Evil Is Not a Universal Truth

The concept of evil is man-made and defined by a specific time and culture.

Posted Oct 09, 2018

Public Domain
Source: Public Domain

I am confident that most of you reading this article would consider behavior such as rape, murder, torture, and genocide to be acts of evil. If we agree that these are indeed acts of evil, does it mean that evil is a universal truth? Does it mean that some people are born inherently evil?

Despite the proclamations of many political, social and religious leaders, evil does not exist objectively in black-and-white terms and no one is born inherently evil.

On the contrary, evil is a socially created concept that is contextually defined—that is, evil is defined by those who hold power in a particular time and place. Stated differently, evil is manmade.

This perspective on evil, known as social constructionism, is rooted in the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, matter does not exist in its own right. Instead, all matter is a product of the mind. Because all objects are constructed of matter, all objects are thus mental creations. 

Social constructionism emerged over the past 40 years as a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts. According to this perspective, all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge of everyday life, is actually constructed and reinforced through social interaction. Social constructionists see reality as a dynamic and constantly contested process—that is, reality is reproduced by people acting on their knowledge and their socially constructed interpretations of it.  

As a logical extension, social constructionism contends that social problems do not exist objectively like a mountain or a river. Rather, they are constructed by the human mind, socially created or constituted by the definitional process. Therefore, the objective existence of a harmful condition such as a disease like cancer does not, in and of itself, constitute a social problem. 

From the social constructionist perspective, an objective condition does not constitute a social problem unless it is defined as such by the members of a society in a particular context. Moreover, an objective condition does not even have to exist to be defined as a problem. That is, if something is thought to exist and it elicits fear, then it is real despite the fact that it does not exist objectively. 

The witch hunts in colonial New England are an excellent example of a non-objective, socially constructed crisis. From a constructionist perspective, what makes a condition a social problem is the degree of felt concern by a society about that condition, regardless of whether it actually exists or whether it is objectively harmful. 

Significantly, an analysis of the social construction of evil provides an understanding of the processes and mechanisms by which those in power and authority in society can demonize a particular group and establish an evil identity for it in the public consciousness. 

The word evil itself has a long linguistic history. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the original derivation of the word evil to the Goths of the 4th century A.D. who defined it as “exceeding due measure” or “overstepping proper limits.” Webster’s College Dictionary defines evil as “morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked; harmful or injurious; due to actual or imputed bad conduct or character; evil quality, intention or conduct.” 

I contend that the definitions of evil are all socially constructed and socially defined in particular contexts. In other words, behaving evilly, producing evil and being evil are radically social processes which are defined in a given social context or time and place. 

The definitions of evil are also tautological—that is, the definitions involve circular reasoning. One may be labeled as evil because one does evil things, and if one does evil things then one is evil. This tautology is problematic because a circular argument cannot be tested or falsified.

As a result, the tautological definition of evil can be exploited by those who apply the label of evil to an individual or group. How? If the labelers’ arguments cannot be falsified, then their claims are not subject to meaningful debate or critique by skeptics.

Once a disvalued individual or group is socially defined as evil, those in power have the moral authority and even obligation to eliminate the evildoers regardless of whether or not there is an objective threat to society.

Therein lies the danger in the social construction of evil. It certainly didn’t matter that those who were convicted of witchcraft in colonial New England were not actually witches at all. They were sentenced to death and executed, nonetheless. It is important to remember this powerful historical lesson.

When we apply the label of evil to a disvalued individual or group without proper inquiry, the consequences can be dire. One need only to consider the Spanish Inquisition, The Holocaust, global Jihad, the war on terror, not to mention the inflammatory rhetoric currently emanating from the White House, to see the results of labeling the “other” as evil.