Alison’s father, Charles, likes to think about the nature of morality. Given my own obvious interest in the subject, that’s a pretty neat coincidence. And the nature of evil especially is an area that deserves a lot of thought, given that as Anarchists we face an immoral system that encourages evil actions. In fact, I have already written an entry on why the nature of evil is parasitic.
Anyway, Charles recently came up with this definition of evil:
Evil is the incapacity to deny oneself instant gratification.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make that much sense. But look at crime (properly defined) as an example. Most crimes arise from the allure of getting easy money, revenge or whatever else one wants, without having to make long-term plans. In some cases, as in crimes of passion, the gratification is almost immediate. Either way, crimes denote a lack of desire to delay it.
One may counter that some crimes can take years to plan, and thus involve denying instant gratification. I’d say that in those cases, the goal is so involved that working for it would probably still take much longer. But certainly we’re no longer talking about “instant,” which does somewhat dampen the strength of the argument.
The desire for instant gratification is what I call hedonism. I have also often said that Christianity is a form of hedonism, because it trades off our capacity to think and reason for instant self-righteousness, self-esteem, and fuzzy feelings. Does that mean that Christianity typifies a form of evil? Definitely: the evil of refusing to think.
But hedonism surely cannot be the nature of all evil. For one thing, there are people who hold principled positions that are immoral (such as utilitarians and authoritarians). There are very few of those people, because it is very difficult to hold an immoral position consistently, but they exist.
Another counter-example would be soldiers and policemen. It would very difficult to say that these people, being engaged in systemic evil, pursue instant gratification. However soldiers do tend to enlist on a spur of the moment desire: instead of working to serve their family better or go to college, they decide to sign away their free will (and often don’t get what they wanted). After that decision, one could argue that they have surrendered their capacity to make further decisions. The same, however, cannot be said for policemen. And yet they commit very evil actions indeed.
I don’t think it’s really possible to make an all-inclusive definition of evil that gets into any kind of detail (meaning that I exclude the basic definitions) without taking into account the nature of the systems that one lives in. But Charles’ attempt is pretty good, and I like it. it certainly applies to the vast majority of evil that we see today.