It started in the course of a planning session for the next adventure in the Adventurer’s Club (Pulp) campaign, “Prison Of Jade”. We were fleshing out the villain’s motivations, and I (Mike) made a comment about the nature of Evil. Blair disagreed, saying “I don’t think that’s true evil at all” (or words to that effect).
Intrigued and surprised that so fundamental a difference had not been discovered in our many prior years of collaboration and general chat about games, comics, TV and Movies, the proposition of a collaborative article exploring the subject occurred to me immediately. Rather than getting sidetracked at the time, we made arrangements for a get-together this week to discuss it at greater length.
I did my best, while participating in that discussion, to keep notes, which this article attempts to wrestle into coherent form. It probably won’t be as well-organized as my usual articles because it has been built on a conversation, instead of being carefully and logically planned to cover a subject from all sides.
I should start by stating that we knew, going in, that there might be no real answers found. It was even possible that there are no real answers – philosophers and theologians have been debating the subject for more than 2000 years! Who were we to think that we could succeed where they have failed? Nevertheless, we chose to press on and see just how far we could go…
The Genre Significance
Morality – and the question of what is “Evil” – are central to a great many genres of RPG.
- In Call Of Cthulhu and other Horror-themed genres, there is some form of Absolute Evil and morality is very black-and-white.
- Pulp, too, tends to have very sharp moral dividing lines.
- In Western games there tends to be a very black and white morality that divides the “White Hats” from the “Black Hats” as well – though that might be related to the fact that the Western Genre was at its peak on TV and in movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, eras in which morality was viewed as very rigidly defined in general.
Other Genres are far less rigid in their morality.
- D&D and Pathfinder have their alignment system, which clearly states that there is a “True Evil” – but one that can only be understood in the context of the Law-Chaos alignment axis, so that you can never have “Pure Evil”, it’s “Lawful Evil” or “Chaotic Evil” or “Neutral Evil”.
- Science Fiction runs the whole gamut from extremism to varying shades of gray.
- Modern-Day and Cyberpunk are very flexible in what is morally permissible, and rarely dig too deeply into the questions of Evil – just expedience. Though there can be exceptions – the secret agent genre for example.
- Superhero games manage to cover the entire range of options at the same time – while some characters are just a dark shade of gray, others may be described as “absolute evil” – with no adequate definition of what that means.
And that’s the common thread – a definition of “True Evil” is very hard to find in any source, and a functional one even harder to find. All too often, the definition is a negative one – “These are the things that Evil is not, and that the PCs are”.
One thing that both Blair and I were keen to avoid was a religion-based definition of any sort. We wanted something that was both more agnostic and pragmatic in nature, a definition that could be applied to any gaming situation, but which did not exclude any theological definition that a particular faith might accept.
Whenever a question like this comes up, the first resource we turn to is Wikipedia. While it may be inaccurate from time to time, and exasperatingly incomplete in others, it is usually an excellent starting point.
Not this time, though – their definition of Evil is “the absence or complete opposite of that which is ascribed as being good. Often, evil is used to denote profound immorality. In certain religious contexts, evil has been described as a supernatural force.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem; Evil is defined in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is, which makes defining “True Evil” or “Absolute Evil” rather difficult.
Evil and Alignment
Another thing that we wanted to sidestep were interminable discussions of the D&D Alignment system. We considered this to be an attempt to create a game-mechanic that described a relative morality for the purposes of inter-character relations; it did not go far enough for our purposes. We wanted to arrive at a functional definition of True Evil, evil that was uncontaminated by Chaos/Law considerations.
Besides, I had already done a five-part series on Alignment, and didn’t want to cover any of the same ground – tricky, in that part five specifically describes “evil” campaigns.
The Ultimate Selfishness
The definition that I have always worked from is that Evil is an expression of Selfishness – putting your own benefit, however slight, ahead of the interests of others. Even the potential for gain is worth any amount of suffering inflicted on others, from the standpoint of this definition. For most characters, that definition remains sufficient, and the question of “How evil is the character” can be restated far more effectively as “How far will the character go to obtain a self-perceived benefit or advantage?”.
