Free will implies you, not chance, choose what happens - you can't use probability to model that choice. - MoonShadow

I think Colin's point is that to give beings FreeWill will almost certainly lead to them making suboptimal choices at some point.  We have thousands of choices to make each day, and to require them all to be correct every day of a 70-year lifespan is from some point of view quite harsh.  My response to this point is that some choices (do I stab this person or not, do I blackmail my friends or not) are easy to consistently make the "correct" choice on; so where else do you draw the line?  Beings with FreeWill which always choose the good/Godly? choice are also perfectly conceivable (something angel-like, I'm thinking of)... --AlexChurchill
There is also one pretty well-known example, albeit not one accepted by a number of people ;) - SunKitten
(PeterTaylor) If you want to look at design spec, it was originally intended to be that the one decision was made correctly every day for eternity, not for 70 years.

Biblical References

Looking at some Biblical references, evil seems to be described as:

Thanks, that's sort of getting to the area I was interested in discussing.  Can you provide a little bit more detail...

When you say "the opposite of good", is that the sense "all that is not good, is evil; and all that is not evil, is good.", or the sense "all that opposes good, is evil" which leaves room for some things to be neither. --DR

Knowingly seeking God's will?  Or is the person who gives up going to church and "all that religion bother", and spends their life looking after their garden tending their spuds, actually evil? --DR
I don't think they're evil, no. They haven't actively set out to ignore/defy God (assuming that's the definition of evil being used here). Of course, I think they're making a mistake, and the responsibility for that mistake lies at least partially with them, but I certainly wouldn't say they're evil - SunKitten


Of all the places to start a discussion of ethics, ToothyWiki has instantly gone for what is probably the most spectacularly unhelpful. Why am I not surprised?

Here's a hint: if you want to discuss good and evil, I suggest you start with questions like 'where does morality come from?', 'is the moral quality of an action to do with its consequences or the motives of the actor, or something else?', 'is morality a matter of principles which must be applied to each new situation, strict rules which must not be broken, or both?' and so on, not by asking 'so what is evil then?' and letting the sensible questions get mixed in with a lot of rambling, implicit premises and emotive language. - ChiarkPerson

So you're saying you define "evil" as "immoral", then? Or linking it to morality in some way, anyway? Or what? ISTM that, like MJ, you are giving the appearance of evading the OP's question. - MoonShadow
The problem is, the OP's question seem to be, "Can people be evil?  For some definition of evil that I can't work out right now...".  Now, there are issues with trying to answer this question driectly... --M-A
Indeed, you're quite right - I'd mentally refactored that into "what does everyone mean when they say a person or an action is evil, or why do they choose not to say things like that?". My bad. - MoonShadow

How can I define evil as 'immoral' without first defining what I mean by 'moral'? The question is utterly unhelpful, because it encourages answers like 'A person is evil if their life goal is to cause harm for the sake of it.' without justifying why harm matters, what 'harm' actually is, whether it matterthat the 'harm' is to others or just themselves, etc etc etc. So yes I'm avoiding answering the question because the question itself is a stupid one to begin with, inviting many many carts to be put in front without the slightest hint of a horse in sight.
I shall attempt to respectfully disagree.  Answering questions about harm, morality etc will seem utterly irrelevant (to a discussion of Evil) to some people unless a definition of "evil" has already been provided which mentions them.  It seems that when discussing "evil", to start with "what does evil mean" is a very reasonable starting point.  It seems somewhat perverse to suggest otherwise.  Issues of harm may well be relevant to the discussion, but with the pedants we have around, it's very worthwhile to explicitly tie them together with the precise subject under discussion: evil.  I'll provide one way to do so below. --AC, hoping he's managed to stay civil

Indeed. You've clearly thought this through; why don't you write us an essay on your position rather than just telling us we're going the wrong way about getting there? You say you can't define evil as 'immoral' without first defining what you mean by 'moral'. Well then, define it. Define anything you need to. There's plenty of room for everyone to speak. - MoonShadow

Tell you what, I'll contribute when it looks like people can reasonably and knowledgably discuss and comment upon different theories and ethics, can refer to and criticise Bentham, Mill, Kant, Aquinas, Singer, and so on, and generally have a solid base of ethical philosophy from which to start -- rather than floudering about in the dark going over ground that even the slightest contact with actual philosophy would reveal has been done to death.

