The most important question that any individual can ask themselves is the basis of all philosophy, the purpose of consciousness, and the foundation of choice and free will: “What should a person do?” Perhaps a better way to phrase it is “What is morality?” or, to frame the opposite, “What is evil?” The Morality Question is, in all senses that matter, the meaning of life. Let each answer unto their own. My answer has changed frequently, and I still work on it from time to time. My current answer is my favorite yet, of course, but there are endless valid answers. Some are better than others, with good reason. Claiming that it is the height of virtue to kill as many people as you can find who can’t fight back is, for example, not a good answer.
My answer runs thusly; all evil is derived from the exercise of unilateral power. Virtue is the pursuit of Truth. To handle the first component, the key point is that the power must be unilateral. Fundamentally, any exercise of unilateral power is compulsion. It is important to make a distinction here, however, since compulsion is critical; a contractual agreement is an act of compulsion in that both parties are compelled to abide by that agreement. However, because the contract was agreed to by both parties, there was no exercise of unilateral power. Holding a gun to somebody’s head and demanding that they sign the contract doesn’t meet this criteria. The difference can be applied to any situation as the single basic distinction between freedom and oppression. Forcibly restricting another’s freedom is, by definition, compulsion. This actually has many shades of power contained within it. Reducing the field of choice available to someone instead of outright commanding them at gunpoint is a lesser example of the same action. Finally, note that simply because all evil is derived from unilateral power, I did not state that all unilateral power is by nature evil. It is possible that a good person wielding unilateral power can do good. However, seeing as this idea can potentially put a great deal on the line and risk it all based on the character of one person, using this as a basis for decision making is a bad idea.
Any entity or agent invested with unilateral power is capable of evil. The ideal example: the government. Though not all government power is unilateral, this is rather like tying a beast to the ground with ropes and stakes. Before I start into the civil sector, let’s start with the military. The military is the classic example of unilateral power, based in direct military force. If one army has a million well-armed men, they can pretty much make a town of a thousand do whatever the hell they want. In the event that the town chooses not to comply, they can just go make them. As an example, let’s say the army demands the townspeople kill a person accused of inciting rebellion. I believe most people would agree this is an immoral situation on the part of the army. However, where exactly does the blame lie? Quite obviously the town was acting responsibly. They were presented with the choice of killing one innocent or being annihilated. Should each soldier be accused of adding one millionth the military force required to compel the town? That’s a much harder call, but I say that’s an unenlightened way to look at an army’s dynamics. If one soldier in particular had decided not to comply with the will of their superiors, they would have been forced into submission, and probably punished as well. Making an ethical demand that soldiers presented with that situation desert is insane; the penalty for desertion is death. So the soldiers possess no power to act in a more ethical manner than they did, leaving them guilt-free. Without making any statement specific to this situation, it is possible to say that whoever made the decision to act in this situation where they could just as easily have chosen not to is responsible.
Regarding truth. Truth is the ultimate distributed power. The proof of this is obvious; when someone makes a statement that is obviously not true, everyone can easily tell. If I say 2 + 2 = 5, I can’t fool anyone. If I look up and say “the sky is green” I have the same problem. This can become muddy when statements about fuzzy subjects, incomplete information, or social engineering/memetic programming come into play. If I’m holding a card you can’t see and I say “this is the ace of spades” you have no basis to disprove that statement. Though that seems a foolish example, in a governmental context, the government has access to spies and informants that give them classified files of top-secret information, and they can actually make statements like “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction” and it is fairly difficult to conclusively prove them wrong. Although in that example the simple fact that they wanted to invade proves that they knew stone cold that they had no WMD’s. Baghdad vanishing in a mushroom cloud along with 100,000 American soldiers would have been extraordinarily bad- far worse than the morass we’re in. Anyway, the lying is an act of unilateral power. Worse yet, it is a special example of unilateral power in which it is “free” power.
Before I go into the ramifications of that, first, about the price of power. There are two ways power can have a cost, and it usually has both. The first is a price in order to obtain the power, and the second is a price exacted if it is used. Lying has no cost to be able to do it, and is therefore free. Medical knowledge has a substantial cost in order to get it, giving the possessor the power to heal. Even this power can be used for evil unilaterally, for example if a doctor refuses to treat someone for selfish reasons. The refusal cost them nothing, though it gets more complicated because that only becomes possible if you have the medical facility in the first place. Free power is when there is no cost to get it, so immoral people are continually presented with the option of using it for personal benefit at the public expense. Lying is the perfect example; the intentional bait-and-switch with truth which replaces a universally verifiable fact with misinformation.
Consider a gun. A gun contains within itself and bestows upon the bearer the unilateral power to kill someone. The state, quite rightly, puts into place laws which penalize murder so that a weapon is not a right to kill. In a state of nature, this would not be so. A man with a gun, facing a man without, could shoot him without consequence. This is an unbalancing in favor of power rather than consequence, where one has the power to act and ignore the consequences, which produces an incentive towards evil. By the same token, attempting to balance more consequences than naturally present also produces evil- this is the restriction of freedom, or oppression. In the case of murder, the state is only tipping the scales back from where they slid with the introduction of the gun. Without a gun, neither man has the unilateral power to kill the other, and it is more productive for the two to work together. When one has a gun and the other doesn’t, the most productive state of affairs relative to the armed man is the force the other to be a slave, under penalty of death. This potential situation is present when both are unarmed; one could say to the other “alright, you are going to do whatever I tell you and if you disobey me I’m going to kill you.” but the power to make it so is not.
The fundamental issue at hand is that human beings want power. But in a healthy state of affairs, a measure of power comes with a proportional measure of consequences in all cases. Evil results from the distortion of this balance by attempting to claim unilateral power; exercise power and escape the consequences. Or, power to disrupt that balance for others, either by bestowing power or imposing consequences. Twisting a natural system of incentives produces incentives to act in ways beneficial to oneself or beneficial in the short term, but harmful to others or harmful in the long term. People with integrity are those who act in ways not as advantageous to them, but if everyone acted that way, in the face of all incentive, society would be essentially perfect.