Evil is a strong word, Eric. It really gave me pause. I’m going to have to chew on that for days.

Some thoughts toward definition of evil:

We do all kinds of bad things, and we mostly act from mixed motives. Sometimes we wrong a person because we’re careless or ignorant or obtuse. Other times we wrong a person intentionally, but the motive is selfish. Someone robs a store because he wants the money to buy drugs. But sometimes (some of us, anyway) wrong a person just because we want to wrong that person, even though there is not “gain” for us. Iago in Othello. If the person robbing the store then shoots the owner “just for fun,” that seems to me the paradigm of evil.

Evil in this sense, I think, is always intentional, though it need not be consciously so. The evildoer may well have some rationalization or justification and thus maintain a state of denial. But the rationalization does not really explain the action. Robbing the store “makes sense” because the person believes the money will benefit himself; shooting the owner “for fun” does not make sense this way. In the first case, the malice follows from the benefit; in the second, the “benefit” follows from the malice.

I think Butler’s refutation of psychological egoism follows a similar logic. The psychological egoist says I do the altruistic act because I get pleasure from it. But, says Butler, concern for the other is primary. I don’t have concern for the other because I get pleasure from it. I get pleasure from it because I have concern for the other. (At least that’s how I remember Butler’s argument going.)

I thing wrong acts can have different degrees of evil, depending on other motivation and character. The mobster who cold-heartedly extorts money from the store owner seems more evil than the druggie who desperately robs the store owner, though the “objective wrongness” — the harm imposed — is the same in both cases. (For quibblers: granted, there are subtle differences in the harm imposed.)

Anyway, these are some of the thoughts behind my comment on Meg’s story. I hope the philosophical discussion neither detracts nor distracts from the sadness of the story.