Is Evil Real?
Trying To Make Sense Of The Actions of Ramsay Snow
By Professor Luke Russell (University of Sydney)
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. 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. 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
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.
 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.