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Does evil exist and, if so, are some people just plain evil?

You would have to be naïve to believe that evil exists, right? If you were asked to come up with examples of evil villains, you might think of the Emperor from Star Wars, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter…

Plenty of extreme wrongs are performed by comparatively ordinary people. Danny O'Connor

You would have to be naïve to believe that evil exists, right? If you were asked to come up with examples of evil villains, you might think of the Emperor from Star Wars, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, or even Dr Evil from the Austen Powers films. Evil characters belong in horror movies, fantasy fiction and perhaps also in religious texts, but surely not in the real world.

This kind of scepticism about evil also crops up in serious disagreements over morality. When US President George W. Bush denounced the September 11 terrorists as evildoers, many people rolled their eyes and dismissed his claim as simple-minded and out-of-date. The philosopher Phillip Cole, the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and the historian Inga Clendinnen have suggested that we ought to drop the concept of evil.

These thinkers are not sceptical about morality as a whole. They are not suggesting “it is all relative”, or that morality is some kind of sham or illusion. Their scepticism is focused on the category of evil in particular. Are they right to say that there is no such thing as evil?

What do we mean by evil?

In answering this question we must survey the claims people make about evil, and ask what these people take evil to be. While it is true that the word “evil” can be used to refer to a malevolent supernatural force, many of us use “evil” without intending it to have any supernatural connotations.

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We might say the sadistic torture carried out by members of the US military at Abu Ghraib was not merely wrong but evil, and that serial killers such as Dennis Rader and Ted Bundy are not merely morally flawed or corrupt, but are evil. Hannah Arendt famously declared that the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann revealed the banality of evil. While there is some disagreement about what Arendt meant by this, no-one thinks she was suggesting that Eichmann was possessed by a banal demon.

In judging that something is evil, we are making a distinctive kind of moral judgement, rather than committing ourselves to a contentious supernaturalistic worldview. Believing in the reality of evil is like believing in the reality of greed.

When we say that greed exists, we don’t think there must be some free-floating force called greed that can enter someone’s body and control his or her actions. If there are any greedy actions or greedy persons, then greed is real. Similarly, if there are any evil actions or evil persons, then evil is real.

You might grant this point, but remain sceptical nonetheless. You could claim that when people judge that something is evil, they make moral assumptions that are not only mistaken but dangerous.

Ted Bundy. Wikimedia Commons

While there is clear evidence that some actions and some persons are greedy, there is no evidence that anything or anyone is evil, or so the argument goes. But what exactly do we assume when we judge that sadistic torture is evil, or that Ted Bundy is evil?

Many contemporary philosophers agree that if an action is evil it must be morally extreme. It is morally wrong to shoplift, or to tell a lie to avoid jury duty, but to call those actions evil would be hyperbolic. Moreover, philosophers agree that if an action is evil the person who performed that action should not have done so, and is responsible and blameworthy for having done so.

There are interesting disputes to be had over whether violent psychopaths are morally responsible for their actions, or whether they are mentally ill and hence not blameworthy for what they do. If psychopaths aren’t responsible for their actions, then they are not evildoers. But, even if we agreed that psychopathy counts as an excuse, this would not give us grounds to deny the existence of evil actions.

Plenty of extreme wrongs, including atrocities committed during war, are performed by comparatively ordinary people rather than by psychopaths. Since there are many examples of inexcusable extreme wrongs, we ought to conclude there are many evil actions. In this sense, evil is real.

Encountering evil in person

Recuerdos de Pandora

The question of whether anyone counts as an evil person is more difficult to answer. Consider an analogy: not everyone who performs an honest action counts as an honest person.

If someone is an honest person, honesty is part of his or her character. He or she can be relied upon to be honest when it counts. Someone who tells the truth on some occasions might nonetheless be a characteristically dishonest person.

Similarly, not everyone who performs an evil action counts as an evil person. In judging that Hitler was not only an evildoer but an evil person, we assume that evil was part of his character. That’s is not to say we assume he was innately evil, nor that he had no choice but to do evil. Rather, it is to say he came to be strongly disposed to choose to perform evil actions.

In calling Hitler an evil person, we suggest that he could not be fixed, or made into a good person. Once someone has become an evil person, he or she is a moral write-off. That’s why some philosophers are sceptical of the idea that any actual person is evil. If everyone can be redeemed and made good, then no-one is evil.

I think it’s overly optimistic to think that we could have fixed Hitler, or Ted Bundy, or Dennis Rader, so I conclude that evil persons, as well as evil actions, are real.


Luke Russell’s book Evil: A Philosophical Investigation is published by Oxford University Press in June. He is speaking at the Sydney Writers' Festival on the topic of evil on Saturday, May 24.

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166 Comments sorted by

  1. Janeen Harris

    chef

    Is it evil? Or is it just bad? Hitler couldn't have achieved anything without co-operation. Maybe when bad is seen as good, then evil can take hold.

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    1. Cris Kerr

      Volunteer Advocate for the value of Patient Testimony & Sustaining our Public Healthcare Systems

      In reply to Janeen Harris

      'Stop your complaints, says budget architect Tony Shepherd', Heath Aston, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 2014

      ' ... ''I think it's a sad reflection on the modern Australian attitude that they can't see that all areas have to make a contribution and they look at it as a narrow, sectional issue,'' he said. ... '

      http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/stop-your-complaints-says-budget-architect-tony-shepherd-20140522-38rv2.html

      Rather than a sad reflection on the modern Australian attitude I've been buoyed by clear evidence that modern Australians - in the majority, no less - are reflecting our patriotic best.

      Bad things happen when good people do nothing.

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    2. Phil Dolan

      Viticulturist

      In reply to Cris Kerr

      Is it evil for a hungry person to steal food? Is it wrong for a good person who sees that to say nothing?

      It's a good article, but I feel that it will never be concluded. Philosophy isn't. That's why it's so good.

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    3. Cris Kerr

      Volunteer Advocate for the value of Patient Testimony & Sustaining our Public Healthcare Systems

      In reply to Phil Dolan

      Who are they stealing it from, those who have more or those who have less?

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    4. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Phil Dolan

      Phil - totally different arguments. Evil is unrelated to what you raise.
      Evil, selfish, cruel, brutal (etc) people will always exist. It's up to the majority of decent people, and laws they vote to have in place to ensure that those types when discovered are not reintroduced into society, and in some cases - terminated into the carbon cycle. Sadly though, in order for that discovery, victims will be created, so if unwilling to become a victim, then effective self defence is an absolute - and without torment by religious based laws. PC

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    5. Meredith Dart

      Systems Analyst

      In reply to Janeen Harris

      Really? Bad can be seen as expedient, or better than the alternative (especially if the alternative is being jailed or killed yourself for disobeying), or just "I can't think about it right now" - all of these allow otherwise ordinary people to co-operate with what they know to be bad. It takes exceptional moral courage to make a stand against "badness" that puts your personal safety at risk.

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    6. Allan Gardiner

      Dr

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      It is never people who are evil but the things they actually do...the evil deeds per se. If people must be seen as being evil then it's only because of the [d]evil in them, not them themselves. The devil will always do evil deeds simply because he cannot alter his ways, but people can...and in fact do.

      We must have evil for without it there'd exist nothing truly good.

