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Definitions of evil vary, as does the analysis of its motives. Evil can be:

  1. Personal immoral actions or thoughts (though it is not common to relate the word evil to transient thought, rather it is a malignant intent to harm)
  2. Impersonal natural evil (as in the case of natural disasters or illnesses)
  3. A persona of demonic or supernatural/eternal power (See Also: Devil)

Elements that are commonly associated with personal forms of evil involve unbalanced behavior involving anger, revenge, fear, hatred, psychological trauma, expediency, selfishness, ignorance, or neglect. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, maintained that there are certain acts that are universally considered evil, such as rape and murder.

Some religions and philosophies deny evil’s existence and usefulness in describing people.

“The face of evil is no one’s face,” writes Roy Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. “It is always a false image that is imposed or projected on the opponent.” And philosopher Hannah Arendt said, “The most horrifying things about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal.”

Pure evil, argues Baumeister, is just a myth.


Psychologist Albert Bandura theorized that people who do evil have justified the morality of their actions to themselves in some way. By convincing themselves their behavior is moral, these people can separate and disengage themselves from immoral behavior and its consequences.

While most people believe that hatred and killing are generally wrong, hating and destroying something you have defined as evil is a whole different ball game. (Bandura called this “moral justification.”) This calls to mind that old ethical dilemma—if you could travel back in time and kill Hitler as a baby (and theoretically save millions of lives in the process), would you do it?

Rather than taking personal blame for evil, many people blame a larger group or organization, or a personification of blame, such as the Devil.

Over and over in history, people who have committed atrocities blame the orders they were given, and because they believe that following orders was the greater good, they feel little or no guilt for their actions.

  •  During the Nuremburg trials, for example, individuals who personally ushered Jewish people into gas chambers and killed them passed off personal responsibility by arguing that they had not done evil … they had simply been following orders.
  • William Calley, who was convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, stated during his testimony that “I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so.”
  • Philip Zimbardo in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, said that the soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture  were also following orders. “The only thing they were not told to do,” he said, “was take pictures.”

All of this is to say that reprehensible acts are often disguised by intentions people have convinced themselves are good.

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