Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Evil is a term describing that which is morally bad, corrupt, wantonly destructive, selfish, and wicked. In most Christian and Western cultures, and some Eastern ones, the word is used to describe acts, and sometimes thoughts and ideas, commonly known as sin, that are thought to originate with Satan and challenge the law or will of God.
Evil is one half of the duality of good and evil expressed, in some form or another, by many cultures. It describes a hierarchy of moral standards with regard to human behaviour; evil being the least desired, while love is usually the most praised. In essence "evil" is a term for those things which (either directly or causally) bring about withering and death - the opposite of life. In casual or derogatory use, the word "evil" can characterize people and behaviours that are hurtful, ruinous, or disastrous.
A similar term, malice (from the Latin malus meaning "bad") describes the deliberate human intent to harm and be harmful. "Evil," by contrast, tends to represent a more elemental concept; a disembodied spirit that is natural and yet abominable. Whereas "malice" belongs to the specific, "evil" is the foundation for malice.
Evil as a Religious Concept
In a number of religious traditions, "evil" is widely considered to be a mystery; that life and its rules are "governed" by an innate benevolence, and behavior that directly contradicts "good nature" is not understandable in moral and reasoning terms. "Evil" characterizes and describes aspects of human beings that deviate from the social, loving, righteous, natures within, which in contrast lead to social strength, and continuing survival, through love. In the forms of malice and selfishness, evil represents the socially weakening and destructive behaviors that lead directly to a fruitless life and death.
The Abrahamic religions, as well as others, are largely centered around the concepts of good and evil, and this has led to much religious debate. Many cultures and mythologies personify evil, such as with Satan in Christianity. Others describe evil spirits or demons as the inciters of acts.In Christianity, young children are considered to be good, and free of evil, though not of original sin as defined in the Bible. As they grow older, however, they can develop evil characteristics. The three main characteristics of an evil person are:
- Pride: "I am better than you are."
- Hypocrisy: "I have higher standards for others than for self."
- Indifference: "I do not care."
Note that "self" does not necessarily have to mean "one's self," but also to the various units, groups, and demographics to which one belongs (e.g. family, school, team, generation, nationality, race, religion, etc.) Indifference is what binds together the total contradiction of pride (superiority) and hypocrisy (lower standards). Without it, the person could not stand his or her own evil.
Western Views on Evil
Western societies among others, sometimes use the term evil as a general label if a transgression or moral corruption reaches a particularly extreme degree. This can apply to a number of transgressions if they reach an extreme level, such as rape, child molestation, serial killings, terrorism, and genocidal dictatorship. Some people, especially for religious reasons, include more controversial acts that they view as wrong, such as homosexual behavior or abortions, though there is wide societal disagreement as to whether these acts are even immoral.
Generally, many western societies are divided in their views on morality between two extremes. One, "moral absolutism" holds that good and evil are fixed concepts established by God, nature, or some other authority. The other, moral relativism holds that standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice. Moral universalism is a recent humanist term to find a compromise between the unattainable absolutist sense of morality, and the unauthoritative relativist view.
Another definition of evil describes it as death and suffering, whether it results from human or from other natural causes (e.g., earthquakes, famine). In other words, it is not merely the intention to do evil, but the end result, namely, harm to others, that is evil. And, as Plato observed, there are relatively few ways to do good, but there are countless ways to do evil, which can therefore have a much greater impact on our lives, and the lives of other beings capable of suffering. For this reason, some philosophers (e.g. Bernard Gert) maintain that not causing and preventing evil are more important than promoting good in formulating moral rules and in conduct. From a physical standpoint, "evil" could be defined as increasing entropy when the cost outweighs the benefit.
