Why Does Evil Exist? Three Major Theories Help Us Understand

From a lecture series presented by Professor Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.

Why does evil exist? Particularly in the last 100 years or so, thinkers have made repeated attempts, directly and indirectly, to come to grips with this very question.

image of scary face in shadows for article on Why Does Evil Exist

Survivor’s Insight

The 20th-century Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, survivor of the Nazis and the Soviet Union, once wrote (and I quote):

Teachers in our high schools pound into us that history is the teacher of life. But when history crashed down on us in all its brutal glory, I understood, in the very real glow of flames above my home city, that she was a strange teacher. She gave to the people who consciously survived her, and to all who followed her, more material for thought than all the old chronicles put together. A dense and dark material. It will require the work of many consciences to shed light on it.

Learn more: The Nature and Origins of Evil

Photo of Zbigniew Herbert
Zbigniew Herbert

Herbert was no little intellect; he was one of the most powerful poets of Polish writing; world poetry, for that matter. His poems were used as anthems for the Polish solidarity movement in the 1970s and 80s. He’s a remarkably far-seeing thinker.

The passage in particular that we just read is powerfully brooding. Consider it for a second: What does it mean to call history a “strange teacher”? It means that it’s cunning; that it teaches by indirection, by surprise, by pain, not by direct lessons, clearly and lucidly articulated by schoolteachers at the fronts of classrooms and readily digested by attentive students sitting neatly in rows.

What does it mean to say that the material it gives us is “dense and dark”? That language suggests it’s more than merely grim or merely savage; that it’s something that is very difficult to understand, requiring serious effort from many people working in many different ways. Among these people are you and I. This is our task: to shed light on some of the most profound questions of human history, and most fundamentally the question of the problem of evil.

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Hannah Arendt, another thinker who we’ll be looking at later in these lectures, once wrote that the central problem for post-World War II intellectuals will be the problem of evil. But it didn’t turn out that way; thinkers of the era didn’t spend much time thinking about human malice and the suffering it creates at all. Such a “head in the sand” attitude is not unique to thinkers in the post-war era.

Arendt’s point, after all, was an implicit criticism of those pre-war intellectuals who had not taken seriously the challenge of human evil, telling themselves that surely World War I had convinced humanity that savagery of that sort was never a suitable strategy. Of course, World War I came as a near-total surprise to thinkers as well, who had imagined that such savagery as was unleashed in that conflict had been carefully bred out of or civilized out of Europe—at least Europe, at any rate—by the long peace of the 19th century. Indeed, we don’t have to look deep in the past for this pattern: The same thing was happening in the 1990s, for those of us whose memories go that far back.

The habitual avoidance of evil suggests something important about thinking about evil: namely, that it is difficult and painful work, and much of the time we would rather spend our energies avoiding thinking about this problem rather than confronting it. If we don’t discipline ourselves into thinking about it, our mind will gradually drift away to reflect on other things.

Learn more: Arendt—The Banality of Evil

Why does evil exist? What exactly is evil? What is its nature?

To begin with, let’s kind of offer a provisional definition of evil; this is complicated, so bear with me for a second here.

Let’s say that evil is something that’s not just against the moral order, something that’s not just wrong—however you construe that moral order—but intentionally and willfully against that order; that evil, that is, has a dimension of willfulness and rebellion. Let me be clear: This rebellion needn’t be directly experienced as rebellion by those engaged in it. People can do evil without thinking too much about the acts that they do; indeed, often that’s the worst kind.

Lots of people participated in really savage forms of evil in the 20th century— genocidal oppression, horrible forms of racism, other kinds of abusive ethnic minorities—and many of those people, especially if they had been brought up in those cultures, did not understand what they were doing as violating the moral order, they understood themselves to be obeying the moral order.

For those people, thinking about what they were doing as evil was not a possibility in their minds. From the outside, thinking about what they did, we see what they’re doing as evil; and maybe they, later on, can see what they’re doing as evil.

Photo of Albert Speer
Albert Speer

Albert Speer, the great architect of the Third Reich, the leading artist really of Hitler’s world and also eventually the director of war munitions and supplies for the Third Reich; but a cultured, educated, and civilized man, a man who survived the war and lived for 25 years in Spandau Prison on Berlin for his part in the Holocaust and in the Third Reich’s many crimes, a part he freely admitted and owned up to.

