How evil is a socially constructed concept: Evil across societies

Everyone takes evil for granted.

We tend to see things as either inherently or objectively evil. The age-old debate of good versus evil often comes to mind when thinking about what we see as evil. There are two things, however, we must remember about evil when thinking in these terms.

First is that good and evil are not simply black and white. Evil and good are on a continuum that we often seem to overlook. As humans we tend to like categories; they give us a mental and social tool that helps make sense of things, so that we as a society can have shared meanings and, thus, function and communicate better together. This means we like to label things as “evil” or “good.” These categories cannot overlap in our minds, or else there is a contradiction that makes things unclear for us. We like to stick to our labels of “good” and “evil.” However, in reality there are varying levels and degrees of evil.

The second thing to keep in mind when thinking about evil is that it is a socially constructed concept, different for each culture and society in which it exists. Various cultures have different ideas and beliefs about what constitutes “evil.” What is evil to some may well be commonplace for others. The reason for this is that evil is a subjectively formed social concept. Depending on a certain society’s beliefs and morals, ideas about evil are bound to be different from that of another society.

In our Western world, for example, we tend to see the birth of twins as a somewhat rare occurrence but nothing extraordinary. Some may be overjoyed with the birth of twins but there is no societal standard on the inherent nature of twins.

In Nigeria the Yoruba people once saw twins as an evil occurrence, believing the only way a woman could give birth to twins was for the woman to have had been with two men at the same time. This often resulted in infanticide in order to cleanse the community. Although this is no longer practiced, there are still superstitions surrounding twins among the Yoruba.

Another common theme among Western horror movies is that of ghosts or spirits, which we often see as scary, frightening, and evil. Many cultures, though, do not hold this same belief. There are many who see ghosts and spirits as forces of good. For example, in certain sects of Judaism ghosts and spirits are seen as helpful in providing assistance to the living. When a person is struggling with a situation or problem, the person is sometimes helped by a nonliving entity who had once gone through the same problem while alive. It is believed that the nonliving spirit attaches itself to the living just long enough for the person to overcome their troubles.

As you can see, we often take “evil” for granted in that we seem to believe there is a shared standard on what is evil and what is good. You would be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western world who considers the birth of twins as evil, whereas in other cultures it is seen as horrific. There is in fact no global view of what constitutes evil, it is shaped by the variety of beliefs and values in any given culture or society.