Sunday, February 11, 2007


Yesterday morning we went out for a walk and found that during the night a vehicle had swerved off the street onto the bottom of our driveway, slammed down its brakes -- leaving black tread marks on the cement -- and skidded along the front of the lawn taking out a long swath of grass. Instead of solid green grass there is now a curving, ugly rut -- along with other tracks showing that the driver turned again, drove up toward the house, backed away, and drove across again

Before paranoia took over, we discovered that we had not been singled out. Several other lawns along the same street had been vandalized in similar fashion. This morning we looked at half a dozen on other streets that had been conspicuously damaged.

Some person, late in the night, deliberately and repeatedly harmed property whose only purpose was to be beautiful.

I call that “evil”. I call it evil because it was not only done knowingly but was willed with desire that the damage be done.

I propose that the distinction between “bad”, and “evil” should be based on the state of the will of the perpetrator rather than the degree of harm done.

We English-speaking humans classify many actions as “bad”, but we reserve the word “evil” for actions that transcend badness. Many acts which are inconvenient to society, or disruptive of the social order, are labeled bad, or criminal, but “evil” has a cosmic dimension.

In criminal law class I once proposed, tongue-in-cheek, that all crimes should be punishable by death – whether shooting someone or just willfully speeding. My argument was that minor crimes, being fully under the control of the person committing them, would immediately cease when the population learned that execution would be the consequence. Speeding might be worth a $50 fine, but not the electric chair. Spinning tires in someone’s garden would not be worth a lethal injection.

My serious opinion is that the ill will of the criminal, and not the severity of the damage he does, should be judged and punished by appropriate penalties. I think that a person who shoplifts because she’s poor, or who steals cars to support himself, should be judged less harshly than a person whose only motive and only profit is the satisfaction of hurting other beings. I believe that a man who tortures a cat is guilty of a much greater crime than a person engaged in the criminal enterprise of stealing money from banks. Of course the shoplifter and the bank robber are criminals, but their crimes are lesser than those motivated by evil.

Reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and some of his other works was one of the most pleasant experiences of my life. Kant is most known in the area of moral philosophy, of course, for his Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." But I also gleaned from Kant that in judging what was good or evil in human behavior, it was the ill will or good will of the actor which should be determinative. I’m probably oversimplifying and distorting Kant, but I don’t have time to reread one of his books before posting this, and that was the general impression I’ve carried around for years.

At any rate, that principle is the thrust of this post. We can classify degrees of evil if we like, but the starting point, the threshold of evil, is an act based on ill will, on a desire to do harm for the sake of doing harm.


  1. In the past similar things have happened in my neighborhood. Why someone would get some sort of thrill from destroying others property is beyond me. Sick bastards do sick things I guess.

    One morning we awoke to see white paint poured on our black car. It was poured on the front windows and had run down into the wipers and beyond. The police said they had reports of it happening to about a dozen cars in the area that night. What about doing that did the person enjoy? After the thrill of doing that was over, you have to wonder what they would do or did next.

  2. Welcome, Patricia! Thanks for the understanding comment. Your car suffered worse than our lawn.

    Like you, I can't even imagine what kind of mentality is behind those acts. It reinforces my whimsical idea that there is more than one species walking around in human bodies. As for the police, they are always too busy to seriously investigate the kind of vandalism we've experienced. Apparently it takes a murder to arouse their interest. They wouldn't even comment on the very clear tread marks on our and other lawns and driveways.

  3. I'll give you my honest feedback, Fleming. This preoccupation with labelling acts as evil is a peculiarly American 21st century phenomenon.That's not to say it won't be imitated elsewhere, but I cannot see it originating here.

    "Mindless" vandalism is not a new phenomenon. I remember staying in a South London suburb in 1973 where one Saturday morning the entire street had had car tyres slashed. I think I escaped with only one tyre ruined, which wasn't too bad, because it meant using the spare. Perhaps someone with all four tyres slashed if there were any such cases would have considered it "evil" but I don't remember that, only discussing with neighbours how to deal with the situation practically.

    The word "evil" is uncommon here, occurring in few contexts:

    1) Jocular, e.g. "You evil bastard!" to express appreciation of a cunning manoeuvre

    2) Religious, e.g. "Deliver us from evil"

    3) "Evil weather", "evil fortune" etc, expressing things unfavourable to the subject

    4) Reportage of American politicians or other opinion.

    There is widespread tolerance here of behaviour which can be interpreted as "a cry for help", or the expression of a grudge, except, obviously, by the victims.

    Even though the threat of terrorist bombs is, we are told, constant, I come across no sense among the British people of "evil" in our midst, just a phlegmatic resignation at being made targets by the policies of our politicians.

    Having said the above, I feel commiseration for your annoyance and loss. I suggest this is the only real issue, and that brooding over the moral or mental health of the perpetrator will only make things worse for you.

