Ethan ponders the relationship of evil and ignorance:

According to Seth, there is no such thing as “evil”. We may point to any number of people and events and claim that evil is embodied, inherent, and proven in these things. But is this true? In our popular fiction, there are all sorts of “evil” characters, sometimes doing the Devil’s business. And who is more evil than the Devil?

Instead, evil is an extreme form of ignorance. One who practices “evil” may claim to know what it is that he or she does, and therefore reinforces the idea of “evil”. How can one be ignorant if one knowingly performs an evil act?

As I reflect on this, I am beginning to understand what this means. Ignorance takes many forms. One may knowingly commit murder or arson, and know that what they do is wrong. They may identify as “evil” as they perform these acts. But ignorance drives this behavior, not evil, and certainly not the Devil.

I hope that Ethan will forgive me if I am misunderstanding what he means and am taking him out of context, but here are some of my thoughts:

I would say that most of us know someone that believes any time you disagree with him (or her, but it’s usually a him) it is because you don’t understand what he’s saying. Ignorance, sometimes, is an extention of that logic. If one is described as evil, then one doesn’t know what people described as non-evil know. This idea is dependent on a number of things, one of which is that there is an ideal state in which people are good if they are sufficiently loved for instance or, in this case, sufficiently knowledgeable.

I’m inclined to agree with the old saying that the Devil’s greatest trick was making people believe that he did not exist. I believe that evil is an entity unto itself. It is a state with a number of plausible motivations. Often, as you cite, it’s ignorance. Sometimes it’s fear. Sometimes it’s hurt (As Frankenstein’s monster said, “I am malicious because I am miserable”). Maybe there’s a better word for all this than “evil,” but I don’t think that ignorance is sufficiently encompassing.

Ignorance also implies, to a degree, that with knowledge comes righteousness. To a degree, right and wrong are not only what one knows, but how one internally organizes what one knows. Sometimes the organization paints a rather warped picture. Perhaps one can say that a warped picture is not a true one and is therefore ignorant. Be that as it may, there is no picture that is not seen through a lens of some sort, and some lenses are incompatible with virtue, harmony, and other things we would generally percieve as “good.” The issue, in my mind, is not what information is missing (ignorance), but how the existing information is organized (philosophy or ideology).

In short, if I can be short which I usually cannot, ignorance can be just as easily defined to support one’s prejudices as evil can be. Both exist (and I will absolutely concede that ignorance is much, much, much more prevalent than evil), but I don’t personally believe that one necessarily defines the other.

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3 Responses to Evil Defined

  1. Ethan says:

    I have a follow-up article coming out later today that may help clear up some of the confusion surrounding my musings.

    One quick thing though, “knowledge” does not automatically confer righteousness (and that word comes off as “haughty” to me anyway, semantically). I would argue that what matters is “right action”. For example, I can know that shouting racial epithets is wrong, but if I do nothing about it when I come across it how have I acted rightly? I may not have compounded the act by joining in, but I haven’t engaged in “right action” either.

  2. trumwill says:

    Okay, I must have misunderstood at least part of the point you were making. It sounded like it was saying most of what is wrong comes from a lack of knowledge (ignorance), and therefore only knowledge can make it right.

  3. Barry says:

    Sometimes I think we way overthink the concept of good and evil, at least in definition. We try and make it way too complicated – it really falls into that category of “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

    I think evil is simply people doing harm for their own benefit and knowing they’re doing harm, but not caring. It’s the ultimate in selfishness. Someone who thinks so much of themselves that they harm someone else in some way to further their own self-centeredness is evil.

    The robber who shoots someone to steal their wallet has committed an evil act. The victim who shoots the robber to defend himself is not doing an evil act.

    The CEO who screws his employees out of their raises so he can pad his bonus is doing an evil act.

    The terrorist who blows himself up to kill innocent women and children to appease his god is doing an evil act. The soldiers who kill innocent women and children because the terrorists have used them to shield themselves are not doing an evil act. It may not always be a smart act, or the right act, but it’s not necessarily an evil act. But the soldier who knows a way to spare the innocents while killing the terrorists, but kills the innocents anyway because they offend his tender sensibilities – or they’re “all alike” – or they’re too much of a bother to worry about – is committing an evil act.

    It’s really not that hard…

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