Feb 12 2010 10:37am

On Evil, or, The Mores of the Future

Don’t be evil, says Google’s famous motto. But what is evil?

We tend to look to fiction for examples to help answer questions like that. (Mine own most-hated fictional villain: Mrs. Coulter in His Dark Materials.) But many people, including Maisonneuve’s Rebecca Rosenblum, argue that in the real world, villains don’t exist. An illustrative quote from her article: “I don’t think people, even assholes, generally perceive themselves to be assholes. I mean, some people just *are* but I don’t think *they* think they are.”

This has always struck me as pure failure of imagination, akin to those who argued after the World Trade Center fell that its attackers must have had good reason, because they literally couldn’t imagine anyone doing such a thing without good reason.

Well, I can. I’ve corresponded with evil. Evil, to me, is perfect handwriting.

By which I mean: A few years ago I was researching San Quentin Prison for my book Cannibals and Thieves (on which work still continues, in fits and starts) and struck up a brief correspondence with a Death Row inmate convicted of doing terrible things. Evil things, one might say. He wrote me a couple of letters. They were intelligent. They were eloquent. And his handwriting was perfect. Scarily so.

This complicates my social life. As a rule, I prefer people who think that those who disagree with them politically are ignorant to people who think those who disagree with them are evil. (You find the latter type throughout the political spectrum.) Trouble is, some people really are evil. A former San Quentin prisoner I interviewed put it another way: “Don’t get me wrong. There are some bad, bad men in there. But most are just fuckups.”

He’s right; most people who do bad things are not evil. But at the same time, the genuinely bad, bad men (and women) are out there, for real. A long time ago, in a Usenet far away, a fellow with the handle of Ahasuerus defined evil as “perfect egoism,” and chose Liane in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth as its SF exemplar. (You’ll find some interesting 15-year-old commentary from’s own Jo Walton behind that link, too.) Works for me.

And for whatever reason, we love to hear stories about these perfect egoists. Serial killers are the most stark and extreme example of individual evil, and fictional ones outnumber real ones by something like a thousand to one. I too doubt that evil people wake up and think “Today I’m going to be Evil!” I doubt they think about their own morality at all. Maybe that lack of metacognition is what fascinates us so. Maybe on one level we all wonder what it would be like to be a monster.

Individual evil is bad; societal evil is worse, and harder to define, because it’s an ever-moving target. Even JK Rowling touches on this dichotomy. While everyone is running around fighting Evil Evil Voldemort, Hermione is trying to free the house-elves, whose cruel slavery everyone else takes for granted. I don’t know how this subplot turns out (I never got around to reading the seventh book in the series) but it was easily the most subversive thing about Harry Potter.

We watch Mad Men and cackle with relieved horror at the unquestioned institutionalized evils—racism, sexism, homophobia—of fifty years ago. But it won’t be long before society looks back at today in exactly the same way. In David Brin’s Earth, he speculates that the desire for privacy will be considered grossly evil. Me, I bet they’ll be as appalled by our meat-eating ways as we are by tales of segregation. (And I say this as a proud omnivore.)

What else about us will make future societies recoil with moral horror? I suspect there’s plenty... or at least I hope so. Because, well, consider the alternative. What if this is as good as it gets?

Jon Evans is the author of Dark Places and Invisible Armies, and the upcoming Vertigo graphic novel The Executor. He also occasionally pretends to be a swashbuckling international journalist. His epic fantasy novel Beasts of New York is freely available online under a Creative Commons license, and will be published on paper this autumn.

Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
I think the egoism you mentioned is a significant factor. I read a book on traitors a while back, and the running theme throughout the book was that egoism turns people into traitors. Benedict Arnold, for example, was this amazingly capable leader, very popular and charming, could possibly have eclipsed Washington had he not gone wrong. But despite his accomplishments, arrogance and jealousy caused him to become a turncoat.

Egoism, I think, both fuels destructive behavior and rationalizes the act in the mind of the antagonist.
2. Lsimi
Actually, I am not so sure i would equate egoism to evil. I am rather more inclined to think of evil as absolute lack of empathy - complete inability of relating to other people's hopes, fears, and pain. Evil people do evil things because they simply cannot put themselves on their victims'shoes - they completely lack the ability to connect to others.

