Let's Retire the Word,"Evil", Like the Intellectual Grown-ups That we are

Let's Retire the Word,"Evil", Like the Intellectual Grown-ups That we are

Sometimes when a person uses just one word, you can tell a lot about them just because they used that one word.  When I hear someone describing a bruise as a “hematoma” for instance, I reflexively think that person has had some medical training. Similarly, when I hear someone pronounce New Orleans as, “Nawlins”, I assume they’ve spent some time near New Orleans.

And when I hear someone use the word, “evil” in an honest attempt to describe another human, I think that person is intellectually lazy and inconsiderate.

First of all, Evil doesn’t really mean anything concrete, and regarding the laziness of the user, there are plenty of creative words way better than the uninspired, “evil”: nefarious, dastardly, sociopathic, heinous, repugnant, malicious, and vicious to name a few. The main reason it’s used is convenience, you know people know what it means, even if you aren’t positive what it means.

If I tell you to think of  what the word “angry” means, I bet you start to think up a definition, but if I were to ask you to tell me what evil is, I bet it’s easier for you to give me an example than to define it. You might say the Sandy Hook shooter is evil, or Blair Witch  is evil. But that wouldn’t define evil any more than saying Ryan Secrest defines annoying. Evil seems easy to recognize, yet harder to define.

Evil is much more easily defined by what it lacks, than what it is.  The popular accepted belief of evil is that it is synonymous with Godlessness. A quick search of various dictionaries uncovered several definitions peppered with synonyms implying Godlessness: wicked, sinful, sinister, depravity, esp. when regarded as a supernatural force. You can be a jerk or a low-life and still have some God in you, but if you’re “evil”, clearly, something supernatural is in play.

So now it seems like evil means ‘the absence of Godliness’, but defining something by what it lacks seems a little intellectually lazy, doesn’t it? That’d be like if a 4-year old asked you what an ocean is and you said,  “the opposite of a desert”.  So if we’re going to define this word, we are going to have to state what it IS, then agree on that definition.

 It turns out we are in luck and that science has already looked into this kind of thing! Who knew, right? Apparently using the word, “evil” to explain human behavior is a lot like using the words, “Santa Claus” to explain how presents wound up under a Christmas tree.

Now the psychological community and the DSM-IV don’t use the word, “evil”, but they do classify what we may think of as evil as someone who suffers from an Antisocial Personality Disorder. Referring to a murderer, not as evil, but as someone suffering from Antisocial Personality Disorder isn’t just the intellectually correct way to phrase it, it’s also the moral way to phrase it.

It’s the morally superior option because it allows us to hate the sin yet love the sinner, as difficult as that may be. It’s constructive also because it helps us to understand this wasn’t a blood-thirsty savage acting in accordance with some evil deity with horns and a trident.  Instead this was someone who wasn’t in control of their unfortunate mental state and is worthy of some pity. Had we been unlucky enough to share in their Antisocial Personality Disorder, we’d probably do similarly “evil” acts as well.

To brand someone as evil is the opposite of compassion and is a particularly dangerous logical flaw because it implies the judger is somehow closer to God. When you label someone as evil you aren’t saying, “Unfortunately, you were randomly cursed by a debilitating psychological malady”, but instead says, “God is in me, but not in you. I’m good and you are evil.”. It’s dangerous because ever war in history has  started with the pretense that one side’s lives were less important than the other side’s.

I’m as saddened and outraged by the Sandy Hook tragedy as the next guy, and I can think of several places for blame. But it’s dangerously myopic to think the cause of this shooting relates to the amount of God that was or was not in the shooter.



Leave a comment
  • Simply "retiring" the word 'evil' doesn't eliminate it. The nature of evil has long been a topic for philsophical reflection and debate.

    St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, defined it as a privation, or the absence of good which belongs properly to the nature of the creature. In the tragic case of the Newtown slayings, he would say that it is not natural for a human being to murder his mother, little children and other human beings.

  • The concept of evil implies that there is an inherent amount of Godliness in people, and when someone acts in a disturbed way, too many low-information people write it off as "evil". Not only does that irrationally "Godify" everything, but it makes no progress in addressing these disturbances so they may be understood and treated.

    If I don't believe in God, what intellectual value does the word OR CONCEPT of "evil" have for me? Not much.

    To call the shooter "not natural" is not incorrect, I suppose, but doesn't calling it an Antisocial Personality Disorder (with volumes of research explain that definition) sound a LOT more illuminating than calling it "not natural"? Furthermore, if you will agree that an APD is "not natural" we can both feel correct.

    Call me New Fashioned, but when it comes to explaining modern behavior, I reach for the DSM-IV before I break out the Big Ol' Book of Ancient Saints Opining About Science

  • In reply to TRSlyder:

    Times have changed, but human nature remains the same. St. Thomas wasn't opining about science but about human nature revealed in human behavior. Action follows being. Empirical analysis, and common sense reflection on what is observed, are both valid ways of discovering the truth. In seeking the causes behind aberrant behavior, both can be valuable.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Now you're talkin', baby!

  • What to do, then, with the word "good", inferring that that description derives from deist perspective and the supposed infused or learned behavior from that deity?

    This especially when there are no "absolutes" in the world anymore, only relative meanings attached to an ever-changing social perspective.

    See no good. Hear no good Speak no good.

    Just affirm what is the Social Personality Norm of the moment, I suppose?

  • In reply to Richard Davis:

    What to do, then?

    Solution: Don't infer that good is defined in terms of a deity, it's not.

    I am sorry to hear you do not believe in absolutes. Do you not believe water will boil at 100 degrees C at 1 atm of pressure or that 3 + 3 is absolutely 6 as well?

  • In reply to TRSlyder:

    You are inferring that evil refers to a judgement made by someone who is "closer" to "god", so the opposite must hold true with your logic.

    And I do believe in absolutes, which is why there logically has to be evil and good.

    To recognize the absolute is the first step towards truth, and without truth you cannot have a solution or even a definition.

    You can put the lipstick on the pig, but it is still a pig, not suddenly a supermodel.

  • Retiring that word would retire Fox News' coverage of the entire situation..

  • In reply to Curtis Shaw Flagg:

    Sure Cutris. We all know that Fox News, which the entire world is mandated to watch by...whom?... is the devil incarnate.

    Your solution is so elegant, so simple, so brilliant, yet not thought of prior. Award yourself a Nobel Prize for Progressive Genius.

  • fb_avatar

    I always thought that when someone says "Nawlins," it means the only time they have been to New Orleans, it was spent puking in the French Quarter.

    The locals call it New Awlins.

Leave a comment