What Is Evil?

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Lance Morrow laments that the word “evil” has become so debased:

Here we are. The word evil has suffered from severe grade inflation in the 21st century. Just as every college student must now get an A, so, in the hysteria of social media, the most ordinary pipsqueak may now be flattered with the grand honorific. Evil, once an august item in the range of human possibilities, has been reduced to a cliché of political abuse.

How is the word being used today?

Recently I revived my question. I started by asking progressives whether they ever knew someone who was evil. Their number one answer—surprise—was Donald Trump. Do they really mean it? Are they being metaphorical? Hyperbolical? (If Mr. Trump is evil, what would be the word for Pol Pot ?) When they are through with Mr. Trump, progressives mention such lesser devils as Derek Chauvin and Dylann Roof. Then their eyes dart back and forth and less likely names fetch up, people they know from the screens: Josh Hawley, Tucker Carlson. In the end, there is no distinction in their minds between the mass murderer in the church in Charleston and someone with whose opinions they disagree.

Mr. Trump himself tosses around the word evil in a mindless way. He uses it almost as often as he does the word “incredible.” It is one of his six adjectives. Progressives and Trumpists accuse one another, batting the word “evil” back and forth like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck disputing whether it is “duck season” or “wabbit season.”


f you are serious about evil, talk about consequences. You can’t call a person evil unless—as with Hitler or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot—the evidence is there: the body count. Evil once belonged to the realm of reality. But the 21st century has lost its appetite for objective proof. Feelings are enough. If you feel that something or someone is evil, why then it is so. What you feel (the mirage of your emotions) acquires the status of reality. You must, after all, “speak your truth.”

Talking about consequences is only a gauge for consequentialists not for deontologists. And not for those who fling epithets as primates in captivity fling their feces which is a lot of what I think is going on these days.

I’m suspicious of consequentialism because I think there’s a knowledge problem with it. An act doesn’t suddenly become evil because bad things happened down the road or eventually came into the light. Hitler was widely thought of as a hero until the extent of his evil came to light and some of the very best people supported his “scientific” way of doing things. The same was true of Stalin and Mussolini. That doesn’t mean they became evil then; they were evil all along. And it was not their motives that made them evil; they all had good motives.

8 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    There are a whole list of words that have been abused to the point where they no longer have much meaning as they are commonly used. They just become pejoratives to be used to insult your enemies or have become so outdated or changed in such a short time that the meaning is whatever the person using it wants to mean.

    Out of curiosity what would you consider some who is vaccinated but uses a bunch of lies to convince other people to not get vaccinated? Seems like their could be a body count. They make a lot of money doing this by the way.


  • Andy Link

    The culture war has been quite effective at destroying the common meaning of many words.

  • steve, what do you mean by “lie”? That is another word which has, sadly, been debased. I’ve given my definition: knowing telling of an untruth with an intent to deceive. Decompressing that the “lie” must

    A. be provably false
    B. the speaker must know and believe it to be false
    C. they must be intending to deceive the listener

    If the “bunch of lies” you attribute to these unnamed people fit that definition, it would be pretty bad. If they mean you disagree with them, it might be they are mistaken.

  • steve Link

    Yes, lie has become problematic. I think part of the problem is that people can deliberately remain uninformed so that they can plausibly claim they were not lying. So suppose I claimed 10 million Americans died from Covid. Offhand I dont know the exact number. I could easily find out and know that I am wrong but if I dont do that then by your definition I am not lying.

    So you have a lot of people claiming that Covid killed many thousands of people based upon VAERS. It takes maybe 2 minutes to look up VAERS and know how it works, to know that Covid did not really kill thousands. So is it lying to not look that up? To make claims without making an effort to find out the truth?

    Which takes you back to evil. I dont know if ti is evil but it is certainly immoral to make claims that you know your followers will believe without making an effort to verify that your claims are true. How about the grifters pushing silver solution or Oleander?


  • Grey Shambler Link

    For once I gave that some thought before posting.
    I guess I believe that the current popular phycological term “The Dark Triad” sums it up pretty well.
    Hitler bragged about being able to shed the “humiliating charade of conscience”.
    Stalin, when asked about loyalty, described it as an illness suffered by dogs.
    Both statements pretty illuminating.
    People might say, what about Truman, who ordered two Japanese cities destroyed with atomic weapons? He faced an unwelcome choice, beach assaults on each of Japans Islands, or attempt to end the war through the shock of a new and terrifying weapon, it worked, and saved lives.
    So yes, Dark Triad.

    And @Steve:
    I think the word you are looking for is scoundrel.

  • steve Link

    What do we call the following group? There are a lot of articles on pre-print sites like medrix. In theory they give people a chance to comment and for the papers to be improved, errors corrected. However, what we are now finding is that there are a goodly number of papers submitted to the pre print sites that never go any further. They never even get submitted anywhere to a peer review journal. Or, they get submitted but have so many problems that they dont get published, yet they remain on the medrix site. Seems pretty clear that lot of these are published for the sole purpose of being weaponized and pushing a particular point of view. Should it be concerning in particular that a number of these papers have authors who fail to reveal their relationship with employers or organizations who advocate for a POV?

    To be clear, even if you have a financial interest in a drug or therapy you may still have something of value to offer, but you should reveal that when you publish. If you are not doing that when you put up a paper on a pre print site and you dont ever intern to submit that paper for peer review it looks awfully fishy.


  • CStanley Link

    I’d say the word “mendacity” fits a lot of these misdeeds.

    @steve- I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon you describe but I see a political equivalent in the Trump dossier. Misinformation, perhaps disinformation, put through a laundering cycle or two by people who failed to disclose their affiliations, in order to give the information an imprimatur of legitimacy.

    Maybe the meta view here is the weaponization of information.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    I think it to be likely that the world of Evangelical Christians is distinct and separate from that most physicians.
    Steve brought up a Dr. Emmanuel. She was mentioned as a source of virus information to me by a friend, a fundamentalist Baptist. Seems her writings were presented to the 4,000 member congregation as evidence of the ineffectiveness of vaccines, which should be unnecessary in any event as his church teaches that only God knows the the timing of one’s death, and no person can alter that certainty.
    What I wonder today, given how the faithful were sold survival rations by vendors who worked through the church at Y2K, whether or not this woman is simply a confidence peddler, sharing the fruits of her sham with the parish to gain access.
    I have no doubt, no doubt at all, that Billy Graham and his competitor, Oral Roberts, were just that.

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