Evil As An Abstract Category

     Yesterday, I posted a snippet of my fiction as a stimulator to a discussion I hope to pursue today. The scene therein is one that has never been commonplace, neither among adults or children. (Include teenagers in either category, as you prefer.) Yet what could be more important? Assuming, that is, that evil is “real” in some sense beyond our opinions.

     There’s a certain amount of irony in this: the young usually have a better grasp of evil than their elders. At the very least, they concede its reality, whereas the trend among adults is to wave the subject aside, or to flatly deny that “evil” is somehow distinct from other unpleasantnesses. That has sometimes led me to wonder whether justice, in this world at least, would be better served if anyone over the age of twelve – other than the defendant, of course – were forcibly excluded from it, but that’s a conjecture for another day.


     Is evil real? That is: can we state with assurance that there are some phenomena that are demonstrably evil, whereas other phenomena are not? A phenomenologist would pause here to tell you that states of consciousness, including our intentions, must be postulated as real for the discussion to proceed. But then, if intentions were other than real, we would we not be men… and we are, aren’t we?

     To grapple meaningfully with this question, we must also posit that “reality is real:” i.e., that there are entities and phenomena outside our consciousness, such that our perceptions, decisions, and opinions of them have no material bearing on what they are. Now, there are some lumps in this, including the old holism versus reductionism debate. However, that debate has not ended and probably never will. For our purposes – and whose purposes matter more? – we must take “reality is real” and “reality has parts” as postulates. Men, and their decisions and actions, are some of those parts.

     Now comes the question that precedes all attempts to define: what constitutes a valid and practical definition?

     There are two ways to “define,” though one is of more use than the other. But before we get to that, we must recognize that definition is about grouping things into categories. No one allowed out of the house without a minder would ask you to “define Milwaukee.” It’s a nonsensical undertaking; Milwaukee is simply there, self-demonstrating, on the shore of Lake Michigan in southeastern Wisconsin. The name it bears is essentially arbitrary, assigned by long-ago cartographers and perpetuated by politicians avid for tax revenues. By contrast, to define city, apart from any particular city, is an attempt to put things into a category, though there might well be differences of opinion on what belongs in it.

     Categories, of course, are abstractions: mental artifacts we use in reasoning and making decisions. Perhaps the category of city isn’t one that most of us have a lot of use for. That’s not the case with the category of evil.


     In treating evil as a category, we can take two approaches:

  1. Extensive: We can say “These things and only these things, which are specifically named here, are in the category to be called evil.” (This is sometimes called definition by enumeration or tabulation.)
  2. Intensive: We can say “To be evil, a thing must possess certain qualities. Anything that does not possess one or more of the specified qualities is not evil.”

     An intensive definition of evil is the sort we seek. No one would dare to say that “all evil things already exist and are known.” Imagine saying that before the rise of Pol Pot, for instance.

     A commenter to the previous piece proposed this two-part approach:

  1. Evil is the deliberate, freewill choice to inflict harm on others for one’s own benefit…or worse, for the pleasure of seeing those others suffer.
  2. Evil is also the deliberate, freewill choice to take action towards one’s own benefit at the expense of others’ well-being.

     The key word in both parts of Carol’s definition is choice. A choice is a consciously made decision that has action in mind. In this formulation, whether the action ever occurs, and the results of the action if so, are irrelevant.

     Carol’s proposal has merit, but it’s incomplete. She includes benefit sought from the evil deed as a part of the formula. This omits crimes of envy, which often bring no benefit to the envious one. Sometimes they even cause him harm! His whole intention is to see the target of his envy suffer loss. The “I know it when I see it” crowd would not be satisfied. Neither would I, as among the great stories are several in which the villain is punished (in part) by seeing his envious intention thwarted. (Hey, I’m a storyteller. We’re like that.)

     Lurking behind this phenomenon is the possibility that evil resides in the intention and nowhere else. Part of me finds this attractive owing to the consideration above. But part of me is unsatisfied for a practical reason: No one can determine another person’s intentions with total confidence. Indeed, that’s one of the perennial problems of justice, as we want to refrain from punishing people who do things that cause harm but “didn’t mean it.” (We may demand restitution – we certainly should – but we don’t consider them villains even if “he should have known better.” Some people plainly don’t.)


     At this point, the mathematician in me wants to throw two words at my Gentle Readers: necessary and sufficient.

     Aristotle’s approach to definition is much like that of the mathematician formulating a theorem, except for the difference in terminology: in the Aristotelian scheme, a definition must have:

  1. a genus
  2. and a differentia.

     The genus specifies a category of things to which all things in the category being defined must belong, though other things may be in the genus as well. The differentia specifies a property that all the things in the category being defined must have, but the other things in the genus do not. (A mathematician would be muttering about “sets and subsets.”) So our concluding question for today – we’ll be back to this, I promise – is:

Does evil have a genus other than intention?
If so, can we state evil’s differentia completely?

     More anon.


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  1. I was pleased to see you included envy as a motivation. But doesn’t coveting precede it?

    Envy can inspire one to achieve an equal or better attainment. However I see covetousness as containing the added element of inclination to take something from its possessor.  Something of substance is easy to see. However there is also the effort to eliminate an abstraction such as the happiness of another. Aiming to eliminate the happiness of others seems to deserve a place high on the pyramid as you differentiate evils. “I’m unsatisfied so why should anyone else be happy?”

