Friday, December 01, 2006

Virtue, God, and the Concept of 'Evil'

I have it on good authority that some people find it strange that I, an atheist, so freely use the word ‘evil.’ I am supposed to be shying away from this term because it has a religious taint to it.

In fact, the concept of ‘evil’ as a starring role in the moral system that I use in this blog.

Virtue Ethics

The first thing to note is that desire utilitarianism fits under the general category of virtue ethics.

One of the distinctions that we find in moral theory is a distinction over which objects of evaluation are primary.

One view holds that the evaluation of actions is primary. Acts are evaluated as right or wrong based on some moral criteria. The evaluation of character traits is secondary. A good person is one who performs right actions; a bad person is one who performs wrong actions.

This is contrasted with the view that says that the evaluation of character traits is primary. Character traits are evaluated as good or bad based on some moral criteria. The evaluation of actions is secondary. A right action is that action which a good person would perform; a wrong action is the action that a good person would not perform.

Desire utilitarianism holds that the primary object of moral evaluation are malleable desires – desires that can be influenced through social forces such as praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. A morally good desire is one that tends to fulfill other desires – one that others have reason to promote and encourage through the use of these social forces. A bad desire is one that tends to thwart other desires – one that others have reason to inhibit through the use of these social forces. A right action is the action that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong action is the action that a person with good desires would not perform.

So, desire utilitarianism fits into the second category – the category of ‘virtue ethics’.

I reject those theories that say that the evaluation of actions is primary because they ignore the fact that actions are caused.

(Note: One of the core elements of desire utilitarianism is that it is not only compatible with determinism – the idea that actions are caused. It requires determinism. The idea that actions are caused is one of the premises on which it is built. The idea that desires can be affected by praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment is another one of its central components. If some type of contra-causal free will exists, desire utilitarianism would have serious problems.)

Because our actions are caused, it makes no sense to say that a person should have done something without saying that the person should have had those character traits that would have caused him to do that thing. This, in turn, requires an evaluation of character traits.

And because we are looking at character traits with an eye to determining how best to use the social tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment, we are looking at character traits that can be molded through the use of these tools.

The Concept of Evil

In this context, I want to offer definitions of some basic moral terms – including the term ‘evil’.


A virtue is a good character trait – a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. Honesty is a virtue, because people generally have a lot of reasons to use social tools to promote a love of telling the truth and an aversion to deception. Kindness is also a virtue, because it simply makes no sense for us to use our social tools to promote cruelty in others. If we do, and if we succeed, we may well find ourselves at the receiving end of their cruelty. If, instead, we promote kindness, we may find ourselves on the receiving end of that kindness – and that is something we have reason to bring about.

One of the central features of this type of virtue ethics is that kindness, in this sense, is not a type of sacrifice. A person with a desire to be kind will be kind because he wants to - because being kind is something that he values. He will be kind for the same type of reason that a person who loves chocolate will eat chocolate. Eating chocolate is not a ‘sacrifice’ for those who like it, and kindness is not a ‘sacrifice’ for those who like it.

Desire utilitarianism says that people generally have a lot of reasons to use social tools to make people like honesty and kindness.


A vice, then, is a bad character trait.

A concept of ‘vice’ has changed over time, and the public meaning of the term no longer corresponds to this definition. In public speech, a ‘vice’ is a particular type of bad character trait. The definition has narrowed so that it now refers primarily to character traits that thwart the desires of the person who has the trait. Prostitution, drug use, gambling, are considered ‘vices.’ We do not use the term to refer to liars, thieves, rapists, and murders.

In the realm of virtue ethics, we do use the term in this broader sense. A desire for rape is a vice. A lack of respect for the lives of others that make it possible to build and set up bombs that kill innocent civilians is a vice. Desire utilitarianism uses the term ‘vice’ in this older, classic sense.

Virtuous and Vicious

Another set of terms that virtue theorists will use that deviate from common usage are the concepts of ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious.’

We still commonly use the term ‘virtuous’ to refer to a person who has good character traits. Where ‘virtue’ refers to character traits themselves, the term ‘virtuous’ refers to people and asserts that they have those good character traits.

A parallel construction in the case of bad character traits would relate ‘vice’ to ‘viciousness’. A person is ‘vicious’ to the degree that he has bad character traits (desires) in the same way that a person is ‘virtuous’ to the degree that he has good character traits (desires).

In common language, ‘vicious’ typically refers to somebody who is likely to lash out and cause physical harm. Indeed, the person likely to lash out in rage is vicious on this use of the term, but so is the person who is willing to take the time to run an elaborate con that robs people of their money.

Good and Evil

When I use the term ‘evil,’ I do not use in a way that has even the slightest hint of religious connotation. I use it to mean somebody who has a desires that people generally have reason to inhibit with the strongest forms of condemnation and punishment.

The rapist is evil. The religious fanatic who kills innocent people are evil. The energy company executive who okays a campaign to confuse the public on the issue of global warming is evil. The tobacco company researcher working on a way to make cigarettes more addictive is evil. The religious conservative who lies about atheists in order to promote an atmosphere of hostility and hatred towards them is evil. The politician who seeks power so that he can funnel billions of dollars of taxpayer money to friends who financed his campaign (as an investment in these future returns) is evil.

These people have character traits that sensible, rational people would demand be met with the harshest forms of social condemnation and, if practical, the full force of the criminal law.

If there were a God, and if that God would torture billions of innocent people unless his every command is obeyed, and if he were omnipotent and omniscient so that there was no way to avoid this outcome, it would make sense to call a person who disobeyed such a being ‘evil.’ He would have to be somebody who cared nothing about the suffering he caused by inviting the wrath of this vile creature called God.

However, the term would also apply to anybody who willingly and eagerly obeyed such a creature. It is one thing to be ordered to slay a child because one is forced to by a creature who threatens to impose even worse if one refuses. It is another to happily and eagerly torture a child because one is more than happy to please the creature that orders the torture.

Evil exists in the real world. It exists whenever a being is pleased with the suffering that he or she can impose on others. It does not matter how powerful that being is. It does not matter whether that being is a creator of the universe. If he seeks states of affairs in which others suffer – and seeks them because of the suffering or in casual disregard for that suffering, he is evil.


amalh said...

The Iraq Study group report is just as flawed as the current policy in Iraq. The reasons for it are elaborated in my blog at

Anonymous said...

God is all powerful in a sense that he can understand and change the world to his liking. Although he decided to give us free will, he made it so that wrong and right are easily known. the fact that you are using the meaning of words and not what is implied by them to pursuade people into Atheism is in a sense wrong. I am not saying that christians are any better but i am saying that both sides are wrong in a sense of recruting people to there church, to there religon; or to other creation theories. You are a very smart person that is giving a scewed view on things. My only comment other then this is how scewed can you make the truth and how conviluted can you make it till the idea of truth is nothing. Good and evil afre nothing. Virtue God all these things cant be assertained as right or wrong if truth is scewed in one factions favor