A Response to the “Evil” Dilemma: All About Intent

I would like to welcome my friend, very old friend actually, Eddie Matthews to the podium. I have known Eddie  since early-high school, and probably before. We had a lot of great times back then, and no, I won’t tell those stories. At least not now. But, besides being a long time friend, interesting soul (bomb squad anyone?) and fellow techie, Eddie now serves part time as pastor for a church in middle Tennessee. So, it was with great interest and not just a little trepidation that I read his response to my last couple of blog posts. Wow, he still has his wits about him!  I asked his permission to post what he wrote to me.  His introduction and then the actual comments follow.

Eddie MatthewsI read your recent articles on evil, which I thought were good by the way, and felt compelled to write a response.  I was just going to post a response to one of them on your blog, but it turned into more of an article in itself, so here it is.  – Pastor Eddie Matthews

Questions regarding the nature of evil are as limitless as the imaginations of people. Likely, most of these concerns will never be adequately resolved in this world. However, Michael Carnell raises some interesting issues in his two recent articles which beg close examination. While I cannot answer the overall question of evil, I hope to clarify the discussion by a more in-depth look at what evil really is, and how it applies to the human condition.

In his first article Michael laid out an argument for a loose definition of evil as a concept which can be applied to individuals, corporations, and politicians alike. (Carnell, Whence Cometh Evil? 2013) In his second article he expands on the subjective nature of evil to include how the hypocrisy of people helps to bring about evil. (Carnell, The Hypocrite’s Life 2013) He makes many good points in his articles; but in both cases, the nature of evil is described all at once as being both personal and impersonal, a direct result of certain individuals, and an indirect and oft unavoidable fact of life. These seemingly contradictory descriptions of the nature of evil lead to a fundamental confusion concerning its nature, with an end result of evil being objectified and distanced from its connection to man. The quote from Edmund Burke, “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing” is a prime example of this objectification. It’s as if Burke is suggesting that evil exists as an entity in itself, supported and encouraged by, but separate from humanity.

This subjective and abstract conceptualization of evil broadly applied to a range of personally disagreeable conditions is prevalent in society today. I’m sure many would agree with Michael’s assessment, but I believe this issue should be approached from a different perspective. Unlocking the confusion begins with realizing the current understanding of evil has been heavily influenced by a slow shift in word usage over time. The word evil has become, in modern usage, synonymous with “bad.” By extension we naturally view this as the opposite of good. That may sound simplistic, but ponder the consequences. “Bad” is also the opposite of “good,” and both are completely subjective concepts. What I consider to be bad may differ greatly from another’s opinion. After all, we all have very different personalities. Even within ourselves these concepts of good and bad evolve over time. Our opinions change as we mature, and our viewpoints shift as we learn to see things from alternative and wider-ranged perspectives. So, “bad” is a completely relative and subjective term. On the other hand, “evil” was never intended to have a subjective connotation, and neither is it the opposite of “good.” Please read on before you judge this last statement.

If we arbitrarily assign the word “evil” to any action or position with which we disagree, we lose any objective meaning for the term. For example, let’s say I accidentally run over Michael’s cow. Since we’re assuming Michael has a cow in the city for some reason, it’s only a short stretch to believe I might accidentally run over it with my fictional suburban tractor. evil intent towards a cowThere was no intent to cause harm on my part, yet the fact remains that I have injured his cow. Based on a subjective interpretation of the terminology, from Michael’s point of view my action might be considered evil. After all, I have caused harm to his property. Certainly from the cow’s point of view my action is evil. But I would assert the action itself is not evil. From the property owner’s viewpoint, and the cow’s for that matter, the action is clearly bad, but it is not evil. The qualifying factor which makes an act evil is intent. Now if I were to think, “That’s the last time Bessie is going to get into my garden!,” and I intentionally run over her, I have committed evil. It all comes down to intent.

Often we have the desire to make judgment decisions that an unpopular action is evil, but the fact is in most cases we cannot really know since we do not really know the state of anyone’s heart. We can assess the consequences of an action, but that simply allows us to determine a personal degree of displeasure. I quite agree with Michael that some actions seem to fall cleanly within the “evil” category, but we must resist the temptation to draw too broadly with that brush stroke. And, in any event, the only place that any of this has eternal relevance is within each individual. Are my actions evil?

So, how do we know if our actions are evil? The answer lies in understanding that the opposite of evil is not good. It is righteousness. The word “good,” just as we saw with the word “bad,” is completely subjective. But if we accept that the opposite of evil is righteousness, there is no room for subjectivity. All actions can be seen as having one of two states from the perspective of intent: evil or righteous. I am not arguing here the existence of God or even bringing the Bible into the equation. But whether we like it or not, whether we agree upon the source, we know evil and righteousness exist. And, I believe deep down we all know the difference between the two. Discounting the occasional psychotic, twisted killer, each and every human being on this planet knows, at least subconsciously, the difference between evil and righteousness. We know it is wrong to steal. No one has to tell a two year old that he is wrong to take his brother’s toy. He knows it as surely as he knows he has been wronged when his brother does it to him. This is also not something we determine collectively as a society. It is somehow hardwired into each of us.

People may make us angry. Divisive issues may separate us. We may not agree with a political viewpoint, or a religious belief. But a differing viewpoint does not give us the right to view another as “evil.” Until we know the intent of someone else’s heart (and we can never truly know this) we must treat everyone with mutual respect. We don’t have to agree. We obviously have the right to believe something is bad or good, and the responsibility to stand up for what we believe is right. However, we must recognize the difference between opinions about relative “badness,” and the universal truth of “evil.” The concept of evil is a universal truth and it is tied inextricably to the intent of the heart of individuals.