What do we mean by ‘Evil’?

Is evil a problem?

by Gwydion M. Williams

When I wrote about the Dunblane massacre (L&TUR April 1996), I started out from what had been said already. Everyone was talking about evil, and I did not argue with this. I simply tried to set the matter in a social context. But it seems that I annoyed some people simply by agreeing that there was indeed such a thing a personal evil.

Mathematical concepts like Phi and logarithms and triangles clearly exist apart from human consciousness of them. Whether evil is a concept of the same sort is a moot point. My personal view based on a wider materialist set of beliefs leads me to say is that it is not. I am of course aware of Plato’s eloquent arguments for the transcendental existence of justice, goodness etc., which would presumably allow evil as such to be rationally defines. This was a Greek philosophical tradition that was carried over into Catholicism, with its concept of Objective Moral Law. Only one of the practices defined as evil under Objective Moral Law was homosexuality, and Plato was homosexual, so that this whole system of ethical logic is in serious danger of vanishing up its own back passage. Which is just where it belongs, in my view. But when discussing practical social matters, there are advantages in skipping over such questions. These are matters unlikely to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

In normal usage, evil is anything that is seriously anti-social. But ‘anti-social’ means nothing unless you have a clear idea of what sort of society you want. If the ideal is to have women confined to domestic tasks, then anything that takes them out of the home is evil. If the ideal is to have them participating on the same basis as men, then anything that keeps them confined to a home and domestic role is evil. It all depends on where you are trying to get to, and it naturally aroused some strong feelings. Since the 1960s the pro-equality viewpoint has become overwhelmingly strong in Western culture and people now try to pretend that the struggle never really happened, or else that the outcome was inevitable. Yet issues can get complex – either side in the debate might be either for or against legal unharassed prostitution, for instance. Though everyone would be united in disapproving of Jack the Ripper.

One can hardly imagine a society in which child-killing was viewed as a good thing. Past societies have tolerated exposure of the new-born, but a child accepted unto the community was then given the full protection of the law. So a child-killer may very reasonably be called evil with no quibbling about social context.

Had Thomas Hamilton taken his firearms down to Westminster and wiped out John Major’s parliamentary majority in one brief burst of aggression, the media would still have called him evil, but a lot of people would have privately felt otherwise. Some things may be seen as evil or not, depending on context. Violent actions may be admittedly evil in themselves, but perhaps justified by some greater good. The IRA would use this justification for their bombs in London, and the Israelis for their bombs in The Lebanon. Likewise few Britons feel guilt about their bombing of Iraq in the recent Gulf War. And then there are actions which are both evil and pointless from anyone’s point of view, except perhaps the perpetrator. Dunblane was one such, and that was why I called it evil.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 1996, under my pen-name Walter Cobb

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