      Many people are lauded for the 'good' things that they they do but it's far better to acknowledge *that* -- rather than 'what' -- they did them, and many folk do indeed know in their hearts and minds what needs be done but they don't do it due to a worthless want of assimilating with their ilk, like sheep.

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    7. Cris Kerr

      Volunteer Advocate for the value of Patient Testimony & Sustaining our Public Healthcare Systems

      In reply to John Phillip

      Phil posed ' ... Is it evil for a hungry person to steal food? ... '.

      I threw that question into the mix only to demonstrate there are varying degrees of bad along a sliding rule (let's say left to right), with 'evil' being at the extreme right.

      We all mentally slide that marker one way or the other depending on all the variable factors associated with the act itself, weighted against our individual sense of what is fair.

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    8. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Allan Gardiner

      I can't believe this: Alan & Ray quote "The Devil" and "Angels". No wonder the world is in a mess when this pervading fantasy exists in the business of religion. If you want to find the devil - look inside yourself.
      Humans are capable of and display the very worst and most obnoxious behaviour of any animal on this planet - and it doesn't take much to sway the ignorant to the extreme of evil.
      PIGS BUM! "It's never people who are evil...." Living in a cocoon clearly isn't healthy. PC

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  2. Peter Cunningham

    MD

    In my humble opinionLuke's conclusion is correct - and I proffer further thought:
    We are the product of our respective environments - which means 'evil' or 'beauty' is likely from the values within a given environment.
    Necessity and survival in a slum will generate different values from a more fulfilled life in a richer environment where time is at hand to explore things other than life's basic needs - somewhere between are the majority of people.
    Contrary to 'touchy feely' waffle, People are…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      I would argue that in world history, evil has triumphed over good.

      The "evil" deeds that have littered history have accounted for far more tragedy in peoples lives than any goodness.

      Evil seems to lurk like a cancer in humanity, and can take a moment to metastasise.

      Evil exploits goodness, and suck it dry.

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    2. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Well said. 100% agree.
      Evil will exploit goodness because goodness can't or won't effectively resist evil.
      Those who are forced into the need to defend against evil are persecuted by law.
      It's the touchy feelies and religions that have created the pacifism, and all to the advantage of crime, and the businesses that surround crime. (Legal, Police, Judicial, Penal)
      I am constantly amazed at the hypocrisy. "Peace Loving" governments arm themselves with all sorts of people killing machines, but deny in law the identical principle of personal self defence against aggression.
      PC

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    3. Robyn Yucel

      Higher Education science educator and PhD candidate

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Peter (and Luke),

      I detect a determinism in your arguments that I think needs to be challenged. Peter seems to assert that evil is in people’s nature, and nothing can be done to change that: “in this world are three types of people: Sheep, Shepherds, and Wolves”. This would suggest that some people are born evil. Luke makes the slightly weaker claim that: “once someone has become an evil person, he or she is a moral write-off”. So perhaps people aren’t born evil, but once they somehow become…

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    4. Anna Young

      Project Manager

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      That's a bit bleak isn't it Stephen?

      Has there really been more evil than good on balance or is the issue how we define these activities and what is captured about them in our knowledge of history?

      While undoubtedly a whole heap of 'bad' stuff has happened throughout our recorded history (and one assumes before then), I would argue there's been a heap of 'good' stuff too. By what measure do we weigh which heap is bigger?

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Anna Young

      Anna, I think history speaks for itself.

      It's not that it's bleak or horrible, I think it is a fact.

      How many tens of millions died in the 20th century through war and "inhuman" cruelty - think Germany, Belgian Congo, Armenia, Rwanda etc.........

      No point in hiding our head in the sand.

      "Evil" imho has triumphed overwhelmingly.

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    6. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Robyn Yucel

      Robyn: You are correct in your interpretation. It is not absolute, but yes - some people are born to be evil, or selfish, or brutal, or anything other than positive and caring traits, and independent of culture or family or financial status.
      People ARE born with different wiring - hence my reference to Sadists etc, so whilst you believe my claim to be "the scariest" - it's nonetheless a fact.
      On top are people who develop from either their environment or for selfish ends, the need to take advantage of or dominate others. It could well be their wiring at birth, but reality is though, that bad people are not in small numbers, so decent people need be aware of the fact and proceed cautiously in life.
      Those who fail to do so are either gullible, naive or end up dead. PC

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    7. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      You're absolutely right there, Stephen. Criminals indulge in their behaviour because they have so much to gain, either materially or in satisfying their devious needs. By standing up to criminal behaviour, a good person has nothing to gain personally, but potentially a lot to lose, even his/her life -- so good people tend to turn a blind eye and to shut up when they see evil, and simply hope it leaves them alone. Hence, the evil-doers tend to take over the world.

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    8. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Too true Paul.

      I have sometimes wondered how the dictators of the world manage/d to stay in power.

      Take Stalin - he had a large % of his officers murdered. You'd think that someone might have killed him to save their own lives.
      But he stayed in power.

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    9. Jim Howe

      Neurologist at Neuropalliative rehabilitation

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      that may be in part because "evil deeds" are better reported and remembered, Stephen. Recall the poet

      that best part of a good man's life
      his little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.

      And multiply those unremembered acts billions of times.

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    10. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Jim Howe

      I'd love to say you are right Jim.

      But being a natural born pessimist, I just can't.

      But my reading newspapers for the better part of fifty years says you may be wrong.

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    11. Jim Howe

      Neurologist at Neuropalliative rehabilitation

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      nameless and unremembered never make the papers Stephen. I feel pessimistic when I keep up with the news. But then I see the many acts of kindness, and unpaid work done at our palliative clinic and feel better. (I have read the papers for 50 years too)

      but this is off the main point of this article and comments so I close

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    12. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Paul - Agreed, but criminality need not be "evil" - it is too often simply convenient for them to be human predators because the rewards outweigh the potential risks.
      Stephen just referred to Stalin, but there's Pol Pot, and Mugabe, and Idi Amin.....It's a long list. These people are one form of evil - utterly indifferent to others, cruel and ruthless. How does a disarmed civilian population bring such excesses to a halt? It can't, so the reverse of a 'safer society' is achieved - and the founding fathers in USE realised this, hence the 2nd Amendment as a last ditch leveler. Sadly, America is currently hellbent on destroying that mechanism - and then large scale evil is possible.
      Then are the mentally deficient and religious zealots - different types of evil.
      Then are cultural evils - humans who are completely indifferent to the plight of others, or what they do to them to satisfy their own perversions (torture and chopping people up etc).
      "EVIL" comes in many forms. PC

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    13. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen - The answer is very simple. First step is to empower "The State", and achieved by removing all possible means of civilian resistance - which I hasten to add is one of the United Nations primary objectives "General and Complete Disarmament"**
      Media indoctrination over generations is a necessity.
      Then create the muscle of government - Police - and in time alter the roll of police to be increasingly paramilitary and do that by providing them similar and cooperative training and weapons to military.
      Then bully people with oppressive laws to keep them in their place - something Pink Floyd worked out decades ago "Welcome To The Machine" for you are "Another Brick In The Wall".
      The rest is predictable - just examine history. PC

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    14. Janeen Harris

      chef

      In reply to Robyn Yucel

      Sheep are easily frightened and blindly panic. They need shepherds to keep them safe from the wolves, who hunt in packs, separate the herd and target their prey. A wolf can't help being a wolf.

