Philosophy Weekend: The Four Types of Evil


I recently impulse-bought A Philosophy of Evil by Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher I'd never heard of. The book called out to me from the bookstore shelf, the title on the stark cover promising a brave attempt to tackle a very difficult subject head-on.

The nature of evil -- along with the closely related question of the nature of good -- is one of the primary unresolved questions of ethical philosophy, and has remained unresolved from the age of Plato to today. To frame the terms "good" and "evil" in a philosophical setting is to suggest that they can be defined in some kind of meaningful, pragmatic and universal way, but few attempts to provide these definitions have ever been considered successful. Religions and rigid political doctrines define good and evil, sure -- but academic philosophy is held to a different standard of objectivity, and tends to fall far short of a sturdy anchoring point for any kind of moral language.

Friedrich Nietzsche advised us to give up on morality and follow him "beyond good and evil" in 1886, and it's probably fair to say that academic philosophy has remained in that Nietzschean zone -- beyond any common or widely accepted agreement on the meanings of the terms "good" and "evil" -- ever since. This is where modern philosophy rests.

So it's exciting to find Lars Svendsen taking a new look at the question, and one wonders how he'll tackle this job. To use the term "evil" at all is to use it with some amount of irony, because we all know the term is slippery. It is human nature to soundly reject "evil", and to equate it to whatever forces harm us. Yet we know it is impossible to exist without also being considered evil by others in the world. Whatever "evil" is, it appears to be all around us and inside us as well. It will take a very honest philosopher to write convincingly about this word.

Lars Svendsen turns out not to be a doctrinaire with a strong original theory about the meaning of evil, but rather a generalist who has also written books called A Philosophy of Boredom and A Philosophy of Fear. This book amounts to a search for a theory, not an explanation of one. Svendsen is in the same position as the author of this book as we are in as its readers: he doesn't know what evil means, and he wants to figure it out.

His one precondition is an admirably pragmatic and ambitious one: he refuses to discuss the nature of evil in a detached or theoretical way, but rather hopes to discover an answer that will make us all better people. This book is meant to make a difference. "Evil should never be justified, should never be explained away," Svendsen writes. "It should be fought."

The book begins by rejecting several obviously unsatisfactory theories about the nature of evil. This is followed by a useful breakdown of what Svendsen considers to be the four types of evil:

• Demonic Evil

Demonic evil is evil for its own sake, performed for the express purpose of harming others, or for the enjoyment of the experience of watching others suffer. A serial killer who slowly tortures his victims would seem to be an example of this.

• Instrumental Evil

Instrumental evil is evil that occurs in order to carry out some other purpose. An example might be the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the hazardous by-product of an aggressive business venture, and of our civilization's collective need for fuel.

• Idealistic Evil

Idealistic evil is evil that is "justified" by some greater cause. It's not hard to find big examples here. Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao and Osama bin Laden were all motivated by what they considered to be lofty ideals.

• Stupid Evil

Stupid evil is evil that occurs based on human incompetence, despite the fact that nobody wished it. A plane crash due to an easily avoidable pilot error would be an example of stupid evil.

So far so good. I feel optimistic about Lars Svendsen's venture at this point, and am intrigued to find that this breakdown provides much of the structure for the entire book. But Svendsen then surprises me by delving into the first kind of evil on the list, demonic evil, and declaring that it may not exist at all. Everything must be done for a reason Svendsen says, and therefore everything a person does, even when perceived as evil, must somehow satisfy that person's notion of good. Therefore, the person does not commit evil for evil's sake, but rather for good.

Every wish is tied to some concept of the 'good', even if the good is only for the agent himself and, in general, can be considered evil. The satisfaction of desire is good -- as in the example of rape and murder satisfying a desire, and thus having, subjectively, a good side -- though, obviously, rape and murder are certainly evil in and of themselves.

This stops me in my tracks, and I don't think I'm the only one who'll feel this way. Svendsen seems to be trying to reduce the four types of evil to three by proving that so-called demonic evil is only a warped or problematic form of instrumental evil.

I don't understand his logic here, and in fact I object to this idea for multiple reasons. First, there's the statement that "the satisfaction of desire is good". Really? This may be true to a degree -- to satisfy a desire seems better than to frustrate it -- but I'm nowhere near willing to identify "good" (in the sense of good vs. evil) with the satisfaction of desire. Buddhists consider desire to be illusory, and real-life experience has taught all of us that there is a difference between pleasure and goodness.

I also don't see what's gained by denying the idea of evil for its own sake, by attempting to reduce this concept of demonic evil (which has just been introduced a few pages before) to more elemental parts. It does seem realistic that people are sometimes driven to harm other people precisely for the enjoyment of seeing the other people suffer, and this type of evil is something more than instrumental. We can't reduce a relationship between human beings to an objective equation of good (satisfaction) and evil (harm). A theory of evil cannot be so mechanical as to fail to consider the relationship between an evildoer and his victim as a primary element of the equation in itself. This reduction simply rings false.