    • Steve on February 7, 2024 at 9:56 AM

    Sure, Pascal Fervor, but make sure we keep in mind the distinction between “sin” and “evil.” Not getting a perfect score is by definition sinful, but not evil.

    1. Not getting a perfect score is by definition sinful

      I’ve heard this uttered before. It cannot be true. Insisting that you or someone else be perfect in all things is the sin. It’s the equivalent of wishing you or the other were God in His stead. Idolatry.

      Let’s say your kid scores a 99 on his test. Then you, instead of praising his excellence, ask why it wasn’t 100. He did not sin but you are committing multiple sins. Displaying lack of gratitude for such a child is only one of them.

    • Waidmann on February 7, 2024 at 3:21 PM

    Steve, I’m a long way from agreeing that there is a distinction between “sin” and “evil”.   If my getting an answer wrong to a question on a math exam at school is what you mean by “not getting a perfect score”, I would say that making a mistake isn’t either sinning or being evil.  The definition I know for “sin” comes from the Westminster Catechism, Question 14, “What is Sin?”  Answer:  “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God”.   That makes sin/evil a moral issue, even if there isn’t any obvious temporal consequence.  Matthew 7:11 says ” If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…”  The default setting for mankind is we are evil and sinful.  I don’t think evil exists outside of a religious framework.  A lion isn’t evil when it holds down a gazelle and starts eating it without even killing it first.  He’s just being an animal.


    Or, if you prefer, the Baltimore Catechism says pretty much the same thing:  Question 52:  “What is actual sin?”  Answer:   “Actual sin is any willful thought, word, deed or omission contrary to the law of God.”

    1. Now tell us where and how we can learn the law of God. And head’s up: You will be required to justify your answer.

    • Jim Robertson on February 7, 2024 at 8:07 PM

    @FWP: Exdus 20 and Dwuteronomy 5
    By transgression an evil man is snared. Proverbs 29:6a
    …because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.
    Romans 4:15

    • Steve on February 8, 2024 at 1:11 AM

    “Sin” comes from the ancient Hebrew concept of missing the mark. Literally. They put a mark on a tree or post or rock, and the slingers took shots from various distances. To always hit the mark was said to be without “sin”.

    We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. None of us are perfect. To the best of my knowledge, anyway. 😉 Sure we should try our best, but when (not if) we fail to live up to His standards, we need to ask forgiveness and try harder next time, learning from the mistakes. That’s what He expects us to do.

    And knowing man as the fallible creature he is, (and don’t tell me the most recent guy at the Vatican is the only exception, that all other theologians have been perfect and without sin) I’m more inclined to read the Bible and reflect on the inspiration the Holy Spirit gives.

    1. Agreed. You will find this reinforced by Ezekiel 18:21-23. God wishes all of us to succeed and is far more patient than we.

        • Steve on February 8, 2024 at 10:26 AM

        True. What I’m getting at is that getting a 99% isn’t good enough. That won’t get you any praise when you meet your Maker. You either need a 100% or you need forgiveness. Heaven is only for perfection, and there are only the two ways to achieve it.

        So why did Yeshua tell the woman at the well, “Go and sin no more,” when He knew she could not do so? Possibly by the standards of the Pharisees, but not the standard He explained in the Sermon on the Mount. My thought it was purely aspirational. Keep trying for that 100%, and repent for not getting there.

        It’s not evil to think impure thoughts, that’s just sinful. But unrepented sinfulness is as damning as outright evil.

        My $0.02.

    • Waidmann on February 8, 2024 at 3:25 PM

    OK, Francis, I’ll take a shot at it.  Hopefully, I won’t miss the mark.  Sorry about the delay in responding.  I hope the ship hasn’t already sailed.  If so, no need to post this.

    I understand that the usual Hebrew word translated “sin” is chāttah, which does come from the root “missing the mark”.  Another Hebrew word, usually translated “iniquity” is āvown, and “trespasses” and “transgressions” are still different words.  Point being, there are a lot of words that convey the same general thought.  Shades of differences, but all still describing the same moral condition and behavior of mankind.  We, or at least I, call them all “sin”.

    So, your question sort of covers them all.  To answer you, I want to quote again from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Questions 1-3.

    What is the chief end of man?
    Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.
    What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?
    The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.
    What do the Scriptures principally teach?
    The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.

    So, that’s my answer.  “…where and how we can learn the law of God?” We learn the law of God in the Word of God, and we need must study and sincerely apply them to ourselves.  And, as Steve points out in his second post, “reflect on the inspiration the Holy Spirit gives”.  And seek forgiveness when we fall short.

    Not sure what you mean by “justifying my answer” means.

    1. Here is your challenge for justification:
      1. Who wrote the Scriptures?
      2. Who selected which works became part of that canon, and by what authority?
      3. Why should we trust any particular segment of the Scriptures to express the will of God?

      I know that’s a tall order. But the blanket command to “do as the Scriptures say” opens a very wide door. Don’t feel you must answer here. Contemplate the question in silence, with your personal conscience for your guide. Also, read and ponder the next piece, which I’m about to post.

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