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Contemplating evil

Does evil exist? Does it matter?

I'm prompted to ask by the front-page headline in my morning metro (in London today): "The 'pure evil' of Shannon mother". The description comes from the policeman heading up the case into the three-week kidnapping of nine year-old Shannon Matthews. Yesterday the courts found the mother and another person guilty of the crime.

As a father of three lil' chisellers myself, I need no persuasion that this was a very nasty case of child abuse. But is the mother "evil" and why do we often seek to ascribe the term to some wrong-doers but not to others?

Try this test: Was Saddam Hussein evil? What about Osama Bin Laden? Moktada al-Sadr? Lynndie England, the Abu Ghraib torturer? Donald Rumsfeld? George Bush Jr? Gerry Adams? Ian Paisley? Sean Kelly, the IRA 'Shankill bomber'? Lenny Murphy, the 'Shankill Butcher'?

So, who made the cut? All, none, some?

Any why? Whatever your judgement, you can be sure that someone else, somewhere else, will have come up with utterly different answers. So, does our use of the term "evil" say at least as much about our moral outlook and motivations as those of the wrong-doers?

Perhaps the ascribers of the term "evil" are simply resorting to a lazy reflex which saves them the bother of deeper analysis, a deeper striving for understanding the motivations and conditions for wrong-doing.

And does it matter? From a human rights perspective, I mean. I don't think human rights law has much to say on the matter, but, if someone is "evil", does it make them more or less culpable? If someone is "evil", are they curable or a possessor of a permanent malignancy? Does the "evil" person deserve a prison sentence or treatment under mental health provisions?

As human rights campaigners are we better to stay away from these sorts of judgements and descriptive terms and to focus on the abuse or the victim? Or if, say, human rights abuses are ongoing in a country, would our belief that the abuser-in-chief is "evil", affect our campaign strategy for bringing an end to that abuse? Would such an analysis make us more likely to call for use of force?

These are all valid questions, I think, for the human rights advocate as much as for the moral philospher (or policeman).

What do you think?

(Oh, and enjoy the weekend.)

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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