You may have noticed that there has been a lot of talk about the idea of evil coming from the media in the last few years. As a guy who is fascinated by the idea himself, and who has done some writing on it, I'm quick to pick up on any serious discussion about the concept of evil (and any not so serious ones, for that matter).
There are several major debates or basic debate themes, which seem to dominate any serious or academic discussion about the idea of evil. The first and foremost of which is whether or not evil even exists at all. Obviously the word "evil" exists, though whether the capitalized version can apply is yet another debate. Because this word has a fairly powerful (though perhaps vague or subjective) connotation behind it, I think we can conclude that evil is real, at least in the realms of psychological perceptions, communication and culture; and this is all that is necessary for our purposes (besides, what would I have to talk about if we were to decide that there really is no such thing as evil right here, that would be pretty lame, wouldn't it?). So on that note, let's move on.
One of the oldest and most often asked questions about evil is something known to philosophers as "the problem of evil". The basic issue here is the classic question "if there's a god, why does he allow evil to exist?" Similarly, you can also include "why do bad things happen to good people?" Many people can go on all day discussing the ins and outs pertaining to this seemingly complicated issue (and they do, just search for "problem of evil" in Wikipedia and you'll see what I mean). I really shouldn't have to explain this. However, I'm going to make this horrifically simple and answer this question right now. There is no god, no one cares and we're living in a cold and utterly indifferent universe which is designed to force organisms to struggle and prey on one another in order to survive! Feel better now? If that's a little too bleak and depressing for you, you should take a look at my "The Power of Disbelief" rant and discover some of the benefits of this world view.
Now that we've gotten the prerequisites out of the way, we can continue and address the more pressing issue; how do we define evil? In most current, serious discussions about the issue of evil, people are often quick to agree (generally) that natural phenomenon, such as weather, cannot be considered evil. Only humans can do evil (implying that evil must be a conscious thing). We will go ahead and except this premise as well, at least for the moment. Many people will also rule out any accidental acts resulting in pain, destruction or death. Those things may be bad, but evil must be deliberately malicious. Often, the most generally accepted consensus on how, or to what, the term evil can be accurately applied has to do with inflicting suffering on innocence. Basically, doing something needlessly cruel, sadistic or destructive to people who don't deserve it. This seems to be one definition that many academics and others who spend time contemplating the concept of evil, seem to often agree on.
I have a problem with this line of thinking (I know, you didn't see that one coming). And my complaint is simply this: these academics and philosophers are defining the word "evil" purely from the victim's perspective. In a predator versus victim scenario, does the predator necessarily consider their own actions as being "evil"? And even if this predator does recognize his or her actions as being (what would generally be considered) "evil", doesn't this mean that evil isn't always such a bad thing from the perspective of the predator? The types of definitions which many "serious" enquiries about evil seem to come to don't tend to leave much, if any room for a more appealing definition of the word "evil". It will be argued that true evil is never appealing and that it is always ugly and terrible. But is not beauty in the eye of the beholder?
And different individuals can have widely varying tastes when it comes to violence and other darker realities of this world. Besides, if you choose to classify evil as "a deliberate, immoral human act which causes suffering among innocents" or something to that effect; then any real life example of "evil" must have been initiated by someone. By that very definition, somebody must have thought that any given evil act throughout history was a good idea, by virtue of the fact that they deliberately chose to do it! It seems kind of ridiculous that so many people can discuss the topic of evil without ever bothering to consider the opinions of the very people who are engaging in these evil deeds in the first place. Wouldn't you think that the best place to begin a discussion about evil would be to consider the perspectives of the people who are responsible for said evil? Yet, most people who discuss the topic of evil in any in-depth way would never even consider the views of the "monsters" who are actually credited with perpetrating the evil. Perhaps we should have a conversation about surgical procedures and refuse input from anyone with a medical degree, or debate child rearing but shun the opinions of anyone who might actually have kids.
