Fleshing it Out

Snapshots of Our Political Pathology

My Definition of “Evil”: What Would You Call a Force that Meets These Criteria

This definition is first introduced in Addressing Beliefs that Make Liberal America Weak


I maintain that in the human system through history, it is possible to discern — especially clearly at certain times when relatively pure cases arise — a phenomenon that manifests the following characteristics. In my view, such a phenomenon warrants being given the name “evil,” for it has so many of the essential characteristics of what that freighted word has traditionally meant.

But what is in a name? Whatever we call it, the important thing is to recognize the existence in the world of vast forces that operate in this way, and to respond to them appropriately.

•It is a force that shows a) coherence in its operation through time, b) an energy or thrust behind its movement, and c) a consistency in its impact on whatever it touches.

•What this force consistently imparts is a pattern of “brokenness,” meaning that it consistently degrades the life-serving structures of good order– e.g. replacing justice with injustice, integrity with duplicity, peace with strife, ecological health with ecological breakdown, etc. (See What I Mean by “Brokenness”.)

•It not only creates brokenness, but also utilizes –exploits – brokenness in the human system – from intersocietal anarchy, to unjust social organization, to a lack of integration or reconciliation among the elements of the psyche and character of human beings (individually and collectively) – to achieve its destructive effects.

•When it manifests itself in the world through the concrete actions of human beings, it “wears a human face” expressive of those human qualities that have historically been associated with evil – qualities like cruelty, deceit, greed, selfishness, and the lust for power.

(With respect to a “force for good,” the same criteria apply – and the same sort of structures are at work in human systems over time, but with “wholeness” substituted for “brokenness,” and the opposite sorts of human traits – kindness instead of cruelty, honesty instead of deceptiveness, etc. — being visible in the workings of such forces.)

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