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Morality questions du jour

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Why makes someone evil? Do they have to kill a set sum of people to become evil? Who gets to define what that sum is? Do they have to torture these people to become evil? Do they have to torture and kill a set sum of people? Does that make the American government more evil than Hitler, or are they about on par?

And finally — is evil inside all of us, is it external, or is it only present in some people? Can we balance it out with good deeds?

I’m reminded of a  scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where a group of women get swept up to kill a man by kicking him. Is that evil?

Written by Joy-Mari Cloete

March 16th, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Question du jour

10 Responses to 'Morality questions du jour'

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  1. What’s always bothered me is evilness in intentions vs. consequences.

    For example – is it more evil to kill a child from a good home, or a breadwinner, than it is to kill a homeless, family-less drug addict?

    Because to me, what makes someone evil is lack of remorse when killing. Heck, you don’t even need to kill. Torture is an inherently evil act, whether the person lives or dies.

    But I do believe evil is in all of us. It’s just another personality trait, like selfishness or cowardice – we all have it, but to differing degrees.

    So, environment also plays a role because if it’s not discouraged then it has the potential to grow.


    16 Mar 10 at 2:31 pm

  2. I think evil has to have the quality of intentional cruelty or hate. And killing, in and of itself, may not be the most evil thing you could do; killing or maiming someone’s spirit is much worse, I think. And evilness is all around us — gossip, bullies, soulless uncaring bureaucracies.

    Is it in all of us? I don’t know if it’s a learned trait or if it’s inherent. There are a lot of people who don’t display those tendencies, and others who fight it, and still others who give into it.


    16 Mar 10 at 6:54 pm

  3. @ Alix: Yes, I agree there are many other things that could be worse than ‘just’ killing someone. I’d like to think it isn’t an inherent and that it’s learnt but I could be wrong on this. And if I am wrong on this then I need to ask where it comes from, if not from us.

    @PattiLain: To me there isn’t that much of a difference between killing a 6-year-old versus killing someone who’s a breadwinner. About the lack of remorse when killing — what about people who feel no remorse because they believe that they’re doing the right thing? Or because they’re doing their job? Is that evil?

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    17 Mar 10 at 9:54 am

  4. Plato argued that evil is simply the absence of good that everyone desires. That’s typical Plato duality theory, further expanded upon by Augustine and Thomas. And so many philosophers attempted to define it. But it seems that the human dimension underpins nearly all interpretations of evil: humans create or commit evil. It therefore implies that evil is not random, and confronts us all.

    It certainly is a complex question. To most of us, the existence of evil as a broader concept appears to be undeniable. There is widespread suffering in the world. We have all experienced some amount of pain, both physical and emotional. There is the Holocaust, and Apartheid. And yet there are some who seeks to deny the reality of evil, eliminating the problem of how to explain how evil can exist in a world governed by God. It is in the religious sphere the evil is most often mentioned.

    What makes something evil? The devil? (Cynically meant). Perhaps part of the answer lies with the concept of suffering? But that begs the question of how much suffering is required to make something evil?

    What defines evil deeds, to which I take it your questions purports? This is probably a case of a defined moral and ethical outlook. Maybe it has to do with choice, or the denial of choice, particularly with an “evil deed” such as murder? Does the impact or the result define what is evil?

    I don’t think it is possible to give a one-dimensional, conclusive answer, and I don’t think we can ever infinitely define evil. The post-modernist in me wants to conclude the we are dealing with and entirely subjective matter: one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, or one man’s evil is another’s holy work.

    Evil is Live spelled backwards. Perhaps therein lies a clue.


    17 Mar 10 at 12:21 pm

  5. This part of your comment resonates the most with me:

    how much suffering is required to make something evil?

    I don’t know and it’s a very interesting question. Perhaps PattiLain can weigh in a bit.

    And yes, I agree that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, or one man’s evil is another’s holy work”. But I’m also resisting that — surely we don’t need to do deeds that can be called evil to become a freedom fighter to our own people? Can the end justify the means?

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    17 Mar 10 at 10:25 pm

  6. Emil, good reply – indeed, your evil spelled backward…. read on

    I think evil is something made evident by religion and made measurable by science, but I think its better described by the Buddhists – its just circumstance and events.

    Let me explain…

    * In nature, if a zebra was observing a lion devouring her young, she would probably think you evil bastard!
    * If a woman watched how her child was getting murdered, she would think, you evil bastard.
    * When you experience a car accident and watched how your friend dies, you do not think, you evil bastard, but think accident, mistake, tragedy etc.!!!

    My point being: A lot of things can happen that according to religion is evil, when in fact it was just a mix of events at the right or wrong time.

    What evil means to me; evil for the lack of a better word, is when people are consciously rude to another person or consciously vandalized someone else’s property or person, or consciously leaves their trash on the beach.

    The answer:
    Evil is when a human has a destructive nature, he WHANT’S to hurt or damage or destruct things for personal satisfaction. The opposite of this is a human that wants to do good, build and create things and in general make everything better… I’m using the word “Human” here, because we are the only species that display the “evil gene”.

    From a science point of view the above 2 paragraphs can be seen as coincidental and just yin yang where there has to be 1 part of evil (-energy) and 1 part of good (+energy) in order for the physics rule of equilibrium to apply.

    …but ultimately we are intelligent and can choose for ourselves – those who choose the negative energy (evil) choose so at own will, they probably have less of the positive gene :)


    17 Mar 10 at 11:11 pm

  7. sorry…neglected to paste the last bit…

    they have an evil desire which is born from within – “good” people does not have the desire to do evil, and if they ever do so by accident (not consciously) it will haunt them until they do something to correct the incident – whereas “evil” people will actually gain more confidence from the evil deed the committed.


    17 Mar 10 at 11:37 pm

  8. I had a conversation about almost the exact same thing — the ‘at the right time, at the right place’ earlier this week. So would you say it’s evil when someone does something bad that has no direct advantage for anyone, not even for themselves?

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    21 Mar 10 at 12:40 am

  9. ..doing something bad is another topic all together, what is bad to someone might be good to someone else.

    Evil is something completely different – it is when you a person has a desire to hurt or destruct, and actually feels satisfied after committing such a deed.

    I tried to answer the question PattiLain placed, on whether its more evil to kill a child than a drug addict, I could not, the more I reasoned about it the more I realized it would be equally evil, but one thing that did come to mind was perhaps cowardliness, and rage, morals and a whole bunch of other things.

    It is one thing to kill someone in a dignified way (if I can call it that) than to brutally torture someone to satisfy your own rage and insanity….and then walk away from the murder scene with a grin on your face – that is evil.


    22 Mar 10 at 12:45 am

  10. Ah, sorry this comment is so late. A response to the “how much suffering is required to make something evil?” question would be, for me, any amount.

    I believe that if a person intentionally makes another suffer, that act or person is evil. I totally believe in this quote by Robert A Heinlein: “Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily.”

    So I believe hurting someone (physically or emotionally) on purpose, is evil regardless of the degree.


    23 Mar 10 at 12:44 pm

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