Does evil exist? Yes, but only in the eye of the beholder.

Doc Bonn,Dr. Scott Bonn

Evil is not a universal truth.  It is a socially constructed concept and it only exists in a particular time and place.  This perspective on evil, known as social constructionism, is rooted in the philosophical writings of Immanuel Kant.  According to Kant, matter does not exist in its own right.  Instead, all matter is a product of the mind.  Because all objects are constructed of matter, all objects are thus mental creations.

Social constructionism emerged over the past forty years as a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts.  According to this perspective, all knowledge, including the most basic, taken-for-granted common sense knowledge of everyday life, is actually constructed and reinforced through social interaction.  Social constructionists see reality as a dynamic and constantly contested process—that is, reality is reproduced by people acting on their knowledge and their socially constructed interpretations of it.

As a logical extension, social constructionism contends that social problems do not exist objectively like a mountain or a river.  Rather, they are constructed by the human mind, socially created or constituted by the definitional process.  Therefore, the objective existence of a harmful condition such as a disease does not, in and of itself, constitute a social problem.  From the social constructionist perspective, an objective condition does not constitute a social problem unless it is defined as such by the members of a society in a particular context.  Moreover, an objective condition does not even have to exist to be defined as a problem.  That is, if something is thought to exist and it elicits fear, then it is real despite the fact that it does not exist objectively.  The witch hunts in colonial New England are an example of a non-objective, socially constructed crisis.  From a constructionist perspective, what makes a condition a social problem is the degree of felt concern by a society about that condition, regardless of whether it actually exists or whether it is objectively harmful.

Significantly, an analysis of the social construction of evil provides an understanding of the processes and mechanisms by which those in power and authority in society can demonize a particular group and establish an evil identity for it in the public consciousness.  The word evil itself has a long linguistic history.  The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the original derivation of the word evil to the Goths of the 4th century A.D. who defined it as “exceeding due measure” or “overstepping proper limits.”  Webster’s College Dictionary defines evil as “morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked; harmful or injurious; due to actual or imputed bad conduct or character; evil quality, intention or conduct.”  I contend that the definitions of evil are all socially constructed and socially defined in particular contexts.  In other words, behaving evilly, producing evil and being evil are radically social processes which are defined in a given social context or time and place.

The definitions of evil are also tautological—that is, the definitions involve circular reasoning.  One may be labeled as evil because one does evil things, and if one does evil things, then one is evil.  This tautology is problematic because a circular argument cannot be tested or falsified.  As a result, the tautological definition of evil can be exploited by those who apply the label of evil to an individual or group.  How?  If the labelers’ arguments cannot be falsified, then their claims are not subject to meaningful debate or critique by skeptics.  Once a disvalued individual or group is socially defined as evil, those in power have the moral authority and even obligation to eliminate the evildoer(s) regardless of whether or not there is an objective threat to society. Therein lies the danger of the social construction of evil, because it certainly didn’t matter to those who were convicted of witchcraft in colonial New England that they were not actually witches.  They were sentenced to death and executed, nonetheless.  It is important that we remember this fact the next time we are told by authorities that a person or group is evil and must be eliminated.  When we act without proper inquiry, the consequences can be dire.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter.


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Posted on March 14, 2012, in Social Issues and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. As an interesting side note, some elements of social constructionism can be traced farther back in history than just Kant. For example, in the ‘Meditations’ of Marcus Aurelius he states:

    Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought ‘I am hurt': remove the thought ‘I am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed.

    He was a Roman Stoic philosopher, though one of the last ones. So it is reasonable to assume that some elements of social constructionism may well go as far back as Ancient Greece.

  2. @Makersidiom: Thank you for that insightful contribution. I agree with your conclusion.

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  2. Pingback: Doc Bonn explains Moral Panic and Why it is Dangerous « Doc Bonn Blog

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