At one point after the war, Speer was asked by someone, “How is it possible that you worked with Hitler and did not realize how evil what he was proposing was?” Speer said something that was very interesting, “It is hard to know the devil when his hand is on your shoulder.”

Part of the power of evil is the way it insinuates itself intimately into people’s lives. So often people don’t, in fact, experience what they’re doing as evil. But when we think about acts of evil considered as just that—as acts of evil—even when their perpetrators didn’t recognize them as such, such acts of evil in their very essence, I propose, are attempts actively to reject the moral order, even if the people who do them don’t understand themselves to be doing that.

Part of the power of evil is the way it insinuates itself intimately into people’s lives. Click To Tweet

Similarly, when we ask about the problem of human suffering, we need to narrow our focus a bit there as well. Suffering  strikes us as excessive or gratuitous, as not necessary. We’re talking about pain that seems pointless or useless in some sense; pain that is inflicted for no point at all.

Learn more: Post–WWII Jewish Thought on Evil

Three Major Theories About Evil

In thinking about evil and pain in this way, we can distinguish between three large families of theories about evil, each with its advantages and difficulties. First, there’s the account of evil that locates it centrally in a kind of folly, as a wholly irrational, senseless eruption of chaos in an ordered world. Evil here is somehow against the order of the cosmos itself. As such, some thinkers in this tradition have talked about evil as privational, as depriving creation of goodness and being, depriving reality itself of some dimension or thickness or depth of reality; not introducing some positive evil into the world, but simply annihilating some of the good things that are there.

Many thinkers have explored this vision, but for my money the most profound and far-thinking one has been Augustine, the Roman Christian bishop of the 4th and 5th centuries. This is ultimately a very optimistic and hopeful vision, though it also suggests a certain truly disturbing capacity on the part of creatures to revolt against the moral order that they inhabit.

St. Augustine in His Study by Vittore Carpaccio
St. Augustine in His Study, by Vittore Carpaccio

The advantages of this account are many, but one of the most profound is that this picture is actually quite psychologically illuminating. Small children don’t know why they do mean things, and in general evil deeds are always done for reasons that when we query them—when we ask about why someone did something—these reasons never quite manage to seem as intelligent or rational to us, upon reflection, as they did at the time we did them.

However, this account does have its problems. One big difficulty with it is that it is perhaps too theoretical, too abstract, and because of that, possibly too escapist. After all, while it may be very metaphysically reassuring to talk about evil as the absence of being, it’s not clear how that idea helps someone confronting a killer, or someone trying to think about the vast scope of evil in genocide in the century just past. The very theoretical profundity of the account, that is, may lead it to be a little distant from practical application.

This gets to a second challenge for this view; one that is experienced, one that it encountered really as a practical challenge, and then reaching out from that practical challenge to really threaten the very theoretical core of this interpretation of evil. That challenge is this: Can this picture really account for the positive power of evil; it’s demonic character, the way that evil sometimes has a terrible sincerity around it?

It’s hard to see how you can talk about a Rwandan genocider—that is, one of the people who was involved in the genocide in Rwanda—swinging a machete or even an ordinary criminal in an alley as somehow absent of being. The problem with both, really, seems to be that they’re all too present. This picture has some insights, but also has some challenges to face.

Learn more: Creation, Evil, and the Fall—Augustine

The Second Theory

A second view does not see evil as essentially against the cosmos, opposed to the cosmos, but rather sees it as fundamentally part of the cosmos itself, part of our natural makeup.

Photo fo Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

On this naturalist account, which prides itself on its cold-eyed realism, evil is simply one of the energies that we must acknowledge and reign in as best we can. Thinkers who fit roughly in this picture would include the Greek historian and political thinker Thucydides, perhaps the philosopher Aristotle, some thinkers in the Jewish rabbinic tradition, and some modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.

The insight of this view is paradoxically how it helps us to domesticate evil, as it were, precisely by rendering evil somehow part of our natural character.

It does not appear here with any satanic magnificence or with any kind of alienated theological aroma; it’s really a part of our world, and that very grim thought that evil is, in fact, all too human can become, if you think about it aright (these thinkers propose), the source of some real hope. For if evil cannot be defeated or driven out of our world totally, since its home is our world, at least we are facing a struggle with a force that is nothing other than ourselves; it’s a force that is human-sized.

