01/26/2013 11:49 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2013

Understanding the Meaning of Evil

The English language, like other major languages, is highly nuanced, though you might not know it from contemporary usage. It has the ability to offer a numerous meanings for one simple word, which can range from the scientifically accurate to the emotionally ambiguous. Colloquial usage can erode a lot of the most subtle variations in meaning, over time.

The word "evil" offers a good example. It's used in so many ways: to shame or brand someone society wants to shun, to serve as a warning against certain kinds of behavior, and as a fundamental theological or philosophical principle.

Simply calling up a definition on my iPhone underscores what I'm saying here. As a noun, evil is defined as "morally objectionable behavior." As an adjective: "having or exerting a malignant influence, or morally bad or wrong." But none of these gives me any notion of why people choose evil. It just is.

All through my life, I've itched to understand why people do evil, when good is so manifestly better for an individual and a society. And this questioning led me to keep investigating evil until I realized I had to write a book about both my search and where it took me. So it should be no surprise that I take on the question of evil with great élan in The Constant Choice.

Why have I been so obsessed with evil? Why not just consider it an inevitable part of an imperfect world? I have a short, precise answer: the experience of my childhood in Romania introduced me to evil in an extremely personal way that altered me forever. Since then I've been obsessed with discovering why. I was born in Romania as the Second World War began, and I witnessed great evil in the political turmoil around me from the earliest age.

As Hitler's forces withdrew, Russia moved in, and a Communist regime that quickly swallowed up Romania almost immediately after the war. I stood in my grandfather's home, rousted out of bed, and watched as Communist officials arrested him, took him away and put him in prison, where he was eventually murdered. My brother and I were next: seized, moved to another village, and forced to work long hours. My task was the clean sewersfor more than ten hours per day, six days a week. While my brother and I somehow survived--I was losing weight so rapidly, I could have died--we were eventually released to live in America.

Yet evil followed us. Even in this glorious nation, which gave me freedom and opportunity to be the best I could be, evil changed garb and reappeared in our peaceful, "normal" life, both personally and professionally. I saw otherwise good people doing things my iPhone would clearly define as evil.

So my obsession with the origin of evil continued. In fact, it intensified. It was not simply the cataclysmic expression of evil that troubled me. The world of the past century offers horrific examples of evil: Stalin's extermination of more than 30 million people, the Holocaust, Pol Pot's killing fields, Darfur, Rwanda, Sudan and, at this very moment, the atrocities in Syria. In less dramatic ways, evil resides everywhere human beings connect. In subtle, bigoted remarks. In the harassment and bullying of a school yard. In corporate offices.

Acts "exerting malignant influence" are everywhere. In plain English, acts that harm other people. Every day people commit acts that intentionally or otherwise harm others, one person at a time, or collectively, all without fair or reasonable justification, as in self-defense or a just war. So I've continued to obsess about evil because I've seen in everywhere, not simply with a capital E as in Syria or the Holocaust, or my early youth in Romania, but continuously here in my new home.

We seem to tolerate these acts as natural to mankind, as something to simply be overlooked as a unavoidable part of being human. The boss may be abusive, but he's a good guy, deep in his heart. It's OK to terrorize employees, send people home in tears, as long as it's for the good of the bottom line. "You have to get your hands dirty in business." The truth is, you don't. The best organizations, and the most effective individuals, have the most sterling codes of behavior. There's no need for cruelty in any walk of life. Malignant acts of harm are immoral. People get hurt. Lives go off the rails. Children are wounded for life.

We have a choice. Every day and every hour. My lifelong meditation on evil has convinced me that it's a set of behaviors that may have made sense when, as a species, we needed to survive by force, by cunning, and through violence. But we've reached a point where none of these behavior makes sense anymore. We can choose to abandon it. We must. We can choose to be kind, compassionate people, in eery choice we made, dozens of times every day. And we do it be looking clearly at the harm we do when we choose anger and callousness, or we cheat, or lie, or betray someone for our own supposed gain. Everyone gets hurt in that process. If we commit to better choices, to be better people, one person at a time, we'll build better families, better communities, and a better world.

In The Constant Choice, I get even more specific about what I see as the source of evil behavior in human nature. I'd welcome a conversation with you on how you and I can choose to act without harm to others.