There Are No Evil People

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.)



2 Responses to “There Are No Evil People”

  1.   John Milanese Says:

    I have some counterarguments for you to consider.

    My first comment is that I’m not sure I’m on board with your definition of evil. It seems like there are times when we cause harm for the sake of causing harm, but it is not evil. Similarly, there seem to be actions that are evil, but are not done for the reason of doing harm.

    Consider a man who is attacking a woman in a dark parking lot. The woman is carrying a tazer to defend herself in case of such an attack. She tazers her attacker out of self-defense. Now although she intentionally tazers her attacker (and causes him severe pain, temporary disablement, etc), one might say that she is not tazering the man because she is interested in harming him; she is only interested in defending herself. Nevertheless, she *tazers* her attacker (rather than trying to do something else) precisely because tazers cause a certain kind of harm, and in this case, she is (and only is) interested in tazing the man because it causes this harm to him. So although she is tazering this man because doing so will cause him a certain kind of harm, this is not evil.

    Suppose a loved one of mine is dying, and I am at their bedside. They explain to me that it is immensely important to them that I perform some task after they die. I realize that failing to do this task will not result in any significant consequence, and so I promise them that I will do the task, but with the intention of not keeping my promise. We might say, “that’s an evil thing to do,” but it is not clearly connected with any actual harm (such lies might be made for putting someone at ease).

    My other two comments are about your argument. Wow, this argument is complex. Tell me if this is a fair reconstruction:

    1. Suppose (for reductio) that there is a (wholly) evil person.
    2. Generally, doing an evil action requires intent to harm, and this kind of intention requires both knowledge of goodness and harm, as well as the ability to have done otherwise (“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”).
    3. Therefore, a wholly evil person must have knowledge of goodness and the ability to stop doing evil things.
    Two options: (A) They are not wholly evil because they contain knowledge of goodness (which is itself good, and thus the person contains some goodness), or (B) they have the potential to choose to be good in the future, and the potential to do good is itself good.
    4. Either A or B is true.
    5. Therefore, there cannot be wholly evil people.

    One can argue against both A and B, however. One can deny that the knowledge of goodness is itself good. There are many ways to make this case (a Kantian one comes to mind). Knowledge of goodness isn’t good (like everything except the good will itself). If a perfectly evil person is using this knowledge solely for the purpose of never doing anything good, then it is not good. I don’t think Kant claims that knowledge of the categorical imperative is good, since conceivable it could be learned just for the purposes of violating habitually.

    One can argue that B is false. Merely being able to do good is not itself good. (Note: a Kantian cannot consistently deny both A and B ! (since the ability to will an action in the right way is the only thing that is itself good)). But so long as you are defining evil in terms of harm, a utilitarian could argue that A and B are both false (A is false in cases of an evil person using knowledge of goodness for the purposes of doing bad more reliably). But even the ability to be good is of no value to a utilitarian if it is never actually put to use in causing utility. In fact, reminding ourselves of what an ability to do good actually consists of (rationality, agency, knowledge of right and wrong), these are all tools that can be put to good or bad use. If a person tends to do evil things, it is a bad thing if they are rational and intelligent, because (odds are) they will bring about evil more effectively.

    Another possible counterargument is that there can be an evil person who acts freely and has knowledge of goodness and harm, but cannot be good because they cannot help but do evil things. You say that “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.” You might say this claim is false (along the lines of Harry Frankfurt’s “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Philosophy). It is not generally true that if, for some action of mine X, if I could not have done other than X, then I did not intend X (an action is intended only if I could have done otherwise). Suppose an evil neurosurgeon wants Jones dead. The surgeon knows that Smith is incredibly mad at Jones, mad enough to kill him, but the surgeon wants to make sure that Smith kills Jones. The surgeon, knowing Smith will confront Jones the next day, plants a chip in Smith’s head such that if Smith doesn’t becomes violent towards Jones, the surgeon can press a button and cause it to be so. The next day, the surgeon watches as Smith confronts Jones, and he is ready with the button. But the surgeon never has to press the button. Smith gets angry at Jones and attacks him and kills him. So, Smith could not have done other than attack Jones, because even if he wasn’t going to, the surgeon would have made it so. But Smith still intended and freely harmed Jones of his own volition because he consciously attacked him, even though he could not have done otherwise. So I think it is possible for there to be an evil person who cannot help but do the things they do, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t evil, because they can still intend to do things even if they could not have done otherwise.

    Another possible counterargument is that it is *possible* for someone who doesn’t have knowledge of the good to, throughout their life, never do anything good. Consider a sadistic sociopath. Supposing they are not very bright. Such a person simply does not have the concepts necessary for understanding that the way they habitually use people as mere means is wrong. But they cause harm because they like to harm, so they still do X because X causes harm, because they are sadistic.

  2.   Jack Knych Says:

    Interesting argument. If I didn’t have to study for the Reasoning final tomorrow, I feel a deeper look at what makes something ‘good’ and something ‘harmful’ would be beneficial. It is important to define these two words explicitly because we are postulating an evil person’s knowledge of the two. For example: Is a ‘good’ action something that benefits other people or yourself? Is a harmful action something that hurts other people or hurts yourself? Is it possible for someone to commit harm on themselves?

    I feel your argument leans towards the definition of harm being: intention for bad things to happen to other people. Bad…meaning: experiences that people don’t like.

    I’d like analyze this paragraph:

    “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.”

    So, for someone to be evil, they have to have knowledge of good actions and harmful actions. Then, when they have this knowledge, they most ALWAYS choose a harmful action (action that intends for bad things to happen to people) to be considered evil. Why is this? Why, for someone to be considered evil, do they need a perfect track record of evil actions? Your premise is: the good that they do is real and benefits the world in a substantial way. I’m not satisfied with this premise. What does it mean that the good benefits the world in a substantial way? Are there no good people either, because we all do some evil now and then?

    I feel that people can still be evil even if they have done good. If you have done more evil than good, you are an evil person. For example: Nazi’s treatment of Jewish people during WWII. Many Nazi’s intended for bad things to happen to Jewish people. Just because they may have done a good action during their life, does this mean they are not wholly evil?

    While I feel my response is not as adequate as I would like it to be, I need to study. I personally believe that evil is a synonym to unconsciousness.

Leave a Reply

*