Because harm isn't evil if it's accidental, death isn't evil in its nature, pain isn't evil if it's useful. Evil is a human phenomenon, something that one being with choice does to other beings that feel. It is about intent.
Whether something is evil depends on 3 dimensions:
1. Whether it was a free choice
2. Whether the expected outcome was harm to others who can feel
3. Whether the motivation was selfish
When you think about these 3 dimensions, it becomes clear that there is a range of evil.
1. Whether it was a free choice: Even the best of us are an amalgamation formed by biochemicals, diet, environment, social dynamics, past experience, emotions, physical selves, and choices.
Psychopath: "I couldn't help who I am. There was some demon in me from when I was very young"
Employee: "My boss told me to do it and I trusted his judgment. Frankly, everyone was doing it... it was just the way things were around here and no one questioned it"
Parent: "I was drunk and high and angry...please believe me, I didn't mean to hurt him. I love my son"
2. Whether the expected outcome was harm to others who can feel: We have different-sized and evolving capacities for empathy, an innate disposition which is then developed through experience. It is also applied in different ways based on our "circles" - our selves, family, friends, colleagues, people like us, people unlike us, animals. We also aren't always able to fully anticipate and understand the consequences of our actions.
Psychopath: "I didn't see her as a person. She was just a thing, an animal, not even that"
Employee: "I didn't fully understand what would happen... I didn't realize that all these people would be impacted"
Parent: "I wasn't thinking... I wasn't in a position to think, I was so drunk and addled"
3. Whether the motivation was selfish: Most motivations are selfish. But selfishness by itself isn't evil. We should be able to understand selfishness, since we all have at least a bit of it in us.
Psychopath: "I was hedonistic.. and thought only of myself"
Employee: "I wasn't about to risk my job, my career, even my social circle and identity... life was good and I didn't want to rock the boat"
Parent: "I was too young to be a parent, and stupid. I didn't yet have it in me to love someone else as a whole person when I could barely love myself.. all I could think about was myself"
So the answer as to whether evil exists: Yes.
Small evil exists every day and in (almost?) every person. We commit these small evils when we close the elevator door in someone's face, push our way through a crowd, ignore or treat our loved ones badly, say hurtful things when our hackles are raised, gossip about our colleagues in a negative fashion.
Big evil is very rare. Sizable harm that is fully understood and chosen to be inflicted with open eyes on others who we recognize can feel (and who we feel for) doesn't happen that often.
Most of what we call evil is the result of one or more of the following:
- Genetic lack of empathy
- Slow development of empathy (e.g. due to homogenous experience, power inequality, constricting mental frameworks, etc)
- Innate lack or slow development of self-discipline
- Childhood abuse warping the biological pathways
- Extreme biochemical sensitivity
- Substance abuse
- A well-wrought story that is sincerely believed by the perpetrator
- True ignorance about the consequences
In a weird way, these make the "evil" less evil because evil is about intent. And it's a bit comforting that, while there's harm in the world, there isn't too much vast, nefarious evil out there. There's just a bunch of imperfect and sometimes broken human beings stumbling around, sometimes creating beauty and often just making fools of ourselves.
And to cap this off, it occurs to me that the one thing that we could do to make a dramatic and positive impact on the world is to develop empathy in our children.