When we define some person as evil, we do not refer to “an event in the mind” that suddenly made that person evil, we refer to a whole pattern or principle of being or identity. We don’t really know whether the murderer who succeeded in murdering authentically is more evil than the would-be murderer who failed. Our imperfection in reaching such judgments, our inability to look into the other person’s soul and judge truly fairly, explains why final judgment is left to God or the end times, etc., in scripture.
Is there not a greater degree of evil committed by the mere action of taking a life, rather than just wishing it to be taken? It may simply be that the issue here is one of semantics.
Semantics can be relatively trivial: Maybe we’re just speaking in different codes, and just need to use the right key. Or semantics can be the entirety of any “meaningful” question: What is the meaning of “evil”? If we don’t know the meaning of “evil,” then how can we have a sensible conversation about greater or lesser evil? Can we have a meaningful concept of life, or of the good life, without some idea of evil?
As noted at the outset, we also are having some difficulty knowing what we mean by “event,” since some wish to indict particular “historical events” and others are moving on to whole ways of life, as though, for instance, “slavery” or “the slave trade” or “the enslavement of Africans” was simply an “event.” Then we have the problem of events within events within events… When we say “Holocaust” we mean many things: the decision to annihilate a “race,” the decisions that led up to that decision, the decisions to implement that decision, the failure to oppose the decisions and their implementation, and the results that were the necessary effects and indubitable signs of those decisions. Such opposition as there was and the ways in which the decision failed are also part of the large event or event of events The Holocaust, however, and the Holocaust is also part of the War, and the War was also part of a vast multi-generational cataclysm.
The evil of the Holocaust is demonstrated especially by its results, but we judge the actions of those involved according to how they reveal the intentions of the perpetrators. Merely “following orders” we have determined to be evil and punishable, but not as evil and punishable as giving the orders, even if the person giving the order never directly participated in acts of genocide, or even observed or verified its results. The decisions at the Wannsee Conference would have been just as evil – if not as well-known and therefore subject to actual indictment – if events had intervened in such a way as to prevent their having been carried out.
We can say “slavery was an evil” or “mass human sacrifice to the gods was an evil” without much fear of contradiction at least in these parts, but we’re referring to a practice or custom, not any particular event, and for complex reasons we tend to treat the latter more than the former as “natural evil” or “innocent evil.” The pre-Columbian Aztecs didn’t “know better.” Because the eradication of human sacrifice in Judeo-Christian cultures (or its displacement in war) happened thousands of years ago, it doesn’t appear to be a threat to our principles, so it doesn’t even come up.
Similarly, no one knows how many slaves died in order to build the pyramids, or died in the mines and galleys of the ancient world producing the materials for all of the tourist attractions, wonders, and lovely priceless museum objects we treat as sacred today. If “events” can be intrinsically evil, and the word “event” refers to just about anything we can describe as having occurred, then maybe “mining” was the “worst event ever,” or maybe “agriculture” was the worst event ever, since it involved vast numbers of people, well more than 90% of all those living in agrarian cultures, for vastly longer periods condemned to short, hopeless lives of squalor, ignorance, and hard labor. We don’t make such statements because we don’t know of a competing principle available to ancient peoples. We have implicitly adopted an “ends justifies the means” calculation in which the ends include “civilization” or “progress” at all, and include ourselves. It was worth it, we inwardly have concluded, or anyway cannot be easily condemned, for all those slaves and peasants to die miserably year after year for thousands of years, because it led to us.
When the Mongols swept across Asia, Europe, and North Africa, they happened along the way to de-populate vast regions and to annihilate or nearly annihilate entire cultures. They are said to have destroyed every then-existent city in Eastern Europe save two, to have caused the deaths of 90% of Persians. They are said to have constructed towering sarcophagi full of the corpses of their victims. And so on, and so on. Yet, we rarely recall them as a great example of evil because we have little notion of any unique principle they represented, if any, or the principles of the people they killed. For many people at that time, still living according to the precepts of the ancient world regardless of nominal state religions, the strong destroyed the weak, and the Mongols were unusually strong. All we can project onto either side is our generalized belief that peace is better than war and life is better than death, but we can apply the same principle to ant colonies and beehives.
When we consider what must be done to support our current way of life, and are less prejudicial and self-serving in our definitions, our inclusions and exclusions in chains of causality and responsibility, then we have to conclude that we are also all – every single participant on this thread – implicated in vast and unforgivable evil. Clearly, based on the notion that evil is intrinsic to “events,” the human race and life itself are evil. If we believe that, then we have to conclude that the Holocaust and the slave trade and mass human sacrifice are all just busier examples of business as usual. More likely, we believe something else, and believe that moral nihilism of that type is itself typical of what we mean by evil: The absence of principle or the principle of the impossibility of principle as a typically “Satanic” form of evil that needs to be combated for the good as well as the higher good of all.
Source : http://ordinary-gentlemen.com/2013/05/29/on-the-nature-of-evil-a-question-for-the-hive-mind/