I mean (from farther down the page): 'I have heard it said that everything evil is precisely that which causes harm to people.  This was phrased in Christian terms [...] but I think the idea could be valuable outside of just Christian discussions of evil.'

Read about Mill! Read about Bentham! Read about Singer! Read criticisms of them! Then come and talk about negative utilitarianism so that I don't have to hold your hand right form first principles through the entire  history of Western philosophy! - ChiarkPerson

Fair enough. I'm sure some of us will do that to some extent or other, whereas others are quite happy to devote their life to something else while enjoying asking questions, seeing what people around them think and sharing their opinions. Next time, is it all right if we just assume you're way ahead of us? You don't have to post merely to keep letting us know, we can remember. - MoonShadow

The question is: are you actually interested in the issues, or just in wibbling? If the latter, fine, keep doing it. But it's just depressing to see people make out like they're actually interested in thinking seriously about issues, but simply being too lazy (I mean, there's enough stuff just put there on the Internet to give a vague overview -- try Wikipedia, as you like Wikis so much) to do research and so going round in circles, brnging up simplistic points that were refuted, counter-refuted and refined two and a half thousand years ago. It's actually painful sometimes.

It also might help if the stream-of-consciousness style (including interleaving comments paragraph-by-paragraph, interrupting the flow and generally destroying any sense of context) was abandoned in preference of proper essays or mini-essays, with premises, arguments, conclusions, and so on (then people would know what each other were actually talking about instead of having to guess), but that sort of chaos might be endemic to the Wiki form, at least as practised here (Wikipedia doesn't suffer from it, for example, but then Wikipedia isn't intended to be used for debate).

Must admit, ChiarkPerson 's arguments look pretty convincing from here.  Evil to my mind makes little sense unless it contradicts someone's moral code.  Where the moral code comes from is the next major point.    --Jumlian

Just to throw in my irreligious TwoPennyWorth and scorch my currently spotless FlameRetardantSuit (fresh from the drycleaners), good/evil tends to be more practically defined on a societal basis by whatever is expedient for that society.  You pick certain things up as you go along (upbringing etc., which need not be religious - hitting and beating up your younger siblings will generally be viewed negatively by your parents unless they really don't like them either), other things are enforced by society (why we have laws etc.).  The fact that in large part our (european + american) corpus of law is currently defined or justified from a religious standpoint is to a certain extent moot.  Law exists in societies without Christian religion where decisions are (for example, in certian cases) referred to the wisdom of say tribal elders.  Here it is the knowledge and experience they have gained from a long life that is used in solving disputes, and the fear of reprisals enforced by society through their decisions is at least in part why law-breaking isn't rife.  There is no appeal to a higher moral agency - the arbiter is the higher moral agency.  Where they claim to get their moral rules from is neither here nor there (and, just to be really controversial, saying "I got my rules from God." is a pretty powerful argument as dissention can be quashed by recourse to "BurnTheHeretic!!" ).  Does anyone claim that every "good" arbiter of disputes has some insight governed by God?  And what about "bad" arbiters of disputes?  Where do they get their code of morals?  To blame all such things on external agencies gets a bit worrying, to my mind.    --Jumlian

In addition, as touched upon earlier, the justification of "good is what I say it is" has been abused quite liberally for social and political expediency through history.  The crusade against the Cathar heretics (who were generally quite inoffensive, initially, other than the fact that they made the catholic church look bad) being an example, which led to the famous quote when levelling a city of 40,000 people "kill them all, god will know his own".  Of course this does rely on one person claiming that their insight into what God wants is better than anyone elses, which brings us back to KnowingGodsWill and the frailty of human implementation of moral codes.  --Jumlian

This argument can, I feel, reflux indefinitely.  My opinion is that it's all shades of grey defined by influences around you.  --Jumlian

Succinct Definitions?