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    15. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Janeen Harris

      Janeen - You describe society! Sheep, Shepherds and Wolves.
      As sheep do not eat wolves, then I made the decision many decades ago to never be a sheep. Independence is a wonderful thing - but is out of the reach for most. Just look at peak hour traffic! PC

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    16. Robyn Yucel

      Higher Education science educator and PhD candidate

      In reply to Janeen Harris

      All analogies break down eventually. A wolf can't help being a wolf, but that doesn't mean a human is 'made' a certain way, e.g. evil, and can never change. A wolf has less ability to change its circumstances than a human who is both constrained and enabled by complex social structures.

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    17. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Robyn Yucel

      Robyn - From a number of personal experiences, I really don't care if a person was made that way. It's a point of discussion that is WELL detached from reality.
      Examine first the effects of "evil"
      I choose not to be a victim of evil, though you might prefer to be, and is entirely your choice.
      The point is - So called "evil" manifests itself in many ways.
      Discussion on the matter means subservience to evil.
      I write now because I have effectively resisted evil, and can boast having saved many others from evil (armed assault - rape - robbery).
      CAN YOU? PC

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  3. ricphillips

    logged in via Twitter

    There is a distinction missing. That between those who harm while rationalising or equivocating and those who don't, or whom are even open about deriving satisfaction from harming others.

    There is some truth in the old say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Some evil doers, especially some (mistaken) idealists operating collectively, are attempting to 'put the world right' - according to their own views. Records of meetings by senior Nazis show they equivocated and rationalised…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to ricphillips

      Of course, like everything, nothing completely fits into a neat box.

      But perhaps the "accidentally" evil need to think a bit more about the harm that can be done.

      Think of the atom bomb.

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    2. Anna Young

      Project Manager

      In reply to ricphillips

      Indeed. If only compassion was at the heart of all decision-making.

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    3. Jim Howe

      Neurologist at Neuropalliative rehabilitation

      In reply to ricphillips

      I do not recall J S Mill writing about "necessary evils"

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    4. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to ricphillips

      As are people who say,"we all have to share the heavy lifting," while arranging things such that the poor, weak, disabled, old or otherwise disadvantaged carry the bulk of the effort.

      "The banality of evil," indeed.

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    1. Lynne Black

      Latte Sipper

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      I don't think it's up to the individual to decide whether they are evil or not. I'm sure Hitler didn't think he was evil. Abbott probably thinks he's a good Christian.

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    2. Paul Regis

      Business Analyst

      In reply to Lynne Black

      Consider the art of telling lies. Some people can mislead maliciously and intentionally. And others can be so fixated of their own sense or righteousness that they convince themselves of their own truth - i.e. they are still fibbing but no longer realise that they are doing it. I know someone who does this, thankfully I don't work for them any more. In a sense, such people may be convinced they are doing right when in fact their motivations are self-centred and disingenuous.
      Perhaps this is where…

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    3. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Lynne Black

      To me that seems like a ridiculous question, but then I may be reading something into your statement that is not there. If your question is: 'are elected politicians evil or capable of evil' i would say that the answer is evident. if your question is 'are politicians who make decisions that are demonstrably harmful for political gain, not for utilitarian aims, evil' I would say yes that is evidence of an evil act but not necessary an evil person (that distinction is a whole different kettle of fish).

      If your question is a form of stating; 'i don't like abbott's policies so he is evil' I think that you need some different coloured glasses, ones that don't have political bias attached to them.

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    4. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Lynne Black

      NO! But he is neither a leader or a statesman. Come to think of it - I can't pick anybody who I would 'follow into battle'. It's worth reading the wisdom of the founding fathers of USA. What a pity their wisdom is ignored by social reformers. Australia is little different. PC

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    5. Sebastian Poeckes

      Retired

      In reply to Lynne Black

      Well, Hitler never repudiated his Catholic faith, in public anyway. And his speeches constantly invoked the will of heaven. So maybe Hitler thought of himself as some sort of good Christian also.

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    6. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to Lynne Black

      Not repudiating his Catholic faith gave him a few years extra life, as the church [or Vatican whatever you choose] certainly didn't repudiate him; [as with many dictators still alive today], There's nothing more sickening than to see picture's of cardinals; prince's of the church, giving him the "salute" that terrorised so many.

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  4. Andrew McIntosh

    Part-time bludger.

    The problem with the very word is that it's still too emotionally easy to associate it with religiosity. We've had centuries of the notion that "good" and "evil" come from sources outside of ourselves Jeffrey Burton Russell writes of what he calls "radical evil" - if I've read it right, it's the notion that if you can have evil individuals, and can have evil social systems and even evil societies, it follows that there is an evil that is beyond even ourselves; namely, Satan.

    So it's not surprising…

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    1. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      I agree that "The problem with the very word is that it's still too emotionally easy to associate it with religiosity" which is why certain politicians and others use it as a kind of dog whistle. The loaded nature of the word is one of the reasons I prefer to steer away from it and those that are quick to use it.

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    2. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Brad Farrant

      This is an important worry, Brad. I agree that many people are way too quick in calling actions or persons evil. On my account, you should judge that a person is evil only if you have got pretty clear evidence that the person in question is beyond hope of reform, and often politicians and others jump to that conclusion without considering any such evidence. The concept of evil personhood is very often misapplied.

      However, it is worth noting that lots of our moral concepts are often misapplied. e.g. Consider the concept of that which is morally honourable. There are people who think, for instance, that it is morally honourable to shame and ridicule homosexuals. To be clear, I think this is a misapplication of the concept of the morally honourable. But this doesn't show that we ought to reject the concept of the morally honourable. Rather, it suggests that we ought to be very careful in applying it. The same is true of the concept of evil, in my view.

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    3. Brad Farrant

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Luke Russell

      Thanks Luke.

      I think the term "evil" is very loaded with religiosity at the moment. But perhaps if people starting only using it carefully in the ways you suggest it would become less so and thereby less problematic?

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  5. Meg Thornton

    Dilletante

    For a definition of evil, I feel you can't go past this one provided by one of the great moral philosophers of our time: "evil begins when you begin to treat people as things". Or in it's earlier form: "... sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

    (Both from Terry Pratchett - the first is from "I Shall Wear Midnight", the second from "Carpe Jugulum".)

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    1. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      meg, Pratchett got it from Kant. It's a fine basis for moral philosophy except I could never understand how one could treat oneself as an object.

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    2. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Meredith Dart

      Vanity, you mean? I hadn't thought of it that way - but that is merely objectifying one's body not oneself.

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    3. Meg Thornton

      Dilletante

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Ah, this is where being female helps, in a way. See, I've grown up in a culture which treats me as an object, to the point where I can quite easily treat my physical body as being just another thing I have to dust. This is what objectification is, after all - treating a person as a thing, creating their *existence* as a thing, and denying their existence as an individual person. Thus it is possible to effectively deny one's own person-hood, vanish into the stereotypes, hide in the expectations…

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    4. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Meg Thornton

      I too am a woman, yet not entirely persuaded by 'objectification of women' arguments. Female beauty is a great source of power which comes gratis to some women. Women can abandon this beauty and work for power the same way men and plain women do. Being treated as beautiful is an advantage, not a form of oppression. If I say a woman is beautiful the same way a rose is beautiful or a cat is beautiful, this doesn't denigrate the woman's personhood but exalts her beauty. These kind of observations are…

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    5. Meredith Dart

      Systems Analyst

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      I'm not sure the "food as fuel" brigade see a difference between "body" and "self". It seems to me that's why so many people attach a moral failing to a physical one.