Of course, the reason that evil is almost always defined from a victim's perspective is because, like all words and language, the definition of "evil" is democratic and therefore will be defined by the majority of people who are using it. And the majority of people seem to sympathize much more with victims then with predators (am I the only one who finds that fact kind of pathetic?). However, this brings me to another interesting point. Most in-depth discussion about evil is also quick to limit its definition to serious and extreme wickedness. I have heard many people, when discussing the topic of evil; condemn any more trivial use of the word. By "trivial", I'm referring to humorous exaggerations, such as: "my cat is evil" as well as more casual use of the word or using it in a somewhat positive way like you will see on this site and many others in our villainesque links section.
The basic rationale behind these arguments is that by using the word "evil" more liberally, it will lose its serious meaning and, therefore, allow more "real evil" to easily seep into the world (it's amusing that when people accuse us of doing this, their assuming that we're using the word "evil" out of ignorance and it never seems to occur to them that this might be all part of our larger plan!). What these individuals fail to realize is that English is a living, breathing thing and does change according to its popular usage. This is the nature of language. Basically, you cannot logically define evil from a victim's perspective and then simultaneously rule out any more casual use of the word.
So, this raises the question of why people often do something this illogical while categorizing and discussing the concept of evil. Basically, despite being able to intelligently explore and articulate philosophical views, those views are based on very narrow and old fashion believes about morality. Those deep seated beliefs are their subconscious starting point and all philosophical arguments are built around those beliefs. The philosophy supports the belief. As irrational as it may be, these individuals want to maintain a definition of evil which is extremely and indisputably negative. They can't examine the idea of evil from the predator's/villain's standpoint because that would lead to some very morally ambiguous philosophy. At the same time they can't approve of a more liberal use of the word "evil" either, because that would downplay its severity. In fact, both of these approaches to the word would undermine the importance of separating and distinguishing the concepts of good and evil in their minds; and that is the real point (and that importance is why these people are so eager to define "evil" in the first place; they need to distinguish it from good).
There are many people nowadays, who would consider the concept of evil itself to be old fashion. One thing I'd like to point out is that, if the idea of evil is "old fashion" (and in a way it is), this is only because of current public perception. Truly smart people throughout history have always known that ideas like good and evil are kind of b.s., even when they were popular among the ignorant masses. If there is any truth to the idea that evil is an out dated concept, it is only because Joe citizen is being fed different information and it has nothing to do with an increase in overall intelligence. I will state that, as a serious and concrete philosophical concept, evil is definitely irrelevant if not outdated. It is completely subjective (despite what some may claim about universal standards of morality) and it is an extremely abstract concept. And yet, the word itself has never been stronger. It is used now more than ever. I believe that its true power lies in its flexibility. It is a distinct and powerful word, with a vague definition. Like darkness itself; it's so potent as to be almost tangible, and yet it is mysterious and elusive. I believe that the word evil will maintain its rather unique place in our culture for many years to come; at least.
A number of people have criticized the word because they feel that its only real use is in attacking others. I suppose that if you really care about morality and have a problem with the idea of people attacking others, then this is a valid argument. As a villain, I believe that attacking others is just one of life's little pleasures. And, of course, this argument assumes that evil can only be used negatively and fails to take into account any potential humorous or positive/complimentary uses of the word (like how we always use it, for instance).
I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and it occurs to me that, though vague, there is a possible definition of the word evil that seems to encompass all current uses of it. Evil is something that someone, in many cases a group of people, doesn't like or feels they shouldn't like. If you really think about it, the only thing that all uses for the word "evil" have in common is that they imply that someone doesn't like it. Who that someone actually is, whether it's the party whose using the word (most obvious use), or how a separate party feels about whoever is using the word (implying social rebellion or demonizing one's self in the eyes of an enemy) and the extent of the dislike can all vary immensely. You could argue that in many cases evil is something that the social majority dislikes or fears. However, this definition fails to take into account the most subjective standards of all; basically saying "good is anything I like and evil is anything I don't like". But no matter how you look at it, "evil" is a term used to divide things up, a verbal mechanism to communicate standards, ideals and opinions. These things are important, especially to a villain. In this sense, evil can be almost anything you want it to be.