Is Evil Real?

Trying To Make Sense Of The Actions of Ramsay Snow

By Professor Luke Russell (University of Sydney)

August 25, 2015         Picture: Heather Paul/Flickr.

Ramsay Snow (also known as Ramsay Bolton) is a nasty piece of work. When you see him in the HBO series Game of Thrones toying with his victims, when you see his joyful grin as he tortures Theon Greyjoy, you might think that his actions go beyond ordinary wrongdoing. This malicious and sadistic infliction of suffering for suffering’s sake, you may say to yourself, is not merely wrong, but evil. Various conventions of stage and screen can push us to judge that a villain is not a tragic figure who is undermined by a single moral flaw, but is fundamentally opposed to all that is good. As the mood music swells and the hopes of our beloved protagonist are crushed, we might catch a glimpse of evil in the eyes of Ramsay Snow, or Lord Voldemort, or the Emperor from Star Wars.

When it comes to moral judgments about actions and people in the real world, the category of evil is highly contentious. According to the philosopher Phillip Cole, the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, and the historian Inga Clendinnen, there is no such thing as evil.[1] Pointing to fictional characters like Ramsay Snow will not persuade these sceptics otherwise. Evil belongs in the unrealistic realm of fantasy, in horror movies and ghost stories, but ought to be excluded from serious moral thinking, or so the story goes. According to one version of this sceptical argument, the concept of evil is supernaturally loaded, so those of us who hold a secular, naturalistic worldview ought to deny the existence of evil on those grounds. Alternatively, even if we admitted that the concept of evil is not supernaturally loaded, the sceptics might argue that people who believe in evil have a naïve and unrealistic view of morality.

In my recently published book Evil: A Philosophical Investigation I aim to defend the concept of evil against attacks of this kind. First we should note that, even though talk of evil is common in the domain of fiction, many of us claim that some real-world actions are evil, and that some actual people are evil. Examples are plentiful. Consider Anders Behring Breivik‘s cold-blooded slaughter of innocent teenagers on the island of Utøya, or the torture of Iraqi prisoners by United States military officers in Abu Ghraib, or, most recently, the widely broadcast beheading of American journalist James Foley. Why shouldn’t these actions be condemned as evil? When we say that what the Nazis did during the Holocaust was evil, what naïve mistake are we supposedly making? And what could we be getting wrong when we say that a serial killer like Ted Bundy is not merely bad, but is an evil person?

There are several possible answers to these questions. Sceptics might claim that by using the concept of evil we adopt a Manichean worldview which fails to make room for moral complexity and shades of grey. But this argument would gain traction only against people who judged that every action was either extremely good or extremely bad. “Evil” is a label reserved for the very worst kind of wrongdoing, and, obviously, not all wrong actions are evil. If we judge that some extreme wrongs are evil actions, the whole complex range of negative moral concepts remains open to us, as does the entire spectrum that lies between minor wrongs and evils. Warnings about so-called Manichean moral thought do contain some truth, though. It is true that many of us are prone to rush too easily into extreme moral condemnation. Often we overlook real and important moral complexity that arises when wrongdoers act on the basis of false beliefs, or act out of mixed motives, or act under the kinds of pressure that mitigate responsibility. But we should not let this obscure the fact that some actions really are so egregiously wrong and so clearly inexcusable as to deserve our strongest moral condemnation. While fictions like Game of Thrones may be unrealistic in many respects, there are real-life examples of sadistic killers who, like Ramsay Snow, know exactly what they are doing, and who have no excuse. Where, for instance, are the shades of grey in the murders committed by the BTK serial killer Dennis Rader? These strike me and many others as examples of actions that are not merely wrong, but evil.

A different line of sceptical argument focuses not on evil action, but on the judgment that someone is an evil person. Philosophers who write about evil tend to disagree on many issues, but almost all of us believe that not everyone who performs an evil action counts as an evil person.[2] A similar distinction holds in relation to other moral categories as well. For instance, not everyone who performs an honest action counts as an honest person. An untrustworthy liar might well speak honestly on many occasions, whereas the honest person is someone whom you can count on to be honest when it really matters. Honesty, Aristotle would say, is part of that person’s character. Presumably, then, when we say that someone is not merely an evildoer but an evil person, we think that evil is part of that person’s character.