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  6. Tom Lowe

    Research Officer

    I agree that the word evil is counterproductive and inaccurate. It is an insult but not a true description of anyone.
    What is more useful is to understand that networks of people can do horrific things while each member is acting fairly sensibly for their situation. Take an illustrative Mafia family example-

    The Boss is protecting his family, he knows that if the family weakens then some guilty members will suffer revenge attacks or be charged and jailed, he also knows that if he shows weakness…

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  7. Jennie Taylor

    Consultant

    I suppose you're entitles to your opinion, but you devoted the length of the article to discussing the topic of whether evil is real with examples that indicate it is a single characteristic at worst... and then conclude that some people are 'just evil', as if that is their only characteristic without providing any evidence or reasoning for this.

    I don't remember my philosophy professors being quite so accepting of poor logic...

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    1. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Jennie Taylor

      Hi Jennie. I don't hold the view that if someone is an evil person, then being evil is his or her only characteristic. I think that an evil person has lots of other properties, e.g. an evil person is a human being, is capable of reasoning, etc.. I also think that an evil person need not be morally bad in every respect. Another way to put that is this: I think an evil person must have extreme moral vices, but can also have a good side. For instance, someone might be an evil person but also be courageous, or loyal. There are philosophers who disagree with me on this issue. e.g. Daniel Haybron claims that if someone is an evil person, then he or she must be morally bad in every respect. (BTW, I didn't write the headline for the article, with "just plain evil", which may have given you the idea that I believe an evil person is evil and is nothing else).

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    2. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Luke Russell

      That's an interesting position, Luke, because it poses the question of how would one calculate the degree of evil in a human sufficient to class someone as Evil?
      Is it moderated by any corresponding virtues? is it inalienable; i.e. does one extreme evil act render one Evil for all time?

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    3. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      What if Hitler loved dogs, and was very nice to his mother.
      Loved art & music as well. Does that ameliorate things?

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    4. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Luke Russell

      Luke - Sorry - wrong planet. Theory is nice but part of the problem.
      Clearly you haven't met any truly evil people. Just because an evil human can reason or might have a 'good side' doesn't mean that person is somehow absolved of actions elsewhere.
      I can relate examples from first hand experience but aren't for the squeamish so I won't.
      That's but one form of 'evilness'. Get used to it - walking the streets are some truly terrible and ruthless humans. PC

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    5. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Thanks, Joe. Good questions, and tough questions for people who give my kind of account of evil. I haven't got a clear answer to the question of where exactly the boundary lies between someone who is an evil person and someone who is deplorably vicious but falls short of being evil. I think there is a grey area here. I agree that this is an undesireable feature of a theory of evil, but here's why I think we should stick with it:

      First, the problem of fuzzy boundaries is really widespread in relation…

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    6. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      That's my point entirely, Stephen. It appears that Evil is like being a parent, there's no halfway state and once there you can't go back. I am interested as to where the threshold is between being naughty and Evil and how that threshold is worked out. When did hitler get Evil? If he repented and became virtuous would he go from Evil to 'someone who did evil'.

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    7. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Hi Peter. I don't think that an evil person who has a good side is thereby absolved of responsibility for wrongdoing. In judging that an action is evil, we judge that the person who performed the action is morally responsible for having done so.

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    8. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      Thanks Joe - I wonder if someone like Hitler - an EVIL person, can be regarded to have "good" qualities.

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    9. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Luke Russell

      That's not what you said, but Luke Russell summed up my intention when he said ""What if Hitler loved dogs, and was very nice to his mother. Loved art & music as well. Does that ameliorate things?" PC

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  8. Dirk Baltzly

    Professor of Philosophy -- University of Tasmania

    It's interesting to reflect that this discussion about the concept of evil (as it is expressed in English) is not one that we'd easily have in ancient Greek. Consider your choices for translating 'kakia'. This is the opposite of arete^ or 'virtue'. There are clearly people who are virtuous. That is to say, there are clearly people who possess all the morally desirable states of character such as honesty, courage, kindness, etc. The English word that was historically the antonym of 'virtuous' was…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Don't know about virtuous people - I've never known any.

      I think they are an urban myth.

      We can possess some virtuous qualities, but personally I don't think any human can be Virtuous. Too many frailties.

      And we don't know what goes on in a supposedly virtuous person's head.

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    2. Joe Gartner

      Eating Cake

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Well i suppose that am evil, I am subject to many vicious thoughts and malicious intentions. I have many 'serious and pervasive defects of moral character'. But I don't act upon them; so whilst my mind might be prey to unkind, lascivious and violent thoughts and impulses, like most citizens i don't enact them.

      So is evil then act + intent or act alone? Is intent sufficient or must there be some capacity for empathy to define evil? is my 3 month old kitten evil when he brings in a mouse for…

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    3. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Thanks, Dirk. Interesting thoughts. You are right that my account of evil personhood is built on Aristotelian foundations. For instance, I think an evil person has extreme vices, and an evil person need not have been innately evil, but might have come through a combination of nature and nurture to have a firmly fixed evil character.

      One thing I would add is that the extreme vices of an evil person must be such as to dispose that person to perform evil actions. Some extreme vices (e.g. extreme…

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    4. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Who are the baddies? Questions about the concept, nature and definition of Evil

      Thank you Luke for the challenge. Yes Dirk I agree. There are 'people who posses all the morally desirable states of character such as honesty, courage, kindness etc.'. And there are also really evil people at the other end of the virtue – vice spectrum. But what if it's not that simple to sort them out.?

      Consider the pederasts, paedophiles serial killers and rapists who satisfy their lusts on the powerless…

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    5. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Phil Gorman

      OOPs! I need an edditor. Para 13 last sentence:
      Environmental health and human well-being are necessarily treated as externalities.

      Last para:
      It takes strong virtuous characters to resist its lure. We need more strong virtuous characters prepared to act if evil is not to prevail.

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  9. Gordon William Francis Young

    Lecturer of Professional/Applied Ethics at RMIT University

    With respect to the author, this article dances around the point by avoiding a definition of the concept.

    If we define it as acts that cause extreme suffering or acts that are particularly unethical then it's just a verb denoting extremeness, not a concept in and of itself.

    If we define it as acts caused by, or contributing to a supernatural force then we've departed from reality.

    If we define it as someone who thinks what they are doing is the right thing (genuinely, through self-dillusion…

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    1. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Gordon William Francis Young

      HI Gordon. Thanks for your comment. I disagree with your implication that if evil actions are just extreme moral wrongs, then we have some reason to dismiss the concept of evil. As it happens, I don't think that evil action can simply be defined as very wrong action, because I think that there are distinctive conditions concerning culpability and the kind of extremity that is required for a wrong act to count as evil. But suppose for the sake of argument that someone did say "Evil actions are merely…

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    2. Gordon William Francis Young

      Lecturer of Professional/Applied Ethics at RMIT University

      In reply to Luke Russell

      Hi Luke, thanks for the response.

