The problem of evil

To avoid confusion, it is important to note that there are at least two concepts of evil: a broad concept and a narrow concept. The broad concept picks out any bad state of affairs, wrongful action, or character flaw.

Evil in the broad sense has been divided into two categories: natural evil and moral evil. Natural evils are bad states of affairs which do not result from the intentions or negligence of moral agents.

Murder and lying are examples of moral evils.

the narrow concept of evil picks out only the most morally despicable sorts of actions, characters, events, etc.

Since the narrow concept of evil involves moral condemnation, it is appropriately ascribed only to moral agents and their actions.

Should we use the term ‘evil’ in our moral, political, and legal discourse and thinking, or is evil an out-dated or empty concept which should be abandoned?

  • What is the relationship between evil and other moral concepts such as badness and wrongdoing?
  • What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for evil action?
  • What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for evil character?
  • What is the relationship between evil action and evil character?
  • What types of evil actions and characters can exist?
  • What is the proper analysis of derivative concepts such as evil institution?


  • Evil-Skepticism:

    understand and describe morally despicable actions, characters, and events using more pedestrian moral concepts such as badness and wrongdoing.

    Evil-skeptics give three main reasons to abandon the concept of evil:

  •  the concept of evil involves unwarranted metaphysical commitments to dark spirits, the supernatural, or the devil;
  •  the concept of evil is useless because it lacks explanatory power; and
  •  the concept of evil can be harmful or dangerous when used in moral, political, and legal contexts, and so, it should not be used in those contexts, if at all.

 the term ‘evil’ can be harmful or dangerous when it is misapplied, used perniciously, or used without sensitivity to complicated historical or political contexts.

Friedrich Nietzsche…

believes that the concept of evil is dangerous because it has a negative effect on human potential and vitality by promoting the weak in spirit and suppressing the strong.

 Nietzsche argues that the concept of evil arose from the negative emotions of envy, hatred, and resentment.

 (he uses the French term ressentiment to capture an attitude that combines these elements).

the concepts of good and evil contribute to an unhealthy view of life which judges relief from suffering as more valuable than creative self-expression and accomplishment. For this reason

 Nietzsche believes that we should seek to move beyond judgements of good and evil



the term ‘evil’ can be harmful or dangerous when it is misapplied, used perniciously, or used without sensitivity to complicated historical or political contexts.

 Evil-skeptics  do not believe that we should abandon all normative concepts. So why do they believe that we should abandon the concept of evil?

since ascriptions of evil are the greatest form of moral condemnation, when the term ‘evil’ is misapplied we subject someone to a particularly harsh judgement undeservedly.

 it isn’t always clear what people mean when they use the term ‘evil.’ As Eve Garrard puts it “the general obscurity surrounding the term makes some thinkers very reluctant to appeal to the idea of evil”

evildoing can result from many different sorts of motives, even good motives

 on some conceptions of evil, evildoers are possessed, inhuman, incorrigible, or have fixed character traits

 If evildoers have these traits, and thus will continue to perform evil actions no matter what we do, the only appropriate response might be to isolate them from society or to have them executed. But if evildoers do not have these fixed dispositions and they are treated as if they do, they will likely be mistreated.


 the Atrocity Paradigm, Claudia Card

judgements of evil often indicate a healthy recognition that one has been treated unjustly.

people who want to abandon the concept of evil may be overwhelmed by the task of understanding and preventing evil and would rather focus on the less daunting task of questioning the motives of people who use the term

we should revive the concept of evil because only the concept of evil can capture the moral significance of acts, characters, and events such as sadistic torture, serial killers, Hitler, and the Holocaust. As Daniel Haybron puts it “Prefix your adjectives [such as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’] with as many ‘very’s as you like; you still fall short. Only ‘evil’, it seems, will do”

 if evil exists, we need a concept to capture this immoral extreme.

it is only by facing evil, i.e., by becoming clear about its nature and origins, that we can hope to prevent future evils from occurring and live good lives (Kekes 1990, Card 2010).

 If evils are the worst sorts of moral wrongs, we should prioritize the reduction of evil over the reduction of other wrongs such as unjust inequalities. For instance, Card believes that it is more important to prevent the evils of domestic violence than it is to ensure that women and men are paid equal wages for equal work (Card 2002, 96–117).

by categorizing actions and practices as evil we are better able to set limits to legitimate responses to evil.

