“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” (Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1977)
The problem of evil is one of the oldest problems in human thought. Every religion and many philosophical systems have contended with its nature and how to reconcile it with other principles, such as the good life, and advances in human thought, such as reason and scientific knowledge. This puts atheistic humanism and religions such as Buddhism, which tend not to see evil as an ontological issue, at a distinct advantage compared to the monotheistic religions, which do but struggle to resolve the logical incompatibility of the existence of evil with three propositions they hold to be true: that God is good, that God is omniscient, and that God is omnipotent. David Hume expressed it thus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?”1
But humanism does not have it all its own way. To talk about evil (especially Evil with a capital ‘E’) was out of fashion for a long time. Its eclipse coincided with the decline of religious observance in increasingly secular societies around the world, in the psychologising of everything, which provided a justifiable motive for every action, materialistic reductionism, which made a nonsense of concepts such as free will, conscience and responsibility, and moral relativism which stated that truth, goodness and beauty do not objectively exist, but are matters of individual perspective and taste. Yet the fading of the language of good and evil, and its replacement with the anodyne terminologies of secularism, rather like the Newspeak of Orwell’s 1984, only deprived us of the conceptual language to name a real phenomenon, not diminish in any sense the reality itself. If anything, in the current climate, we are seeing a resurgence in usage. While the nature and origin of evil is difficult to explain, few have doubt that it is real. At least, we have no problem today using the language of good and evil and of categorising certain persons and actions we dislike as evil. Like most things today, evil has been politicised.
In a branch of philosophy and theology known as theodicy, three types of evil are recognised: moral, natural and metaphysical. All are reckoned forms of evil on account of the suffering they cause. Moral evil is the realm of malevolence, where harm is both caused and intended. Natural evil, which may be less obviously a form of evil, is the harm that arises through the disposition of nature, such as pain, injury, sickness and death; interestingly, it has a history of being anthropomorphised, injecting a form of intention into the resultant suffering. These two forms have been acknowledged since antiquity. In the eighteenth century the philosopher Leibnitz gave expression to a form he surmised was not covered by the existing two categories, which he termed metaphysical evil. The easiest way of thinking about this is as the unintended consequences of the systems and processes we have created or discovered; for example, science, the law and the market economy harm most people at some point, despite the good they do overall. Nonetheless, this form of categorisation, is of a rather limited academic interest in coming to terms with understanding the nature of and making sense of the experience of evil; what is needed is an analysis of the manifestation of evil rooted in our individual and social being.
Approaching evil from this perspective, the primary analysis is to look at both its intentionality, that is the aspect of malevolence, and its consequences, that is the actual forms of harm suffered. But just as the law works on the basis of the assumption of innocence until proof of guilt is demonstrated, a judgment that something is evil can only really begin when there is evidence of actual harm. This is where the politicisation of evil is dangerous and divisive; it assumes evil mainly on the basis of dislike (thereby, ironically, becoming a potential source of evil itself). The evidence of evil, particularly malevolent evil, is very specific: it seeks always and only to attack and destroy human goodness. To avoid the risk of falling into tautology, however, it is necessary to define what I mean here by human goodness. And here, I find an odd convergence of biblical myth and evolutionary theory.
The biblical account of the origin of good and evil resides in a mythological theatre with a cast of characters – God, Adam and Eve, a wise and duplicitous serpent and the children of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. The whole spectrum of human experience is acted out: innocence and the loss of innocence, hope and disappointment, freedom and temptation, deception, wisdom, shame, despair, expulsion, faith, resentment, lying and murder. The tradition has been to explain it literally or symbolically, as actual history or as a revelation of some hidden cause for the emergence of evil. Rather, I believe, it should be taken as a depiction of the real experience of the manifestation of settled existence and the incursion of evil, which has occurred in human society since time immemorial. The biblical account of the Fall in Genesis is a description of the reality of evil, not of the cause of evil. This is why the Eden narrative and many other stories found their way into the Bible, because they are archetypical of the manifestation of good and of evil.
This means that as an allegorisation of ordinary life, the biblical account is perfectly consonant with scientific fact about origins and the processes of the natural development of life on earth, including human life. Most people are familiar with Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, popularly referred to as ‘survival of the fittest’. The theory is straightforward and relies fundamentally on only two pieces of information that we know to be factually true: that there is natural variation among individuals, some of which might confer advantages to the individual and some detriment; then, whether a particular variation in fact confers benefit or not is determined by other factors in the environment, such as climate, availability of resources, existence and type of predators, and so on. Such environmental factors exert a selective pressure on individuals leading to differential adaptation; different survival rates tend, barring purely random events, to lead to the best adapted in that particular environment reproducing and passing on the advantageous variations, culminating in distinctive populations and speciation, given differing environmental conditions, barriers to reintegration of populations, and enough time.
