William Blake - The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child (1794)
I have long struggled to understand the nature of historical terrors of episodes like the Holocaust, the Great Purge, or the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The simple way of coming to terms with such horrors is to use an adjective like "evil" and file the events away in some dusty mental cabinet, where the compartmentalized information can be later retrieved, but where it will not force a person to dwell on unsettling thoughts.
On a smaller scale, we see the word "evil" commonly used to describe individuals - like Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy - whose murderous sprees and gruesome behavior were far beyond the realm of socially acceptable behavior. It is again effortless to dismiss these individuals as "evil" because their actions offended moral precepts that may be universally held.
Exactly what, though, is evil? As a Christian I was raised to believe that evil represented a force contrary to the goodness of God, symbolized by the fallen angel Satan. Evil, then, could be actions inspired by satanic influence, or behavior contrary to God's laws.
Philosophers, of course, have wrestled with this question for many millenia. Some, like Plato, have argued that evil is merely the absence of good. Thomas Aquinas argued that evil does not exist, except in the sense that someone sees good in a given action. William S. Burroughs argued that the "face of evil is always the face of total need," in which case evil is a matter of privation.
And I look at the clock on my laptop, realizing I have spent 90 minutes thinking and writing about good and evil, and I am no closer to understanding the nature of these terms than before I began. In that time, none of my academic work got finished, there are dishes in the sink that need to be washed, and the lightbulb on the back porch still needs to be changed.
These are all "good" actions, and I need to get going on them, but is this exercise in philosophical blogging "evil" because other, more necessary actions got put aside.
I think I will now take an Excedrin, which will be "good" for my headache but might be "evil" for my ulcers.