Sure, egoism is a part of the equation, but not the whole deal. I think you have to lack the fundamental ability to emotionaly connect to other human beings to be evil - and this doesn't mean you cannot understand emotion, or even manipulate it in others (look at all those bloodthirsty, charimatic dictators the world had and still has). It means you cannot truly sympathize with others' feelings - and therefore, you lack something of human yourself.
Chris Meadows
3. Robotech_Master
Speaking of evil, here's an amusing little tale.

There is a piece of "open source" software called jsmin. Exactly what it does isn't important, save to say that it can be used in part of larger software packages because of the functions it provides.

There is a line in JSMin's license that states, “The Software shall be used for Good, not Evil.” This line, put in because JSMin's programmer wanted to be cute, has caused a number of problems with other open-source projects. Even leaving aside the totally-subjective nature of the restriction, if a license puts any kind of behavioral restriction on what software may be used for, it's technically not "open source".

This has led to some projects being forbidden hosting in Google Code or other strictly "open source only" repositories.

In the end, by insisting that his software "not be used for evil," the programmer was probably the most evil of all.
4. WDHaw
Me, I bet they’ll be as appalled by our meat-eating ways as we are by tales of segregation.

You can't be serious.

Good article though.
Tim Nolan
5. Dr_Fidelius
I find it easier to believe in evil acts than evil people. How evil does an act have to be, how many do you have to commit before you cross the line and become An Evil Person?

If I have to give a definition I reach for Jack Vance:
What is an evil man? The man is evil who coerces obedience to his private ends, destroys beauty, produces pain, extinguishes life.

- Jack Vance, Star King
Ben Goodman
6. goodben
Just a minor quibble with comment #3.

There's nothing in the lisence as you describe it that would prevent JSMin from being "open source." It does probably prevent it from being "free software" as defined by the Free Software Foundation and the GNU people because it restricts people from doing whatever they want with it and it's probably not "GPL-compatible." (GPL = GNU Public License, one of the most common Open Source/Free Software lisences).

The Open Source movement and the Free Software movement are similar in results but motivated by different goals. Open Source is mostly pragmatic "This gets the best results and is most useful" where as the Free Software movement is zealously idealistic. There is a lot of overlap between them, but the Free Software leadership regularly condemns Open Source projects/programs that are not "Free" enough (Free as in speach rather than free as in beer).

I don't know enough about Google Code as to why they would reject something. I doubt that Google is zealous about Free Softwware, so I think it's likely that they have a set list of acceptable lisences, and by rolling his own the JSMin author didn't conform to the accepted list.

In the end all this really proves is that some people take themselves and their hobbies way too seriously.
Maria Alexander
7. MariaAlexander
Evil people almost never think of themselves as evil. It's a label put on them by others. The anti-abortionist who shoots a doctor who performs abortions -- in his mind, he is a savior because that person will no longer kill babies. The Muslim father who gives up his little daughter to be buried alive for talking to boys is saving his entire family from shame and other dangers. He thinks he's done the higher good. It's entirely subjective. Even Mrs. Coulter thinks she's saving children (at least, the way I read it).

But as a society we have to determine what are acts that we cannot abide by in order to maintain the highest good. Usually those are the acts that cause the most pain to others, acts done to them without their consent. Philip Zimbardo in THE LUCIFER EFFECT states that he witnessed in his famous Stanford Prison Experiment that anyone at all can commit evil acts given the proper conditions. We are all innately evil. But he is also working on a project to prove we are innately heroes, as well.

As a side note, what I love about Miyazaki -- probably most accurately of Princess Mononoke -- is that there is rarely anyone who is truly evil. Even the demon was justified in his rampage through the forest and village. And the gun maker? She was saving the lepers and whores. So, who can label her entirely "evil"? I'm sure there are even better examples of this.

A bit rambling. Sorry! Back on my head.
8. scotty101
I know this is going to rub a lot of people the wrong way but I'm guessing that the future will bring an incredible increase in understanding of what exactly is going on in the womb, leading to an increased revulsion for abortion. It may be that 100 years from now abortion will be considered barbaric.
9. AnonCoward23
scotty101, and while we're at it, we'll see an increase in the understanding of plants and farming will be considered barbaric.
10. AnonCoward23
On a more serious note, racism, sexism and homophobia is still out there. The rate went down and that trend will probably continue, up to a point. I highly doubt it'll stop completely in another 50 years, though.

