Labeling Something as Evil Depends on Our Perspective

All About Evil
All About Evil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have known Christians who insist that evil is not merely a morally-relevant adjective but something that actually exists. Some talk of Satan and make it sound like evil is a force or entity that can infect people, taking control of their actions. Others seem to view evil as the natural state in which humans exist without "salvation" by their preferred god(s). Not surprisingly, these views do not appear to be held by most atheists. Atheists, it seems, are more likely to use "evil" as a descriptive term and apply it to people who act immorally or to immoral actions.

One of the most common questions asked about evil acts concerns how a person comes to commit them. That is, what leads an otherwise decent person to engage in acts we describe as evil? We ask such a question of school shooters, mass murderers, serial killers, sex offenders, and so on. We typically recognize that there are no easy answers because there is almost never a single cause. Biological factors interact with the individual's learning history and environmental influences, and so on. We also recognize that "god (or Satan) did it" is not a reasonable answer. And so we are left to confront the age-old question: what leads a good person to do bad things.

One of the things that has always fascinated be about evil is how labeling an act as evil depends so much on the perspective of the person doing the labeling. When we ask how a particular person could have committed such an evil act, we rarely realize that part of the answer may lie in the unpleasant truth that he or she probably did not perceive the act as evil.

How could the killer have taken his time with the victim, inflicting brutal torture and eventually dismembering the body? The killer's mind may not function in quite the same way as ours does. He was probably far less disturbed by his crimes than we would have been. He might have even enjoyed it.

How could a U.S. president have authorized the torture of enemy combatants in clear violation of U.S. and international law? Perhaps he managed to convince himself that it was a viable option, that it wasn't really illegal, or even that it wasn't really torture. And how could this president's successor order drone strikes that kill civilians or fail to honor a promise as vital as closing Guantanamo Bay? Maybe he has managed to convince himself that these policies are necessary and that the cost isn't that high. Or maybe he figures that a CIA director who goes to church should be blindly trusted.

We atheists do not have the luxury of begging some sort of god for forgiveness at the end of our lives. We must live with our own conscience. None of this means that we cannot be led astray or delude ourselves; it just means we do not have this particularly toxic way of trying to absolve ourselves for whatever evil we might commit. I can't help feeling that this is as it should be.