      Regarding evil as referring to the extremeness of an unethical act, I can see a reason to use it to describe these act, but would argue that doing so changes 'evil' from a objective concept to just a descriptive word - it ceases to be of any important philosophically. It could be argued that actions of sufficient enormity somehow generate additional moral culpability - Hitler is obviously in a class few humans would ever reach - but I'm not sure where the distinction…

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    3. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Gordon William Francis Young

      I agree that some people who dismiss a wrongdoer as evil have no further interest in getting at the details regarding the wrongdoer's motives or the causes that shaped the wrongdoer's character. But there are also many people who use the category of evil and who pay great attention to tracing out motives, intentions and causal influences that shaped the perpetrator. e.g. Hannah Arendt's book "Eichmann in Jersusalem" and Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler" are two prominent examples. I think that judging that an action or a person is evil is compatible with asking the deeper causal questions, just as judging that a person is cruel is compatible with wondering why they came to be a cruel person, and what motivates them to cause harm to others.

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    4. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      How evil is the evil doer then? Is it a matter of degree?

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  10. Kristian Thoroughgood

    logged in via Twitter

    Interesting article. I would suggest (and as you discuss) 'evil' exists only when the lens though which you view it defines that thing as 'evil'. Hitler would not have thought he was evil - through the lens of his misguided view (and the people he supported), he was a saviour. The Australian Stolen Generation is an example of what at the time was considered good policy and good for the people involved, but through the more humanitarian lens with which we view it now, we consider it thoroughly evil, and a shameful aspect of our past.

    So 'evil' is heavily dependant on what society accepts or expects. Even within a certain society at a point in time, the view of evil can differ.So we can only say "this is evil" based on our own preconceptions.

    As such, I don't think that you can say something or someone is 'evil' without the introduction of 'In My View...' first.

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  11. Anthony Peterson

    logged in via Twitter

    A lie's author is its first victim, and the most deceived. All evil begins with an act of self deception. Pride elevates itself above the truth.

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  12. Margit Alm

    Conversationist

    One can argue this topic until the cows come home.
    There is no right or wrong answer to it.

    One has to look at each action and weigh up the pro's and con's and whether that action is necessary in the first place, investigate its background, and how it can be addressed in the least harm-causing manner, etc etc.

    A few days ago I read a profile about Geoffrey Robertson, a person I have in general time for. Yet in his profile it said that he justified the bombing of Hiroshima and maybe justified the bombing of Nagasaki. I cannot agree with him on that.

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Margit Alm

      I know Margit. Generally I don't get involved in "philosophical" discussions, b/c there is a million versions of the "truth".

      But this discussion seems to be a little more lively.

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    2. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Margit Alm

      Bloody end and means again! It perplexes us all in the end.

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  13. Ray Butler

    logged in via Facebook

    Compassion and efficiency are things we acknowledge in observation, that is we know when someone is in pain and we know when we see something being wasted, the idea that we have to rationally assess things to know the truth is usually wrong, as long as our observances are not superficial then they are generally accurate.

    In this context, compassion is an evolved sense, by millions of years of trial and error it has proved advantageous to our survival, but not always; sometimes compassion is a…

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    1. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Butler

      But regarding evil, I used to consider it an absolute, like divinity, perfection, infinity and maybe even love, but for something to have a relevant definition to humans it has to be accessible to us, it has to be within our capacity.

      With love, I consider it like humans are vessels and we can fill to overflowing with love, that is our capacity but we cannot fully contain it, evil would have to be akin to this in my opinion; we cannot embody it in the absolute sense, because we are finite beings, but we can fill with it, yet it would be akin to a bucket of water from the ocean.

      But then I don't think the universe has connotation, only we give things evaluation according to how the impact us, which is still valid from our perspective.

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    2. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Butler

      To get a bit more metaphysical; if there are sentient-like energy beings, what people would consider "Angels and Demons", by my theory they wouldn't be at war with each other, as we presume, because each force just represents naturally occurring functions of the universe, and they exist free of connotation.

      A Demon may manifest as chaos or destruction, but an Angel doesn't see it as a monster that is hurting innocent humans, it sees it as a complimentary parallel of itself, units in a collective. So humans exist in a completely different paradigm, notably because we are material beings and they are energy or spectral entities, their ability to comprehend connotation is as slight as our ability not to.

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    3. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Ray Butler

      This is very interesting Ray. But I think that if there were 'Angels and Demons', they would be at constant war with each other. Humans, if your 'water from the ocean' metaphor is correct (and I think it is), are also at war with each other if they are 'filled' with antagonistic ethos. Order and love (etc) try to vanquish chaos and hate (etc.) and vice versa. If that was the case, they would be pretty evenly matched. You say that we infuse connotation into it all depending on how it affects us, but…

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    4. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      With Angels and Demons I'm more pointing out how people attribute human qualities to natural forces, like intent for instance; the idea of intent is a human concept, I tend to believe it doesn't exist anywhere else but in us, yet people have this habit of seeing natural forces with this human trait.

      So if evil does really exist then although it is chaotic or destructive, it doesn't mean to be or even know it is, it is just functioning according to the potential of its existence. So we consider…

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    5. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      So yeah, I think that is a good way to explain evolution and the position humans are in; you want to build a house that can weather the strongest storm, but you will not know if that house is strong enough until the strongest storm hits. Alternatively you can find a way to get rid of storms all together, in which case you do not need to build a strong house.

      How this idea applies to real life would be very interesting.

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    6. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Ray Butler

      I am the opposite and tend to see human traits as embodying natural forces. I am not even sure intent in humans exists, they strike me more like deluded passengers on a bus, thinking they are driving in the direction they wish. Generally I sympathise with the determinists in the free-will debate.

      Perhaps evil is a man-made illusion. We are no more evil than sharks or other carnivorous animals. The illusion could be created to help in controlling otherwise natural instincts and ensuring survival of the greatest numbers. If the point was always survival, humanity has done very well - in fact the planet is grotesquely overpopulated by humans. If overpopulation has become a threat to human survival, perhaps we succeeded in evolution so well that we eventually engineered our own destruction.

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    7. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      I'm not a determinist, if that is how I appear. Yes indeed we are manifestations of the universe, part of it not separate from it, but what I mean is there is a flow natural to the universe that we are better served observing, rather than by lack of will and discipline opposing.

      Everything has its place and function, analysis and anticipation of that nature is more efficient than determinism, which is where impulsive or ideological behaviour comes from. Fear and desire have their place, so does logical deduction and reason, but if they replace our nature rather than serve it is when we become irrational and even unnatural.

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    8. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Butler

      (*determinism is where impulsive or ideological behaviour comes from)

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    9. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      But I'd argue that over-population is not the threat you hold it to be, the Earth is capable of sustainably supporting far more people than it currently does, and sufficiently, but not in the consumer state we currently arrange things; that is our downfall, inefficient organisation, not excess.

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    10. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Excess is a product of inefficient organisation, not an expression of success. Freedom is an illusion as you say, at least in its current paradigm. To me freedom is a synonym of self-control, and it is there that we become sustainable environmentally and socially, and it is there that our liberties are not threatened, because ideally our liberties are only threatened when we become harmful or unsustainable that others feel threatened by us, hence self-control.