Less well known is that Darwin also proposed another method for speciation, in parallel with natural selection, although considered generally as a variation of natural selection, called sexual selection. In this case the advantageous traits are not those of individual fitness in relationship to the environment as a whole, but those which are considered attractive to the opposite sex and likely to increase chances of mating and passing on the desirable traits to the next generation. In some cases (the male peacock’s tail is a favoured example) the features that augment attractiveness might be considered to mitigate the fitness of the individual, which perhaps illustrates the difficulty of establishing a clear definition of ‘fitness’ that is not just derived a posteriori.
Both biblical account and the theories of evolution as applied to humanity, see the human good as survival, adaptation and eventual dominion over the environment, reproduction and multiplication of the species and the establishment of a settled life (Gen 1:28: “…and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’”). This sets the stage for the ‘imperfect paradise’ of ordinary life, in which we find our home, find companionship in ones to love, raise a family, work to support and defend our family and home and, beyond that to live in peace with our neighbours, enjoy the pleasures of life, forge friendships, find significance in what we do and entertain beliefs that make sense of the world. It is against this background that the incursion of evil can really only be understood.
Against this background of the human good, evil can be understood fundamentally as the incursion of harm and the resultant suffering into ordinary life. Much of this is unavoidable; physical suffering arises from our being part of nature and subject to its laws, forces and processes, but emotional suffering also arises from the curtailment of physical possibilities with injury or old age and the breaking of bonds through death. Much the same can be said for the harms that arise as the unintended consequences of the social, economic and cultural forces and processes in play. However, while we no longer assign demonic influence to nature, the ‘metaphysical’ realm is imbued with purported malevolent intention, on both political extremes. Admittedly, there is a certain utility to thinking about these as evils socio-politically, but only to the degree that this furnishes a motive for finding solutions.
Thinking about how to define and explain evil as malevolence, the difficulty is proving malicious intent, rather than the unintended consequences of good intentions. A hypothetical case could be made that evil intention exists at the intersection of criminality, immorality and madness. While these three can and do exist independently of each other, and each by itself is insufficient to label a person or persons manifesting these attributes as evil, some combination of all three is, I think, about as close as we can get to explaining the internal, i.e. subjective, phenomenology of evil. We do not treat the mentally ill or the immoral generally as evil; the mentally ill generally elicit sympathy and compassion from us, as long as they are not threatening us, yet anyone having confronted genuine evil cannot deny the experience of being in the presence of something unhinged. Also, we frequently encounter people who are immoral, by which I mean people who do not conform to the expected cultural norms of their society, defined by the virtues of their religious and cultural traditions, although we invariably treat them as eccentrics and ‘characters’, again unless their behaviour in some way threatens us or the people or things we hold dear. We are less tolerant of the criminal because the law defines the boundary of minimal expected behaviour of those in society, below which the criminal has sunk, but often find mitigating circumstances, which prevent us from labelling most crimes and criminals evil, unless the crimes are particularly horrific.
However, as stated before, an attribution of evil must start with the evidence of evil, that is, an attack upon the ordinary life of people, from where an assignation of blame, guilt or evil intent can be justly made. As illustration of this, I will take two contemporary events that illustrate this as clearly as possible, the war in Ukraine and the cultural war over the teaching of gender identity to infants in schools in the US and Britain.
Regarding Ukraine, we are witnessing the manifestation of evil played out in real time: the destruction of life and property, the expulsion of a people from their homes, communities, cities and land, the places in which they went about their lives, made a living, cared for their loved ones, and experienced the small joys of being alive. Behind it all is the madness of war, with its propaganda and disinformation, the corrupting of young men forced to kill their neighbours, to some of whom they might even be related, the false promises of glory and victory, the transgression of every civilised norm of behaviour between individuals and nations. This is insufficient of course to declare that the architect of this evil is himself motivated by malicious intent. Whether crimes against humanity have been committed is to the judgment of the appropriate courts. The morality or immorality of the invasion will be decided by individuals, and by the histories of nations with a stake in the matter. As to whether Putin is mad, he is certainly exhibiting the madness of absolute power, something that has been witnessed throughout history, and well-documented in all authoritarian and totalitarian regimes today.
A perspective needs to be kept on the situation in Ukraine; though we are seeing the largest wave of migration since the Second World War and are dealing with a nuclear power, the scale of the disaster should not cause us to forget that this is the reality for millions of other people on different continents around the world. There are approximately 20 wars going on in the world today, most of which do not make the headlines. We are impressed by scale, but the victims of evil know no scale.
