Intent does matter when discussing evil because there's a difference between doing something bad out of innocent ignorance (which is very different from various other kinds of ignorance) and doing something bad because you know it will hurt someone. The second stands a chance of being evil, the first not so much. Intent isn't magic, what is being done is wrong either way, but it does matter.
The thing is that intent doesn't matter all that much. Very few of the things that qualify as evil can be judged based on intent. In fact, even the ones that can be tend to use intent as proxy for knowledge. Something like:
"If I had known that it made you feel that way I never would have called you that continually for the last seven years but you're so good at keeping your real feelings hidden that I never suspected."Yes, the intent was good, but it's the knowledge that makes the difference between that non-evil act and this evil one:
"I knew exactly how it made you feel, that's why I've called you that continually for the last seven years."Also, remember what I said about innocent ignorance? Why the knowledge is lacking is important, this is pretty evil too:
"If I had known that it made you feel that way I never would have called you that continually for the last seven years, mind you there were indications that something was up with you and being called that, but I never bothered to find out what."In fact, the callous evil of "I don't care" or "It was expedient" tends to disturb me more than the evil of, "I don't like you."
If you hurt people because you're trying to hurt people then at least there's some limiting factor on what you'll do. You're going to hurt the people you're trying to hurt. If you hurt people because you don't care about the consequences of your actions then there's no limit, no end, no stopping point. You don't even know what evil you're putting into the the world unless someone brings it to your attention (and if they do you don't care) so the potential is unlimited. Ditto for, "It was expedient." If the ends justify the means then recall that there are some pretty good ends out there, enough that you can justify basically any means up to and including destroying the entire universe (bring an end to all pain and suffering as just one example of an end that can be the means to.)
If you're willing to do evil things because they're expedient ... well that's where we find most actual evil in the world.
Hell, "It's expedient," is an apt description of all three of the biblical temptations of Christ in the wilderness by the Devil. Especially the last. Way easier to rule the world by kneeling down and worshiping the devil than death by crucifixion, resurrection, 40 days on earth, return to heaven, seeing your followers martyred, seeing your teachings twisted, and waiting an unspecified time to return which thus far has proven to be at least 1980 years, 9 months, and 17 days using certain traditional dating techniques.
There are some who would argue that the world would be a better place if Jesus had taken the expedient route.
The point here is not to get all religious though, but being on religion provides a nice segue into the next point. Ever heard the word Antichrist? Ever wondered where it came from? It's mentioned in couple books of the Bible (literally: two books) and in them it's about orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy which is a debate that I have no interest in but the key thing is that John is saying, basically, "Make sure that you don't become one of these Antichrist people." People who were once orthodox Christians have become heterodox and John is writing to those who are still orthodox to say, "Watch yourselves to make sure you're not taken in and become one of those people too."
The idea starts off as, "We must be ever vigilant of ourselves lest we become something bad," (I happen to disagree with John that heterodox=bad but that is neither here nor there) and yet by the time that it gets to us it's been entirely externalized. It's not, "Those people who used to be like us have become Antichrists and we could too," it's, "We must be ever vigilant of others because evil is external. There's no way I will be an Antichrist, but I must always keep a lookout of Nicolae Carpathia."
We do that a lot with the idea of evil, in all its forms. We push it out, we externalize it, we make it so it's not something we can do. I'm not a misogynist --I love women-- so clearly I cannot do misogynist things. I'm not a racist --I think everyone is equal-- so clearly that thing I did was not racist. I'm not evil --there is no malice in my heart-- so what I do is not evil.
And this in turn is used to justify and cover for evil. Love this sinner, hate the sin. But it's tough love. Really, really tough love. Painful knock them to the ground and kick them when they're down ... we're seriously calling this love?
That action was evil when he did it because he hated the Cardasians and did it out of malice, but it was totes ok when I did the exact same thing on a weaker population less able to deal with the blow because I did it out of expedience.
I'm not being misogynist when I create these rules for women to live by, I'm trying to protect them. Only good happy things in my heart.
I'm not being homophobic when I try to make it hellish to be non-straight via public and private means of discrimination, I'm doing it out of love. I'm trying to save them from Hell by discouraging behavior that would send them there.
I'm not being racist when I say we shouldn't talk about race, I'm just trying to jumpstart equality on the basis of believing that we pretend there's nothing wrong then soon there will be nothing wrong.
I'm not preforming these morally questionable acts because I'm evil, I'm doing it because the ends are good and that's what matters.
Evil is something that other people do while twirling their mustache. What I do is done via the best of intentions.
Hell, even the Dungeons and Dragons "Evil" alignment doesn't see itself as evil. It sees itself as Callicles / Nietzsche / Ayn Rand Beyond Good and Evil return to the natural and proper state in which the strong dominate the weak. No malice, just a desire for things to be as nature says they should be (according to their philosophy.)
We reduce morality to intent and suddenly, "It was Tuesday,"* becomes much more acceptable than, "I hated him all my life and if I couldn't take his village at least I could have him killed." I see it the other way around.
Then again, I'm much more willing to trust someone who compromises all morality on the basis of being bribed than someone who does it for free. I know how to keep the first person on the right track: Stop zir from being bribed. I have no idea how to make the second person not be evil. I realize this is a heterodox position to take.
But leaving aside the bribes and sticking with evil.
Certain actions are not evil
Certain actions (the vast minority) are liminal and in these cases it depends on why they are done:
- Innocent ignorance: merely bad, not evil
- Not caring enough to find out: evil
- Willful ignorance: evil
- Knowingly: evil (note that it doesn't matter whether the person doesn't care or is trying to cause harm or anything else: knowingly is evil.)
Certain actions are evil. Intent doesn't matter. Knowledge doesn't matter. The actions are in themselves evil.
One's internal state only matters when trying to classify the cases that occur on the margins. Cases that are already bad, it must be noted. In all other cases evil, or lack thereof, is what you do, not how you feel.
Callous uncaring evil is worse in my eyes than malicious evil.
"It was expedient," a more damning explanation than, "I hated them all."
* For those unfamiliar, Bison has just been told the story of a man who gathered, organized, and led a defensive force to cast him out of a village he was trying to raid for supplies and slaves and was thus, basically, singlehandedly responsible for his defeat. While retreating Bison gave the order to have that person, the one person who represented a threat to him who happened to be the father of the person he's currently talking to, shot. It's not something that he remembers because it's no big deal to him. Threats are eliminated all the time. It's expedient.