My readings/beliefs about weakness of will have led me to think that "evil for its own sake" is impossible. Yet, some actions seem to be done as such. So I think this difference is important:

(A) I lied (or w/e) for the sake of lying. (B) I lied for the sake of the fact that lying is evil.

On my view, B is what is ruled out. Is this sufficient to reconcile my intuition and abstractions, here?

EDIT: Having just read a new SEP article that directly considers this question of evil for its own sake, I am now motivated to define a third option. (To boot, since the discussion is cashed out in terms of radical evil, which level of evil is entangled with notions such as akrasia and acedia (per Kant's discourse on the inescapable rationality of the moral law), I now have a go-to reference for associating the question of akrasia, with the question of evil for its own sake.) This third option is:

(C) I will lie for the sake of the fact that other people (who I am trying to offend) think that lying is evil.

Why propose (C)? Because in the SEP article, there seem to be authentic examples given of people willing a particular evil thing for the sake of evil in general:

In this context, consider (if you can bear it) Stone 2009’s portraits of the worst serial killers: although some perpetrators report that they take what they are doing to be good—ridding the world of “garbage women”, giving someone his “just deserts”, correctly following the orders of the voices in their head, and so on—others openly admit that what they are doing is bad, wrong, evil, despicable, and so on. In such cases, the perpetrators are not making a series of unsound inferences, or mistaking the bad for the good. Rather, they seem to be engaged in a self-conscious turning away from anything that could be regarded as good by anyone.

So to avoid the strict conclusion of (B), I suggest the possibility of (C), which is close enough to (B) to be "mistaken for it," perhaps.

  • 1
    If lying is "evil" then lying for the sake of lying is already "evil" for its own sake. What "lying for the sake of the fact that lying is evil" means is hard to understand, and even harder to believe that it can be a motivation for anybody. So, I suppose, it is trivially ruled out. Its connection to weakness of the will is also obscure, and expanding on it might shed some light on what the question is. Currently, it is very murky.
    – Conifold
    Sep 24, 2019 at 20:47
  • Is what you mean by (A) I lied for some reason and by (B) I lied for no reason whatsoever ? Then the second one would be evil for its own sake and the first would be evil for some reason. I agree with you that evil for its own sake seems unlikely. Sep 24, 2019 at 21:51
  • I probably shouldn't have brought up akrasia, not because it's irrelevant but the line of thought is pretty involved. I just mentioned it as a bit of background I guess. Sep 25, 2019 at 20:46

4 Answers 4


'Evil be thou may good'. I see no reason why someone should not recognise evil and pursue it as such. Where's the logical or psychological impossibility? If intentional actions are done under a 'desirability characterization' (Anscombe) then I can regard an action as desirable precisely because it is evil.

Evil is not excess harm in the pursuit of an end. Harm is the end: the pleasure in inflicting harm, the pleasure of watching another suffer, the pleasure in possessing the power to inflict this harm on another, rather than suffer it oneself.

This concept of evil is expressed perfectly by Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost when he says "Evil be thou my Good" (IV, 105-110). Satan would take revenge on God because He is good, because His rule was mild and loving (IV, 43). Satan does not just envy God's power; he envies His goodness. Evil is an attack on the good precisely because it is good and not me or mine. It is this that Milton's Satan cannot stand...

(C. Fred Alford, 'Evil Be Thou My Good', The Good Society, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2006), pp. 13-16: 15.)

But it's only a poem, someone might say. However, the state of mind which Satan embodies here can and does have real life replications.

In his Confessions Augustine says:

A murder is committed. Why? To get another's wife or wealth, or to get the necessities of life. Or for fear another would deprive the murderer of such things. Or from a sense of wrong burning for redress. Who murders with no cause but to enjoy the mere murdering? Who would credit such a motive? (Confessions II.III.)

'Who murders with no cause but to enjoy the mere murdering? Who would credit such a motive?' I would. It is a perfectly straightforward conceptual possibility. If the motive is rare, let's hope it stays that way.

I see, by the way, no connexion with weakness of will. One can murder with no cause but to enjoy the mere murdering and do so with clear and firm determination in the face of no countervailing considerations and no regrets.


C. Fred Alford, 'Evil Be Thou My Good', The Good Society, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2006), pp. 13-16: 15-16.


In Hegel's Science of Logic Evil is equated with extreme selfishness, so, if the terms are interchangeable, doing something for a very selfish aim, in the knowledge that that constitutes evilness, is the same is doing something for the sake of evil. This depends on the point that Evil is not anything other than extreme selfishness, in the standard context of morality.