As I reach this point in the book, I don't want to give up on Lars Svendsen (far from it), but rather I want to slow down, back up and ponder how I can differ so strongly from the author on this point when I was following him so easily on all the previous points. It occurs to me now that I want to spend more time with this book, and go through the early chapters even more carefully to make sure I am fully understanding the author's line of reasoning. Is he equating good with satisfaction of desire? Is he stating that a human being's relationship to other human beings is no different from his relationship to other objects in the world?

I'm only about a third of the way through A Philosophy of Evil, and I now see that there is too much here to write about in a single blog post. I'd like to pause here and return to this book again soon. It hasn't yielded any great answers yet, but I think the book has already proved itself useful in helping us find the questions.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Living in a Dark Age. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Are All Religions The Same?.
12 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Four Types of Evil"

Good post and good questions. I am a writer who also happens to have two degrees in philosophy, so I have been following this new series and enjoying the various points made. In this case, I think I have a rationale for the author's arguments.

First, let us distinguish two types of good. One is simply that what which is preferable, the second is that which is justifiable for an action. Most people don't consider basic preferences and desires justificatory, so bosses don't take your basic desire not to have to come in to work but still get paid as a justified request, and generally neither do we, so we don't even try it. What our author is presenting is the idea that "demonic evil" is actually a species of malformed "instrumental evil"...the agent perceives the fulfillment of some desire or goal to be a greater good than avoiding the harm of another. This may be because they are a sadist who isn't able to get their needs fulfilled in the fetish community, or may be because they have involved torture fantasies and are, indeed, sociopaths.

The premise is really one of philosophy of mind and psychology, applying "drive theory" to moral philosophy. The point is that even the quintessential "America Psycho", Pat Bateman type is trying to fulfill their own vision of "the good", however malformed that notion of "the good" may be. It's a claim that what we see as gratuitous evil and cruelty is not due to some essential metaphysical category called "evil", but instead due to a malformed perception of "the good", and that all people are always trying to seek some notion of "the good". This is a very classical way of viewing ethics, and ties into the Augustine answer for the "Problem of Evil", that it is actually the absence or privation of "the good".

One one hand, I have to agree with the author's basic premise. It is clear that no one does anything except in the desire to fulfill some drive, on a conscious or unconscious level. On the other hand, I think moral evil has a different manifestation, a social manifestation, where the overall values of a culture, that are socially created and reinforced by that culture, lead to self-destruction and moral bankruptcy on a massive scale. I think that various social mechanisms, like rapacious capitalism, socially-abetted narcissism, the institutionalized concept of "success", and group-think, are "evil" in the sense that they divert and delude people from pursuing anything like a vision of "the good", for themselves or anyone else.

Anyway, thanks for the philosophical articles recently. I look forward to more.

I wonder why Svendsen didn't use the term "sadistic evil" instead of "demonic evil," which to me, conjures up superstition.

Also, any of Svendsen's four categories of evil can be construed in someone's mind as "good" for their particular situation, so that seems to be a moot point.

Neal Jansons, you say, "I think that various social mechanisms, like rapacious capitalism, socially-abetted narcissism, the institutionalized concept of "success", and group-think, are "evil" in the sense that they divert and delude people from pursuing anything like a vision of "the good", for themselves or anyone else." But I would suggest that none of those mechanisms are "evil" in themselves, but may cause evil behavior in humans. It's the old saying, "The love of money is the root of all evil."

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for this answer, Neal. Well, I think we should judge a work of philosophy not only on its logical validity but also on its power to persuade or enlighten. I'm not sure I disagree on technical grounds with the idea that a serial killer's motivation to torture victims can be construed as that person's twisted pursuit of "good". Yes, the concepts and words we are using can be stretched that far.

But I think it's clear (and, Neal, I bet even you will agree) that this is not a satisfying formulation and carries no ethical force. Therefore, I'm not saying it's *wrong*. But I am saying that it's a pointless truth, a dead end -- and I'm surprised that Lars Svendsen would give this point so much attention in his book. To focus so much attention on the fact that a serial killer is pursuing "good" in his evil acts is, in my opinion, a curiosity barely worth mentioning in a serious book on ethics. And I hate to see an important question -- what is the nature of evil -- sidetracked on an irrelevant curiosity like this.

Look at it this way: we all know that computers follow "programs" by executing "instructions". The execution of an instruction involves electrons traveling through circuits. A computer program can be written with incorrect instructions -- for instance, it can copy files from one folder to another incorrectly, so that the data in the files is lost or corrupted. We would say that this program is "wrong".

But, then, somebody might say that the program is not wrong, because actually on the instruction-by-instruction level, the computer is correctly executing each instruction correctly.

Likewise, a serial killer is clearly doing something evil when he tortures an innocent victim. Someone could object that the serial killer is following his own internal logic, pursuing his own goals and desires -- executing his "instructions" -- in a correct and valid way. That seems to be what Svendsen is saying. Again, I don't see a need to argue this point, but I don't understand why it is considered important or relevant to the discussion of ethics. The discussion of ethics is important, and we should try to focus on the points that will bring us closer to a conclusion, and not get sidetracked by curiosities.

