AskDefine | Define evilness

Dictionary Definition

evilness n : the quality of being morally wrong in principle or practice; "attempts to explain the origin of evil in the world" [syn: evil] [ant: good, good]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Of or relating to evil and bad.
    Many people think that Adolf Hitler's actions in World War II were of utmost evilness.


of or relating to evil
  • Finnish: pahuus
  • German: Boshaftigkeit

Extensive Definition

Evil is a broad term used to indicate a negative moral or ethical judgment, often used to describe intentional acts that are cruel, unjust, or selfish. Evil is usually contrasted with good, which describes intentional acts that are kind, just, or unselfish.
In many cultures, evil is used to describe acts or thoughts which are contrary to some particular religion. In some religions, evil is an active force, often personified as an entity such as Satan or Ahriman.


The modern English word 'evil' (Old English Yfel) and its cognates such as the German 'Übel' and the Dutch 'Euvel' are widely considered to come from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed form *Ubilaz, comparable to the Hittite huwapp- ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European form *wap- and suffixed zero-grade form *up-elo-. Other later Germanic forms include Middle English evel, ifel, ufel Old Frisian evel (adjective & noun), Old Saxon ubil, Old High German ubil, and Gothic ubils. The root meaning is of obscure origin though shown to be akin to modern English 'over' and modern German 'über' (OE ofer) and 'up' (OE up, upp) with the basic idea of "transgressing".

Evil in philosophy and ethics

In Western philosophy, evil is usually limited to doing harm or damage to an object or creature. Plato argued that which we call evil is merely ignorance and that good is that which everyone desires. Benedict de Spinoza said that the difference between good and evil is merely one of personal inclinations: "So everyone, by the highest right of Nature, judges what is good and what is evil, considers his own advantage according to his own temperament... ."
The duality of 'good versus evil' is expressed, in some form or another, by many cultures. Those who believe in the duality theory of evil believe that evil cannot exist without good, nor good without evil, as they are both objective states and opposite ends of the same scale.
The legal term, malice (from the Latin malus meaning "bad") describes the deliberate human intent to harm, while sadism refers to a psychological state in which a person derives pleasure from the pain of another person.
In the philosophical concept of evil, the intent to cause harm is crucial, so that acts that would otherwise be considered evil are not called evil when performed by very young children, by animals, or by the insane (See Amorality).
There is also a class of deliberate acts, known to be harmful to another, which are not considered evil because:
  1. they are acts of self-defense or defense of another
  2. they are considered justified; see Just War

