Evils, Wrongs and Dignity: How to Test a Theory of Evil

Journal of Value Inquiry 47 (3):235-253 (2013)
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Evil acts are not merely wrong; they belong to a different moral category. For example, telling a minor lie might be wrong but it is not evil, whereas the worst act of gratuitous torture that you can imagine is evil and not merely wrong. But how do wrongs and evils differ? A theory or conception of evil should, among other things, answer that question. But once a theory of evil has been developed, how do we defend or refute it? The most commonly used method for doing this in the literature has been to, respectively, provide pro-examples or counter-examples. While this method might be sufficient for establishing that a theory is at least a prima facie plausible theory of evil, it is often insufficient for making fine-grained distinctions between otherwise plausible theories of evil. To supplement this insufficiency I propose that we also focus on five theoretical virtues that a theory of evil should have. These virtues are: 1) meshing well with important theories of moral wrongdoing; 2) being based on a plausible moral psychology; 3) explaining the basis of our judgments about evil; 4) being able to alter, revise and expand our judgments about evil; and 5) being pitched at the right level of generality. The main result of this paper will be to show that these five theoretical virtues provide a useful analytical tool for interrogating plausible theories of evil. The secondary result will be to show that my theory of evil has these five virtues.
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