Evil 2.0


Ethics and religion are two topics I often find myself debating. The two tend to go hand in hand on most occasions. Discussions of ethics tend to veer into religion and discussions of religion often veer into ethics. Good and evil come up often.

It is also a hot topic in the world of role-playing games, another passion of mine, but not one I often debate about. In Dungeons and Dragons, there are many understandings of evil, from a primordial force, to simply being selfish. Because it often plays a part in the mechanics of the game, making a decision about what it really means in the game is sometimes required of players.

Basic Evil

The way most of us understand the term, evil is a moral quality. If you violate moral standards in a flagrant and deliberate manner, you are evil. Evil is something you punish or fight against. Good is instead, following moral standards and something to be encouraged. The challenge here is that moral standards are far from universal so there is only limited agreement on what constitutes good or evil. It is never more clear when two different religious views square off against one another.

In this context, Evil and Sin are pretty well synonymous with one another. Sin, in Christianity best, boils down to disobedience against God. God sets the moral rules, break them and you do evil as well as sin.

Natural Evil

We don’t have a great word or term for this idea, but its one that I’ve “discovered” over the course of my life and one I find very useful. The idea here is that evil is an act of destruction or violence, as where good is an act of creation or nurturing. This is a much more yin and yang type of conception since creation and destruction go hand in hand to some degree, especially among living things.

In this way, we might say an earthquake or other natural disaster is evil. It stands somewhat free of the need for moral culpability and we simply understand the destructive or constructive utility of person, thing, or event. We can also more easily look at a person or event, and see that there are both good and evil aspects. Morality compels us to make a judgment, but here, we might simply allow neutral observation.

Which is better?

I think both understandings are very useful. Frankly, I wish we had a widely used term for each. I find the second, less common understanding is useful when discussing war. For me, war is humanities greatest evil. That said, I can imagine situations where it is morally justified to engage in war. If we are only making the moral judgment, then we have to say war is good, but war leads to rape, murder, mayhem, and destruction on a vast scale and it demands actions that would normally be considered horrific moral crimes. With this second understanding of evil, we can call it what we truly feel it is, a horror, but one we might morally find ourselves compelled to.

I also find it very useful in the role-playing context. If we are looking for a more objective understanding of the cosmic forces of good and evil, a paradigm of destruction vs creation works pretty well. The morals of those on the side of evil are flipped from those on the side of good, yet you can fairly objectively look at the goals of each and decide which is good and which is evil.


I suppose what these two evils have in common is that we use the word to describe that which is not just bad, but most bad, or very bad. We have no shortage of words to indicate various flavors of badness, but when it comes to evil, it tends to mean we find the badness to be overwhelming in some fashion. Evil is simply the lowest of the low. This gets confused a bit by Christian dogma since its conception of Sin is at times very much all or nothing.

Last thoughts

So if you see me using the word evil, keep in mind I could mean either or both. Hopefully, the context will help sort that out. Outside of RPGs, comedy, and philosophical discussions, it’s not a term I use lightly. If I say a thing is evil I tend to feel strongly about it and I generally presume the same of others.



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