  4. Yves, it's interesting to learn that the word "evil" is used differently in England than in the U.S. Of course I'm aware that Bush has used "evil" meaninglessly on the political stage.

  5. bush is a fundimentalist and suffers the in religious disease of believing in a higher form for both good and evil.

    looking within the hearts and minds of people would be a better place to continue to search.

    having said that though, his enemies think in similar terms.

  6. I hate to say it but... it could very well have been the act of some one so drunk as to not really be conscious of the destructive aspect of his/her act but to be caught up in the 'fun' of driving heedlessly wherever the vehicle 'chose' to go. Or it could have been a situation where a young driver was encouraged to be reckless by his friends...

    On the other hand, it could have been a deliberate act of destruction, motivated by malice or rage. It could have been motivated by the old hostility of the 'have nots' against those who 'have'. It could be anything.

    I personally never could understand the destruction of anything beautiful in any circumstances and yet the cinema is filled with scenes of irate individuals smashing priceless china and works of art. Some people find that amusiing or at least diverting, evidently. That sort of wanton destruction makes me sick to my stomach.

    In many ways, the 'mens rea' can be more significant than the 'actus reus' but one cannot advocate the punishment of thoughts. ('Hate crimes' are an attempt to punish an individual for the thought more than the deed itself, and I think that is a dangerous path for any government or legal authority to follow.)

    Your argument that a lethal injection would discourage minor offences actually was put into practice in many societies in the past where the minor theft of a loaf of bread would cost an individual his/her hand. Theft nonetheless was as common as it is now. In countries where, if a woman committed adultery, her husband had the right to murder wife and lover, people still committed those acts.

    As far as the sort of vandalism you describe is concerned, however, it is disturbing to recognise that often adolescents have no real recognition of the effects of their acts. Caught up in what they perceive as a 'spirit of mischief' rather than evil, they often perform acts that can cause serious damage and even loss of life in some instances. How many teens have driven a car fast down a hill with the lights out? It is as if 'reality' is something that they intend to experience at a later date... meanwhile, they have their fun and others sometimes suffer. They are not property owners and do not even think of the expense (and labour)of restoring a beautiful lawn.

    I was not a 'juvenile delinquent' by any means, but I am a little ashamed of some of our 'innocent' childhood pranks... We never wanted to hurt any one, but we simply didn't consider the laws of cause and effect.

    Then again, there are people in this world who are motivated to hurt others. I've had my windscreen smashed and the front windows of my house smashed as well. Those acts definitely were not committed in the 'spirit of fun'. It always is distressing when a person who tries to be motivated by goodwill towards all is forced to confront proof that there are people who really enjoy hurting others.

    Then again, the spirit of creation and the spirit of destruction are considered to be two sides of the same coin. Think of Kali or Daksinakali in particular, dancing joyfully on the corpses of the slain, delighting in rivers of blood... Yet she is the Goddess, not only in this fearsome guise but in her more maternal, benevolent guise as well.

  7. I have, perhaps, a rather simplistic view of the word "evil" in that it is "live" backwards; an intention toward death and/or destruction. A "devil" under that assumption, of course, then becomes a person who has created that "death" and/or destruction.

    Am not sure what the opposite of that would be, unless I drop an "o" from the word "good" and make it "god".. that which tries to turn thought toward creation and improvement.

    The whole notion of "good" vs "evil" has been around for many thousands of years (probably invented by Zarathustra/Zoroaster)
    and while entropy - the gradual destruction of all things until the next "big bang" - is irreversable, methinks evil can never be eradicated (life depends on death) the best we can hope for is some sort of balance between the two.

  8. Freyashawk, your thoughtful comment brings out all the possible "excuses", one might say, for the commission of vandalism . . . and at least one other comment takes a similar tack.

    I meant to use the vandalism incident more as a takeoff point for a semantic discussion of the word "evil" than an analysis of what can cause criminal behavior. I do, however, seem to feel less forgiving of such acts than some others do. To me an explanation (drunk, dared by friends to do it) is not an excuse, assuming there's such a thing as freedom of choice

    Yes, it's a very complex area, and the law -- as you point out -- makes allowances for circumstances which remove the ability of the perpetrator to know what he is doing (insanity, for example), although I'm not sure that voluntarily getting drunk is a defense.

    Now that I've got myself into this subject by shooting from the hip, I'm going to have to discuss various aspects in blog posts, and I hope you will be there to comment.

    In the case of what happened to a number of lawns in our neighborhood Friday night, I know that it was not a brief impulsive act because during the same night a number of lawns were damaged in a neighborhood half a mile from here, and two golf courses approximately 2 miles and 3 miles away suffered expensive spinning and skidding tire damage to fairways and greens. Having all that happen on the same night evokes ideas of a malicious planned attack.

  9. Davo, it's always good to hear from you. Thanks for your interesting views, and thanks for visiting my blog.