What Is Evil? A Philosophical View

Evil is a complex concept that has been addressed by philosophers from ancient times to the present day. Below we will see the most relevant positions on this phenomenon.
What Is Evil? A Philosophical View
Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati

Written and verified by the philosopher Maria Alejandra Morgado Cusati.

Last update: 23 February, 2023

Evil is one of those concepts that we know how to identify very well in practice. But, it might be hard to define. If someone asked us to differentiate between morally good and bad actions, we would surely do so without much difficulty and talk about values and principles.

But if someone else asked us to define it, in theory, we would likely encounter some difficulties. This is because evil is a complex concept whose nature and dimensions are difficult to define.

Hence, the notion of wrongdoing has a long history of philosophical discussion. Even today, certain aspects of this phenomenon continue to be under debate. Having said this, let’s take a closer look at some of the most important philosophical theories on the concept.

What is evil?

First of all, it’s important to note that there are at least two concepts of wrongdoing: a broad and a narrow one. Let’s take a look at what each one consists of.

The broad concept of evil

The broad concept of wrongdoing encompasses any eventuality that harms human beings or causes them suffering. In this respect, the discomfort derived from a toothache is just as bad as cheating, for example.

Now, evil in the broad sense has also been divided into two categories: natural and moral. The former includes all states of affairs that do not result from the intention or negligence of moral agents. Thus, natural accidents and diseases enter here as natural wrongdoings.

Moral evils, on the other hand, derive from the intentions or negligence of those involved. Thus, they include those human actions that harm another, such as deceit or murder.

Note that this notion tends to be present in theological contexts and in discussions of the problem of wrondgoing, which reflect the difficulty of explaining the nature of evil in a world created by an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God.

Religion has a theological explanation for it, but philosophy is much broader with respect to this concept.

The narrow concept of evil

On the other hand, the restricted concept of evil includes only those actions, characters, or events considered to be morally despicable.

In this sense, wrongdoing is only attributed to moral agents (human beings) and their actions. This concept is often used in contemporary political and legal contexts.

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Philosophical theories of evil

Since ancient times, several renowned philosophers have theorized about evil. Here are some of the main theories on the subject.

Any wrongdoing is a product of ignorance

One of the first philosophers to analyze evil was Socrates, who attributed evil to ignorance. That is, he believed that no man would act evil knowingly, but because he doesn’t know what good is and how to do things in accordance with it.

In this respect, the wicked would not act as such if he or she had true knowledge of his or her error. If he or she knew that living according to the good is the best way to do it, then he or she would not choose to do harm.

God and evil

Philosophical theories about evil began with attempts to solve the problem of evil. – that is, when they sought to reconcile the existence of evil (in the broad sense) with an all-powerful, all-knowing, and good God or creator.

One theory that provides a solution to the problem of evil is Manichean dualism. According to this position, the universe is the product of an ongoing battle between two equal and eternal first principles: God and the Prince of Darkness.

From these first principles arise good and evil substances, which would be in a constant battle for supremacy.

For their part, early Christian philosophers, such as St. Augustine, favored Neoplatonism. They argued that evil does not exist as substance or property, but as a lack of substance, form, and goodness.

For example, the evil of sickness consists in the lack of health. The evil of sin consists of the lack of virtue.

In these cases, God does not create evil, for all his creation is good. Therefore, evil is the absence of being or lack of good.

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Evil: A natural quality of human beings?

Human beings have always been inclined toward evil. In fact, as a society, we have even come to feel fascination and a certain curiosity for the wicked.

However, this attraction or propensity towards evil has brought up whether evil is part or human beings or whether it’s a learned quality.

In this regard, authors such as Niccolò Machiavelli or Thomas Hobbes affirm that human beings are evil by nature. According to this philosophy, humankind’s selfishness and survival instinct leads us to satiate our own desires to the detriment of our peers. Therefore, law and the State become necessary, entities that allow regulating people’s behavior for the common good.

Kant affirms that there is a radical form of evil in human nature. This implies that all human beings have a propensity to subordinate moral law to self-interest, and this propensity is radical or rooted in human nature.

For Kant, the task of the good person would be, according to his categorical imperative, to set an example with morally correct actions. Rousseau, on the other hand, takes the opposite view, arguing that human beings are good by nature and that it is society that corrupts them.

The banality of evil

In the 20th century, Hanna Arndt offers a notion of evil associated with social groups and the State itself. Her reflections arise as an attempt to understand and evaluate the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps.

Arndt argues that evil is neither natural to human beings nor is it a metaphysical category. Instead, it can be produced by people and manifests itself only when it finds institutional and structural space for it.

According to Arndt, a distinctive feature of radical evil is that it is not done for humanly understandable reasons, such as selfishness. It’s simply executed to reinforce totalitarian control and the idea that anything is possible.

Soldados en guerra en el concepto de maldad.
Wars highlight critical extremes of evil that lead philosophers to consider new perspectives on this fact.

The components of an evil action

Many contemporary philosophers consider that the notion of evil is linked to the concept of evil action. In this sense, they argue that an evil person is one who performs evil or wrong actions.

But what characterizes wrongdoing? Some theorists have proposed the following components:

  • The presence of harm: bad actions must cause or enable significant harm to at least one victim.
  • The motivation: we also think that wrongdoing requires some intentionality or motivation to do wrong. If there is no such intention, then we believe we shouldn’t consider it an act of wrongdoing.
  • Emotional impact: it has also been argued that in order to be bad, we must feel a certain way or have certain emotions when we act. For example, Laurence Thomas believes that evildoers delight in causing harm or feeling hatred toward their victims.
  • Responsibility: we assume that bad actions come from a morally responsible agent. That is, although natural accidents can cause a lot of harm, these phenomena cannot perform bad deeds because they are not moral agents.

Accordingly, bad actions are human, intentional, and produce suffering in the victim and some pleasure in the wrongdoer.

But we can challenge this perspective of bad actions. For example, if we attempt to detonate a bomb in a room full of innocent people, but the police thwart the attempt, would the action still be bad even though it did not cause any harm?

Evil is a complex concept

As you can see, the concept of evil is not easy to define or understand. Despite the fact that many philosophers wrote their thoughts on this topic, the necessary and sufficient conditions that truly define evil are still under debate today.

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