It was my statement of this basic definition that prompted Blair to comment that he disagreed, and thought that there was a “True Evil” that went beyond this definition, starting the whole conversation.
True Evil: more than self-gratification?
I started by proposing that perhaps True Evil was simply a moral position that gave an “evil person” permission to inflict pain and misery for their own gain. That moral position may be self-chosen or ordained by outside authority. True Evil was not the actions themselves, which were simply an expression of the moral condition; the evil was whatever permitted the character to act on those desires, or perhaps the absence of something that prevented non-evil people from acting in that fashion.
This proposal was an attempt to start from, but move beyond, the definition that I offered above. However, it was my impression that Blair thought that evil was something more than this, that it was more malicious – an impression that he immediately confirmed.
A lot of what gets described as evil is mere pragmatism without restraint; even acts against possible future opposition can be judged in this context. “True Evil,” he said, “Acts because it can, not because it has to. It takes pleasure in what it does.”
But putting your own satisfaction, your own pleasure, ahead of the welfare of others is simply an expression of Selfishness, so taking pleasure in “evil acts” or committing “evil acts” simply for your own gratification is covered by my initial definition. If there is a True Evil that lies beyond that definition, it has to be more than simple self-gratification.
True Evil: more than Ruthlessness?
This gave us the outline of a process by which we might eventually reach a satisfactory conclusion. By considering various acts considered to be “evil”, and determining whether or not they could be categorized as somehow being less than “True Evil”, we would eventually hone in on the functional definition that we sought.
Blair started by raising Nazi behavior during World War II – the concentration camps, the systematic abuse and slaughter of groups that the Nazis disapproved of. Nazis are favorite villains in the Pulp Genre because the things they did were so vile by any reasonable moral code. There is no question that the Nazis were absolutely ruthless in pursuing their agenda, and that the agenda in question was villainous, but was this an example of True Evil?
Until recently, I would have answered yes; but a recent documentary has shed new light on that ruthlessness in my mind. The Nazi regime was spending money that it didn’t have in order to prop up their economy, to such an extent that they ceased publishing their annual balance of trade and budgets. All the Nazi big infrastructure and rearmament projects were funded with money the Nazis didn’t have. Nor could they simply sell debt to other countries in the form of government bonds and the like; no-one wanted to buy them. The Nazis even resorted to secretly buying their own government bonds to give the impression that the economy was in far better shape than was really the case.
In order to keep the regime afloat, to raise enough money to meet the public payroll and fund their ongoing projects, it was absolutely necessary to dispossess a large percentage of the population of their property and valuables, or to raise taxes to disastrous levels. Choosing the first course rather than an act that would have seriously undermined their credibility as managers of the economy, it remained only to select the targets – and these were (of course) chosen on ideological grounds. The mentally ill, homosexuals, criminals, Jews, Eastern Europeans, those of mixed blood – the list of targets goes on. The Concentration Camps enabled these groups to be maintained for a pittance for use as slave labor, saving further costs in the infrastructure and munitions industries.
This resulted in short-term gains, but did not solve the systemic problem; some form of ongoing program of conquest was inevitable, enabling them to loot and pillage other economies in order to keep their own afloat. Some analysts have suggested that when Poland was invaded, Germany might have had only enough money to pay the military for another week! The first thing that the Nazis did when capturing a new town was to go to the local banks and empty them of currency, valuables, and precious metals.
Even this wasn’t enough; as the war dragged on, and especially once the Eastern Front was opened, agriculture was suffering from the lack of manpower, and from the diversion of resources such as fuel into ongoing military operations. Memoranda have been found in which the resources being allocated to the care and feeding of those incarcerated in the camps are repeatedly reduced, and it becomes clear in some of them that a massive reduction in the population being held was necessary to reduce the drain on the economy. There were further benefits, from the Nazi perspective: these measures reduced the number of guards required, freeing up manpower for military action elsewhere, for example on the Russian Front. The “Final Solution”, as horrid and despicable as it was, is thus shown to be an extremist form of economic ruthlessness filtered through and cloaked in ideology.