Remark: The unity of the One and the Many

§ 356

Self-subsistence pushed to the point of the one as a being-for-self is abstract, formal, and destroys itself. It is the supreme, most stubborn error, which takes itself for the highest truth, manifesting in more concrete forms as abstract freedom, pure ego and, further, as Evil. ...

A counterargument might be made that some evil acts appear to be purely malicious with no obvious benefit to the actor. However, less obvious drivers such as envy and pathological narcissism can be at the root of such acts, in which case there is a motive: the actor soothing his ego (healing his 'narcissistic wound'), which doesn't directly appear to benefit to the actor in an obvious way. This can explain some seemingly inexplicable acts of evil.


I think this is totally wrong as an intuition, that it is in fact not intuitive but inculcated, and that it expresses a bias toward an overly mature system of morality.

There is a basic principle of not wishing to be contained by any ruleset. People, men especially, are not as useful to their communities if they are predictable by outsiders. It is the nature of war that predictability destroys strategy. And any way you could be predicted or contained by your own tribe can be identified and learned by outsiders. So we have evolved a basic principle of contrarianism as one thread of tribal morality.

I would suggest that as long as 'good' is meant to be captured by any ruleset, there will be a direct force to be evil for the sake of being evil, in order to prove to oneself that one has the power that is conveyed by defying expectations and that one will be able to deliver it when it is needed.

This is a part of the aspect of Nietsche's 'master morality' that he conveys with the sentiment "We have yet to esteem the power of the lie." There is a real charge and sense of power to be experienced in answering the call to defy norms, because it is a real part of intrinsic human morality.

Throughout human history, mature moral codes always exclude this consideration. Or at the best, they mute it into a sense of justice and defense of freedom of some sort. But, by is nature, it cannot be contained in that way. A truly effective interpersonal code has to be designed to be broken, if it is not to cripple its own ability to defend itself in the long run.

  • If the children are still learning then they are not yet entirely responsible and presumably not 100% capable of good or bad. Sep 26, 2019 at 9:43
  • @ChrisDegnen We are all still learning. And we are talking about morality, not law. Responsibility is in some ways beside the point. Children make choices and take actions that have intentions and moral character, whether or not we hold them responsible. Is this in any way relevant to the post as a whole or the question? I will just delete the sentence if pointless criticism is the way this goes.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2019 at 14:48
  • I was also talking about morality. Sep 26, 2019 at 15:15
  • @ChrisDegnen And the response post, and its entire content and the deletion of the line is less important than you telling me off, evidently. I am getting really sick of comments that seem to have no positive content and no real relevance.
    – user9166
    Sep 26, 2019 at 15:49

I generally take it as an axiom that people invariably do what they believe is correct. Even when an act appears evil to others, even when an act appears evil to the doer after the fact, in the moment of action the person is doing the act because it strikes him — on some criteria — as the best action to take at that moment. No one lies for the sake of lying, and no one lies because they think lying is evil. People lie because they think lies are necessary, acceptable, proper, 'normal', useful, righteous, or some other ostensibly positive good.

Most of moral theory aims at developing a 'universal' or 'abstract' perspective so that we have some common understanding of what the correct behavior in context is. That would (arguably) eliminate any idiosyncratic disagreements about whether a given act is evil or good. I know that's a trite way of discussing a deeply intractable problem, but it does get to the heart of it.

  • My POV is more, uh, idk, vague. Strictly vague though, like a sorites situation. The idea is that akrasia is only blocked when we have maximum knowledge of good or right in a situation. But reaching this maximum involves a vague threshold, maybe. However, intending to instantiate the concept of evil directly, is absurd, so we always maximally know not to intend this, so we never ultimately do. ---There's more to it, as with acedia vs. akrasia, but that's the gist of it for now... Sep 26, 2019 at 20:15
  • One way to contradict your last paragraph: The need for security is a primary need (in the Maslow sense, or humans right sense). Thus, if you falsify truth, you are basically falsifying human relationship and undermining trust (predictability/dependability), in those conditions you cannot feel safe. Thus, one of your basic needs is consistently endangered - and that uncertainty in social life, will have negative effects on your biology and psychology. So there is something absolutely universal (going against the Nietschian in the other answer) about the need for truth in human relationships.
    – bad_coder
    Feb 10, 2020 at 18:17
  • There is a fundamental distinction between objective morality of a given act and the subjective motives of the act. While subjectivity can be endless, the final objective analyses can be deterministic and clearly identified.
    – bad_coder
    Feb 10, 2020 at 18:22

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