What Is Evil?

Darth Vader represents evil

What is evil, and why does it exist?

We all have a natural sense of who are the good people and the bad people in our lives. Good people are those who are easygoing, considerate, benevolent, supportive, and helpful without being interfering. Bad people are those who are pushy, manipulative, oppositional, toxic, and counter-productive. I suppose I would like it if all people were good people, but this is clearly not the case. What makes people turn to the “dark side” of human interaction?

We’re trying to survive

Now I won’t say that surviving is the only thing we do. But we easily spend ⅓ to ½ of our waking hours just working towards our survival. We need food, clothing, a place to live, transportation, and more; and just to lift us out of the band of mere existence, we need friends, loved ones, hobbies, and entertainment. And of course enough money to pay for it all.


Altruism is casting a net around other people close to you and “sharing your survival goods” with them. The most common example of this is the family (but perhaps this is so common that we don’t even think of it as helping others). Being altruistic extends your energy and resources outside yourself; lifting others up with you.

But some have come to the conclusion that the easiest way to get what they need for themselves is to take it from others. Even this doesn’t automatically qualify as being evil; sometimes it’s just competition. If there’s a promotion available at work, and you get it, that means all the others who wanted that same job will lose out. Tough, but that’s the way it works.

Many people in the world
After your family, there are your friends and community, going all the way up to society as a whole. You may choose to help the unfortunate through one of the many social assistance programs around; many who do so get a good feeling by contributing their time and energy.

You can extend your net even further and take steps to care for the environment, including plants and animals.

And why do we do this? Because being altruistic increases the aggregate survival of the group. And in many ways, this is just as valid as increasing survival for yourself alone.


Imagine walking down the street and you see somebody stuffing some money into his back pocket. He drops a twenty that falls onto the ground, doesn’t notice it, and you swoop down, grab it, and casually walk away without saying a word. Is this evil? No, because the aggregate survival has not changed. His loss is your gain, and by exactly the same amount. (I’ll leave it to others to discuss whether or not this is the right thing to do.)

Let’s take an example of taking something that clearly does not belong to you, that actually increases aggregate survival. Imagine you’re part of your country’s military, defending your homeland against invaders. You’re running from your enemies, and you need a place to hide and rest up. By breaking into an empty house, and taking refuge there for a while, you can gather your strength and continue the fight later — and win the battle for this neighborhood, protecting all who live there. Yes, you’ve taken something that doesn’t belong to you, and probably damaged the owner’s premises at the same time, but the gain of winning the battle outweighs the cost by far.

If you increase your own survival without decreasing the aggregate survival, this is not evil, although it may be selfish.

How an act becomes evil

But if you increase your own survival and decrease the aggregate survival at the same time, this is truly an evil act. Say you’re a thief (it’s okay, I know you’re not) that breaks into a house and steals a laptop computer. You sell it to a “fence” who in turn sells it to someone who wants a hot computer. Traditionally, fences only pay about 20% of the value of the item to the thief; so in the act of stealing it, you discard 80% of the computer’s value — this is in addition to causing problems for the original owner, such as having to recreate lost data files.

By taking something for yourself while decreasing the aggregate survival, you have taken a step towards the dark side, and committed evil.

Scheming character assassins

One of the most evil acts is to say something about someone that isn’t true — and cause somebody to turn on that someone because of the false information they were fed. For example: Mike tells his girlfriend Alex that his business partner Jenny said she was in love with him (she wasn’t, she only wanted to start a business together). Now Alex considers Jenny a rival, and attacks her at every opportunity; and finally drives her away. Now that “the competition” is gone, Alex pays more attention to Mike, which was what Mike wanted all along. Meanwhile, since Jenny gave up her old life and moved far away to do this, her life is destroyed, and she has to rebuild everything from the ground up.

This sort of thing happens all the time, and there’s not much Jenny could have done to defend herself — because she never knew it was happening until it was all over. Alex could have questioned what Mike told her, and asked Jenny if it were all true (but with no guarantee that Jenny would be telling the truth).

Unfortunately, most people take the attitude that the first accusation they hear must be the correct one, and that the first person accused must be the guilty party.

By doing something bad and telling others that somebody else did it, you can turn everyone against that somebody else. This is evil at it’s worst. The people I tend to hang out with can be a rather conciliatory bunch, but they consider this kind of scheming the one unforgivable sin.

Can God put an end to evil?

I’m not sure God exists, but in theory, yes. But if He can, and He hasn’t done so so far, then He simply doesn’t want to. There are many people out there who believe God is benevolent, but I’m not one of them.