It’s selfishness again – but an impersonal kind of selfishness in which one or more subgroups of a population are deemed unworthy of receiving the benefits of society, and can be exploited as necessary for the benefit of the rest. That makes the Nazi pogroms analogous to the institution of slavery in the US and elsewhere in earlier centuries, simply carried to greater extremes.
We didn’t spend as much time discussing the above as I have in this article, because we had already discussed the revelations of the documentary series on an earlier occasion. Instead, we were able to move quite quickly on to a new proposed definition: “True Evil is anything evil performed when there is no personal gain (or risk of personal loss) but you do it anyway”.
This excludes as a lesser manifestation of True Evil any acts carried out for a reason, including evil acts committed in furtherance of an agenda. Absolute evil has to go beyond reasons, ambitions, or agendas, it has to go beyond being evil for personal pleasure or satisfaction.
Most villains, even in a black-and-white morality genre, are not absolute evil; they are motivated by the potential gain of wealth, power, or revenge, or the satisfaction of ambition. Absolute, True, Evil has to be something more, something worse.
The Psychology Of True Evil
In fact, there was only one example that I could think of from Popular Culture that was not contained within this exclusion zone: Hannibal Lector from The Silence Of The Lambs. He didn’t do evil things for pleasure, he did evil things and found ways to take pleasure from those acts. Blair agreed, and suggested that the serial killer being pursued in that movie was arguably a second example; after all, it was the similarity between the two that led to Lector being consulted in the first place.
This raised some disturbing questions that we didn’t answer at the time (though we did eventually find a solution, which I’ll get to in due course):
Do you have to be psychologically disturbed to be Truly Evil?
Can you be Truly Evil if you aren’t psychologically disturbed?
The Corrosion Of The Soul
It’s a truism of serial killers that they get worse and act more frequently as their “careers” progress. It’s like addiction, in which you need more and more to get the same “high” as you build up a tolerance. The more evil you commit, the more evil you become.
By suggesting that True Evil is amoral, producing behavior that is unchecked by morality, this brought us back to the question I had posed earlier. Paraphrased: “is Evil that which gives the individual or group license to commit evil acts, or is it the acts themselves?”
Evil is a slippery slope, each act of evil leaving its mark on the psychology of the person committing it, and making a further step into darkness seem small, until acts that were once unthinkable become acceptable.
Does being psychologically disturbed simply give “permission” to be evil?
Aztec Sacrifices, Vampires and Relative Morality
Leaving those three questions hanging, Blair then turned to another example of Evil for discussion.
Aztec sacrifices were not evil, or even immoral, from the Aztec point of view, because they believed the act was not only religiously ordained but religiously mandated. From the perspective of the victims and their societies, however, they would have seemed to be pretty evil.
Similarly, there was the question of Vampires, which exist in many game genres. Are they inherently evil? They feed on humans – but they have to feed on something. Vampirism was usually something inflicted on an individual; they are victims of any True Evil involved as much as the lives that they consume. It followed that simply being a Vampire did not make you Truly Evil.
Blair suggested that becoming a vampire willingly was a more evil act than simply becoming a vampire, because of the volition. But I countered with the question of sacrifice – someone becoming a vampire, sacrificing themselves to protect another from the same fate, or to join someone they loved more than life itself in a state of undeath. Are either of those an Evil act?
Personally, I think they both are, but the reasoning is a little convoluted; rather than going more deeply into the matter at the time, the conversation moved on, but I think I’ll take a moment to spell it out before this article does likewise.
Case #1, Self-sacrifice to spare another: Either way, someone becomes a monster. In the final analysis, it’s an act of selfishness, choosing to be the instrument of destruction of others in order to spare you from the need to kill a monster who was once someone you loved. Or seeking to find a way for you both to survive by fighting back – you might fail, might die in the attempt, might even both become undead – but it’s a surrender and a perversion of the love you proclaim. Remember that even if the person for whom you are making this quixotic gesture survives, they will have to live with the outcome for the rest of their lives, including a sense of guilt and responsibility for every life you destroy. your choice may be the lesser or two evils, from your perspective, but that still makes it a choice of evil.