The difficulty here is that this view’s hope may seem finally inadequate to some people. After all, what is the hope a hope for? That we can hold off evil for the moment? That seems unlikely to mobilize enough energy for us to do much more than resist it at the instant that we meet it. To do more, to really confront the roots of evil, it seems like we need other energies that can drive us forward.

Furthermore, this account’s cold-eyed realism may hide the way that it suggest to us, it insinuates to us, that evil may not be as terrible as we experience it as being. That is to say, by talking about evil as natural and by domesticating evil in this way, we are offered a comforting disillusionment of knowing that the world is not as bad as we maybe thought it was; it might be a harder world, but it’s not as terrifying, these thinkers are saying.

But what do we do with our experience—experience that some of us have had and all of us can imagine having—of encountering evil that seems not to be so domesticated? What can we say about the idea of a demonic force of evil? Just as the first, then, this one, too, has some insights and some challenges.

Learn more: Nietzsche—Considering the Language of Evil

The Third Theory

The third account may seem initially odd to you, but I think, in fact, it is more common than you might realize; and that is what we call the “evil as maturation” account. This account builds itself up around a paradox: to become fully grown up, some painful separation from our too-familiar, too-cozy original surroundings may be necessary.

Stained Glass of St Irenaeus, Lyon.
St Irenaeus, Lyon.

Just as teenagers rebel against their parents in order to gain their own sense of identity, so our moral maturation requires a kind of rebellion against God or the moral order— however one thinks about that—a kind of wounding in order to come to gain wisdom.

This is a very old theory of evil: The Greek Christian bishop Irenaeus of Lyon in the 2nd century of the Common Era and the 19th-century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, offered accounts of this; and I propose to you that, in fact, this account today is quite common.

The advantage of this view lies in the way it captures a certain dimension of evil’s reality: Certainly it’s true that some evil is clearly a matter of trying to lash out at the world in misconstrued anger at it; certainly sometimes people try to gain a sense of their identity by estranging themselves from the too-comforting confines of the world that they presently inhabit.

But the disadvantage of this view lies in what we may call its partiality: It may be right that some evil turns out to be for our edification, but all evil? People who talk about this view talk about the world and the world’s sufferings as a veil of soul-making; a site wherein we are taught to become human beings. But there are lots of people in the world who evil doesn’t ultimately help grow up; there are lots of people in the world whom evil stops before they grow up. For those people, it seems this account is not just cold comfort, it might be actually obscene.

Learn more: Hegel—The Slaughter Block of History

Evil in Theory, Evil in Practice

It’s not enough to know how exactly someone theoretically talks about evil; you have to see how that theoretical picture of what evil is and how it relates to humans interlocks with a set of practical proposals about how to respond to this reality. The practical and the theoretical are actually two sides of the same coin, and changes in one formulation affect the other formulations; so you have to understand both to understand either.

Whether we can test evil by direct confrontation, by aggressively arming ourselves against it in some way, by trying to absorb it into ourselves as marks of our glorious martyrdom for our God; whether we develop techniques to resist its assaults on us by nonviolent practices in which we must be trained; these and many other kinds of practical proposals are all intimately related to particular theoretical visions of what evil is for each of these thinkers. That’s the story that this lecture tells: The attempt of human thinking in the West to come to terms with the full reality of evil as it presents itself to us in our lived experience.

Learn more: Science and the Empirical Study of Evil

We study these thinkers, these texts, these traditions not just because it’s interesting to know what others thought, but because it can be enormously useful. In fact, as we’ll see, from the Ancient Near East on, humans have always wondered about what other people thought about these problems, and their own thinking about evil has always gone on against a backdrop of other and previous ways of thinking about it.

That is to say, the activity of asking questions about these questions, the activity of inquiring into the history of thinking about evil, is as old as the activity of asking these questions itself is. In thinking about evil, then, people have always found it useful to learn what others before them have thought as well.

Keep reading:
Does Evil Have a Purpose in Life?
Music History Monday: To Dance with the Devil 
Martin Luther Battles the Devil

From the Lecture Series: Why Evil Exists
Taught by Professor Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.
Images courtesy of:
Bundesarchiv Bild 146II-277, Albert Speer, Bundesarchiv, Bild 146II-277 / Binder / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons