It is our society that shapes and dictates standards of morality and how we should behave, creating prohibitions based on ethical definitions often aligned with its own best interests. What one nation or community could view as grossly immoral may by another’ standards be considered moral, i.e., female circumcision, thus moral and ethical behaviour is a practice that is socially constructed and conditioned. However, the broader conception of evil includes offences such as vicarious negligence, poor leadership or ignorant decision-making that results in greater civil wrongs, or even physical illness and natural disasters that stand apart from an intentional motivation ascribed to individuals that knowingly and decisively act in a manner that endangers others. While ignorance is no excuse, intent stands outside of these socially constructed or conditioned evils and becomes universal in its condemnation of moral evil. The line of good and bad behaviour with moral agency could be blurred, so what are the conditions that can sufficiently explain the characteristics of evil?
My recent introduction into religious jurisprudence as part of my legal research has compelled me to understand and contextualise biblical explanations and the contrast it has to our contemporary understanding of good and evil. In the determinist landscape illustrated by theological standards of evil, immoral behaviour is viewed as a supernatural effect where unknown ‘demons’ or entities motivate or initiate one to act in a manner that is unnatural to our own creation. Jesus was tempted by the devil and this evil spirit while external to him does not undermine his individual responsibility – and thus free will – that is additionally articulated by examples throughout the bible of punishment (Hell) against those in contravention of moral laws. Evil is symptomatic of temptation, that an external force compels one to act in a manner that is sinful by justifying or normalising it and so we become ignorant or blind to our own wrongdoing. Conversely, the holy spirit is yet another supernatural explanation of an entity or force that exists externally and enters a person thus enabling them to articulate a universal language of moral goodness.
Genuine evil exists in the domain of free-will as does genuine good, that is, to be conscious of your choice and to intentionally act one way or another. To explain from a contemporary angle, we have laws or a legal framework that justifies moral standards and if one transgresses they will be judged and punished according to those laws. Most people follow those laws but do so because they are conditioned to adhere to them and not because they are conscious of and identify with the importance of them. If they are and still decide to act in contravention of the law, that is evil.
As such, determinism from a secular angle is illustrated by the socially constructed conditioning as explained by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’ General Will, whereby society at large is governed by this spirit or intent that acts as the force to compel individuals – who are naturally good – to act in a manner that they deem collectively is of common interest. Religious and political institutions educate and manifest this social conditioning and can create and inspire good as much as they can succumb to corruption and act in the reverse, widespread pedophilia in the church as an example. People are naturally compelled to submit to this social contract and the only authenticity or essential quality we have as individuals is good, whereby evil emerges as a symptom of corrupted civilisations and social institutions that educate through deception. Free will is indicative of knowledge or our education that enables us the cognitive capacity to decide how we choose to act.
Deception is a keyword here as the devil who represents this evil spirit in the scriptures is also known as the Deceiver, indicative of this awareness or consciousness that intentionally compels immoral behaviour through lies. There are a number of names describing this supernatural force including Serpent and Dragon that are figurative features explaining the various faces of evil such as lying and seduction that are all mechanisms of this deception. In the Book of Isaiah [14:12-17], it writes:
How you are fallen from heaven,
O Lucifer, son of the morning!
How you are cut down to the ground,
You who weakened the nations!
For you have said in your heart:
‘I will ascend into heaven,
I will exalt my throne above the stars of God;
I will also sit on the mount of the congregation
On the farthest sides of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds,
I will be like the Most High.’
Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol,
To the lowest depths of the Pit.
“Those who see you will gaze at you,
And consider you, saying:
‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
Who shook kingdoms,
Who made the world as a wilderness
And destroyed its cities,
Who did not open the house of his prisoners?’
The Jewish prophet Isaiah ministered around the 8th century BC and extolled a deep appreciation for righteousness as well as clearly asserting the portrayal of punishment by God. He uses the symbols of his time to describe this evil including the fallen star as lucifer, which was associated with ancient Babylonian and Mesopotamian cosmology and mythology that illustrated the movements of the planet Venus as characteristic of moral and immoral behaviours of the gods. The star itself chases the dawn or ‘light’ – indicative of goodness – but never actually reaches it and thus remains perpetually surrounded by darkness, the word ‘Sheol’ a synonym to Hades or a place of the dead, the ‘pit’ or the underworld. Previous verses in Isaiah indicate the King of Babylon who once oppressed with acts of evil is now himself struck down and removed, that his egotism that exalted himself in pride as a god similarly to the Tower of Babel but was struck down. This has similar overtones to ‘The Fall’ of Adam and Eve who were tempted by the serpent and consequently thrown out of heaven; Satan exalted himself with similar pride and arrogancy that said he could germinate evil to will deception and lies.
The essence of our will to evil begins with pride and arrogance – to lie in glory [Isaiah 14:18] that is formed through our interactions socially; corruption, power, money is indicative of this temptation that compels us to lie and deceive and we do so intentionally. “Kings” are also indicative of nations or states vis-a-vis Rousseau that explains the corruption of social and political institutions. In similar vein, a man who continuously rehearses his sexual fantasies over a woman cultivates the justification to act: “That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,” that begins the process of evil, compelling lies and deception and internally formalising it until it no longer feels immoral. Lucifer is the symbol that attempts to describe the source of ‘evil’ within us, what compels us to intentionally deceive and lie and thus becomes the motif that illustrates this authentic source of immorality in our individual essence or self, making this ‘evil spirit’ the intent or our intention that wills us to act in a manner that is evil. The temptation to succumb to evil is not supernatural but social – sexual deviance or money and property – that becomes corrupted and germinates possibilities that tempt one astray.
Depictions of the devil being a frightening creature with horns and evil eyes is really the fear of the degenerate state of one who has succumbed to this evil, the monstrosity of murderers and rapists. The scriptures utilises symbols such as mythical creatures and cosmology including dragons and serpents that illustrate using supernatural beings concepts and circumstances rooted in reality. While that line between whether it is real or whether it is merely a motif to explain immorality and goodness – thus whether you take a secular view of morality or a theological view – nevertheless teleologically end with the same thing, that evil is a choice. But since most of what we identify as reality is socially constructed, that we are by our very natures compelled to submit to the social contract, we should parallel our understanding of evils committed at large to be indicative or symptomatic of institutional corruption.