Case #2, Becoming undead because someone you love has become undead and you can’t bear to live without them: again, this is an act of selfishness, and a far clearer one than the first. You are becoming a monster because you can’t face the alternative: striving to end the un-life of a loved one. Instead of one monster, two result, and the blood of every future victim is on your hands.
Both are romantic gestures, but are foolish ones that can only end tragically, and both are evil. However, the fact that they can be justified on emotional grounds also means that they are not representative of the Ultimate Evil. Voluntarily embracing Vampirism can be more Evil than being an innocent “convert” – but it has to be for selfish ends, and therefore still remains part of the excluded category.
Apathy and Evil
This confirmed to us that acts can be wrong, even evil, without being Truly Evil. Absolute Evil had to extend beyond any form of reasonable justification.
Blair then posited that it might be considered Evil not to help someone when you are in a position where you can do so. Is apathy Evil? Can it be excused on grounds of pragmatism? After all, you might need the resources expended on helping the other person at some future point yourself. It follows that helping another is always a risk in some degree. However, because the future is unknowable, you can’t be sure either way – the moral question is whether it is better to take the risk.
It follows that acts of charity are meritorious in inverse proportion to the individual’s capacity. When you have little or nothing, even a small act of charity should be lauded. When you have plenty, the same act of charity is trivial. Not empty, certainly not meaningless, but niggardly and greedy – and pathetic. (Nor does it matter, in this context, whether or not the act achieves the goal set for it; intentions, not outcomes are what count, when the act of giving is involved).
How about failing to notify the authorities of a potential danger to someone else because you don’t want to get involved? Failing to report suspected domestic violence or child abuse on the part of a neighbor because you don’t want the embarrassment of having to confront the neighbors later? Are you driving the final wedge into a relationship, tearing a family apart, or are you potentially saving someone’s life? How much latitude should people be given to work out their own problems?
These are difficult questions, without clear-cut answers. It was only when I offered another example of apathy that matters began to clarify for us: If you see someone drowning, and aren’t a strong swimmer, are you justified in not diving in?
The answer is yes – if there is some other way to help. Summoning help, or throwing a rope or flotation aid, for example. The question then becomes simply one of degree, of not doing as much as you can afford to do. Once again, it is possible to describe the withholding of assistance that you can afford to proffer as a form of selfishness (actually, it could be several different forms of selfishness but that doesn’t matter).
Apathy, standing by in silence instead of speaking up about an injustice, can be evil, but it is not Absolute Evil because it can be justified, however mean-spirited that justification.
Time was beginning to grow short, but the conversation had circled repeatedly back to the same point: if there is a rational justification, evil is not absolute because there is a justification for the behavior other than evil.
Therefore, only in the absence of a rational justification can Evil be absolute.
That doesn’t mean that any justification is enough to exclude an act from being Absolute Evil. Justifications can be flawed in logic or in basic assumptions, and still make the difference between Evil and Absolute Evil. However, completely irrational justifications are not enough to exclude an act of evil from representing Absolute Evil.
Consider thrill-killing and serial murder, for example the cases of Ivan Milat and the Snowtown murders. These, and many other serial killings, had no rational justification beyond addiction to the thrill of killing, the yielding to an impulse generated by desire for the thrill without restraint or compunction.
It seems almost a definitive association between such crimes and the perpetrator being psychologically disturbed, either psychopathic or sociopathic (refer section in the page on Psychopathy just linked to).
Is that just an easy out? Is there more to Absolute Evil than sociopathic and psychopathic acts?
The Acts Of Evil
Blair suggests that while the reasons for a murder might be pragmatic, the methodology e.g. unnecessary torture of the victims before killing them, could be considered evil (I thought this was a critical point so I got him to write it rather than risking a misquotation). Therefore actions, in and of themselves, can be evil, even absolute evil.
