In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Evil

  • Introduction
  • Secular versus Religious Views
  • Quantitative versus Qualitative Debate
  • Mirror Thesis—Evil and Supererogation
  • Small-Scale Evil and Triviality
  • Evil and Moral Responsibility
  • Responses to Evil: Forgiveness and Punishment
  • Moral Dilemmas and “Dirty Hands”
  • Evil Figures in Literature

Philosophy Evil
Eve Garrard, Stephen De Wijze
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0316


When we talk about evil, we may mean one of at least three things. First, we may be referring to anything that produces bad outcomes. In this very broad sense of the word, evil can be moral—wrongful human actions—or it can be natural, as when we talk of natural evils such as earthquakes, floods, and disease. Second, we may be referring to a narrower phenomenon, namely all of human wrongdoing, as when we say, “The evil that men do lives after them.” In this narrower sense, evils can be great, such as murder, or small, such as malicious gossip. But there is also a third sense of the word “evil,” one that is narrower still, where we are referring to a special, and specially horrifying, subset of the range of human wrongdoing. This is the usage involved when people say of an action, “That wasn’t just wrong, it was evil.” Here we are contrasting evil with more ordinary wrongdoing. It is this third kind of usage, and what it refers to, that will be the subject of this paper. There is a long-standing notion of evil in this third sense that arises from, and is constituted by, certain religious and metaphysical worldviews. Recently, philosophers have explored the possibility of a secular account of this concept, raising the question of whether the term “evil” is an important, even indispensable, part of our moral vocabulary, or whether it can be abandoned without serious loss. A secular account of evil would make no appeal to religious worldviews, nor to supernatural entities such as the devil. Rather, it would seek to explore a distinct understanding of the term “evil” as part of a secular moral vocabulary that adequately captures, and is needed to capture, the worst actions and persons we encounter in our lives. The secular account of evil concerns itself with evil actions, persons (and their characters), institutions, and ideologies, seeing evil acts and those who commit them as having certain kinds of motives, or causing certain terrible harms, or both. The analysis of each of these aspects seeks, among other things, to rebut one or other of two claims: first, the claim that the notion of evil is redundant—it has no explanatory power beyond asserting that an action amounts to a very serious wrongdoing; and second, the claim that the attribution of evil is pernicious, since it illegitimately demonizes the persons and actions it purports to describe. Against these claims stands, among other things, the fact of the widespread secular use of the term in common discourse. This fact suggests that we need to clarify what it is that a secular concept of evil entails.

Secular versus Religious Views

The search for a secular concept of evil cannot be properly understood without some familiarity with the historical and religious accounts of evil that preceded it. Indeed, many critics complain that even a secular use of the concept of evil inevitably comes with too much unwelcome metaphysical and religious baggage. Secular theorists offer an understanding of the concept of evil as being a part of our moral vocabulary with no necessary connection to religious beliefs; their task is to make good on that offer by providing a plausible account of secular evil.

  • Calder, Todd. “The Concept of Evil.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2013.

    Calder’s entry on “The Concept of Evil” (especially sections 1 and 2) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) offers a quick summary introduction to the notion of evil as a religious concept.

  • Cole, Phillip. The Myth of Evil: Demonizing the Enemy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748622009.001.0001

    Cole’s book offers perhaps the most sustained critique currently available of the attempt to rehabilitate a concept of evil as part of our moral vocabulary. In Cole’s view, evil is a notion that only has application to mythology and fiction; it has no purchase on our actual lives. Chapter 1 sets out the core problems with the religious account of evil.

  • Formosa, Paul. “The Problems with Evil.” Contemporary Political Theory 7 (2008): 395–415.

    DOI: 10.1057/cpt.2008.17

    Formosa explores the different ways in which the concept of evil may be burdened with the kind of religious and historical baggage that makes contemporary philosophers reluctant to deploy it. He argues, contra this view, that the concept of evil has an important role to play in our understanding of the moral landscape.

  • Russell, Luke. “The Secular Moral Concept of Evil.” In Evil: A Philosophical Investigation. By Luke Russell, 9–30. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    This chapter provides a clear and succinct introduction to the distinction between a religious and a secular account of evil, and the reasons for seeking a secular notion.

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