So, is there really such a thing as evil? Subjectively, yes. You can call sadistic torture or genocide or rape evil. You may mean something very specific and have well-reasoned arguments as to why you have called a particular person or act evil. But as soon as you have a discussion about it with others, you may find that what you think is an undeniable act of evil is not perceived that way by them. Certainly by the time you bring people who have committed the act into the discussion, you are likely to encounter a different perspective. To once again cite Nietzsche, evil is only created in the moment when we perceive something as such. And just as quickly as we can make evil, if our perception shifts, it can disappear.
We make evil when we label something so. Evil exists as a word, as a subjective concept. But I firmly believe there is no person, no group, no behaviour, no thing that is objectively evil. Perhaps evil only really exists in our fears.
You have probably heard the saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Well, the same thing rings true for many contexts – one person’s soldier is another’s insurgent, one person’s sexual liberation is another’s perversion, one person’s dream job is another’s source of all ills. When we learn that evil is in the eye of the beholder, we begin to question the beholder and the society they live in. And when we turn our attention to ourselves, we realize that we sometimes curiously even betray our own sense of morality.
Because of what I consider an insurmountable problem of subjectivity, I think that neither humans nor actions should be labelled evil. Instead, I cannot help but see a complex ecosystem of decisions, cascades of influences, multifaceted social factors. I refuse to summarize all of this into a single hateful word.
“Perhaps evil only really exists in our fears”.
— Dr Julia Shaw (@drjuliashaw) February 16, 2019