I don’t disagree with that – but would then have to ask whether or not that represents an absolute evil. Again, the key word that defines an answer is “Unnecessary”. If such acts were to be somehow justified as “necessary”, that means that a case can be made for reasonable justification of the act. It may still be morally wrong, even evil – but it is not an Absolute Evil. It is only in the absence of that justification that such acts transcend “ordinary evil” and become representative of “True Evil”.
The functional definitions: a conclusion of sorts
That – aside from one final note that I will address in a few moments – was where time ran out. We had reached a conclusion of sorts, but it has been left to me to try and condense that conclusion into final form in the form of functional definitions.
- Evil Acts are voluntary acts that are destructive in some manner. This destruction can have an external victim or be directed at the individual committing the act (i.e. be “Self-destructive”). To be evil, these acts must also knowingly and deliberately exceed a threshold of harm to the victim, which is usually defined in terms of the individuals capacity to recover from the harm. The damage inflicted can be physical, emotional, psychological, or moral. Evil acts can include Apathy (the act of “doing nothing” or knowingly doing less than is necessary).
- Performing Evil Act makes a person, group, place, object, or other circumstance Evil. Most evil can be “justified” in terms of Selfishness, and are motivated by Ambition or the drive for Wealth, Power, Self-defense, or Revenge. Most villains, even in moralistically extreme game genres, are not absolutely evil and can “justify” their actions, no matter how ruthless or extreme, through one of these motives. Such justifications are an important tool for the characterization of the villain.
- Evil acts make it easier to commit still more intensely-evil acts in the future, as the success of the act erodes the restraints that morality, social norms, and social expectations place between the evil person and the commission of such actions. Evil can be considered addictive and only through abstinence is reform possible.
- Absolute Evil exists only when no rational justification beyond the pleasure or satisfaction of the individual can be provided as to the motive for the Evil Act. Irrational justifications are not enough to relegate Evil to the lesser standard.
Going Further: Applying the definitions
There was one question posed during the discussion that has not been brought forward as yet: Does the definition of Absolute or True Evil vary from genre to genre?
Since we arrived at a functional definition that does not distinguish between genres, the answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that some genres can’t have expressions or manifestations of Absolute Evil that others lack.
At one point in the discussion, when we were talking about Call Of Cthulhu, I suggested that betraying your species or race or whatever group with which you identify for personal gain of some sort was evil, but that knowingly doing so with no prospect of such gain was still more evil, possibly even True Evil. Whether it is done as some sort of act of revenge, or simply for the love of destruction, the level of malice exhibited by such actions takes them a step beyond any rational justification.
This isn’t the same thing as betraying a Wagon Trains route and schedule to the Indians in a western game. That is also betraying your race or nation to another, but the scale matters. It isn’t the same thing as selling or giving state secrets to another nation, or exposing them to the public, either, though those can arguably be considered to inflict harm on a greater scale than the Wagon Train.
If people have souls in the theological sense, rather than just identities in the psychological sense, then the immortality of the soul makes the corruption or destruction of a soul a far greater offense than simply selling someone into slavery, or torturing someone to death. I find myself going back to the discussion of Vampirism; True Evil can be an evil act that victimizes individuals beyond those immediately targeted in terms of the scale of damage inflicted. Killing or maiming a roomful of innocent victims simply to be sure of killing or maiming one individual carries an act beyond rational justification, no matter what justification may exist in terms of that one individual. The word “innocent” is very important there; a different standard applies when your target is one individual but everyone caught in the “splash” is a justifiable target of lesser importance only relative to that target individual.
Evil is being willing to harm the innocent to achieve one’s ends. What varies from genre to genre are the manners in which harm can be inflicted, and the potential scale of that harm both in severity, in permanence, and in scale. Consider the possible forms and manifestations of harm in your campaign’s genre, and you can determine what the Ultimate Evil is within that campaign, evil beyond any hope of redemption. The answers both define an essential element of the campaign and place all other acts of villainy that may be encountered into context, enriching your game immeasurably.