By having a greater understanding of the nature of evil we are better able to guard against responding to evil with further evils (Card 2010, 7–8).



Evil-revivalists believe that because the concept of evil is harmful or dangerous more philosophical work needs to be done on it to clear up ambiguities and reduce the likelihood of abuse or misuse.

if we do not understand evil we will be ill-equipped to root out its sources, and thus, we will be unable to prevent evils from occurring in the future.



  • Evil-Revivalism ;believe that the concept of evil has a place in our moral and political thinking and discourse. On this view, the concept of evil should be revived, not abandoned.

The  concept of evil might be worth keeping for descriptive or prescriptive purposes even if it isn’t explanatorily useful

 evil is no less explanatorily useful than other moral concepts such as good, bad, right, and wrong

to say that an action is evil is to say that it has resulted from a motivation. This provides a partial explanation for why the action was performed.

moral nihilist

  • Someone who believes that we should do away with moral discourse altogether could be called a moral-skeptic or a moral nihilist.

    moral-skeptic or a moral nihilist.

 The concept of evil would have explanatory power, or be explanatorily useful, if it were able to explain why certain actions were performed or why these actions were performed by certain agents rather than by others.

Evil-skeptics…argue that the concept of evil cannot provide explanations of this sort and thus should be abandoned.

To say that a person, or an action, is evil is just to say that that person, or action, defies explanation or is incomprehensible

the concept of evil is often employed when we lack a complete explanation for why an action was performed.

 to say that an action is evil is just to say either that the action resulted from supernatural forces or that the action is a mystery.

 To say that an event is a mystery is not to give a genuine explanation of an event, but rather, it is to suggest that the event cannot be explained (at least with the information currently available)

The broad sense of evil

attempts to reconcile the existence of evil (in the broad sense) with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God or creator.

 to solve the problem of evil it is important to understand the nature of evil.

 Manichaean dualism.

God and the Prince of Darkness.

From these first principles follow good and evil substances which are in a constant battle for supremacy.

 The material world constitutes a stage of this cosmic battle where the forces of evil have trapped the forces of goodness in matter.

The Manichaean solution to the problem of evil is that God is neither all-powerful nor the sole creator of the world. God is supremely good and creates only good things, but he or she is powerless to prevent the Prince of Darkness from creating evil.

the Neoplatonist approach.

(See Augustine, Confessions; On the Morals of the Manichaeans; Reply to Manichaeus; Burt, Augustine’s World.)

evil does not exist as a substance or property but instead as a privation of substance, form, and goodness

The Neoplatonist theory of evil provides a solution to the problem of evil because if evil is a privation of substance, form, and goodness, then God creates no evil. All of God’s creation is good, evil is a lack of being and goodness.

Kant’s Theory of Evil
Immanuel Kant, in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone

truths about human nature:

(1) we are radically free,
(2) we are by nature inclined toward goodness,

(3) we are by nature inclined toward evil. (Immanuel Kant has influence on subsequent philosophers writing about the nature of evil such as Hanna Arendt, Claudia Card, and Richard Bernstein.)

Immanuel Kant’s theory of evil in the narrow sense…does not pick out only the morally worst sorts of actions and characters. (See, e.g., Card 2010, 37). Instead, Kant equates evil with having a will that is not fully good.

 we have a morally good will only if we choose to perform morally right actions because they are morally right

First there is frailty.

A person with a frail will attempts to perform morally right actions because these actions are morally right, but she is too weak to follow through with her plans. Instead, she ends up doing wrong due to a weakness of will


A person with an impure will does not attempt to perform morally right actions just because these actions are morally right. Instead, she performs morally right actions partly because these actions are morally right and partly because of some other incentive, e.g., self-interest.

 an impure person has allowed an incentive other than the moral law to guide her actions while the frail person tries, but fails, to do the right thing for the right reason (Kant 1793, Bk I, 25–26).

perversity, or wickedness.

