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The Thin Line Between Good and Evil


In response to WordPress’ Daily Prompt for today, I am writing on the meaning of evil – what it is, what it looks like, and what causes it. To me, the most fascinating, yet also the most difficult, task when assigning meaning to the word ‘evil’ is deciding where to draw the line. When does bad behavior become evil? And when is otherwise evil behavior justifiable? And how do we know evil when we see it? With that said, let’s start with the basics.

Defining Evil

Merriam-Webster defines evil as “morally bad; causing harm or injury to someone.” Expanding on this definition, Macmillan Dictionary tells us that evil is “morally bad and causing great harm, especially to society in general,” and that “an evil person does very bad or cruel things.” For many people, the word ‘evil’ is inherently defined by religious undertones, linking evil with the devil, the underworld, and sinful behavior; for others, evil may refer to a bad omen, a curse, or simply bad luck. All of these definitions, however, are quite subjective, leaving us to individually define the boundaries of evil based on our own moral, ethical, cultural, religious, spiritual, and personal beliefs and experiences. Jungian psychoanalyst Liliane Frey-Rohn describes the ubiquitous, illusory nature of evil, writing:

“Evil is a phenomenon that exists and has always existed only in the human world. Animals know nothing of it. But there is no form of religion, of ethics, or of community life in which it is not important. What is more, we need to discriminate between evil and good in our daily fife with others, and as psychologists in our professional work. And yet it is difficult to give a precise definition of what we mean psychologically by these terms.”

In The Archetypes and Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung, the founder of Jungian analysis, describes the difficulty of defining concepts such as good and evil:

“Even the best attempts at explanation are only more or less successful translations into another metaphorical language.”

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, best known for the Stanford Prison Study, is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on the nature of evil. According to Zimbardo, evil is “the exercise of power to intentionally harm physically or psychologically, destroy or commit crimes against humanity.” In this definition, Zimbardo tightens the parameters, specifying that evil behavior involves three fundamental components: 1) intentionality; 2) abuse of power; and 3) widespread harmful effects. In a later book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo writes:

“Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. In short, it is ‘knowing better but doing worse.’”

Here, Zimbardo adds even more parameters to the definition of evil behavior: in addition to being an intentional behavior involving an abuse of power that causes widespread harmful effects, evil behavior also includes passive behaviors, encouragement of evil behaviors, the knowledge that what one is doing is wrong, and harm to ‘innocent others.’

When I think about evil, there are several other definitional issues that come to mind: Is evil relative, or categorical? Is it situational, or absolute? Is good really the opposite of evil? Is evil learned, or is it innate? If a person commits an evil act, is it the act or the person that is evil? Is evil a dichotomous concept, or a dimensional one? I don’t have the answers to all of these questions – I don’t know that anyone has the answer – but they are certainly worth considering.

There are myriad definitions of evil that we could review, but most of them share a few fundamental concepts. Based on these similarities, I will propose my own definition:

Evil is an intentional act in which one’s power or authority is used to knowingly commit, allow, or promote the physical and/or psychological harm of an innocent, unknowing, and/or undeserving being or beings. 

Mind Games

Now that we have defined evil, I am going to describe several different situations for you to consider. Your job is to decide, based on the definitions above, whether or not each situation meet the criteria for ‘evil behavior.’

1. Internet Bullying

The anonymity of the Internet often leads people to do things that they would not do in real life. We experience the psychological phenomenon of ‘deindividuation,’ which describes the failure to abide by our usual guidelines of behavior and the letting go of social norms, driven by the perception of anonymity and the ability to escape accountability for our behaviors. This is why Internet forums and comments’ sections are often filled with hatred and pettiness that we rarely encounter in our daily lives. We have all criticized something or someone on the Internet; in some cases, this is quite acceptable. But when does criticism cross the line to become malevolent behavior? Given that the environment of the Internet is different than the environment in which we live, do the same standards for evil apply? Is it evil to post a comment, calling someone terrible names with the intention of making them feel bad? Is it evil to send an anonymous email criticizing the physical appearance or intellect of the recipient, knowing that you will deeply hurt him or her?

In 2007, a woman by the name of Lori Drew, along with her teenage daughter, created a fake MySpace account to play a trick on 13-year-old Megan Meier, with whom Drew’s daughter did not get along. After creating a fake account, Drew and her daughter posed as a teenage boy and tricked Meier into starting a relationship with a boy who never actually existed. At some point, while still posing at the boy, Drew and her daughter “broke up” with Meier, telling her that the world would be better off without her. A short time later, Megan Meier committed suicide.

2. Gossip

Everyone has engaged in gossiping at one point or another. In some ways, gossip actually serves a constructive purpose, guiding us through social interactions, strengthening bonds with friends, and providing informative or cautious insight about the behavior of others. However, gossip can also be extremely destructive. It is used to enforce existing social hierarchies by suppressing and ostracizing those deemed as outsiders, less worthy, or simply different. Often, gossip is used to achieve personal gain through the suffering of others; it can involve lies, slander, betrayal, and back-stabbing. The result of such malicious gossiping ranges from hurt feelings and ruined friendships to irreparable damage to one’s reputation, career, or life.

In recent months we have seen several cases in which a victim of sexual assault became the target of her peer’s aggression. One of the most talked about cases involved a teenager in Steubenville, Ohio, who was sexually assaulted and then bullied by her peers after a text message with a picture of the assault taking place was spread around school. The victim was, understandably, traumatized by the incident and it became a national news story once the evidence was uncovered. In a similar case in Maryville, Missouri, a female high school student was sexually assaulted by a star athlete. After accusing him of the crime, the victim was mercilessly bullied and forced to leave town with her family after angry residents burned her house down. 

3. Political Ploys

In our society, politicians are – unfortunately – not known for their honesty. One of the most intolerable aspects of election season is the endless onslaught of negativity, misinformation, and pettiness that we see in campaign ads. If this is just ‘part of the game,’ and all politicians take part in it, are they all wrong, or are they just keeping pace with the others? And at what point does a political agenda based on misinformation become evil? Is Fox News evil for intentionally misleading the public about Obamacare? What about a political candidate who uses lies to smear the reputation of his or her opponent in order to win an election?

Probably one of the most debated political events in the past 15 years is the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; this was the claim that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Years later, we now know that this claim was unfounded, and that the Bush administration misled the American people in order to sway public opinion to support the war. This would eventually lead to the deaths of almost 4,500 American soldiers and up to half a million civilian casualties. 


As you can see, the line between good and evil is not always clear; in fact, the grey area is where most human behavior takes place. An act that is evil in one situation may not be in others, and behavior that was once considered acceptable may now be thought of as evil. I think it is dangerous to consider evil only in the context of extreme human behavior; this takes away the very real potential for all of us to engage in evil behavior, and it reduces our ability to recognize it when we see it.

I wish I could keep writing, but I have to get to work. This has been a fascinating piece to write, and I will continue with this theme of ‘defining evil’ in the future.

Be Well, my friends!



To read what others wrote about this topic, check out today’s daily prompt: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/daily-prompt-evil/


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"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." -- Carl Sagan


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