World religions build their theology based on a dichotomy of good and evil, light and darkness. One cannot exist without the other, unless of course (like in Christianity) the absolute good overpowers the absolute evil. And so, this is how many people have come to view the world as we know it.

However, this dichotomy, as you may know, is hardly productive and mostly a polarising force. Anyone in the United States during WWII and/or the Cold War will remember this - or anyone who happened to watch that old propaganda film "Why We Fight." But over and over again, I sense that a few of those lines have been drawn against "new" American enemies, such as al Qaida. The common line, one used even by the President in accepting his (ironic) Nobel Peace Prize, is that "there is evil in the world." The enemy is evil; we, on the other hand, are good.

But I've yet to wrap my head around this concept. Al Qaeda isn't "bad" or "evil," nor are its members. The Taliban isn't evil, nor Ahmedinejad; nor is the leader of the PRC, nor Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Hell, even the people on the American Wall Street aren't evil, because evil doesn't exist. There is no sliding scale of morality ranging from absolute good to absolute evil, because we've already established that there is no absolute good. Harmful? Yes, in their own way. I take the unusual stance of viewing each internationally troublesome figure as simply self-invested in their own action, despite those actions being least in the interests of the international majority.

So what is there?

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Comment by Emekan A'dem on December 30, 2009 at 5:29pm
Is there any difference to you in how the two acts should be judged? If not, we have a substantive difference. If so, how would you describe the different acts and how they should be judged? Do you think there should be any difference in consequences for the perpetrators of the two acts?

These are really, really good questions. Right then, here we go:

Is there any difference to you in how the two acts should be judged?

Yes.

How would you describe the different acts and how they should be judged?

In the first instance, the death is circumstantial. The driver lost control of the vehicle, for whatever reason, and the child couldn't divert their path. In the second instance, the driver still possessed control of the vehicle and made a conscious decision to hit the child.

To me, attempts (successful or no) to extend beyond your person to harm someone else ought to be punishable. My thinking on this comes not from morality, however: it just seemed to me that, for the community to be successful and run fairly smoothly, purposefully acting to disturb someone else's life ought to be taboo. The weight of judgment falls upon the driver. In court though, how could one really prove the driver intended to hit the child (spare witnesses seeing the driver accelerate)?

Do you think there should be any difference in consequences for the perpetrators of the two acts?

Absolutely. The first driver shouldn't face penal charges, although being of some solace to the grieving family might be a useful cultural practise; the second, on the other hand, should be punished. There are a variety of ways to discern the form of those punishments; one way would be to ensure the intentional driver pays the cost of the child's funeral.
Comment by Bill E on December 30, 2009 at 5:07pm
Emekan,

Not sure whether our difference is merely terminological or substantive. Let me ask you this: let's take a 6-year-old kid who's never bothered anybody. Now let's say the kid wanders out into the road and a driver, unable to stop, hits the kid and kills him/her. Take the same kid. A driver sees the kid and intentionally runs him/her over (neither driver is acquainted with the kid). Both have achieved exactly the same result, with the same harm. Is there any difference to you in how the two acts should be judged? If not, we have a substantive difference. If so, how would you describe the different acts and how they should be judged? Do you think there should be any difference in consequences for the perpetrators of the two acts?
Comment by Emekan A'dem on December 30, 2009 at 2:55pm
Bill,

Thanks for replying! I agree that there ARE people who just intentionally go out into the world and hurt others. On the other hand, I struggle with the concept of calling the acts that they commit "evil." The act, in and of itself, is not evil. One could of course ask "but what about the intent?" I would say that even the intent is not evil; it is simply (or complexly, however one may see it) an intent.

To use an appropriately extreme and recent example, an Islamic extremist from Nigeria (*sigh*) boarded a US plane on 25 December with the express purpose of detonating the bomb sewn into his trousers. Detonating a plane and killing its boarders, while tragic, isn't evil. Acting on an intent to kill other people, while unbelievably horrific, isn't evil. It is undoubtedly harmful and not in the interests of the people on the plane, those in the airport, country or the bomber himself - but level of harm doesn't qualify it as evil.

Hmm. Thanks for your thoughts - I'll be keeping them in mind.
Comment by Bill E on December 30, 2009 at 2:42pm
I understand what you're saying here, but I still think there are people who are intentionally destructive or harmful to other individuals or society or the environment. I guess I'd have to say that I believe in right and wrong, even if they are not defined by any religion, and an act that consciously does wrong can be called evil. Not sure when I'd go so far as to call a person evil, however. I guess that person would have to have an overwhelming propensity to commit evil acts. I think there are people like that, however.
Comment by Emekan A'dem on December 30, 2009 at 2:38pm
It's a useful term for personal use, but when the leaders of humanity use it I get a very, very sour taste in my mouth.

Hmm. Do expound on that :)
Comment by Sonny Mobley on December 30, 2009 at 2:24pm
Yes, when I use the term evil I use it loosely and am well aware of the subjectivity of the word. It's a useful term for personal use, but when the leaders of humanity use it I get a very, very sour taste in my mouth.
Comment by Emekan A'dem on December 30, 2009 at 2:05pm
People like to say that "evil" is something outside of themselves, when harmful behaviour is something we can all engage in.

Zing! I'm looking that film up.
Comment by Little Name Atheist on December 30, 2009 at 2:01pm
Sadly, the actions of the figures you mention are also not in the interest of their national majorities, or even their own groups.
Comment by Little Name Atheist on December 30, 2009 at 2:00pm
Humanity. We all have the potential to do constructive things for ourselves, each other, and the planet, or incredibly destructive things.

I highly suggest the film "Human Remains". Despite the site stating that the film illustrates the banality of evil, what I took away from it is that people like to say that "evil" is something outside of themselves, when harmful behaviour is something we can all engage in.

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