This is another point at which sceptics can raise an objection. While it is easy to invent fictional characters who are evil through and through, and who are completely beyond the possibility of reform and redemption, is it really true that any actual person has evil as a fixed part of his or her character? This is not equivalent to the question of whether anyone was “born evil”. What we want to know is whether any adult, through a combination of nature and nurture, could have come to possess a firmly fixed evil character.

Even in cases in which it seems that someone is firmly set on evildoing, the sceptics might claim, moral reform remains a possibility. No real human being should be treated as a write-off, and hence no real human being should be described as an evil person. I sympathize with this objection to some extent. It is morally admirable to engage wrongdoers in rational argument, to try to get them to understand the harms that they cause, and to encourage a moral awakening in them, instead of simply writing them off as unfixable. In many cases the people who perform extremely wrong actions are not so different from the rest of us, and are capable of moral reform. We would need clear behavioural evidence that an evildoer is unfixable before we could confidently declare him an evil person, and the claim that “you can see it in his eyes” falls well short of constituting such evidence. Nonetheless, we ought to beware of wishful thinking in this domain. Could we really expect to change the ways of ideologically committed war criminals like Hitler, or of recalcitrant serial killers such as Ted Bundy? What arguments could we offer that would have swayed them? What re-training procedures could have turned them into ordinary, decent human beings? I fear that we are holding out an irrational hope if we assert that an evil person can be found only in fiction, and never in the real world.

Footnotes & references

[1]Phillip Cole (2006), The Myth of Evil, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, p. 236; Simon Baron-Cohen (2011), Zero Degrees of Empathy, London: Penguin, p. 4; Inga Clendinnen (1998), Reading the Holocaust, Melbourne: Text Publishing, p. 104.

[2] e.g. Claudia Card (2002), The Atrocity Paradigm, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 22; Eve Garrard (2002), “Evil as an Explanatory Concept”, The Monist 85, 2: 320-36, p. 321; Adam Morton (2004), On Evil, New York: Routledge, p. 65.

Luke Russell
Luke Russell
Luke Russell completed a BA (Hons) and a PhD in philosophy at the University of Sydney. His PhD, awarded in 2002, was on normativity in epistemology and ethics. He briefly taught at Macquarie University, before being appointed Lecturer at the University of Sydney, where he runs the HSC philosophy course Mind and Morality, and teaches Moral Psychology and Critical Thinking. Luke's main area of research is moral philosophy. He has focused on questions concerning evil, virtue and vice, and forgiveness. Luke has also written on aesthetic virtue, and the nature of moral and epistemic normativity. He is the author 'Evil: A Philosophical Investigation (Oxford University Press, 2014)'.
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  • Jeremy Allen

    Prof. Russell, thanks for the thought provoking article. I am wondering about how we observe and identify cases of moral reform, or cases of non-reform. It seems that cases like Hitler and Ted Bundy are easily identified as cases beyond reform. However, suicide and law enforcement intervention were decisive in a way that constrained future behavior from these individuals. In other words, we never had the opportunity to observe reform because the opportunity for reform was not extended. And I understand the argument that these individuals may not have deserved a chance at reform. So, I was wondering how easy it is to observe cases of moral reform in which (a) the offender, before reform, would have been easily identified as evil and (b) there was no social or legal intervention which prohibited the possibility of reform.

    It seems that such cases would be very difficult to identify. For example, say an adult has tortured and killed several children in one part of the country and has subsequently moved across the country and established a new life of nonviolence. Because of the severity of that adult’s past actions and the threat of life in prison or the death penalty, what are the chances that this case of moral reform would ever be publicly known? If this were not a hypothetical case, would it constitute a case of an evil person experiencing moral reform? It seems so.

    One might object by arguing that the fact of this person’s reform means the person was not evil to begin with. But this objection does not acknowledge the moral luck that may play a large part in how we identify irreformable evil. The moral luck here being the fact that some evil people are arrested or die before they have a chance at non-forced reform, and the finality of this intervention, when it becomes public, seems to cement their identity as essentially evil. Had the person experienced no such intervention, perhaps they would have later experienced some type of reform that would invalidate our previous identification of them as essentially evil.

    Do you know of any cases of an evil person experiencing reform without the intervention of law enforcement or suicide? How should we deal with the fact of moral luck when identify a person as evil or not?

  • Guest

    I’m pretty sure the Greeks won it…

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