Defining what is wrong with a situation or with the choices that an individual or group makes can sometimes come down to good or evil. We say a gang rape of a young girl is evil and the people who help her afterwards are good. Evil has been defined as an immoral act, and is perhaps something we ar all capable of committing. Taking a fresh baked cookie meant for an event from the cookie sheet amidst the angry yells of the baker might be a single degree of evil. When we think of evil we think of words like selfish, cruel, heartless and mean spirited. Evil can be as simple as putting my needs ahead of the needs of others. All of us are capable of evil and in groups we can become complacent in greater evil.
Mental illness is equally difficult to define. Skydiving has the potential to raise in many people the idea that participants must be ‘crazy’ to do it. Balancing risk and rewards might have roots in mental illness but it is not inherently insane by any definitions. Mental illness might be defined as the inability to make good, moral or healthy choices. Skydivers aren’t necessarily mentally ill but a person painting a fence using a dead chicken for a brush is.
The difference between evil and mental illness is that evil has a clear understanding of intent, diminished remorse and contempt for consequences and mental illness has none of those things. An evil person or act is conscience choice, and mental illness is not. It cannot be evil when we are ignorant. A mother kills her child to spare it from being raised in a world perceived as terrible isn’t an evil act. It’s an act of kindness. Society might judge the act as evil and there will be consequences but the mother made the best choice they could at that moment. She isn’t motivated by evil, but simply lacked the ability to make the best choice in an instant. The worst dregs of society can be reformed when given the chance to lose their ignorance. Mental illness can be treated or at the very least accommodated and evil cannot. Evil will always choose evil.