I’ve been thinking about various definitions of evil, and since I’ve been playing Witcher 3 a lot, I’ll use that as illustration.
The simplest type of evil is something that is universally harmful. For instance, a plague is universally harmful. It kills everybody equally and doesn’t discriminate between good and evil people. However, since a plague is not a conscious entity, you can’t really see it as evil; it’s merely a force of nature, like floods and avalanches. However, we can use this as a reliable standard – for something to be classified as evil, it needs to behave as a plague or a flood, only there needs to be a consciousness behind it.
Going by that, drowners in a pond are evil: if someone finds himself there, they will kill him. They have as much consciousness as wolves, though, so we can’t really talk about very organized evil. Basically, these are localized predatory beings that are universally harmful. In our world, a pond inhabited by crocodiles or a sea inhabited by sharks qualify as habitats of localized predatory beings that will eat you if you go there. The problem is, it’s easy to prove that crocodiles and sharks are dangerous to humans, but are they in fact evil? Is a hawk evil because it eats rabbits?
There’s a human equivalent of this kind of evil: bandits. Order of the Flaming Rose, for instance, consists of former knights that manufacture drugs, kill people and extort peasants. There are also gangs of deserters, pirates and cannibals that are quite similar to packs of wolves, drowners, necrofages, nekkers or ghouls; basically, they inhabit some place, and if you wade in, they attack you, no different from any other kind of pestilent monsters. Are they evil? They are certainly not good in any way I can think of. They are universally harmful, and they are harmful by choice and strategy, so there’s that. If you wanted a conscious plague, bandits are the closest thing. As you can see, the more conscious will and intelligence there is behind harmful actions, the closest we get to being able to easily define something as evil, so it’s obviously more about a state of consciousness, than actions themselves.
Next incremental step would be some sort of a serial killer, for instance that higher vampire that attacked Priscilla and others in Novigrad. He is a believer of the holy fire cult and targets people who are “sinful” in the eyes of his religion, and is much more conscious and deliberate than a pack of wolves and drowners, and also much more cruel, since he works very hard to inflict as much pain to his victims as possible, before he actually kills them. Geralt calls him a sick fuck, which is not wrong, but here we also have a very good taste of true evil.
Where do we go from a vampire serial killer belonging to a sick murderous cult? How about Caleb Menge, the chief witch hunter of Novigrad, the one hunting, torturing and burning mages, alchemists and non-humans in Novigrad? The main difference between him and the vampire is that the vampire is an amateur, and Menge is a professional, someone who organizes a whole movement of torture and murder in the name of madness. Can we go into the next level of abstraction, and say that the theologians who invented the religion that released and organized such evil in the world are the greater evil? Sure, but now we are venturing into very abstract territory, where we might end up with someone who didn’t actually burn witches at a stake, or torture anyone in his basement, and yet we must conclude that he’s more evil than those who do, because this is the logical conclusion we were heading to when deciding that a conscious murderer is a greater evil than a plague or a flood, because harm alone without consciousness does not constitute evil; consciousness, however, without actual direct harm, might prove to be the endpoint of this adventure of logic.
Let’s go further – the Crones of Crookback Bog. They are very easy to see as evil, because they kill and eat humans, with a particular taste for children, they are physically deformed and disgusting, and they are also mentally and emotionally deformed and vile. However, it might actually be that they are worse than that: in a very far past, they poisoned and perverted the ancient oak of Velen that served as some sort of a nexus of a druid circle, a tree of life if you will, and they are keeping it barely alive and feeding it broth cooked from human flesh every year, which might actually be the real reason why Velen is the worst place in the world, full of misery, dark evils, hunger and death. This is a regional evil, so to speak; it’s localized, but at a far wider locale than drowners in a lake, or a vampire serial killer. It is dark, perverted, disgusting, and profoundly evil in every sense something can be evil, from murder to spiritual darkness, and it envelops an entire region of the world.
The next greater evil on this scale is Radovid, the king of the united North, who actually started the persecution of mages, and who enveloped the entire North in the smoke of pyres, insane religions and slaughter. He is so incredibly evil and insane that I chose to conspire to kill him every single time I played the game. I’m not sure whether he’s worse than the Crones, but he happens to more selectively target good people, and turns the world into a hellish nightmare much more quickly and with less regional constraints.
The worst of all, and that’s already something considering the competition, is Emhyr var Emreis, Emperor of the Nilfgaardian Empire, the person who directly initiated the process that turned the North into a war-ravaged post-apocalyptic nightmare in which all lesser evils flourished. He is a cold, ruthless evil that wishes to grasp and swallow the entire world, to rule over all even if it means dancing on a barren graveyard.
Interesting, eh? In the world filled with monsters, and frequently monsters with super-powers, the two worst monsters I could think of are human.