I have heard it said that everything evil is precisely that which causes harm to people.  This was phrased in Christian terms (God is benevolent and wants to minimise pain for people, and all his commands are to this end), but I think the idea could be valuable outside of just Christian discussions of evil.  What do people think?  --AC

All well and good, but the problem comes when weighing the benefits of one decision for a certain group of people against the suffering it will inflict on the same or another group.  Topical example: what is the morality of invading Iraq?  Thousands will die, the country will be reduced to anarchy but it will be freed of a dictator.  There is good in this, but also evil.  Therefore is the war on balance a good or evil act?--Jumlian
I think that any definition of evil which can be summarised in such few words will be too simplistic. Also, it's impossible to come to an absolute definition of such things as evil whilst trying to avoid sticking to a single moral framework. The meaning of evil will inherently differ between moral frameworks, so it's not worth trying to come up with a definition of evil that satisfies Christians, atheists, agnostics and followers of different faiths - it's a meaningless exercise.  Now, if you want to have a discussion on what Christianity does/should teach about evil, that might be worth it. --M-A

OK - I think I agree with M-A we're not going to get a coherent overview that satisfies everyone at this point, so I suggest we split up into subpages for the different worldviews for now - what do people think? We could split off into /Nontheist? and /Christian? for now, or we could split discussions off by OP from above (so, /MoonShadow?, /MikeJeggo? and so on) which might ease refactoring initially..
Sounds reasonable.  Splitting by topic would be better in the long term than splitting by person.  By all means do a rough split by topic, then have each person's arguments in different sections of each page... --M-A
Agreed.  I think that despite the (rather harsh) tone of the above comment the fact that Evil cannot be defined in multiple moral frameworks has indeed been made clear from the recent comments of ChiarkPerson, Jumlian and M-A.  Evil cannot be universally defined so easily. --Jumlian

Reading List

Related reading, suggested by ChiarkPerson:
and so on
(ChiarkPerson - do you think you could possibly please make some slightly more detailed recommendations? Perhaps pointers to texts you recommend that we might find on the 'net, in the Gutenberg library or whatever?)

Try starting at http://en2.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics.

