The Complexity of Evil

It is so easy to romanticize the simplicity of evil, to idealize its black-or-white, head-or-tail nature to the point of banality. But philosophy says otherwise. It has a way of doing this, of creating numerous shades of gray in between. These can be found within us – ordinary, ‘good’ human beings – and at times they can be darker than we anticipated or even imagined.

Philosophy, or more specifically philosophical reflection as explained by Gabriel Marcel, sheds light on the complexity of evil through three steps: attention, introspection, and conversion.

First, attention is necessary – attention to the world, attention to the other. A closer look into this chaotic, unholy world of ours shows us there are far more complex layers to evil than the unreasonably cruel villain that is portrayed in literature and film.  Great evil, as a matter of fact, can be committed by the most sane, most ordinary people, once they are given the ‘right’ reason or motivation. And often this reason comes in the form of certain everyday scenarios frequently studied in social psychology: conformity, compliance, and obedience.

All three processes involve changing of behavior – doing things we would not otherwise do. Conformity stems from a desire to fit in, to match the norms; compliance is agreeing to a request a result of certain techniques such as making a large request and toning it down, or the other way around; obedience is the upshot of a feeling of respect or fear for an authority figure.

The social tendencies of conformity, compliance, and obedience can be glimpsed ubiquitously. A typical school has students constantly conforming in order to be accepted into the already established cliques; it has them complying to buy things they do not need, as they have been persuaded by consumer psychology; it definitely has them obeying their teachers because they have been taught all their lives to do so. To conform, comply, and obey are not by themselves the root of evil, or even just evil. In fact, when directed toward the right people or for the right actions, these can bring forth much good.  But at their extremes, they can drive individuals to be truly capable of committing the most heinous actions.

Was it not obedience that propelled thousands of misled believers to fight an astoundingly violent, grotesquely bloody jihad or ‘holy war’?  Was it not the same obedeince that prompted other similarly misled believers to hijack a plane and bomb the Twin Towers, murdering so many human beings and themselves in the process?  And was it not conformity that drove Pontius Pilate to have Jesus Christ crucified, when he decided to succumb to the deafening crowds?

Now it is time for introspection. What have we conformed to do today? What have we complied to? Whom have we obeyed? And have these acts crossed our moral or ethical boundaries, caused us to commit actions that we might otherwise consider…evil?

If so, then the next step is conversion – the outset of which is acceptance. We have to find it in ourselves to accept that evil is not only meant for insane villains, but can also be found within us and around us, in subtle layers and concealed whispers. Then, we must work to change our actions, one shade of gray at a time – one less instance of conformity, compliance, or obedience at a time.

At the end of the day, evil is merely an aspect of the persona until the individual changes in behavior as a response to its powerful demands.  It is only then that it becomes an evil act.

Janette Fionna Uy


PH 101 JTA-A


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