And, contrary to scotty101, I think rather abortions will go up in the future, when prescreening for more and more "defects" will become common. Probably not full-blown Gattaca style, but near.

People of the future will most certainly laugh at our notions of the future, just like we laugh at flying cars, magnet-band based storage devices in space, Star Trek TOS's big brightly-coloured buttons, ...

All in all, I doubt that much will change, since social/moral changes are slow and fought against with tooth and claw.
11. CarlosSkullsplitter
I must live in a different world. Here, many people will cheerfully admit to being rude, contemptuous of standard morality, selfish, without public spirit, hostile to children and the elderly and the weak, and so forth. They will admit that they have no urge to help others, and many of them prefer succeeding at another's expense to a win-win scenario. They might not have empathy for anyone outside their self-identified group; they might not have empathy for anyone outside their self-identified family; they might sneer at the concept of empathy itself.

No, they won't usually describe themselves as "evil", but that's a question of poll design.
12. JeffR23
I expect that carnivory (and possibly the vegetable side of our current food production regime as well) will more likely head down the path that smoking is now following than anything akin to segregation. Like scotty101, I suspect that the future will consider legal abortion horrifying, partially for the reasons he cites and partially because the concept of unintentional pregnancy will have long since become alien to them. Our current social attitude toward painkillers will look, at the very best, perverse.

There's also a chance that the trajectory of increasing technology lowering the threshold for the creation of weapons of mass destruction down from "modern nation state" through "well-financed individual or group" to "reasonable well-off citizen of a first world nation" will require a massive authoritarian swing that makes not just privacy but most notions of individual liberties seem downright evil to them. (Unless we, instead, get Greg Bear's Therapied society and it's the concept of allowing any kind of mental illness, including 'evilness'o to exist that will seem morally backward...)
13. vcmw
I am most emotionally convinced by definitions of an "evil person" that overlap closely with the definitions of a person described as sociopathic - what other commenters described as that person who doesn't feel with/for others, but sees their emotions only as tools to manipulate.

Of course, not all of the people who have that tendency show up as societally evil - some are just casually selfish, self-absorbed, and never end up in a situation where the acts that benefit them are what most people call evil.

On the other hand lots of people full of empathy do horrible horrible things. It was the Milgram experiments that showed what people would do when obeying authority, right? A lot of those people felt horrible and traumatized by what they agreed to do (which is why similar experiments no longer pass the codes of ethics for human subjects).

A lot of times what gets called evil is either one person placing their own needs or moral code ahead of the group (anti altruistic behavior) or a group placing its needs ahead of those of another group or at the cost of another group (assorted violent, -cidal -isms).
14. aliwood
I really enjoyed this piece, it made me think.
... that's all, I just wanted to say thanks for writing it!
15. Hatgirl
My mother believes that in 50 years people will be horrified by the amount of energy we wasted powering Christmas lights.

I have a sneaking suspicion she's right.
16. AnonCoward23
@Hatgirl: Already happening: Tell someone from outside the US about those Christmas lights, and they will attest you that you're barking mad.
Ashe Armstrong
17. AsheSaoirse
Christmas lights. Thanks a LOT, Jesus.

Aaaanywho, I think the article poses some interesting questions and incites some interesting hypotheses towards the future.
Jer Brown
18. designguybrown
I think 'evil' is a bit more absolute, scientific, and rational -- and actually, very hard to imagine. Most of the definitions above (with all due respect) seem too easy. I believe we have to start with a foundation of utter 'emotionlessness'. A person who can not feel any glee, anger, remorse, pleasure, amusement, etc., at all in a sociopathic (for example) act. Yet, they are completely cognizant of what they are doing, its affect, its outcome, its perception to others. They can even intellectualize the 'feeling' that they (and others) would have. They have no emotional/ physical/ mental/ economic baggage in doing what they do. It doesn't 'pass the time' or 'pay the bills' or 'complete a collection' or 'fulfill a goal'. It is utterly without reason or compelling notion. It would likely come across as being mechanical, blase, or completely intellectual. However, i still feel unfulfilled by this definition: it still speaks of 'sickness' or 'mental parts missing' - as in, not that person's fault. Well, if we continue to refine: further, their upbringing needs to be fully normal (whatever that means).. so there would have to be this gradual or even sudden inexplicable 'effect' that would transform this person. Hmm. Hard to envision. I am not sure I have even read or seen a character that it is this sufficiently 'evil'. It may not even come across as a believable character in a work of fiction. Perhaps, a self-made, mad scientist is the closest? Or a contract killer without a contract? A member of the 'idle rich' who wishes to randomly and constantly execute people simply to see if they can 'get away with it'?

