Why The Concept Of ‘Evil’ Is A Bad Idea



Why The Concept Of 'Evil' Is A Bad Idea
Illustration by Daniella Urdinlaiz

Ever since the dim, distant dawn of humanity, back when the fog from the swamps lifted and people started walking upright, forming packs, and clubbing rival packs over the head in deadly wars over food and land and resources, has there ever—and I mean once, just one time, one single itty-bitty time ever—been one side in any conflict that thought they were the bad guys?

I highly doubt it.

Except for your odd suicidal masochist here and there, very few people are willing to risk their lives on behalf of what they think is a bad cause. And even in the case of your odd suicidal masochist, they appear to believe their own destruction is a good cause. Invariably, people are self-justifying creatures.

I strongly suspect that what any given group or individual defines as “good” is nothing more profound than something that ensures their survival. The flip side of that coin is that whatever threatens their survival is “evil” to them.

And that’s the only constant with this ubiquitous and simplistic notion of good and evil—it’s good if it keeps me alive, and it’s bad if it kills me. That’s why I suspect that in every war throughout history, every combatant on every side thought they were the good guy trying to kill all the bad guys.

And did you notice that since they’re killing the bad guys, it’s not murder—or at least it’s not really bad? No, it’s justified. In other words, it’s good.

Whenever they write history books, it’s a miraculous coincidence that the bad guys always wind up losing. And what’s ironic is that by definition, those who win wars are not those with the best morals or the loftiest ideology, but those who are the better killers.

I tend to see the people who are in power not as good guys or as bad guys, but merely as the biggest and strongest gang. And it’s from that position of power that they can lay claim to the biggest privilege of all—the right to decide who’s good and evil.

When the government taxes you against your will, they don’t call it theft. When they put you in a cage, they don’t call it kidnapping. When they slaughter millions in war, it’s not murder. Nothing they do is a crime because, after all, they’re the good guys.

Yeah, but doesn’t The Bible say “Thou shalt not kill”? Well, it depends on who’s getting killed. In 1 Samuel, God instructs the Israelites to kill the Amalekites—every last one of them:

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.

The Amalekites had waged war against Israel. They threatened Israel’s survival. Therefore, God made an exception to his whole “Thou shalt not kill” thing. So even slaughtering infants wasn’t evil anymore. In fact, it was the only righteous thing to do.

Think about the fact that history’s most brutal atrocities have been committed in the name of good, and it’ll start to dawn on you that there’s something deeply dishonest—even sinister?—in this whole good/evil dichotomy.

Throughout most cultures, there’s an idea that it’s wrong to murder another human being—the only variable is that no cultures seem to agree with one another on who exactly is a human being. Are they one of us? OK, then they’re human. Are they one of them? Then it’s not murder if you kill them.

If you can dehumanize someone else—for example, if you can conceive of them as “scum” rather than “someone who’s merely competing against me for a slice of the same pie”—you can justify seeing them kicked in the head by an angry mob or decapitated under the guillotine while the angry mob cheers.

People sadistically smear guilt on one another like it’s a deadly poison. Assigning guilt to others is a very slimy and slippery business. Guilt operates like a germ. It’s designed to destroy someone’s will. To cripple them. To damage them. To achieve the upper hand against them. As paradoxical as it sounds, underlying the desire to be seen as the good guy is the desire to harm the bad guy, to justify the act of committing bad deeds against them.

This is why I’m very suspicious of the whole notion of good versus evil. In practice, “good” only serves a shield to commit acts that in any other context would be considered evil. It’s malice masquerading as justice. And “justice” is merely a very dishonest word for revenge.

It’s all about power. “Good” is just a shield that people hold with one hand while they’re lopping off people’s heads with the sword they hold in their other hand.

Good and evil only exist as ideas—as constructs, as the college kids like to say. They aren’t things that hang in the air like morning mist. They aren’t things you can measure. They can’t be found on the Periodic Table of Elements. There’s no machine that can measure good and evil.

As heretical as it sounds, an overdeveloped sense of morality may not be the solution at all. It may be the problem.

The only way to understand why things happen is through facts, not feelings. Through true and false, not good and evil. Painting over everything with drippy, emotion-driven notions of morality only impedes understanding. I suspect that one day, neuroscience will explain actions that are currently considered “evil” far more than any religious scripture ever did. Understanding how the brain works is far more likely to explain things such as violent behavior, drug addiction, and sexual assault than any religious scripture ever will. In other words, I think there are mechanistic and completely amoral reasons for why people do everything that’s considered immoral.

And if that day comes, maybe people will finally realize that “evil” is a very superstitious, anti-intellectual, and even childishly naïve word.

But for now, when people try to combat “evil,” they’re clumsily shooting in the dark. “Evil” heretics throughout history have been beaten to death by mobs and burned at the stake for saying things which eventually became widely accepted once it was revealed that the mob had no idea what the fuck they were talking about.

In my life, the nastiest, creepiest, rudest, and most abusive people have been those who are convinced they are either innately good or are working in the name of an unimpeachably good cause. Almost without exception, the bad guys are the ones who make a point of telling you they’re the good guys.

Meanwhile, the truly kind and ethical people simply go around being kind and ethical. No need to announce it. They would see such public displays of shrill and righteous chest-thumping to be a little gauche and shallow, actually.

I’ve found that one never needs to worry about people who are actually doing good, whether that involves improving themselves or helping others. They move in silence. They have no need to be thought of as good nor to constantly judge others. Only people who are insecure about whether or not they’re good need to be reassured of it, especially if they’re always loudly reassuring themselves.

Instead, you need to worry about people who are constantly condemning others for being “evil.” They’re the ones who are usually up to no good. TC mark



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