Someone with a perverse will inverts the proper order of the incentives. Instead of prioritizing the moral law over all other incentives, she prioritizes self-love over the moral law. Thus, her actions conform to the moral law only if they are in her self-interest.

actions which best promote her self-interest may conform to the moral law. But since the reason she performs morally right actions is self-love and not because these actions are morally right, her actions have no moral worth and, according to Kant, her will manifests the worst form of evil possible for a human being. Kant considers someone with a perverse will an evil person (Kant 1793, Bk I, 25).

prioritizing self-interest over

the moral law

Whether, and to what extent, a person, or her will, is evil seems to depend on details about her motives and the harms she brings about and not just on whether she prioritizes self-interest over the moral law.

radical evil in

human nature.

all human beings have a propensity to subordinate the moral law to self-interest and that this propensity is radical, or rooted, in human nature in the sense that it is inextirpable.(ineradicable)

we are imputable (attribute to, ascribe to, assign to, credit to; connect with, associated)  for this propensity to evil

we could not be responsible for a propensity that is in us originally and that we cannot be rid of (Bernstein 2002, 11–35).

human beings always have either the moral law or self-love as their incentive for acting. Only a devil could do what is wrong just because it is wrong.

 Hannah Arendt

concept of evil in the narrow sense

the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

 radical evil 

radical evil involves making human beings as human beings superfluous. This is accomplished when human beings are made into living corpses who lack any spontaneity or freedom.

  a distinctive feature of radical evil is that it isn’t done for humanly understandable motives such as self-interest, but merely to reinforce totalitarian control and the idea that everything is possible (Arendt 1951, 437–459; Bernstein 2002, 203–

Arendt’s analysis of evil focuses on evils which results from systems put in place by totalitarian regimes.

she argues that “desk murderers” such as Eichmann were not motivated by demonic or monstrous motives. Instead, “It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed [Eichmann] to become one of the greatest criminals of that period”

 a “terrifyingly normal”

human being who simply did not think very deeply about what he was doing.

social conditions can lead ordinary people to perform evil actions.

necessary and sufficient

conditions for evil. 

…an evil action as the sort of action that an evil person performs…Who is prone to perform evil actions.

the essential components
Of  evil action.

what more is required for evil than mere wrongdoing?

 very wrongful action

evil-revivalists…claim that evil is qualitatively, rather than merely quantitatively, distinct from mere wrongdoing

…what it is for two concepts to be qualitatively distinct?

the perpetrator’s pleasure

 the extra quality shared by all evil actions and lacking from merely wrongful actions, is the perpetrator’s pleasure; evil action consists in taking pleasure in doing wrong, no merely wrongful action is pleasurable for its doer

qualitative distinction.

evil and wrongdoing do not share all of their essential properties, and thus, evil and wrongdoing are qualitatively distinct.

it is an essential property of evil actions that the evildoer intends that his victim suffer significant harm while it is not an essential property of wrongful actions that the wrongdoer intend to cause harm.

 sadistic voyeurism 

evil actions, themselves, need not be harmful, it seems plausible to suppose that evil actions must involve a certain amount of harm. For even in cases of sadistic voyeurism it is necessary that someone suffers even if the suffering isn’t caused by the evildoer (Russell 2007, 676).

how much harm
is required
for evil [to exist]?

the harm of evil must be serious and excessive

Serious harm

a serious harm is one that “interferes with the functioning of a person as a full-fledged agent.”

the harm of evil as an intolerable harm. By an intolerable harm, Card means a harm that makes life not worth living from the point of view of the person whose life it is.

  • severe physical or mental suffering as well as the
  • deprivation of basics such as
  • food,
  • clean drinking water, and
  • social contact
(Card 2002, 16).

“that evils are reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms produced by inexcusable wrongs” (Card 2010, 16).

  evildoers must foresee the harm they produce and lack a moral justification for producing the harm.

 evildoers are motivated by a desire for some object or state of affairs which does not justify the harm they foreseeably inflict.

  evildoers desire to cause harm, or to do wrong, for more specific reasons such as pleasure

the destruction of others for its own sake (Cole 2006). When evil is restricted to actions that follow from these sorts of motivations, theorists sometimes say that their subject is pure, radical, diabolical, or monstrous evil.

motives, such as malevolence or malice, are necessary for evil

evildoers are crucially uninhibited by barriers against considering harming or humiliating others that ought to be there

 one distinctive feature of an evildoer is that “whereas normally a person’s moral sensibilities would get in the way of his performing an act of such moral gravity [i.e., one that results in serious harm], this does not happen when a person performs an evil act” (Thomas 1993, 77).

  a deficiency in the motivational structure of the evildoer.