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    11. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      But yes, ultimately if we prove incapable of efficient organisation, nature has checks and balances in place that will do it for us.

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    12. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Philosophically I dissect it according to Form and Substance; superficial observation reveals for, substantial observation reveals truth. The idea that we need to intellectually analyse observations is predominantly a myth, as long as our observations are not superficial then generally what you see is what you get; compassion/justice/efficiency reveal themselves, we spend far too much time rationalising reality than we do facing it.

      For example; reason comes into play not to determine if the person in pain deserves it but in finding a more appropriate way to address the situation. Judgementality is not righteousness, although people confuse it as such, righteousness, or wisdom, is the appropriate blend of compassion/justice/efficiency, once calculated is then applied.

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    13. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Ray Butler

      Ray - I know it's not as simple as this, but to bring perspective to what you just said:
      If each person on this planet was allocated 10 square metres of space, the entire population would fit on the mainland of Tasmania.
      That said - it's the resources and energy needs of people coupled with the 'least cost' and 'greatest profit' situation that are the real problems. But space required for the people is one thing - it's the space and resources needed to sustain people that's the issue - nonetheless it does bring all into perspective.
      I laughed with your "nature has checks and balances in place that will do it for us." - Yes - it's called death!. PC

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    14. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Sorry for the barrage of posts.

      I will say that generally normal people are not willing or able to develop these skills, that is why Democracy in its pure sense is impractical, but then although the rich would have us believe that wealth is a measure of credibility, that also is a false premise.

      I think academics are far more versed in substantial observation, then the process of peer review can then eliminate their personal interpretations and provide a more objective and less bureaucratic option, so where neither popular opinion nor financial influence corrupt the formulation we can produce the most efficient organisation, obviously in balance with compassion and justice as best served across the board.

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    15. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Ha, by nature having checks and balances I mean that when too many rabbits eat all the vegetation, they starve and their populations decline.

      But yes, I see your point; there is more to it than just nutrients and hydration, we have technology that provides the education for us to each grow towards our potential, and that technology requires energy, just as expressing our passions and embracing our potential generally requires products (raw or processed) in that medium, which is more energy expenditure.

      That would be why after needs are met, people would be expected to earn wants by way of contribution, and wants would have to be valued according to the cost of mass producing needs across the board but also their sustainability socially and environmentally, apart from their usual costs in material and intellectual/manual labour in production. Negative commoditisation is important to us, but is really only a new concept.

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    16. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Ray Butler

      Ray - You describe Valhalla. For thousands of years people have tried for Valhalla, and never found it, so given the human nature and it's variables haven't changed over thousands of years - and given that EVIL people existed then and now - then Valhalla will always remain a dream.
      That's why god invented Wine, Beer, Scuba diving, Skiing, Photography, Sporting Guns and so on.
      The world is a GREAT place, but like anything it has it's pitfalls, so the trick to life is to enjoy it and just beware of the pitfalls and NEVER but NEVER assign your well-being and security to others. There I specifically mean Laws, Police and political promises. PC

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    17. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Yes, I am aware of that; I believe that life is about finding fulfilment, not answers, and there are many practical ways to find that fulfilment, but variables have changed; the communications revolution, automation and product convergence technology place us in a unique position no other level of civilisation has afforded us.

      Keeping dynamic forces, including human capacity for "evil", in check is now a realisable option, and granted I doubt we will ever completely master anything quite to the utopian degree, we can at least organise what we can according to the methods we have available.

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    18. Anthony Gallas

      Student, University of Life

      In reply to Ray Butler

      Excellent, Ray. One of the best comments on life and the purpose of it that has been posted. We will never master everything to that utopian degree, so the best we can do is the best we can do.

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    19. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Anthony Gallas

      Thanks. Personally I find circumstance and/or ambition to be impure motive to drive action, but if I like it or not most people exist in that paradigm. Ideally I think doing what you can because it makes sense, as vague as that sounds, is the best driving force behind a person. So Utopia would ultimately depend on everyone existing in that paradigm and existing in it well, which I think is unrealistic, but we can have a system set up that promotes options more in that spirit.

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    20. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Ray Butler

      Ray - again I agree. You are currently practicing what you preach - so am I and others here who share opinion - with a poke here and there.
      I have so behaved all my life because I was lucky enough to have a loyal and loving family who allowed me leeway to explore, and always warned me of "Sleep with Dogs and you will get Fleas" and "Treat others in the same way I would like to be treated". Most people reciprocate and life is much easier for all.
      I've passed that onto my children, so we are blessed, whereas others aren't for a host of reasons. Imagine the society we could develop IF -- If we did not require government inspired and funded killing sprees (wars) to unite people (to kill each other) but to cooperate for our combined benefit.
      Alas, it is a dream, but doesn't stop me trying, and I suspect also you! PC

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    21. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Ray Butler

      I am not sure we are talking about the same thing. If we are a part of the universe - which we clearly are - then we cannot oppose what we are. If we are in 'opposition' we were created in opposition, so we are just acting in accordance with our own natures, which are natures of opposition.

      I don't see the connection between impulsive or ideological behaviour and determinism, unless we were programmed by our genetic makeup and environment to follow an ideology or behave impulsively.

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    22. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Ray Butler

      The reality of freedom is an illusion, but not necessarily the experience of freedom. The experience of freedom feels real, and that is all the reality it needs.

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    23. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Ray Butler

      The problem with 'evil' is that it is especially talented at mimicking 'goodness'. If an ugly mind had a way to impress itself on physical appearance and good people were beautiful, while evil people hideous, then much of the problem would disappear. Unfortunately we have no way of looking into each others' souls until it is too late and the damage is done.

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    24. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Ray Butler

      Academics are plagued by their own demons and struggles for power, but they tend to be more interesting than most because they live almost entirely in their heads. But if you ask me if I think academics are better people or wiser at interpreting the world apart from their own field, I would say 'no'. They have their 'goodies' and their 'baddies' like everyone else. Sometimes I think democracy is a failure and we should all be ruled by mountain monks, or at least someone who is above struggles for power and corruption. We need someone who can't be bought with anything.

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    25. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Hmm, ideology is a relatively new feature to our state of being and so as a species we are still coming to terms with that. Impulse has been a beneficial feature of our nature pre-concept, but as we hit that singularity of reason we can rationalise new ways to indulge impulse, a problem we didn't have before.

      So where impulse is natural instinct it becomes something that can interest the focus of our behaviour and all our scheming may end up serving that agenda.

      And yes, academics have their own…

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    26. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Yes, I think people call ideals ideals in an attempt to underscore them, that somehow an ideal is automatically unrealistic simply according to its categorisation, but I don't think of ideals as unattainable, I see them as goals; giving up on goals is pessimism, not scepticism, huge difference. People would also consider what I say to be optimism, but attaining what is possible is as much realism as it is idealism, it just depends on how much work we are willing to put in to make it so.

      So where a lot of people will run themselves off a cliff in pursuit of something that requires more substantial analysis for it to be healthy and safe, people who have insight into that detail have an obligation to provide those guidelines for the benefit of everyone, and just keep trying until it becomes more than an idealistic dream, nag until people take note; logic and wisdom can only be denied for so long, eventually by exhausting all other options we will inevitably be left with the right way.