Thank you, sir. Will do that now. - MoonShadow

<rant>"See to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." NIV: Col 2: 8.  Without building on that foundation, and not all your philosophers did, there already exists an axiomatic difference with a number of ToothyWikizens (and for the rest of this post (rant, troll, whatever it is) it is those that I hope I speak for) that I am aware of.  Since it places us at odds with not only individual philosophers but with the whole philosophy of philosophy that one can discuss philosophy without first reading all this stuff that we know before we begin that we cannot accept, there would seem to be little point to spending a solid year in the library reading it so that we could comment, which seems to be the minimum time some people would perhaps prescribe before they would deem us knowledgeable enough to comment.  Besides that, to claim that one must have read philosophy to comment on ethical issues that come down in the end to reality and personal conduct in everyday life is every bit as exclusive a claim on knowledge as I would make as a Christian - but with the difference that, trusting in revelation from a God beyond human and who makes himself known to people on grounds other than merit, if I have it wrong it is delusion and I am a fool.  To boast about knowledge, claiming it by the merit of one's own brain, whether the thought originates there, or in claiming on one's own wisdom to glean truth and falsehood from other men - can that be anything but arrogance?  "Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a fool so that he may become wise." NIV: 1Cor 3: 18  Yes, I take that statement on faith, but don't you step out in faith the moment you lay out your axioms?  Now, I could BibleBash? all night, but that's not the point.  The point is to try to get across that we are who we are, and do as we do, for a reason we have thought about, even if it seems to you hopelessly naive/outdated/<insert criticisms of your choice>.  And that I hope that if you want to persuade us of the value of philosophy you promote, that you also start from why we should trust it.  I hope too that if we try to put the love that builds up before the knowledge that puffs up, that you will know why, even if you can sometimes seem to be trying to break it in us.  Well, God knows that you have caused cracks to show, but if that breaks us of thinking that we are good yet, it's surely something good from this. </rant> --MJ
My word. Mike, any chance of you refactoring that lot a little, or maybe splitting it into paragraphs? It's a very hard read.. ta ;) - MoonShadow, who is wary of dismissing several thousand years' worth of philosophical cogitation with a handwave and an "I have faith I know better", but also wary of assuming that his reading of the above paragraph to imply that that's what MJ is trying to do is anything even approaching correct..
Any man may discusss where, when an apple is dropped, it will fall, and have his voice listened to whether he be physicist or bricklayer.  But when the issue is why does it fall, the bricklayer will need a certain amount of maths, not to answer it, but just to be able to comprehend the language in which the questions are couched.  I believe that ChiarkPerson is asserting that not necessarily the answers, but the linguistic tools needed to reach  and compare the answers are what is hidden in the works he mentioned. --DR
ThomasAquinas? is not generally accounted a hollow and deceptive philosopher, so much as a Christian one, I thought? --DR
Apologies for lack of coherence in the above... To answer your question, MoonShadow, what I was dismissing was the apparent idea that one has to know several thousand years' worth of philosophy before one is qualified to comment on, for example, the issue of evil.  And to point out where an alternative interest might come from, that seems to be dismissed by some without any explanation whatsoever.  And, I must confess, getting somewhat overheated - for which, apologies. --MJ
The problem I keep having with your "where an alternative interest might come from" is that you keep ignoring my requests to expand on it! You do not seem to realise - or possibly you do realise, but I cannot seem to read it in your posts - that "this knowledge comes from God / is based on God's truth" requires just as much justification, in the form of answers to questions like "how did this knowledge get from God to you and why should people listening to you trust this method of obtaining it", as more conventional forms of argument require in the form of answers to questions like "why does this follow?" and "how does this fit these observations about the real world?". It is unfair to dismiss one as less justified than the other if you are not prepared to back up your claims. I'm not saying that AbsoluteTruth? - or God's truth - is unknowable; just that you have yet to say how you know it and why you think other people who think they know it and arrived at it by methods similar to yours yet disagree with you are mistaken. In fact, that's slightly harsh - you have repeatedly said that your knowledge is grounded in faith; but from an external observer's point of view, if that is the case, I don't see how you can fairly dismiss others' knowledge as being inferior to your own without being able to read their minds.. Bleh. Once more, I'm not making sense, and I think I'm failing yet again to get my point across. Oh, well. - MoonShadow
In this case, the alternative interest was not referring to conclusions, but to why I thought to participate in a discussion on some basis other than an abstract desire to debate philosophy - namely that ethics is of interest to the Christian.  My initial comment was, as Gwyntar pointed out, designed to highlight that evil had not been very well defined at the beginning of the page, and most of the rest of the debate that followed was based on misunderstanding your point of view.
Nonetheless, I'll have another try.  I was trying to cut down most quickly to 'wherever you come from, you'll hit the axiom differences' problem - so, that which is on faith - and with this bunch of ToothyWikizens you're almost bound to hit that on any ethical question.  So is your question any different to the one in KnowingGodsWill?  Once I thought it was, I stopped answering, as that will lead to more circles, and if so, let's remove most of what I said near the top of this page as it arose out of a misunderstanding that you were asking a different question.  If it's some other question - on what axiomatic base should we resolve it? --MJ
Um - I'll try another tack. Your original statement felt to me to be phrased in such a way as to imply that any worldview not gleaned in its entirety from some form of KnowingGodsWill is lacking in reliability in comparison to one that is, not - or not merely - because of who God is, but because you see the knowledge as somehow less reliable. I strongly believe that whether or not a statement is true is something that is independent of its source, that reason and experience are useful tools for discovering the truth or otherwise of statements, and FWIW that the Bible repeatedly says this amongst other things. I therefore keep trying to point at the unreliabilities inherent in KnowingGodsWill, and the fact that many people often differ in opinion over what it is and some of them presumably get it wrong, in order to point at the unfairness I perceive in your original statement. As you yourself admit, KnowingGodsWill is grounded in faith and attempting to reason about it ultimately leads to circularity... does that make any more sense? If not, I'm happy to just drop the whole thing until I can say what I mean more clearly, since I'm probably the only one here who feels that way anyway. - MoonShadow
This is a Wiki, so it's perfectly permissible to edit down your own comments should you so desire.  There isn't an ethical probelm with doing so.  --AC

The reason for knowing at least an overview of several thousand years of philosophy is that in those thousands of  years, a lot has been said - and it helps no one to go over ground which has already been debated by intelligent people of all philosophical persuasions, among them atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, and every other shade of religious view.
Good for you, you've read all of it and know that all the ground being debated here has been covered. There's several ways you can respond: you can point and laugh, you can tell us to shut up and devote our lives to studying philosophy before speaking on the subject ever again, or you could (just to give an example off the top of my head) find a point someone's made that particularly disagrees with you and say something like "this has been refuted by X in text Y. A concise summary is Z, and you can find more on the subject here." Or, of course, if all this is beneath you, you could go and do something else entirely - no-one's forcing you to read our witterings. Which do you think is the most constructive way to respond, which is the most unhelpful, which shows the most maturity and which is most likely to get people irritated with you? - MoonShadow

If you're going to fling terms like 'arrogance' about, I suggest you start by looking at the idea that no one outside your own clique has said anything worth listening to as the most arrogant view yet expounded here.

