The following comes from a recent philosophy assignment. My task was to “discuss the meaning of each of the following five concepts: bad, wicked, evil, vicious, and immoral in the context of negative moral judgment.”
In the course of living in society, it is necessary to interact with many different individuals, each with a different philosophy and consequent moral code. In order to be successful in dealing with a variety of different people, it is necessary to exercise careful moral judgment to evaluate the potential value or dis-value each individual offers. In most cases, only a basic evaluation is necessary because the interaction is of a limited and predefined nature, such with a clerk in a store, a newspaper article, or a casual acquaintance. In other cases, it is important to make a careful moral judgment of a person as a whole, such as with a business partner, a close friend, a potential spouse, or a philosopher one admires and aims to emulate.
The available evidence and degree of certainty necessary for the variety of moral evaluations we make varies greatly, but the basic process is the same: observe particular actions of an individual and from them, extrapolate their overall philosophy, and then compare it to one’s own. The process of forming negative moral judgments is especially important because human actions must be evaluated in the proper context due to the possibility of ignorance, mistakes, honest disagreement, and differences in individual backgrounds.
The first step in evaluating men is evaluating particular actions.
The most common moral evaluation is that something is bad or good. A “bad” thing is one that is destructive to one’s life and values, whereas a “good” thing is beneficial to them. As it is generally used, the word “bad” applies to any event that negatively influences one’s values, man-made and otherwise. In the context of judging human actions, “bad” does not imply any particular degree of dis-value, and implies a limited context and degree of certainty and can be applied more liberally than other negative moral judgments as a judgment of particular actions. For example, if a coworker fails to complete a report he promised to finish because he was lazy, he has committed a bad action. When applied to a person as a whole, the term “bad” indicates that the individual leads a lifestyle that is destructive to themselves or others, though not necessarily intentionally so. This evaluation is usually based on limited knowledge and limited to a particular context, such as work, health, or relationships.
The word “immoral” applied to an action or individual means a violation of moral principles. This is a greater claim than “bad” because it implies that an individual has willingly violated a moral principle. Immorality does not necessarily apply to the full scope of a person’s life: it may indicate widespread corruption of a particular virtue. Making such an evaluation requires evidence that reflects on a person’s character, not just a particular action. For example, if it turns out that the lazy coworker habitually avoids work and evades the need to be productive, he might live an immoral lifestyle.
Unlike the word “immoral,” the term “evil” is a description of the overall moral quality of an individual. It indicates complete moral corruption in all aspects of one’s life and evasion of the harmful consequences to both himself and others. The most common example of evil is a disregard for the consequences of one’s action in regard to others. A criminal, especially a violent one is one such example. An evil person does not necessarily want to harm others. He might be so irrational that he does not see the harm his actions cause to himself or others. For example, a mother who endangers her children because of a drug addiction might be evil, even if she does not explicitly wish them harm.
A judgment such as “evil” cannot be given lightly. It is not sufficient that one endangers others or acts irrationally. Evil requires irrationality and evasion as the dominant trait in one’s life, regardless of how that irrationally is exhibited. Such an evaluation requires evidence that an individual knowingly and consistently engages in immoral actions. This requires knowledge of the motivation for someone’s action, either by direct revelation or by in-depth observation.
Several synonyms for evil denote particular forms of immoral behavior:
The term “wicked” is more specific than “evil.” It implies a record of intentional harm to others. The harm is not necessarily an end in itself, but it requires the intention to harm others as a habitual means to achieve some end. A hit man who dispassionately carries out the orders of a mob boss is such a person.
The word “vicious” is another categorization of immoral action. It refers to behavior that is extremely malicious. A vicious person destroys values for the sake of destroying values. Such behavior may or may not involve force or other people. For example, a dictator who enjoys torturing others may be categorized as vicious, but an environmentalist who protests against industry because he is too incompetent to make a career for himself might be too. A boy who tortures animals or a professor who punishes his best students for their talent might also be vicious.