Judaeo-Christian religions

In Judaism and Christianity, evil is the result of forsaking God. (Deuteronomy 28:20) Judaism stresses obedience to the God's laws as written in the Torah (see also Tanakh) and the laws and rituals laid down in the Mishnah and the Talmud. In Christianity, some sects stress obedience to God's law. Other sects emphasize Christ's statement that love of God and love of your fellow man is the whole of the law. Still others emphasize the idea that humanity is, within itself, irremediably evil, and in need of forgiveness. (see Original Sin)
In the Hebrew Scriptures, evil is related to the concept of sin — "sinned" translated in Hebrew as chata which means, "missed the mark" (a term from archery). The mark in question is the law of God.
In some Abrahamic faiths, evil is personified as Satan, a challenger of the law or will of God. Satan is defined in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek writings collectively as the devil, the adversary, false accuser, slanderer, the counterfeit, a liar, a murderer, one with no truth, the serpent, the evil one, the tempter, and a prowling lion seeking someone to devour. These faiths also teach that spirits or demons may possess humans or animals and tempt them to do evil. It is argued by those who follow the documentary hypothesis and higher Biblical criticism that this concept of Satan developed over time. Hebrew "Satan" seems originally to have been the accuser, a title given to the prosecuting attorney at the heavenly court. He maintains this role within the Book of Job. It is argued that the larger role of Satan and his identification with Lucifer, later associated with the snake in the garden of Eden, occurred during the period of the Babylonian captivity and subsequent exposure to Iranian beliefs. Orthodox Jews still hold to the traditional view of Satan being an accusing angel in the heavenly court.
Some forms of Christianity, as well as Judaism, do not personify evil in Satan; these Christian sects instead consider the human heart to be inherently bent toward deceit, although human beings are responsible for their choices, whereas in Judaism, there is no prejudice in one's becoming good or evil at time of birth. In Judaism, Satan is viewed as one who tests us for God rather than one who works against God, and evil, as in the Christian denominations above, is a matter of choice.The Greek word used in the New Testament for evil can just as well be rendered by "a wrongdoer" or even as "the evil one". This ambiguity means that a passage in the Sermon on the Mount has been translated "Do not resist evil" and "do not set yourself against a wrong-doer." Judaism and Christianity both focus on individual repentance of sin, but in Judaism, repentance requires the forgiveness of the injured party, and thus is rather difficult in some cases, such as murder, but for other crimes, if one is sincerely asked for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement by someone who has truly repented, it is a religious obligation to forgive. In Christianity, the nature of repentance is dependent on denomination. Jewish beliefs and Christian teachings say each person will give an account of all their actions, including faith and obedience.
Some cultures or philosophies believe that evil can arise without meaning or reason (in neo-Platonic philosophy this is called absurd evil). Christianity in general does not adhere to this belief, but the prophet Isaiah implied that God is ultimately responsible for everything including evil:
In the Bible, the story of Job is a bold example of how evil exists and seems at times to be victorious, although according to Christian beliefs, all have sinned and fallen short of the perfection of God (Romans 3:23), and the price of missing the mark of perfection (sin) is death. The crucifixion of Jesus was the sacrifice of a sinless, superior, and good being for the sins of mankind; thus, salvation from death occurs in understanding this idea and making the Christ Lord over one's life.
Christian Science believes that evil arises from the fallible nature of good intentioned humans and the misunderstanding of the goodness of nature. In the same way that misunderstanding mathematical concepts results in incorrect answers, misunderstanding God's reality leads to incorrect choices, and thus evil. This has led to the rejection of any separate power being the source of evil, or even God being the source of evil; instead, evil is the work of fallible humans incorrectly acting in God's perfect reality.
An important concept relating to the belief that "all have sinned" and "sin separates Man from God" is that these beliefs imply a certain equality of all humanity; no one is no "more evil" than any other person. The murderous are in the same category as the saintly, and the rich are no more worthy of attention than the poor (James 2). The only difference between people, in terms of Christian salvation, is that some have made the commitment to Christ and that others have not.
For the French philosopher Michel Henry, God is the invisible Life that never stops to generate us and to give us to ourselves in its pathetic self-revelation. God is Love because Love itself in an infinite love is Life. By consequence life is good in itself. The evil corresponds to all what denies or attacks life; it finds its origin in death, which is the negation of life. This death is an inner and spiritual death which is the separation with God, and which consists simply in not loving, in living selfishly as if God didn't exist, was not Father of us all and we His beloved Sons; as if we were not all Brothers generated by a same life. The evil peaks in the violence of hatred that is at the origin of all the crimes, of all the wars and of all the genocides. But the evil is also the common origin of all those blind processes and of all those false abstractions that lead so many people to misery and exclusion.


In the originally Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, the world is a battle ground between the God, Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd), and the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (also called Ahriman). The final resolution of the struggle between good and evil was supposed to occur on a day of Judgement, in which all beings that have lived will be led across a bridge of fire, and those who are evil will be cast down forever. In Iranian belief, angels and saints are beings sent to help us achieve the path towards goodness.