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  14. Clive Bond

    logged in via Facebook

    I guess its open to individual interpretations. In my mind a pedophile is not evil just very very sick. However an organisation that allows pedophiles to escape and reoffend is undoubtably evil.

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  15. Ed Hotan

    logged in via email @outlook.com

    Pointless semantics. One might just as well ask, "Does goodness exist and, if so, are some people just plain good?". Was it a slow day in the philosophy department?

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    1. Andrew McIntosh

      Part-time bludger.

      In reply to Ed Hotan

      Actually, why not? I've known people who seem to be almost instinctively altruistic. Helping others gives them pleasure, assists others, makes better social connections, all involved are better off. I'd say there are people who are just plain good, even with their faults, just as there are people even with their virtues.

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    2. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Andrew McIntosh

      Well - That's prettywell my position in my personal and business life - always has been. Most people reciprocate when being treated fairly, and life is much easier. But that doesn't hold true to all people - it does however make life simpler and more enjoyable. PC

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    3. Ed Hotan

      logged in via email @outlook.com

      In reply to Andrew McIntosh

      I agree with you. My question is why is the author of the article is attempting to find enlightenment in shades of meaning. All reasoning people accept there is bad and good. Some people have a religious perspective, others a moral conviction. And what is "bad" for some may be "good" for others. But the basic concepts are not in question. No long-winded semantic exploration is needed. We all knew, before he breathlessly reached his long-winded conclusion, "that evil persons, as well as evil actions, are real''.

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    4. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Ed Hotan

      Hi Ed. My article does not address the question of whether wrong actions and bad people exist, but whether evil actions and evil people exist. I gave a few examples of recent thinkers who deny the existence of evil: Phillip Cole, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Inga Clendinnen. None of these thinkers deny the existence of badness and wrongness, but they do say that there is no such thing as evil. I suspect that you are assuming that the word "evil" simply means "bad", whereas these thinkers (and a lot of others) take "evil" to mean something more than "bad".

      Do you disagree with Cole, Baron-Cohen, and Clendinnen? (Warning: Answering that question might drag you into a long-winded semantic exploration.)

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    5. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Luke Russell

      Hi Luke,

      I think your article could have address opposing views better. It is hard to determine who has the better view, you or Philip Cole, if you don't explain what that opposing view is. It is not enough to say that they suggest 'we ought to drop the concept of evil' without explaining their argument further.

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    6. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Ed Hotan

      I have to disagree. Its not pointless semantics. it's just pushing the limits of our ability to conceive what we're talking about and language has its limits. The problem of evil is central to what it means to be human. It always has been. Sophocles, if I remeber rightly, equated evil with mistaken thinking and taught that if we understood things well enough we wouldn't make the errors that result in evil outcomes.

      Correct me if I'm wrong.

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    7. Ed Hotan

      logged in via email @outlook.com

      In reply to Luke Russell

      Hi Luke. Bad, badder, baddest, and then perhaps there is evil. Or not. Or who cares? Do philosophical conclusions on whether evil actually exists really matter? The meaning is adequately defined in dictionaries. The concepts are familiar. Again, apart from providing a nit-picking diversion for ruminating philosophers, what's the point?

      On the other hand, it's amusing to contemplate that evil might actually have its own existence, like a thunderous black cloud lanced by lightning bolts, suddenly descending to engulf the likes of Hitler, Nero, Pol Pot and others who might have had a good life had they not been sucked into the venemous gloom.

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  16. John Ahlstrom

    Contractor

    I do not know if evil exists.

    I believe that under the right circumstances anyone can do horrible things to other people. Or (worse?) that they can stand by and watch and allow others to inflict horrors on other people as if it were none of their business.

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  17. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    Great article, thanks Luke. If I can pull the standard philosophy seminar gambit of starting a question with the phrase "I wonder if you could say a bit more about..."

    While I note your comments below about the necessary imprecision of our concepts here, are there, in your view, particular qualitative differences we can articulate between the evil and the merely-very-bad, or is it simply a (possibly still useful) quantitative distinction? To go back to the lake/pond example you give in your comments above, it's not clear to me that there's some distinct property of 'lakeness' that arises at some (very fuzzy) point when a pond gets big enough, whereas 'evil' seems like it should pick out a particular quality. (I have in mind here Gaita's comments that the holocaust embodies a qualitatively new kind of moral evil that goes beyond its sheer scale).

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    1. Luke Russell

      Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Sydney

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Hi Patrick. I've written in detail about the qualitative v. quantitative question, and I can send you the papers if you'd like. Here's a quick version of my answer (but it might be too compressed to be helpful): there is no special psychological property that is possessed by evil actions that is not also possessed (perhaps in lesser magnitude) by some non-evil wrong actions. e.g. malice, sadism, defiance of morality, incomprehensibility, etc. You can find minor, non-evil wrongs that are malicious…

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    2. David Maddern

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      I have looked at all the posts to date and I am not moved to shift from my view that to describe a person as evil is a religious concept, describe a thing, action, even a budget as evil is far enough.

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    3. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Luke Russell

      Let us imagine a group of kids placing a piece of dynamite in a mailbox as a prank. In the first instance, a young woman with a child opens her mailbox, the dynamite explodes in her face and she is horribly disfigured, surviving within an inch of her life. The child dies. In the second instance, the woman returns to her car because she remembers she has left a package in the back seat. The dynamite explodes as she is searching for the package in her car. No one is hurt. Is the second action less morally blameworthy because it causes no pain?

      It think consequences are entirely in the province of chance and could not influence the character of action itself. Moral turpitude is not even in the act - it is in the thought. Thought is the most important form of action. All important events happen in the mind. All great 'sins' happen in the mind as well.

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    4. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Luke Russell

      Thanks for the helpful reply Luke. I can see why some might find the quantitative approach a bit deflationary, but nonetheless I can also see how it preserves the concept as a useful one. Looking forward to the book!

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  18. Peter Wilkin

    Australian Realist

    Evil is whatever a religious person happens to emphatically dislike at the time.

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  19. Diane Bruhn

    ocassional activist

    i believe evil, as referred to in this article is a commentary on violence and dreadful injustice perpetrated by persons with a predisposition to act unconscioubly. While acknowledging actrocities against any sentient beings can be evaluated as evil acts, I get confused by pronouncements that some people are or were evil. How can we know the state of a person's heart? Personally, I relate to the concept of evil as an evaluation of the state of a person's soul, and given this is a religious or spiritual…

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    1. In reply to Diane Bruhn

      Comment removed by moderator.

    2. Diane Bruhn

      ocassional activist

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Peter, I believe psychologically speaking, that evil exists, no question. I have no wish to diminish its power or reality, I personally feel terrible grief about so many things. I suspect you missed the point I was trying to make. Peter if said machete wielding bandit comes at me and i whip out my double barrel and disembowel him at point blank range, how can I be judged as good or evil? If I derived some sick pleasure from performing such an act would would that make me evil, if I was attempting…

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    3. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Diane Bruhn

      Diane: We got off to a bad start, but that's the problem with text - conveying what's in the mind is often more brutal than intended - especially when trying to be brief!
      A good start now: Evil in people do exist - be it genetic or environmental - really bad people do exist and prey on others in many ways.
      Be they common human predators, sadists, or those for whatever reason need to dominate others and limit liberties and freedom - degrees of evil exist for them to do so.
      On self defence: Well…

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  20. Lynne Newington

    Researcher

    In reference to Ted Bundy.....his life of sexual crime and deviancy came from reading soft porn introduced by someone....
    Sadam Hussein was abused unmercifully by an uncle who married his mother after her husband abandoned the family......and our jails are full of guy's who originally suffered at the hands of others as children, most likey clergyman so the statistics are now showing us, many abused themselves either as altar boys or in seminaries.
    Where's the philosphical explaination here.

