1.0 What is "evil"? Is there a common language or philosophical definition that is secular, or must it rely on religious and metaphysical attachments?
1.1 A religious-metaphysical notion of evil is that it is associated as a supernatural moral position, commonly associated with extreme forms of blasphemy, heresy etc. In a secular context, where moral norms are not derived from supernatural assertions, moral evil can be described in the context of extreme actions contrary to normative positions.
1.3 In a formal sense, evil can be described as the opposite of good. Therefore moral philosophy determines both. Broadly speaking this can take four general positions:
1.3.1 Moral absolutism: Good and evil are fixed concepts established by a deity or deities, nature, utility, harm, etc.
1.3.2 Moral relativism: Good and evil are relative to culture, history, subjectivity, and are contextually bound.
1.3.4 Moral universalism: Good and evil are determined by universal procedures of intersubjective consensus; regardless of relative content.
1.3.5 Amoralism: Good and evil are meaningless; morality does not exist.
1.4 Assuming an existence of good and evil (1.3.1 - 1.3.4), evil can be expressed as a continuum e.g.,
evil - bad - neutral - good - righteous
1.5 The application of moral principles is situational ethics; ethical decisions have sometimes been justified when an act is morally bad (or even evil!) when it is used to promote an even greater good or prevent a greater evil.
2.0 What role does intention play in defining an activity as being 'evil' or not? To what degree can moral culpability be removed from harmful actions based on intention?
2.1 The distinction in law of moral responsibility is well known; different between murder (premeditated) and variations in manslaughter (e.g., with malice, through negligence, constructive) and accidents. Can also be applied to other moral evils.
2.2 Even conscious intention however has highly determining factors; to continue the example, consider the highly variant differences in homocide rates across place and time (Einser, 2012); very strong association with high levels of homicide and (a) inequality in wealth and income (b) lack of integrative democratic social system (c) public and cultural acceptance of violence.
2.3 Few, with the exception of those with ideational pathology, consider themselves "evil", even when they carry out acts that most would consider to fall into such a category. Psychologists (e.g., Rosenberg, Ellis, Peck) argue that there is a required diminishing of the other (ironically, often calling *them* evil, in order to remove their common humanity).
2.4 Arendt in "Eichmann in Jerusalem", introduced "the banality of evil", the idea that removing oneself from public discourse and argumentation (an "idiot" in the classic Hellenic sense) that one can follow the average behaviour of society to the path of evil conduct (c.f., Milgram experiment, Stanford Prison experiment, The Wave etc)
3.0 For theists there is a challenge of "natural evil", that is suffering in existence. How do notions of omnibenevolence respond to this challenge? Can suffering be approached as a practical challenge to be minimised and potentially removed?
3.1 Moral evil results from a conscious perpetrator, natural evil is the harm caused through natural processes. For the theist this raises a challenging issue, for an omnipotent, omniscient deity is a conscious perpetrator (by action or inaction). This raises the issue of theodicy.
3.2 The religious philosopher Levinas considered theodicy to be blasphemous and discussion on the subject should be ended. Some theologians (e.g., Plantinga) argue that natural evil could be the result of moral evil committed by freely acting supernatural beings (e.g., bushfires caused by demons because God's protection has been lifted due to decriminalisation of abortion). For many mainstream religious believers, the issue is generally avoided on a philosophical level in favour of directly dealing with natural evil.
3.3 The Hedonistic Imperative (Pearce) approaches suffering as a practical task with science fiction levels of optimistic development to utilise genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life, including interventionist changes to carnivores.
Summary of discussion from The Philosophy Forum, Sunday October 5, 2014