If that is how it came across, I apologise - the rant was written late last night when I wasn't entirely awake, and as I stated above I got too hot under the collar.  What I object to is the idea that I have to have read such material in order to say anything.  But since I have not read such, and you won't take anything I say seriously unless I do (and likely not even then) there doesn't seem a great deal of point in further comment. --MJ

It's not so much that you have to have read it to say anything, but that if you haven't read anything the chances are that what you say will have been said before, and refuted before, and rethought in a more complicated way before, and so on, and so forth. Or you'll be putting forward flawed, simplistic versions of arguments that have been tightened up and generally made much more formidable by those who have gone before. Or you'll be rambling about 'harm' in a vague sense as if it's obvious that 'harm' was the basis of morality, when if you'd read some philosophy you'd know that that vague view can easily be knocked down, but that there are less vague arguments to the same end that can't be as easily dismissed, and that others before you have actually come up with arguments s to why harm is the basis of morality, so you could cite those instead of making a baseless assertion.

What it boils down to is that if you don't know what those before you have thought, you're going to repeat all their mistakes instead of learning from them. And when their mistakes are so readily available in bookshops and on the internet (though be careful, the internet and philosophy don't seem to mix terribly well), there's no reason to make them all over again.

And if you think that you won't make mistakes that have been made by the greatest thinkers ever, well, that's arrogance.

Who says we're claiming not to make mistakes?  I can see that for a Grand Master, watching MoonShadow and I playing a game of chess would be painful for all the same reasons, but we wouldn't let that stop us, and neither of us takes it seriously enough to read the chess books.  We even do so in public, where such a tormented master could be watching.  If we were trying to become grand masters ourselves we wouldn't do it that way, but we're doing it for fun or personal competition of some kind.  The same applies to philosophical arguments.  If you want serious debates, I'm sure you can find them elsewhere.  If you want to enthuse us to study philosophy for ourselves, might I suggest that your approach up till now is not calculated to be succesful.  If you just want to troll we can probably learn to ignore it. --MJ

No one's asking anyone to devote their life to anything, just to do a bit of basic background reading. If the URL above isn't enough, here's a couple of books that are easy to read and provide a basic grounding. The longer one is 192 pages of fairly big types with lots of friendly headings. That's an afternoons' reading, not a lifetime's devotion. --ChiarkPerson