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    1. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Lynne Newington

      Lynne: The very last thing that victims of evil want is an explanation or a detached philosophical discussion from a cozy armchair. To victims it matters none what caused their evil. What matters is how to identify and resist evil. In the case of violent evil, pacifism is a death sentence.
      The best tool to use against evil people is the very tool they use to get their way.
      It's what bullies understand and respect.
      It's the principle behind Judo and other martial arts.
      It's the principle behind military defence forces - and should be for all tested civilians.
      For political and corporate evil, similar processes need be established and equally ruthlessly applied. Fail to do that and evil will continue. PC

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    2. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Peter,I hope you're still on deck re this article, if may I prevail up you with one other question:
      What about rehabilitaion, what role does philosophy have to offer there; I always thought music, drama and philosophy would be a good thing, as is already being tried, with drama at least as docummented here on TC recently.
      With that in mind, my thoughts atomatically go to Martin Bryant; we never had the full story there, now self mutilating locked up and key thrown away never to be released.......

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    3. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Lynne Newington

      Lynne: Just got back from Sinney - 28C there today, so a nice Coopers is hitting the sides as my fingers try coordinating with the brane(sic).
      Rehabilitation: Nobody can rehabilitate a madman, nor a sadist, nor somebody who derives pleasure from inflicting pain (whatever sort) on other people. It's the same as kiddy fiddlers - it's in their makeup.
      I returned today to see a comment I made some days back removed because somebody has objected to the strong point I deliberately made, so I'll…

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  21. Paul Rogers

    Manager

    In any cultural context I think it's safe to say that 'evil' exists; in that it defies clear, established and accepted moral conventions in some deliberate and extreme way.

    However, in terms of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, evil does not exist, in my view. In all perceived forms it is an evolutionary adaptive response that arises to fulfill needs, both environmental and psychological, in order to enhance individual survival and power. (But not necessarily group or species survival.)

    Perhaps we should get used to the idea that the Barbarians might not be at the gate, but they will certainly be around the corner.

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  22. Michelle Bruce

    citizen

    Philosophy and her daughter science can't deal with the problem of evil. Only art and religion can do that in any meaningful way. Art describes it and its consequences and religion defines it further in terms everyone can understand, then issues a blank ban on it. This is why religion is not 'true' but necessary.

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    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Plato proposed that a nation needed a unifying myth to sustain social cohesion under the benevolent rule of a group of philosopher kings who knew better than to believe it. So yes, religion is necessary rather than true. It is an agent of control.

      Once people stop believing they grieve for their loss of meaning. When enough people become disillusioned with their unifying mythology there is trouble. 'Western' societies and the old Soviet Union are reflecting the alienation which results…

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    2. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Phil Gorman

      Yes, I agree Phil. I think the death of god in popular imagination opened Pandora's box. What emerged was the chimera of modernity. Western civilisation is facing a crisis of gigantic proportions. It still has a heartbeat, but its soul departed sometime in the 70s. It has lost its identity. There is no greater evil than the death of a culture and the human zombies it engenders. I wonder if the Romans went through the same pangs we are going through now.

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    3. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Phil Gorman

      Phil: Well quoted, and puts into perspective "religion is necessary". Indeed religion is an agent of control, and 'today ' - very big business. I can't fault anything you said, and will circulate your words widely - because they are worthwhile. PC

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    4. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      There is much more to be said on the subject, and I am somewhat apprehensive of the consequences, if a quote (which I hope did not originate with me) that 'religion is not true, but necessary as an agent of control', is to be circulated widely.

      I don't think that religion in itself saved any 'souls'. Stroll into any church these days and you'll find more foxes than hens. Many religions today are a last refuge of some outdated and absurd notions. And incidentally some of the worst atrocities are…

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    5. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Michelle: My comments related to Phil's, not yours. It matters none because what you both say is accurate and so well said that it warrants being circulated - not on forums or media or suchlike, but amongst friends who appreciate good discussion.
      Some people need religion or something to believe in - clearly neither you, Phil or I do.
      In my work related travels around the world, I have noticed in primitive societies that fertile minds establish a pecking order in villages. The results are…

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    6. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      We live in interesting times. Western democracies appear doomed to become mere corpocracies.

      The latest Australian budget is merely another hubristic step on the way to “Brute Utopia”.

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    7. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      We are indeed enduring the death of a Christian culture and the descent into gross materialism. The serfdom of irredeemable debt is already present.

      The pangs of the fall of Rome were slightly ameliorated by Christianity. In the West the turbulent young Church of Rome could not tame enough of the northern barbarians. The less authoritarian Celtic Church did not survive Rome's bullying. Western Europe fell into the savagery of the Dark Ages. Fortunately for Western Civilisation the Middle…

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    8. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Wavering good.
      Certainty bad.
      Certainty doesn't leave room for anything else. That's how I justify my own agnosticism, or is that scepticism.

      Diogenes was asked why he was wandering about with a candle in broad daylight. He replied he was still looking for one truly good man.

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    9. Michelle Bruce

      citizen

      In reply to Peter Cunningham

      Travel can be the greatest university, right Peter?

      I too need a kind of anchor, I think everyone does, but religion has no room for doubt, and consequently no room for me. It's almost as if it tries to push me back into the Garden of Eden and get me to vomit the apple, and I have stubbornly clenched my teeth with the preparedness to bite any finger which comes near it. But has it really given me knowledge of good and evil?

      It is interesting to contemplate that if evil exists (as I think…

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    10. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Wow - Phil is in full mode - and I don't disagree with him either. Far more a philosopher than I.
      I agree with you. I have an anchor - it's my wife (traded in the old one - so to speak!) - and I consider myself a VERY lucky man to have somebody as a mate, with whom I WANT to spend time and share.
      I have seen and been involved first hand battling the meddling and interference of established christian churches, and the pseudo christianity busine.........sorry - churches and their direct connections to the political system(s). I have seen many times GROSS hypocrisy, but also great acts of kindness by priests and true believers alike.
      I am a simple man. I dislike confusion so the fear based agendas with promises of Valhalla don't and won't have any effect on me. PC

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    11. Peter Cunningham

      MD

      In reply to Michelle Bruce

      Sorry - I meant to agree. Yes, Travel can be the greatest university, but travel to see the sights is different to travel where one meets people and wants to learn. People, for good and bad, make life interesting. Thankfully, most people from wherever travel takes 'you' are pretty good.
      I have had the honour of being invited into VERY remote areas in PNG to stay in villages (which isn't all that comfortable) but I have learned. I have helped and in turn been rewarded with simple generosity - for example, a "lapun" - old person (here being an old man) handed to me as a mark of respect a greenstone axe head that he spent a year making by painstakingly slow and primitive methods. I've saved people from being raped and robbed, and years later been rewarded by somebody who remembered. LITTLE things matter. PC

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