The origins of evil are the same as the root causes of social problems: ignorance, apathy, and greed. Specifically, evil arises from ignorance about ethics, a lack of sympathy or empathy for others, and seeking more than one morally deserves.
Philosophers have pondered the problem of evil for thousands of years, and yet very strangely, they have not even arrived at a consensus about what evil is. The lack of clarity from scholarly philosophers defaults the ethical field to religion, tradition, and ideology. Most people learn their ethics from their parents, church, and community. Indoctrinated since infancy, most folks think that their cultural and personal views are absolute and universal truths. They then seek to make their doctrines universal by force.
We can know which ethic is the moral imperative for humanity if we apply reason. Yet this beginning point, reason, is rejected by most of the people of the world. They believe that their religious views are true because they came from God and tradition. Their beliefs are ingrained to the core, and no amount of logic and evidence will shake their certitude.
Reasoning begins with premises that come from observation. We can observe that there nothing in human nature that makes one set of persons masters over another set who are slaves. The moral default is therefore equality. As recognized by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, human beings are created as equals, with an equal moral worth, because normal human beings use reason in making choices in the purposeful pursuit of their goals.
Our independent thinking and feeling, and the equal status of our subjective values, create a universal ethic by which all acts and only those acts which coercively harm others are evil. Harm consists of an invasion into one’s domain, so if one is merely displeased with what other do, the offense is not a harm and not evil by the universal ethic. But those who believe only their own cultural ethic believe that offensive acts, such as the practice of another religion, are evil and should be punished. And then in punishing the offense, the perpetrator commits real evil by imposing himself as master, declaring that his culture and religion are superior, and the other is inferior and bad.
The essence of evil is ignorantly greedy supremacy: imposing one’s will on non-harmful human action. Evil takes place because the evil doers are ignorant of the universal ethic and because they lack sympathy for their victims. The greatest evil comes from the pursuit of the “greater good.” Nazis, statist communists and socialists, traditionalists, religious supremacists, conservative traditionalists all believe in their greater good and seek to impose it by force, not realizing that this very use of force is the evil.
The cognitive independence and moral equality of human beings makes all our values individually subjective, and therefore the concept of the “greater good” is fallacious. The cannot be any “greater good” but only the goods that individuals are interested in and personally value.
To avoid evil, it is not enough to intellectually understand that it is morally wrong to coercively harm others. One must also be instilled with sympathy for others, an empathy that dissolves greed and makes it hurtful to oneself to inflict harm on others.
There are two basic reasons why people commit evil. Some people are simply amoral. They lack sympathy and don’t think there is any morality. To them their victims are like rabbits. They think, if someone is weak or foolish enough to be a victim, they deserve no better.
But most evil is committed by people who believe they are doing good. In most wars today, the attackers think they are serving the greater good. If innocent people are killed, the attackers think, first, that the victims are not really innocent, but guilty by association, and secondly, the bad of killing is more than offset by the greater good of the goal.
Petty thieves think that their theft is justified because they have been treated unfairly and the company they are stealing from is wealthy and won’t miss the goods or else that the company has done wrong, so the theft rectifies the previous wrong. In effect, these thieves make themselves the judge over others, assuming a superior position.
The avoidance of evil therefore requires that a person not make himself the supreme judge and jury over others. Except in immediate defense against impending harm, justice requires an institutional process. If everybody kicks every person who allegedly did bad, or is bad by association, we end up with chaos, as in today’s Iraq.
Unfortunately, few people are open to logical arguments over ethics. The indoctrination of religion and culture is so deep that few people can overcome being culture bound. This is why evil has persisted for thousands of years. However, there is hope for progress, because cultures do change. Chattel slavery was once practiced world wide, and few today defend it, although most still believe in slavery by government. The legal inequality of women is no longer accepted in much of the world. Racism is now widely condemned. Thus, slowly, and after long struggles, the concept of equality can make headway.
So there is hope that we can extend the concept of moral equality yet further, to recognize our equality with respect to natural opportunities and to self-ownership. But it will not be easy, as I suspect that even most people who read this article will not be fully convinced.
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FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.
Foldvary is the author of The Soul of Liberty, Public Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.
Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.