What Makes Evil and How Do We Defeat It?

5 min read

I live in Jerusalem, close to the 1967 line, and I can see the village of Issawiya and the Shuafat refugee camp from our balcony. “They have a stockpile of firearms,” I told my wife on October 7, “It’s a five-minute walk from here. They can easily try something similar in our neighborhood. Why wouldn’t they?” After hesitating, she agreed that we take our children to stay with my parents, who live in a safer part of the city.

A day later, we brought them back. I am still worried. It can happen at any moment. If a couple of hundred armed men decided to go on a rampage of bloodshed at dawn, they would likely succeed. I still wonder: Why wouldn’t they? Nothing here can really stop them—except themselves. Fear? If so, I hope, perhaps foolishly, that it’s also fear for their own humanity, fear of becoming evil.

But what is evil? My working definition of evil is simple enough: Evil means treating humans as things. Evil means seeing and treating people as obstacles to be removed or assets to be (ab)used for one’s benefit or pleasure (Kant’s self-conceit). Either way, evil treats humans as things to be discarded.

The implication is clear and troubling enough: We all harbor evil. This “banality of evil” drives some to resigned nihilism: we’re all bad; nothing matters. But it should motivate us in the opposite direction: to be involved, to think things through, to devise our own conscience, individual and public, and to act accordingly.

When we treat evil, we should tread with caution. The more we think in dichotomous go(o)d-(d)evil, the more we become prone to becoming evil ourselves. To state the obvious, if fighting monsters means becoming one, and defeating evil means becoming evil, we fought for naught.

Benign human development often helps us avoid dichotomous thinking and feeling; most people gradually come to possess “object constancy” in the moral realm, realizing that people are complex and that by doing something bad, one does not necessarily become bad, let alone evil. Some people, however, whether through arrested development (as with borderline or narcissistic personality disorders) or other circumstances, lack or lose object constancy and instead turn to “splitting,” that is black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking.

Splitting can be a springboard. When facing horrendous acts, it’s easy to see evil and thus opt to treat such evil as non-human things to do away with—this is how we become evil ourselves.

There is no panacea, but one remedy is to avoid beholding our moral universe through bicameral black-and-white glasses and instead behold it through a prism. While the idea of evil invites a binary go(o)d-(d)evil morality, it is better to think of morality as a light spectrum of colors and shades, each with a different wavelength that a sharp prism might help discern. In human affairs, there is no absolute white, combining all the colors of the spectrum, nor absolute black, their complete absence (even the super-black Vantablack absorbs 99.965 percent of light, not all of it).

Still, some acts, and the people committing them, come close to the darker end of the spectrum. Importantly, evil acts need not indicate an evil person; one becomes evil by constantly and consciously committing such acts, refusing to change course and make amends.

Realizing morality through a non-binary prism reveals a paradox: a main impediment to defeating evil is believing it exists – and can be defeated. Like pure righteousness, or omnibenevolence, pure evil – the uppercase Evil – is a metaphysical construct. Actual human beings are not Evil, and thus, unlike mortal people, Evil can never be killed or defeated.

But lowercase evil can be. It was done, it can be done. I wish karma would take care of it, that perpetrators and their enablers will know no rest, and be haunted, for the rest of their lives by the ghosts of their victims. Still, I know, this is wishful thinking. In the world as it is, there is no metaphysical shortcut. Defeating evil is up to us—if we tolerate this, our children will be next.

Believing that Evil exists is one impediment to effectively fighting it; believing evil is everywhere is another. I like to think that evil is rare. Overwhelmingly, people do not want to hurt other people, unless they feel hurt themselves. Even then, most people, most of the time, would not go about hurting innocent people, that is, those who have not directly harmed them. Atrocities may plunge us into such vicious cycles of fear and revenge, making us readily assume that’s how the world is or has become. It hasn’t. Most of us prefer peace, “We’re the 99 percent.” Losing sight of that makes us give up the fight right from the start.

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Granted, the best way to stop this vicious cycle is to stop hurting and start caring. Whether motivated by religious turn-the-other-cheek, a secular liberal creed, or plain fantasy, there is a great appeal to appeasing evil. But when it comes to people, however hurt they may be, who harm innocent others deliberately, who refuse to own up to their choices and actions, who refuse to learn, who refuse to reform – such evil cannot be placated, let alone pacified. It will only get worse. Can we give up on those who have given up on the good in their own humanity?

I would argue that we must not relinquish our humanity. However hard, we should always actively choose to treat people, however evil, as humans, and thus, for example, if they are harmed and can do no harm, help them. The best way to avoid falling into the abyss is to never abandon the horizon.

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