Of late the definition of evil has become a matter of some concern, as evil itself has become a political issue; not since the Spanish Inquisition has evil held the world in such thrall, and yet nobody knows what the hell it is. Evil, like haggis, is largely a matter of taste. Are people who eat dogs evil? According to PETA, yes (and so are people who wear leather shoes and eat haggis); according to lovers of that subtle gaminess that comes with eating poochies, no. The relativist would say it’s only evil to eat pet dogs, or maybe to give them cute names and then eat them. Nomos over physis over Fido, to quote Protagoras.
Dr. Michael M. Welnel of the American Psychiatric Association proposes a ‘Depravity Scale’, whereby evil is measured like local precipitation. I am not pulling your leg. According to him, this scale would allow us to measure the degree of evil inherent in an act or individual. This is such tomfoolery it throws the legitimacy of the ASA into question, as does everything else its members get up to in the average year (measured by the Dipshit Scale, after Dr. Fritz Dipshit). We need a definition of evil, not a metric for it. A definition of evil that is broad enough to cover your average homicidal megalomaniac, yet precise enough so as not to tread on the myriad toes of cultural difference. Consider the Aztecs, who thought it was hilarious to use people’s heads as basketballs and once sacrificed 20,000 people at a go, apparently to see if they could make a bloodstain visible from outer space; these fun-loving folks were themselves wiped out by the Spaniards, who exterminated the entire Aztec race to see if they could beat the gold market back in Madrid. Who is evil in this scenario? Probably everybody. Evil is subjective.
I propose that evil is the extremity of purpose over price. Broad, yes, but a standard to which you can hold people, the way you hold your victim’s feet to the fire. Purpose over price is a piece of algebra, (which was evil when I was in high school): evil is when you do something for a purpose, and the price to others is far greater than the purpose commands. It’s cost/ benefit analysis taken to the limit. Thus it is not evil to kill your enemies in battle, because that’s what the occasion calls for. If you showered them with gifts and kind words the entire business would fall apart. It is however evil to show up in the defeated foe’s hometown and rape all the women, children, and cows and then burn them at the stake or similar. Because you didn’t need to, by any standards. It’s purpose (vanquish enemy) over extremity of price (vanquish enemy and slaughter everybody else in the geographic area).
Perhaps this is too abstract. Let’s take a hypothetical modern example. If an ideologue decided he wanted to be president very badly, and he would do anything to achieve this goal, already he’s lined up to get evil on us. But he’s not evil yet. Now imagine by some fluke such as interested judges shooing him into office instead of the guy who got more votes, he ends up actually becoming president (this is obviously just a silly made-up example as it could never happen). Still no evil, although you could call him an asshole without fear of contradiction, and those judges aren’t anything to write home about. But what if, because this installed president is not the man elected for the role and isn’t qualified, he does a crappy job at being Chief Executive? His poll numbers start to sink. He must respond. Then there’s a tragedy of incredible proportions and when he emerges from his secret bunker, he’s hit the trifecta. If this man moves forward and unites the nation behind a greater purpose to secure its safety and freedoms, there’s nothing evil about that (the worst you can say is it’s precocious).
But what if said man uses the tragedy as an excuse to advance an agenda which has little to do with his stated purpose, to secure our freedoms & c. from evil-doers? Like massive tax cuts, war upon uninvolved nations, and cloaking the government in secrecy and inaccessibility? What if that fellow goes even further, and eradicates the very freedoms he pretends to uphold, all the while filling the coffers of his cronies with mountains of war cash? This being a hypothetical example, let’s push it further, because I want you to decide when evil starts too set in.
Remember, extremity of purpose over price. So now in the putative name of safety and freedom this installed president has destroyed the freedoms Americans hold sacred, and through bellicose international adventures rendered the entire world unsafe for Americans. In the name of quelling terrorism (let’s say the big tragedy was an act of terrorism, just for yucks) he so wantonly pimp-slaps the culture from which the terrorists came that an entire new generation of highly motivated terrorists emerges, thirsty for pork-scented American blood. Are we into evil territory yet? Could be. An optimist, however, could argue that things are just off to a rough start, and it will all work out in the end. I’ll bet there were a lot of German Jews who said that fifty years ago. They ended up as lampshades.
But what the hell, optimists aren’t always wrong. Look at Jesus: here’s a guy who has been scourged, beaten, and crucified, he’s hanging naked by his wrists, and he’s probably thinking “It could be worse, it could be raining.” Actually it was raining, but the point is he did pretty well for himself eventually, and he was an optimist. So let’s say our hypothetical leader (and I thin k that describes him pretty well) is just an unbeatable optimist and he figures if he sets predator drone planes flying around watching the citizens, he monitors their every movement, purchase, association and conversation, at the same time invading suspicious countries and overthrowing leaders unsympathetic to American big oil companies, then he can weed out the wrong ‘uns. After which of course he’ll set everything back to normal and we all are safer and happier and the rest of the world, if not delighted, is at least impressed. Maybe he’ll even get elected legitimately next time! See, that’s optimism.
But evil is if really he’s just a greedy son-of-a-bitch whose values were shaped in the ultra-exclusive prep schools and ivy league secret societies where men are taught to be rulers, not leaders, and what he’s really up to is making as much money with as little accountability as he possibly can, regardless of the cost to the world or its peoples. That’s extremity of price over purpose: if it benefits his narrow clan, if it pleases the few powerful entities to whom he is accountable, no toll of deaths ?domestic or foreign- no ecological, social, or civic destruction is too costly to visit upon the world. That’s evil. Think about it, and see if you agree with my definition. Then all you have to do is make sure such a wacky hypothetical example never comes to pass, because if it did, hoo boy.
Luckily I’m an optimist, and I figure if a preposterous situation like this ever arose, we’d be intelligent enough not to let it get that far before we insisted on regime change. After all, as Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Einstein was a beacon to light the world, and he knew what evil looked like. Like him, we’d better learn to be beacons– if we want to avoid becoming lampshades.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter, political satirist and cartoonist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org