Evil – Definition and Theories

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Thinking about evil needs discipline and focus because it is a difficult and painful work. What exactly is evil? Why does it exist? What is its nature? Is evil a necessary part of the cosmos? How should we live in the shadow of evil, however we conceive of it?

An illustration of an evil force in a human shape with black smoke and skulls coming out from it.
Evil is something that is very difficult to understand. It is something that is intentionally and wilfully against the moral order. (Image: Tithi Luadthong/Shutterstock)

Zbigniew Herbert

The 20th-century Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert was one of the most powerful poets of Polish writing. His poems were used as anthems for the Polish solidarity movement in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a remarkably far-seeing thinker.

He was also a survivor of the Nazis and the Soviet Union. He once wrote: “Teachers in our high schools pound into us that history is the teacher of life. But when history crashed down on us in all its brutal glory, I understood, in the very real glow of flames above my home city, that she was a strange teacher. She gave to the people who consciously survived her, and to all who followed her, more material for thought than all the old chronicles put together. A dense and dark material. It will require the work of many consciences to shed light on it.”

In this passage, what does it mean to call history a ‘strange teacher’? It means that it is cunning; that it teaches by indirection, by surprise, by pain, and not by direct lessons.

And what does it mean to say that the material it gives us is ‘dense and dark’? The language suggests that it is more than merely grim or merely savage; that it is something that is very difficult to understand, requiring serious effort from many people working in many different ways.

Learn more about the cruel paradoxes of fate and responsibility.

Problem of Evil

In the last 100 years or so, thinkers have made repeated attempts, directly and indirectly, to come to grips with this question of the problem of evil. Hannah Arendt, a thinker, once wrote that the central problem for post-World War II intellectuals will be the problem of evil. But it didn’t turn out that way; thinkers of the era didn’t spend much time thinking about human malice and the suffering it creates at all.

Image of three monkeys using their hands to shut their eyes, mouth, and ears.
Avoidance of evil shows that people don’t want to confront it. (Image: muk woothimanop/Shutterstock)

The habitual avoidance of evil suggests something important about thinking about evil: namely, that it is difficult and painful work, and much of the time we would rather spend our energies avoiding thinking about this problem rather than confronting it. If we don’t discipline ourselves into thinking about it, our mind will gradually drift away to reflect on other things.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Definition of Evil     

Let’s kind of offer a provisional definition of evil; evil is something that is not just against the moral order, something that is not just wrong, but intentionally and willfully against that order. Evil has a dimension of willfulness and rebellion.

This rebellion needn’t be directly experienced as rebellion by those engaged in it. People can do evil without thinking too much about the acts that they do; indeed, often that’s the worst kind.

Lots of people participated in really savage forms of evil in the 20th century—genocidal oppression, horrible forms of racism, other kinds of abusive ethnic minorities—and many of those people, especially if they had been brought up in those cultures, did not understand what they were doing as violating the moral order, they understood themselves to be obeying the moral order. For those people, thinking about what they were doing as evil was not a possibility in their minds.

Learn more about human evil and malice.

Albert Speer

Photograph of Albert Speer.
Albert Speer played an active role in the Holocaust and other crimes by Third Reich. (Image: Alexander,Charles/Public domain)

Albert Speer was the great architect of the Third Reich, the leading artist really of Hitler’s world and also eventually the director of war munitions and supplies for the Third Reich.

However, he was also a cultured, educated, and civilized man, a man who survived the war and lived for 25 years in Spandau Prison in Berlin for his part in the Holocaust and in the Third Reich’s many crimes, a part he freely admitted and owned up to.

At one point after the war, Speer was asked by someone, “How is it possible that you worked with Hitler and did not realize how evil what he was proposing was?” Speer said, “It is hard to know the devil when his hand is on your shoulder.”

Power of Evil

Part of the power of evil is the way it insinuates itself intimately into people’s lives. Very often, people do not experience what they are doing as evil.

However, when we think about acts of evil considered as just that—as acts of evil—even when their perpetrators didn’t recognize them as such, such acts of evil in their very essence are attempts actively to reject the moral order, even if the people who do them don’t understand themselves to be doing that.

Similarly, when we ask about the problem of human suffering, we need to narrow our focus a bit there as well. We’re talking about pain that seems pointless or useless in some sense; pain that is inflicted for no point at all.

Learn more about human rivalry with God.

Theories about Evil

In thinking about evil and pain in this way, we can distinguish between three large families of theories about evil.

First, there is the account of evil that locates it centrally in a kind of folly, as a wholly irrational, senseless eruption of chaos in an ordered world. Evil here is somehow against the order of the cosmos itself.

The second view does not see evil as essentially against the cosmos, opposed to the cosmos, but rather sees it as fundamentally part of the cosmos itself, part of our natural makeup. Evil is simply one of the energies that we must acknowledge and reign in as best we can.

The third account may seem initially odd, but it is more common than one might realize; and that is what we call the ‘evil as maturation’ account. This account builds itself up around a paradox: to become fully grown up, some painful separation from our too-familiar, too-cozy original surroundings may be necessary. Our moral maturation requires a kind of rebellion against God or the moral order—a kind of wounding in order to come to gain wisdom.

Common Questions about Evil

Q: How do you define ‘evil’?

Evil is something that is not just against the moral order, something that is not just wrong, but intentionally and willfully against that order.

Q: What does habitual avoidance of evil suggest?

The habitual avoidance of evil suggests something important about thinking about evil: namely, that it is difficult and painful work, and much of the time we would rather spend our energies avoiding thinking about this problem rather than confronting it.

Q: What is the power of evil?

The power of evil is the way it insinuates itself intimately into people’s lives. Very often, people do not experience what they are doing as evil.

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