I look at other simple acts of 'thoughtlessness' - littering in full view of a trash can, etc. Not serious, you say. But witness the expression: is the person amused by his recent act? Does that person look around to see if anyone saw them? Do they openly do it in front of a police officer or other person? Do they do it in a flagrant and exuberant way? -- all emotional in some way - not getting us toward evil. Interesting notion. An absolute which we can never fully reach, only suggest or approximate.
19. Peter232
There is a quote in one of Terry Prattchet's books: "The only true evil is to treat people as things".
I've always thought this sums things up nicely.
In context of evil people, it would ties back to the idea of egoism - the sociopathic personality which is unable to recognise emotion in others. And hence treats other people as if they were objects.
Kathleen J
20. tanaudel
The line “Today I’m going to be Evil!” reminded me of the "wonderful, terrible" Countess Belvane, villain of A A Milne's fantasy "Once on a time" who notes sadly in her diary that today, she became bad.

But I haven't seen that sort of conscious decision taken outside of comic writing.
21. soru
But I haven't seen that sort of conscious decision taken outside of comic writing.

Actually, anyone who ever tried dieting, or quitting smoking, will very likely be familiar with it.

Some people do smoke, and will repeat some justification for why they not only _do_ smoke, but _should_. Others don't, will agree with every word about the cancer and so on, but do it anyway.

Personally, I tend toward a three-way morality split: good, bad, alien.

Good actions and justification are those you can empathise with as being similar to positive emotions: love, bravery, respect, ...

Bad ones are the opposite: someone who never feels insecurity, hate, envy, fear, pride, etc. is pretty much a psychological outlier (saint?).

And alien ones are those you simply can't or don't emotionally understand.

The trick is working out which is which: you can find examples in every days news of someone wrongly flipping each possible pair of categories.

Psychopaths are more alien than evil: if the standard semi-scientific thinking on them is right, they just have a brain wired differently is all. In an extreme science-fictional case, something like the Daleks from Doctor Who, whose wiring doesn't permit positive emotions and amplifies hate and fear, then you could maybe _start_ to talk about an evil organism, instead of one choosing evil actions.
Ashe Armstrong
22. AsheSaoirse
The problem with calling the Daleks definitively evil organisms is that we're essentially stating that good and evil are concrete absolutes. They always exist. Now, true, in a work of fiction, that's how it goes usually and the Daleks are one of the Doctor's greatest enemies but in a realistic setting, perspective is grander. As Obi-Wan said, "a certain point of view." For instance, a religious zealot feels that when they do something extreme (suicide bombing, murder, self-mutilation) for their god, it's the ultimate good. In most of our eyes, these things are sick and evil.
Dan Sparks
23. RedHanded
I think we need a definition thrown in here.

Egoism - the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one's personal interest; selfishness (opposed to altruism ).

The definition of egoism itself is not evil, nor are people who are egoists since we all have to look out for our own rational self-interest. I think what is actually meant when referring to egoism as being evil is actually mindlessness, that is doing things without thinking about the consequences or how your actions affect you or the world.

The only real evil is the initiation of physcial force. Anyone can do anything they want to do, believe what they want, act how they want as long as they do not initiate physical force against a human being (and that goes for corallary rights also i.e property).

Regardless of perception or feelings or any other subjective view of the world (there is only one reality not a seperate one for each person) the intiation of physcial force is the only evil as everything else does not actually effect your right to live.
rick gregory
24. rickg
What is evil? Easy. Treating other people as Not People. From huge, mind-bending evil like the Holocaust to petty evil like muggings or discrimination, the perpetrator needs to put the people they're hurting into an Other category. Religious fundamentalists do this, so do other ideological fundamentalists.

I can't think of an example of evil that doesn't cast the injured party as Not People, Other, Not Like Us, that doesn't put them somehow beyond the pale and the fair game for the evil act.

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