Understanding Evil

Understanding evil has long posed a significant problem for moral philosophers, especially since the end of World War II. Even today, philosophers disagree about what constitutes evil and the potential consequences of labeling a person or action as evil. In this essay, I draw on the work of Hannah Arendt to describe evil actions. I then discuss my struggle toward understanding evil in the context of my novel Parabellum.

Exemplar of Evil

In 1934, a former Bavarian Infantry corporal and political prisoner named Adolf Hitler rose to become the president of Germany. Over the course of the next decade, Hitler would engineer the genocide of six million Jewish men, women and children.

If anyone in human history deserves the label of “evil,” Adolf Hitler is a prime candidate. His ruthless seizure of political power, his dreams of continental domination and his callous extermination of millions of innocent human beings indicate a man of the most depraved character.

Prisoners at the Ebensee Concentration Camp
Prisoners at the Ebensee Concentration Camp

Since Hitler and the Holocaust, moral philosophers have grappled with this terrible period in human history. At the heart of their examination is the concept of evil. Faced with a villain like Hitler and an atrocity like the Holocaust, we must ask how to characterize, analyze and ultimately struggle against such wrongness. Was Hitler evil? What does that even mean? And how do we stop the next Hitler and prevent the next Holocaust?

Beyond Wrongdoing

At first glance, there is something different between Hitler’s actions and the vast majority of wrongdoing in the world. The Holocaust was so extreme in its senseless and targeted violence that it seems to deserve a more exclusive label than “bad” (or even “very bad,” “very very bad,” etc.). At a minimum, evil describes an excess of badness, actions and characters that far exceed casual wrongdoing.

The problem comes in defining what exactly distinguishes evil from mere badness. That mystery lends a supernatural quality to the label “evil.” The term evokes ideas of an irredeemably demonic nature, of a person so bad that he must be inhuman or possessed by some malicious spirit. But this supernatural association does not lend itself to reasoned analysis. For one thing, there are many who deny the existence of such metaphysical forces. For another, it is unclear what humans can do to resist such forces, should they exist.

Along the same lines, “evil” often suggests a fixed and defining character trait. Whether a person is evil in some supernatural sense or just an extremely bad person, many people view evildoers as irredeemably malicious. But this view excludes the possibility that people who commit what might be considered an evil action can be rehabilitated. Instead of working to understand moral failings, labeling someone as “evil” moves the discussion to immediate moral condemnation and punishment. Under this view, it is not worth the effort to try to understand or treat evil. Instead, we are better off eliminating it whenever it arises.

The Missing Piece

Beyond the supernatural connotations, it often seems that we mean something more than “very bad” when we use the term “evil.” Consider a drug dealer gunning down a rival during a turf war versus a serial killer stalking and killing carefully selected victims. The actions (murder) are the same, yet we are more likely to apply the label “evil” to the serial killer than to the drug dealer. In my opinion, we do so because most of us can identify in part with the drug dealer’s motive. We understand competition, trying to make a living, defending a threat to our resources and livelihood. Not many of us understand the motives of a serial killer.

But is there something more required for a person or action to qualify as evil? Some theorists again defer to the claim that evil is merely extreme badness or wrongness. Others have argued that an evil action is one that harms an innocent person and involves one or more additional factors. These factors include 1) giving the perpetrator a feeling of pleasure, 2) fulfilling the perpetrator’s intention to cause the victim’s suffering, 3) fulfilling the perpetrator’s desire to annihilate all other life or to cause destruction for its own sake, or 4) being motivated by an unworthy goal, such as self-interest.

Arendt and Radical Evil

Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who made major contributions to understanding evil
Hannah Arendt

Much recent discussion of evil stems from the work of German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt. Her investigations included covering the 1961 trial of Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann. In analyzing the Holocaust, Arendt used the term “radical evil” to describe a new type of wrongdoing that previous moral concepts failed to capture. For Arendt, evil involved making human beings superfluous by turning them into living corpses who lacked freedom or control over their lives. In contrast to other moral philosophers, Arendt argued that evil actions are not motivated by comprehensible motives such as self-interest. Rather, the aim of evil is to reinforce totalitarian control and promulgate the idea that everything is possible.

Arendt’s description closely aligns with my understanding of evil. Evil actions reduce human victims to beings who lack freedom and control over their lives, often through murder or torture. Evil actions treat victims as less them human and make them utterly powerless. Furthermore, evil actions are committed for reasons that don’t appeal to the vast majority of us. A drug dealer shooting a rival dealer infringing on his turf doesn’t seem to qualify. But a person who seeks complete power over another—not just in the sense of wielding political influence, but in enjoying the ability to treat one’s victim as less than human and controlling whether or not the victim suffers or dies—fits the paradigmatic definition of evil.

Understanding Evil Through Fiction

Cover of Parabellum by Greg Hickey

My novel Parabellum represents my attempt at understanding evil. It depicts an act that would seem to count as evil, if anything does: a mass shooting at a beach full of innocent victims. As a police officer points out in the opening section of the novel, there is something different about indiscriminately firing a gun at hundreds of strangers in comparison to inner-city drug and turf wars, or even to a serial killer stalking and stabbing his victims. The very impersonality of mass shootings distinguishes them from other killings. In Arendt’s language, a mass shooting involves the depersonalization of human victims. It turns these victims into living corpses even before a single cartridge is fired.

But yet again, we are forced to grapple with the very definition of evil. Is a mass shooter evil, or merely a person in the grips of some pathology like psychosis, psychopathy or depression? Are their actions a product of rational and depraved motives or the result of aberrant brain chemistry and misfiring bioelectrical signals? Such questions apply to all putatively evil acts. These questions extend back to ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato, who believed that evil resulted from ignorance or false knowledge.

The Antidote to Evil

Yet if nothing else, the term “evil” allows us to categorize the problem we want to solve. It allows us to group together a class of very bad actions and analyze their components. Such analysis gives us an opportunity to understand these actions and hopefully limit their occurrence in the future. Whether those actions stem from willful malice or a pathological psychology (or whether those descriptions are one and the same), investigating such actions only serves to further our understanding and our moral countermeasures.

In the end, Parabellum is not a solution to the problem of evil. It is merely my attempt to understand a little more about extreme wrongdoing and share my exploration with readers in the guise of a fictional story. I expect that, just as I did, readers will come away with more questions than they had before. But I hope they will also gain a fraction more insight into this problem and how they can address it in the real world. As Arendt and others have shown, the antidote to evil is goodness, but also, understanding.