Hope this makes sense as a response to Neal's response. Thanks ...

I think Neal hit the nail on the head when he metioned "drive". Drive can be substituted for seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. The serial killer seeks pleasure in torturing the victim, not good. However, his actions are evil. So maybe this is instrumental evil. Demonic evil or pure evil would be evil for evil's sake, with no subtext of pleasure/pain or other motivation.

Does this evil exist? If there is a devil or some other demonic entity it would, since by definition a devil is the anti-good, or evil. But I'm not sure that this type of evil exists in mankind.

by Levi Asher on

I also agree with Bill's point that, if demonic evil can be reduced to a kind of instrumental evil, the same can also be said of idealistic or stupid evil.

I simply think Svendsen's logic gets muddy here, in this section of the book. The book is valuable as a whole (and I'm continuing to read it) but I feel strongly that the list of the four types of evil is useful as it is, and that Svendsen's strange attempt to reduce his own list is an unnecessary distraction.

The reason so-called demonic or, as Bill suggests, sadistic evil is an important element in our discussion of good and evil is that it is, in some cases, the hardest to combat. This was one of the main points of Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground", and I think many other works of literature as well.

Could the author actually mean that it feels good? It's not good to smash a bottle against a wall in a fit of rage, but it sure does feel good.

I think a lot of evil is committed simply because it feels good to the party committing the evil actions.

Perhaps the author is trying to suggest that until you understand why you grasp for the sweet drink you will never understand evil.

by Levi Asher on

Well, yes, Alessandro -- and I agree with this. That is the meaning of demonic evil as he explains it.

What I'm objecting to is the idea that the list of four types of evil should be reduced to three, based on Svendsen's conclusion that the first (demonic evil) is a subset of the second (instrumental evil).

Is the author saying that there is really no such thing as evil for its own sake?

Does it matter if there are three instead of four? What is lost by eliminating one?

I would actually eliminate number 4. There's no such thing as stupid evil. No such thing as accidental evil. A plane crash cannot be evil. A volcano cannot be evil. Stupidity is not evil.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for pressing me for clarification on this, Alessandro. It helps to get this feedback and see where my words are more or less clear, and where I need to start over and do a better job.

The reason I am making such a big deal about this (relatively minor?) point is that this entire series of blog posts on philosophy is an exercise, an experiment. My goal in this experiment is to take each book of philosophy that we discuss here very seriously, and to subject each one to close examination. So, even though it may not seem very important whether or not we say there are three or four types of evil, I want to make it important. I want to be able to follow Lars Svendsen's thoughts closely and carefully, and I can't do that if I'm stumbling over his logic. I also want to feel confidence in his judgement as an acclaimed philosopher, and I can't feel confidence in his judgement if I feel he makes the wrong call about whether or not there are three or four basic types of evil.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that it's for the sake of the process that I am making a big deal out of this. I still find Svendsen's logic very unsatisfying on this particular point, though a few of you have spoken up about what his reason might be. My opinion remains that he is slipping up in this section of the book -- I don't think the "three types of evil" can stand. The simplest reason is the one that Bill Ectric mentions -- if we reduce one of the four types to a variation of another, we could do that with all of the four types. They are all variations on instrumental evil, in the sense that everything everybody does everywhere is done for some purpose. But it's not very helpful to say there is one type of evil. We should stick with the original four.

Also, Alessandro, I wondered as well whether the category of stupid evil makes sense. I came to the conclusion that it makes sense once you consider that stupidity is often a choice rather than a fate. If a plane crash occurs because the pilot didn't bother to learn all the emergency landing techniques he could have learned, or because he was too lazy to run through all his pre-flight tests, then I think we have a case of stupid evil. He did not wish the plane to crash -- but he failed to do everything he could have done to ensure the safest possible flight. From the point of view of the victims or the victims' families, I think they will consider this an act of evil, even though the harm that befell them was unintended. Does that make sense?

Levi, good answer. I agree that one should hold a philosopher over the fire for his or her logic. What would philosophy be if not for some precision?

I have to mull over you last paragraph in your latest reply. I'm not sure about it. I think I disagree with you but I cannot yet formulate a precise disagreement! In general, no, I do not think that you can call incompetence 'evil.' But I don't really know what you can call 'evil.'

Off the top of my head though - and this is not where I do my best thinking - I would eliminate the philosopher's fourth category of evil. If one is going to be precise about a philosopher's logic then I think the relationship of 'stupid' and 'evil' needs to be carefully examined. The logic connecting those two words appears to me to be faulty.

The definition of evil is so problematic. Its definition has changed over time. It is also subjective and cannot be addressed empirically. However, I have written extensively about the fight between good and evil. Namely, my book, "Opposing Forces," describes the constant war between God and the Devil.

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