Different Substantive Conceptions of Evil Actions

In Thomas Nys & Stephen De Wijze (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Evil. London and New York: pp. 256-266 (2019)
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All morally wrong actions deserve some form of moral condemnation. But the degree of that condemnation is not the same in all cases. Some wrongs are so morally extreme that they seem to belong to a different category because they deserve our very strongest form of moral condemnation. For example, telling a white lie to make a friend feel better might be morally wrong, but intuitively such an act is in a different moral category to the sadistic, brutal, and violent rape and torture of a child. The former act is merely wrong and not evil. In contrast, the latter act seems so morally extreme that we need to call it “evil” and not merely “wrong” if we are to do justice both to the moral seriousness of that act and the strength of our condemnation of it. The task of a theory or substantive conception of evil is to spell out what is an evil action and how it differs from a merely wrongful action. But what does a plausible substantive theory of evil look like? To explore this question, I spell out the concept of evil and illustrate four different types of substantive conceptions of evil actions: victim, perpetrator, spectator, and mixed theories. Of these four options, I argue that mixed theories are the most plausible type of theory, before investigating in detail the promising mixed theory recently defended by Matthew Kramer (2014b). Finally, in light of my analysis of Kramer’s view, I present a reformulated version of my combination theory of evil (Formosa 2008; Formosa 2013).
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