Difference between maleficence and malfeasance?
July 28, 2007 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Are maleficence and malfeasance synonyms? For practical, non-legalistic, US-English usage, can you give me guidance on when to use one word rather than the other?
posted by langedon to Writing & Language (16 answers total)
Both M-W and the OED define the non-legal sense of malfeasance in terms of wrongdoing, but maleficence in terms of evildoing.

So I'd say the difference is that between wrong and evil.
posted by grouse at 11:14 AM on July 28, 2007

Bingo. Maleficence has strong moral connotations, malfeasance stronger legalistic connotations -- at least in my mind, but IAAL so that may just be my bias. I use the latter all the time and the former almost never. Using "maleficence" in any non-Satanic connotation seems like overkill to me.
posted by The Bellman at 11:19 AM on July 28, 2007

For "connotation", please read "context" -- Matt, give us insta-edit!
posted by The Bellman at 11:20 AM on July 28, 2007

Malfeasance is willfully doing something wrong. (Similarly, misfeasance is doing wrong unintentionally and nonfeasance is not doing.)
Maleficence is "of harmful nature or quality", the antonym of beneficence, "the state or quality of being kind, charitable, or beneficial". So maleficence is *being* bad/wrong/evil, while malfeasance is *doing* wrong.

So if I were describing an action, I would call it malfeasance. If I were describing a state of mind, a character flaw, or other essential nature of something, I would use maleficence. Maleficence can quite correctly be used as malfeasance is, but I prefer to maintain the doing/being distinction.
posted by katemonster at 12:30 PM on July 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Think of the evil fairy in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty". Her name is Maleficent.
posted by JujuB at 2:30 PM on July 28, 2007

katemonster has it. Maleficence is a quality of a willing agent, malfeasance is not a quality but an act or series of acts. For example:

"His many malfeasances are proof of his maleficence. He's obviously a maleficent person; he's committed so many malfeasances."
posted by koeselitz at 2:52 PM on July 28, 2007

So more simply, I guess: a person can be maleficent. An act can be a malfeasance.
posted by koeselitz at 2:53 PM on July 28, 2007

koeslitz: Ther are adjectival and noun forms of both of these words. You certainly can say that a person can be malfeasant. An act can be a maleficence. While this usage is rarer, it is still in both the OED ("an act of evildoing") and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary ("a harmful or evil act").
posted by grouse at 3:11 PM on July 28, 2007

posted by grouse at 3:11 PM on July 28, 2007

True. Very true. Good point I hadn't thought of.
posted by koeselitz at 2:17 PM on July 29, 2007

In all honesty, (and I know this is getting into a bit of a descriptive/prescriptive debate), but I'm not sure there's really a demonstrable difference between the two.

The basic issue is that "malfeasance" and "maleficence" both--as I recall from 9th-grade Latin--refer to the basic action of evil_doing_. (Something to do with "fecere", or something vaguely like that.) There's a much clearer distinction between "malevolence" and "malfeasance" / "maleficence". "Malevolent" literally means to "desire to do evil", where "malfeasance" and "maleficence" both imply _committing_ evil acts.

On top of the linguistic hair-splitting, while I definitely appreciate the moral distinction between "evil-doing" and "wrong-doing", that's a _tremendously_ thorny ethical line. Not only would I be really reluctant to say that that's a useful line to draw in this case, I don't think it really has anything to do between the two word forms you've asked about.

In the end, while I'd concede that there may be a slight descriptive distinction in how people use the two words nowadays, I think you're basically asking for a distinction that doesn't exist.
posted by LairBob at 7:15 PM on July 29, 2007

Thanks, everybody. All these thoughts are helpful. If these words are, for practical purposes, synonyms, I wonder if people gravitate toward malfeasance because it is easier to pronounce.
posted by langedon at 9:07 AM on July 30, 2007

But they aren't synonyms. LairBob brought up something from 9th-grade Latin, but we don't speak Latin. It is wrong to argue that these two words are synonyms because their meanings are similar and they share the same ancestral etymology. "Beef" and "cow" both derive from the same Indo-European root, and before coming into English had the same meaning. Yet any English speaker knows that they now have different meanings.

As an example, Osama bin Laden is maleficent. Scooter Libby is malfeasant. I would never describe OBL's acts as examples of malfeasance, or the things Libby was convicted of as maleficence. Others may disagree, as we don't have universal agreement on which acts are evil, and which merely wrong, just as we don't have universal agreement even on which acts are wrong at all. But a lack of such agreement doesn't eliminate the distinction between evil and wrong.
posted by grouse at 9:43 AM on July 30, 2007

Makes sense. There doesn't need to be universal agreement on the distinction between evil and wrong for me to label one person as evil and another person as wrong. Likewise, in choosing between the words maleficent and malfeasant, I can convey whether, from my perspective, the person is, or has acted in a way that is, evil or good. Yet, I'm interested in practical purposes here, and I suspect that people are not maintaining this distinction very well. If so, descriptivists probably will call the two words synonyms.
posted by langedon at 10:59 AM on July 30, 2007

I doubt that most people use either of these words, and far fewer use "maleficence" or "maleficent." In fact, I would bet that many educated English speakers don't know what "maleficent" means at all (some probably don't even know what "malfeasant" means).

Of people who do know these words, I disagree that they use them as synonyms. Some of the OED quotations could easily fit either word, but others could not in my opinion. Even if you disagree, there are clearly many people who would not use them as synonyms, which should stop someone from describing them as "synonyms" in a thesaurus. At best they would be "related."

I looked up these words in the Collegiate Thesaurus of that bastion of descriptivism, Merriam-Webster (although I don't know how it is produced). The entry for "maleficence" is
syn SINISTER, baleful, malefic, malign
ant beneficent
While "malfeasance" is not a headword, it is listed as a related word for
misconduct: improper behavior 'was charged with misconduct'
syn misbehavior, misdoing, wrongdoing
rel impropriety; malfeasance, malversation, misfeasance
injustice: 1. absence of justice 'preached against injustice'
syn inequitableness, inequity, unfairness, unjustness, wrong
rel crime, malfeasance, malpractice, villainy, wrongdoing; favoritism, inequality, partiality, partisanship
con equity, fairness, right; ant justice, justness
The Oxford Paperback Thesaurus and Oxford American Thesaurus of Current English also have the two words in non-overlapping entries.
posted by grouse at 12:24 PM on July 30, 2007

Thanks, grouse. You've gone above and beyond. I'm sold.
posted by langedon at 1:48 PM on July 30, 2007

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