There are no evil people. Some specific actions can be regarded as evil, but people themselves cannot ever be regarded as evil. This claim is justified on the basis that the very notion of an “evil person” is self-contradictory.
Let us start by defining “evil” as “doing harm for the sake of doing harm.” While we all recognize that people very often do harm without realizing it or intending it, we are usually not inclined to regard such people as evil. We recognize that people can make mistakes, or can feel forced into corners sometimes with moral dilemmas, but if we have the sense that they are doing the best they can, and especially if they recognize the harm they’ve done and apologize, we will not regard them as evil. And so “doing harm” is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for “doing evil.” For an action to count as truly evil, it must both cause harm and it must have been intended to cause harm.
But even “intent to cause harm” is a necessary but still not sufficient condition for “evil.” Anyone who believes that punishment is sometimes justified would refuse to call the person who metes out punishment as evil. While that person is inflicting harm with intent to inflict harm, the deeper intent is to bring about greater good. Punishment is supposed to aid in the restoration of justice. (Admittedly, the ethical justification of punishment itself is debated, but a full discussion of this is not the intent of this present essay.)
That is why I framed the original definition of evil as “doing harm for the sake of doing harm” – to contrast it with “doing harm in order to ultimately bring about a greater good” as in the intended case of punishment.
So, those who accidentally do harm are not evil; those who intentionally do harm, but in hopes of bringing about greater good are not evil; the only people who possibly could be considered evil would be those who intentionally do harm just for the sake of doing harm.
But to be considered evil in themselves, they would also have to be wholly evil. If they sometimes do good, they could not be regarded as evil, because the good that they do is real and benefits the world in a substantial way. So, if there could be a truly evil person, he or she would at least have to be someone who does harm all the time, for the sake of doing harm.
But it is important to note that such a person would have to be capable of moral choice. Such a person would still have to have a basic understanding of the difference between goodness and harm: otherwise, he or she could not understand “harm” enough to recognize it, choose it, and intend it. Also, the person would have to have the ability to freely choose. If the person were simply programmed to do harm all the time (and could not do otherwise) then the person could not be said to be intending harm for the sake of intending harm, because intention requires choice.
Since the person is capable of moral choice, and understands the difference between good and evil, then the person does have some understanding of goodness. On this basis, we can conclude that the person therefore is not wholly evil. Having the capacity to understand goodness, and having the capacity for choice means that there is always the possibility that sometime in the future this person might decide to choose good. So there is in the person still the potential for some goodness.
Therefore, it is self-contradictory to assume that there could be evil people.
What do you think? Does this argument work? To reply, click on “comments” below.
(This essay is republished from old SLU Philosophy Blog, March 10, 2006.)