While the war in Ukraine is an obvious manifestation of evil, the cultural wars in the West are less obviously so. Yet, I believe that they have the potential to be a greater threat in the long run. The goal of radical postmodern activism is to destroy the vestiges of Christianity and all its moral certainties and values, to destroy marriage and the normal relationship between men and women, to destroy the relationship between parents and children, and to replace the authority of parents with that of the state, and to destroy the economic prosperity that enables ordinary citizens to live their lives in our imperfect paradise.
This has been a slow-motion war that has been ongoing since the 1960s at least. Although Marxism is the ideological godfather of radical postmodern activism (RPA) – and remember that Marx declared in the Communist Manifesto that key goals of the communist revolution were to destroy private property and the bourgeois family, key factors in human settlement, prosperity and human happiness – most contemporary ‘traditional’ Marxists repudiate RPA as bourgeois and anti-proletarian. Similarly, the progenitors and benefactors of sexual liberation, feminism and gay rights, which have been the battlefronts of the culture war for the past half century, are not generally to be found at the forefront of its most recent manifestation. Each new radical iteration has been built on the foundations of the previous, before repudiating its prior advocates. Liberals and conservatives alike yielded to demands that in the end were so insistent that they accepted them as justified. However, each demand met was greeted not with acceptance of good fortune, but with the next wave of demands, gradually less justified and more outrageous.
All of this might be academic, or at least ironically entertaining, seeing yesterday’s radicals, who lectured the rest of us on our backwardness, hoist by their own petard, were it not that this extremism has now invaded every institution. Most troubling of all is that schools have now become the front line of this culture war, which is pitting left-wing teachers against parents, with the minds of young people – specifically, infants – as the prize to be fought over. As the left has moved towards embracing RPA, activists increasingly see schools as a place of indoctrination of alternative lifestyles. Today there are well-documented reports that even very young children are being introduced to the idea of gender fluidity, a belief for which there is no biological basis whatsoever.2 More importantly, this is being carried out entirely hidden from parents, clearly without their consent. The overwhelming majority of parents disagree profoundly with these views. They want their children to be competent in the basics of education and would like them to perhaps excel in one area. While most are quite happy for their children to be taught about the range of human experience in an age-appropriate manner, what they do not want is their children at a very young and impressionable age to be sexualised by exposure to behaviours far from the norm of what they experience at home and even encouragement to explore in secret a different sexuality or gender identity.
Using the evolutionary and phenomenological criteria established above, there is a strong case for this type of activism being a malevolent force. This is certainly immoral, as the potential destruction of future heterosexual relationships and of future reproduction and parenting violates the precepts of every religion, every social and cultural norm of all civilisations and is an attack on human evolutionary fitness. To claim, as such activists are wont to do, that they are acting from the perspective of “historical justice”, “social progress” or “the environment” is nonsense; history, social progress and the environment have no opinions. There are only individual judgments and acts. For teachers to engage in this sophistry is particularly egregious. It is verging on the illegal and is, or about to become, illegal in some constituencies. It violates explicitly the principle of in loco parentis, which applies to school age children. In terms of the denial of biological sex and of the principles of rationality and evidence, there is a prime facia case for radical postmodern activists being unhinged; to use the legal term, in the eyes of a ‘reasonable person’, this is a form of insanity.
In the end, whatever motives are used in justification, evil manifests a deep-seated hatred of humanity in the actions carried out to prevent humanity prospering, and at the micro level the actions to destroy the family as a unit of reproduction and cultural transmission. The forces that divide parents and children and men and women, through taking life in war or through indoctrinating young children in attitudes and lifestyles that endanger their reproductive future, are substantive examples of evil. What is right and proper, and hence the nature of evil, can only be judged from a human perspective, specifically from the perspective of an individual and their life in the imperfect paradise of ordinary life. It is important, though, to separate a description of the manifestation of evil, from an assertion that its perpetrators are irredeemable. It is well to keep in mind Solzhenitsyn’s warning that the dividing line between good and evil runs through every heart, and that even the worst are capable of changing and finally choosing the good.
1. Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)
2. The facts are not in dispute, whatever side of the argument one is on. There is a wealth of articles and comment in the media. The Department for education of the UK government have recently (2020, updated 2022) issued guidelines on appropriate and inappropriate treatment of gender issues in schools, included in:
Gov.UK (2022). Guidance: Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum: Information to help school leaders plan, develop and implement the new statutory curriculum. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/plan-your-relationships-sex-and-health-curriculum