In her novels (most explicitly in Atlas Shrugged) and nonfiction (especially in her work on morality, The Virtue of Selfishness), Ayn Rand argues that evil is that which destroys or inhibits man's life and pursuit of happiness (and the good is that which furthers man's life).
In Ayn Rand's words:
The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man.
Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.
Rand saw that evil is a negative, with no power of its own. She saw the essence of evil as a leech that only lives because the good let themselves be slaves to it.
Evil, not value, is an absence and a negation, evil is impotent and has no power but that which we let it extort from us.
She saw that if the good doesn't sanction evil people and ideas, they will eventually self-destruct. According to Rand, that is the nature of evil:
In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. Today, there is strong disagreement as to whether homosexuality and abortion are perfectly acceptable or evils. Universalists consider evil independent of culture, and wholly related to acts or intents. Thus, while the ideological leaders of Nazism and the Hutu Interhamwe accepted (and considered it good) to commit genocide, the universally evil act of genocide renders the entire ideology or culture evil.
Views on the nature of evil tend to fall into one of two opposed camps. One, moral absolutism, holds that good and evil are fixed concepts established by God, nature, morality, common sense, or some other source. The other, moral relativism, holds that standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice. Moral universalism is the attempt to find a compromise between the absolutist sense of morality, and the relativist view; universalism claims that morality is only flexible to a degree, and that what is truly good or evil can be determined by examining what is commonly considered to be evil amongst all humans.
A looser definition of evil describes it as death and suffering, whether it results from human or from other natural causes (e.g., earthquakes and famine). In other words, it is not merely the intention to do evil, but the end result, namely, harm to others, that is evil. This is sometimes referred to as "natural evil," and some philosophers hold the position that this is an inappropriate use of the word "evil," as it is without intent.
As Plato observed, there are relatively few ways to do good, but there are countless ways to do evil, which can therefore have a much greater impact on our lives, and the lives of other beings capable of suffering. For this reason, some philosophers (e.g. Bernard Gert) maintain that preventing evil is more important than promoting good in formulating moral rules and in conduct.
Some people define being evil as not only inflicting pain and suffering but also as performing an act for either solely selfish materialistic reasons (i.e. power or wealth) or because they are sadistic and derive pleasure from the act. Under this definition of evil, a person who commits morally wrong acts for sincerely benevolent reasons would not be evil, even if most people disagreed with the means thus justified. Disregarding whether the ends were to be considered morally wrong they would not be classified as evil, so long as they truly believed in the pursued higher goal. This does not mean the actions could not be viewed as morally wrong, just that there would not be an evil intent in them, as the intent of the actions is a key factor. Absolute ignorance of the concept of morality would render a person completely morally neutral.
Regardless of the source of their definitions, most human cultures have a set of beliefs about what things, actions, and ideas are undesirable. Undesirable circumstances are often categorised as evil within some cultures. Natural evils generally include accidental death, disease, and other misfortunes, although some cultures see these occurrences instead as a healthy part of the natural order. Moral evils generally include violence, deceit or other destructive and antisocial behavior toward others, although the same behavior toward "outsiders" of the group may be considered "good." War provides many examples, and "God is always on the winning side."
Most cultures recognize many levels of immoral behaviour, from minor vices to major crimes. These beliefs are often encoded into the laws of a society, with methods of judgement and punishment for offenses.

Is Evil a useful term?

There is a school of thought that holds that no person is evil, that only acts may be properly considered evil. Psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg claims that the root of violence is the very concept of "evil" or "badness." When we label someone as bad or evil, Rosenberg claims, it invokes the desire to punish or inflict pain. It also makes it easy for us to turn off our feelings towards the person we are harming. He cites the use of language in Nazi Germany as being a key to how the German people were able to do things to other human beings that they normally wouldn't do. He links the concept of evil to our judicial system, which seeks to create justice via punishment — "punitive justice" — punishing acts that are seen as bad or wrong. He contrasts this approach with what he found in cultures where the idea of evil was non-existent. In such cultures, when someone harms another person, they are believed to be out of harmony with themselves and their community, they are seen as sick or ill and measures are taken to restore them to a sense of harmonious relations with themselves and others, as opposed to punishing them.
Psychologist Albert Ellis makes a similar claim, in his school of psychology called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT. He says the root of anger, and the desire to harm someone, is almost always one of these beliefs:
  1. That they should/shouldn't have done certain things
  2. That someone is an awful/bad/horrible person for doing what they did
  3. That they deserve to be punished for what they did
He claims that without one of the preceding thoughts, violence is next to impossible.
Prominent American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck on the other hand, describes evil as "militant ignorance". In this it is close to the original Judeo-Christian concept of "sin" as a consistent process that leads to failure to reach one's true goals.
According to Scott Peck, an evil person:
  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto others and tries to remove them from others
  • Maintains a high level of respectability and lies incessantly in order to do so
  • Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency
  • Is unable to think from other people's viewpoints.
He also considers certain institutions may be evil, as his discussion of the My Lai Massacre and its attempted coverup illustrate. By this definition, acts of criminal and state terrorism would also be considered evil.

Is Evil good?