Some people define evil as not only a person who inflicts pain and suffering but does so for either solely selfish reasons (i.e. power or wealth) or because they are sadistic. Under their definition of evil, a person who commits morally wrong acts but does so truly believing the ends justifies the means would not be evil, even if most people disagreed the ends justified the means. Even when they agree that the ends in and of themselves are morally wrong, so long as the person believes they are doing right regardless of how misguided they may be, they would not classify them as evil. This does not mean they do not view their actions as morally wrong, just that they do not see an evil intent in them. The intent of the actions is a key factor for them. Thus for example, Osama Bin Laden would not in these people’s eye’s be evil as his motives are based on the misguided notions about the evil of western culture, such as the United States, and Christianity and Judaism.
Regardless of the source of their definitions, most human cultures have a set of beliefs about what things, actions, and ideas are undesirable. Undesirable circumstances are often categorized as evil within some cultures. Natural evils generally include accidental death, disease, and other misfortunes, although some cultures see these occurrences instead as a healthy part of the natural order. Moral evils generally include violence, deceit or other destructive behavior toward others, although the same behavior toward "outsiders" of the group may be considered "good." War provides many examples, and "God is always on the winning side." The Unification Church's definition of evil is: "Taking advantage of another person for one's own benefit."
Many cultures recognize many levels of immoral behavior, from minor vices to major crimes. These beliefs are often encoded into the laws of a society, with methods of judgment and punishment for offenses.
Debate Over the Proper Use of the Term Evil
The definition of evil has engendered some debate, much like the term terrorism has. It has been said that one persons idea of evil can be another persons idea of good, much like one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Some people claim that the term is improperly used at times by a person or group against their enemies, largely to evoke a emotional response against the person or group. This claim was made by some critics of the U.S. President George W. Bush with regard to his labeling North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as part of an Axis of evil.
Some critics reject the current common usage of the term evil suggesting that motivation must be taken into account. Thus, they feel it is inappropriate to apply the term to just anyone committing significant acts of violence such as terrorism and mass murder. Only those people who where motivated by power, wealth, or sadism should qualify as evil. That does not mean they think violent acts like terrorism and murder are acceptable, just that perpetrators of those acts should not automatically be labeled evil.
Some critics also feel the term evil is too closely linked with religion, particularly Christianity. Because of this they think the term should be avoided in political discussion, especially in reference to members of non-Christians religions such as Islam. They see as conveying a hostile tone towards non-Christian religions in such circumstance. They would suggest that for example when Bush labels members of Al Qaeda, an extremist Muslim group, as evil, it could be interpreted by Muslims as a war of Christianity vs. Islam. This criticism is similar to that levied against Bush’s initial use of the term crusade in reference to the war on terrorism, for which he apologized.
Sociological Views on Evil
Some sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have attempted to construct scientific explanations for the development of specific characteristics of an "antisocial" personality type, called the sociopath. The sociopath is typified by extreme self-serving behavior, and a lack of conscience, or inability to empathize with others, to restrain self from, or to feel remorse for, harm personally caused to others. However, a diagnosis of antisocial or sociopath personality disorder (formerly called psychopathic mental disorder), is sometimes criticized as being, at the present time, no more scientific than calling a person "evil". What critics perceive to be a moral determination is disguised, they argue, with a scientific-sounding name, but no complete description of a mechanism by which the abnormality can be identified is provided. In other words, critics argue, "sociopaths" are called such, because they are first thought to be "evil" - a determination which itself is not derived by a scientific method.
Research into sociopathology has also investigated biological, rather than moral underpinnings of behaviors that societies reject as sociopathic. Most neurological research into sociopathology has focused on regions of the neocortex involved in impulse control.
As used by computer hackers, the jargon term evil implies that some system, program, person, or institution is sufficiently maldesigned as to be not worth the bother of dealing with. Unlike the adjectives in the cretinous/losing/brain damaged series, evil does not imply incompetence or bad design, but rather a set of goals or design criteria fatally incompatible with the speaker's. This usage is more an aesthetic and engineering judgment than a moral one in the mainstream sense. "We thought about adding a Blue Glue interface but decided it was too evil to deal with," or "TECO is neat, but it can be pretty evil if you're prone to typos." Often pronounced with the first syllable lengthened, as Compare to evil and rude.
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