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The good, the bad and the downright evil



2 June 2014

Dr Luke Russell gives the talk, On Defence of Evil, as part of the Curiosity Lecture Series at Sydney Writers' Festival.
Dr Luke Russell gives the talk, On Defence of Evil, as part of the Curiosity Lecture Series at Sydney Writers' Festival.

Many think of ogres, bloodthirsty vampires and zombies when they think of evil. But Philosopher Luke Russell delved into the world of politics, superstition, history and literature as he posed intellectual arguments about evil at the Sydney Writers' Festival recently.

"Evil] is an emotionally loaded term," said Dr Russell, from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney.

It has been used in different ways over the centuries. "In Shakespeare's time, the word simply meant 'bad', for example, 'an evil diet' simply meant to have 'a bad diet'.

And good and evil is not black or white, he explained.

"Not every evil-doer is an evil person ... likewise, [if] someone ... does an honest action [it] does not mean they are honest people."

Dr Russell explored historic events such as the Holocaust and how people from both religious and non-religious backgrounds used the term 'evil' to describe such tragic events.

'Evil', therefore, was certainly not a term used only among religious circles but a term used to describe something that was mutually understood by all of humanity.

"Evil is beyond "wrong'. It is extreme. For example, shoplifting is wrong, but it's not evil."

The dichotomy between what he would define as being 'wrong' as opposed to 'evil' opened discussion about a variety of inhumane actions such as wartime atrocities, acts of terrorism and serial murders.

Crimes such as child abuse, rape and paedophilia were also discussed as he posed the suggestion that while some who perpetrate such 'evil' actions may be reformed, it would be overly idealistic and unrealistic to believe that all persons who perpetrate such actions can be.

Dr Russell demonstrated a deep and insightful understanding of both sides of the debate, however, as he coherently articulated the alternative arguments in academia that stand for the existence and non-existence of evil.

So, does it exist? "Yes, I think so," said Russell, as he ended his talk with the proposition that as evil actions exist, so do evil persons.

Dr Luke Russell's book, Evil: a Philosophical Investigation, is published by Oxford University Press.