Anton Szandor LaVey, former head of the Church of Satan, asserts that evil is actually good (an often-used slogan is, "evil is live spelled backwards"). This belief is usually a reaction to evil being described as destructive, where apologists claim that definition is in opposition to the natural pleasures and instincts of men and women. In the more extreme cases, however, this belief can be interpreted to mean that hurting others is acceptable if you can get away with it, an interpretation that Anton LaVey never supported.
Even Martin Luther allowed that there are cases where a little evil is a positive good. He wrote, "Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play, talk bawdy, and amuse yourself. One must sometimes commit a sin out of hate and contempt for the Devil, so as not to give him the chance to make one scrupulous over mere nothings... ."
It is not uncommon to find people in power who are indifferent to good or evil, taking actions based solely on practicality; this approach to politics was put forth by Niccolò Machiavelli, a sixteenth century Florentine writer who advised politicians " is far safer to be feared than loved."
The international relations theories of realism and neorealism, sometimes called realpolitik advise politicians to explicitly disavow absolute moral and ethical considerations in international politics in favor of a focus on self-interest, political survival, and power politics, which they hold to be more accurate in explaining a world they view as explicitly amoral and dangerous. Political realists usually justify their perspectives by laying claim to a "higher moral duty" specific to political leaders, under which the greatest evil is seen to be the failure of the state to protect itself and its citizens. Machiavelli wrote: "...there will be traits considered good that, if followed, will lead to ruin, while other traits, considered vices which if practiced achieve security and well being for the Prince." Are there biological reasons why people are evil rather than moral? Are there physical underpinnings of behaviors that societies reject as sociopathic? Most neurological research into sociopathology has focused on regions of the neocortex involved in impulse control. Some other research seems to indicate that sociopathy may at least partially be related to a lack of ability to realize the true consequences of one's actions.
When a person acts in such a way as to use others as means to achieve one's own personal ends or fails to consider the consequences of his or her acts upon the lives of others, it is considered to be psychopathic or sociopathic. If one accepts the Christian ethic that "by their deeds you shall know them", such acts are evil. This is the view taken by Walter Wink, the Christian theologian of non-violence. Some authors, like the psychologist Benjamin B. Wolman, consider society as a whole to be moving towards a psychopathic mindset, but this stance has yet to gain wider acceptance.

Evil in business

In business, evil refers to unfair or unethical business practices. Firms that have a monopoly are often able to maintain the monopoly using tactics that are deemed unfair, and monopolies have the power to set prices at levels which are not socially efficient. Some people therefore consider monopolies to be evil. Economists do not generally consider monopolies to be "evil" though they recognize that certain business practices by monopolies are often not in the public interest.
Recently the term "evil" has been applied much more broadly, especially in the technology and intellectual property industries. One of the slogans of Google is "Don't be evil," in response to much-criticized technology companies such as Microsoft and AOL, and the tagline of independent music recording company Magnatune is "we are not evil," referring to the alleged evils of the RIAA. The economist David Korten has argued that industrial corporations, set up as fictive individuals by law, are required to work according only to the criteria of making profits for their shareholders, meaning they function as sociopathic organisations that inherently do evil in damaging the environment, denying labour justice and exploiting the powerless.


Further reading

  • Baumeister, Roy F. (1999) Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. New York: A. W. H. Freeman / Owl Book
  • Shermer, M. (2004). The Science of Good & evil. New York: Time Books. ISBN 0-8050-7520-8
  • Wilson, William McF., and Julian N. Hartt. "Farrer's Theodicy." In David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson (eds), Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer. New York and London: T & T Clark / Continuum, 2004. ISBN 0-567-02510-1
  • Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior
  • Vetlesen, Arne Johan (2005) "Evil and Human Agency - Understanding Collective Evildoing" New York: Camebridge University Press. ISBN-13: 9780521856942

External links

evilness in Arabic: شر
evilness in Guarani: Ñaña
evilness in Aymara: Ñanqha
evilness in Catalan: Maldat
evilness in Czech: Zlo
evilness in Danish: Ondskab
evilness in German: Das Böse
evilness in Estonian: Kuri
evilness in Spanish: Mal
evilness in French: Mal
evilness in Galician: Mal (filosofía)
evilness in Croatian: Zlo
evilness in Italian: Male
evilness in Hebrew: רוע
evilness in Latin: Malum (aethica)
evilness in Japanese: 悪
evilness in Polish: Zło
evilness in Portuguese: Maldade
evilness in Russian: Зло
evilness in Albanian: E keqja
evilness in Simple English: Evil
evilness in Slovak: Zlo
evilness in Serbian: Зло
evilness in Serbo-Croatian: Zlo
evilness in Finnish: Pahuus
evilness in Swedish: Ondska
evilness in Ukrainian: Зло
evilness in Volapük: Maux

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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