But that's not the way discussions between friends work.  If I'm sitting round a coffee table with a few people and a random subject comes up - WarDeclared, say, or ArmsTrading, or the nature of Evil - then we don't all immediately shut up and run off to a library before saying anything.  We'll discuss what we think and what we've heard.  And it may be that one or two of the group have done quite a bit of background reading.  Great!  They can outline for us a couple of the major thinkers' points of view that they particularly liked.  But they don't say "Shut up and go and read about this before you talk to me again".  And given that we have lots of discussions, because we're interested in lots of things, we couldn't go and do this reading on every topic of interest - we'd never get anything done.  The discussion is just a fun way to get to know people better, develop our own points of view, and pass time.  --AlexChurchill
That's not even an adequate model of what's happening here - here, we've got a group of group of people having a coffee-table conversation and another person butts in and says "Shut up and go and read about this before you talk to each other again". ;) - MoonShadow
As I understand it, philosophers (with the possible exception of religious philosophers) have never really managed to get to grips with the issue of 'evil' without covering quite a lot of other ground first to give them the vocabulary to define what 'evil' is. MikeJeggo actually identifed this problem fairly high up the page, where he talks about two basic ways of defining what evil is, an 'empirical' one and a 'religious' one. He states this in such a way as to make the non-religious one seem a deeply unsatisfying definition. In the ensuing argument people basically couldn't come up with a satisfactory definition of 'good' and 'evil'. ChiarkPerson then said that maybe this was a bad place to start, and posed for you some smaller questions that you might be able to discuss more fruitfully. He could have been more tactful. Everyone rounded on him, and he was forced to take refuge in his superior knowledge, trying to drive you back with flurries of authors and barrages of ISBNs. --Gwyntar
ChiarkPerson didn't say "maybe" this was a "bad" place to start.  He said it was "probably the most spectacularly unhelpful" place to start (and added a snide comment).  I suspect the reason why "everyone rounded on him" was because his tone was sarcastic and not seeming so much interested in helping people have a discussion, as vaunting that superior knowledge without helping anyone, phrasing things in ways he knows will inflame people, which is awfully close to a definition of trolling.  (One other main characteristic of trolling is not responding to questions he's asked; we shall have to see whether he deigns to asnwer the question I asked on page ChiarkPerson to see if he qualifies there.)
He wasn't "forced" to take refuge in his superior knowledge - he could have avoided replying at all.  Authors and ISBNs aren't very useful for an idle discussion between people who're interested in any number of things... weblinks (like the ones he provided to Wikipedia) and references to specific chapters are much more so.  --AC
I agree AC, Authors and ISBNs aren't very useful. I thought it was quite evident I was gently mocking ChiarkPerson's response there. --Gwyntar
Oops.  Sorry, Gwyntar, I misinterpreted you - thus demonstrating Jumlian's point below ;) I guess I'm trying not to assume he's unique in his, um, disdain for our style, and so took you as attempting to summarise things in a conciliatory way, but putting a slant on it that didn't quite seem to match the way things had originally been... Warukatta :) --AC
I think you fell into the sarchasm  --ChiarkPerson
People, people, please.  Does no-one else see the irony in a discussion on "evil" generating a large number of really rather annoyed people, comments posted in the heat of the moment and then deleted later, some one-quarter of the discussion being rant-dominated and even a comment posted on someone's homepage that resembles a PFO?  OK, so ChiarkPerson's comments may seem quite abrasive, and maybe even designed to provoke, but bear in mind that text is not a terribly expressive format.  It is hard enough to convey a clear meaning, let alone intention, inflection, emphasis (correctly), facial expression, tone of voice and so forth.  Getting annoyed is very easy but it may be in part due to your placing incorrect emphasis on what someone tried to say.  As was mentioned earlier, vitriol breeds vitriol.  Calm down.  To add another TwoPennyWorth, ChiarkPerson did not tell you to stop arguing, as explained in the comment about whether you want to get into the serious depths of the issues, in which case it'll be worth reading up and getting some ammunition to save a few weeks of pointed wikifying, versus wibbling around in a coffee table discussion, which is, in essence, what you were doing.  So please for the sake of sanity try to stay objective and not make this personal. --Jumlian
In the spirit of toothy wikiness (whatever that is), I've created sub-pages for each of ChiarkPerson's suggested base questions /OriginOfMorality /MoralityOfActions /MoralRulesVsPrinciples

FWIW, the question on ChiarkPerson's homepage was a genuine question, and is based on far more than just this page.  It really wasn't meant as a PFO, rather a "why on earth do you keep doing this thing you obviously dislike?"  --AC

MoonShadow's gonna plug http://www.infidels.org/library/index.shtml in general if people are going to be doing any reading. Don't be put off by what it's called, Mike - it's an excellent library that covers all sides of the debates consitently and has lots of pro-Christian texts ;) Why buy a book if you can read it online?

[A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators] by Zimbardo - the guy who ran the Stamford prison experiment.
UPDATE: Phil Zimbardo is visiting Cambridge tomorrow (2007-04-16) to give a talk.  Anyone interested in the nature of evil would be well advised to attend.  5:00-6:30pm, Lecture Theatre LG17, Faculty of Law Building (on the Sidgwick Site). --Pallando
(Posted 2007/4/12) I like your definition of "Tomorrow". --Admiral

I should just mention the UltimateEvil? here.  --Vitenka
[And again]

[Career choices] - [Fearsome, terrifying creatures] - [Evil thoughts]

ReligionMatters | ThingsThatMatter |CategoryRant
See Also: Evil/MoralRelativism, Evil, Good, Altruism, TheProblemOfEvil, CreationScience

(todo: factor useful points and reading list out of ChiarkPerson / replies saga, snip the rest)

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