Prioritizing the need to rescue

making moral decisions based on triage priorities

 the evildoer has a particularly despicable motivational structure. She psychologically silences considerations that are so morally weighty that they metaphysically silence the very considerations which move her to act

it is not necessary to take pleasure in doing wrong to perform an evil action since it is sufficient to intentionally cause significant harm for an unworthy goal such as self-interest (Calder 2013).

to perform an evil action an agent must be morally responsible for what she does.

 evildoers must act voluntarily, intend or foresee their victim’s suffering, and lack moral justification for their actions.

  (1) serious harms brought about by psychopaths;
(2) serious harms brought about by individuals who have had bad upbringings; and

(3) serious harms brought about through ignorance.

psychopathy include
  • shallow emotions,
  • egocentricity,
  • deceitfulness,
  • impulsivity,
  • a lack of empathy, and
  • a lack of guilt and remorse. Particularly relevant for assessments of moral responsibility is the psychopath’s
  • inability to care for others and for the rules of morality.

unable to know the nature or quality of her action or to know that what she is doing is wrong.

 Since psychopaths seem to be completely indifferent to whether their actions are right or wrong, motivational internalists believe that they do not truly believe, or understand, that what they do is morally wrong.

Bad Upbringings

genetic starting points or individual choices

  a strong causal connection between bad upbringings and deviant behaviour

 people who have had particularly bad upbringings are unable to make accurate normative judgements because they have been taught the wrong values.

like psychotics they are unable to make accurate judgements about the world  before before or until they are motivated, shown or taught better.


ignorance can be a legitimate excuse for causing unjustified harm.

ignorance is only a legitimate excuse for causing unjustified harm when we are not responsible for our ignorance, i.e., when the ignorance is non-culpable (Nichomachean Ethics, Bk III).

Some tactics used by self-deceivers to evade acknowledging some truth, including
(1) avoiding thinking about the truth,
(2) distracting themselves with rationalizations that are contrary to the truth,
(3) systematically failing to make inquiries that would lead to evidence of the truth and

(4) ignoring available evidence of the truth or distracting their attention from this evidence (Jones 1999, 82).

  • frequent evildoer accounts,
  • dispositional accounts,
  • affect-based accounts,
  • motive-based accounts,
  • consistency  accounts, and extremity accounts.

     according to the frequent evildoer approach, an evil person is simply someone who performs evil actions often enough (Kekes 1990, 48; 1998, 217; Thomas 1993, 82).

     incompetence and cowardice do not make our characters any better, it seems that we can have the worst sort of character, i.e., an evil character, and yet very rarely, if ever, perform evil actions

    (See Haybron 1999, 132).

    An  evil person is someone who is strongly and fixedly disposed to perform evil actions when in autonomy favouring conditions.

     Someone is in autonomy favouring conditions when she is not deceived, threatened, coerced, or pressed to act in one way rather than another (Russell 2010).

     an evil person might never do evil because although she is strongly and fixed disposed to do evil in autonomy favouring conditions, she might lack opportunities to perform evil actions

    certain sorts of feelings might also be sufficient for being an evil person (Russell 2010, 249).

    Affect-Based Accounts

    an evil person might routinely cause serious harm to her victims without any accompanying feelings.


    Motive-Based Accounts

    judgements of evil character look inward to an agent’s psychology and not to the effects (or likely effects) of her actions (See Calder 2007b for a similar view about virtue and vice).

    Consistency Accounts

    it is necessary to have evil-making characteristics regularly, frequently, or repeatedly (See, e.g., Calder 2003 and 2009; Card 2002; Thomas 1993; Barry 2009).

    evil people almost always lack empathy and concern for others, and they are in no way motivated to help others or to do what is morally right.

    Extremity Accounts 

    evil people possess extremely vicious states of character in the following sense:
    (1) evil people have the worst kinds of vices, such as cruelty and maliciousness rather than more benign forms of vice such as cowardice or laziness, and
    (2) evil people have these vices to an extreme degree (Barry 2009, 171–173).

 Evil Institutions


When we speak of ‘evil institutions’ we might mean one of two things:

(1) organizations that are evil or that perform evil actions, or

(2) social practices that are evil, such as slavery and genocide. Since an organization can only be evil, or perform evil actions, if it is morally responsible for what it does.

if it is reasonably foreseeable that intolerable harm will result from its normal or correct operation without justification or moral excuse (2002, 20; 2010, 18, 27–35).

an institution should be considered evil only if intolerable harm is an essential component of the institution.


Author: charlesburchfield

I am an artist working primarily with collage.

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