The Evolution of Demon Morality in Sunnydale,
how I learned to stop worrying and love the Hellmouth
When we first enter Sunnydale proper, the lines between good and evil, demon and human, souled and ... the other thing, seem pretty starkly drawn. As Xander says in The Harvest, "I don't like vampires. I'm gonna take a stand and say they're not good." And this is the running mentality of the show, at least at first. While humans are not the universal paragon of all things good and proper (Amy's mom in The Witch being our first evil human of the series), they are the only species that has the potential, to say nothing of the inclination, toward goodness. Much like the contrast of Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll, demons are pure evil, whereas humans have the choice to be good, evil, or somewhere in-between.
Angel's presence is the chink in that armor. He is a demon - a vampire, the show's titular villain du jour - but he fights on the side of good, because he has a soul. And there we get our first stipulation in the Demons Bad, Humans Less-Bad dichotomy: the soul is the key to morality (or a conscience, as Angel's soul seems to manifest). Our new distinction for the rest of Season One is: vampires and other demons evil unless they have a soul. This continues until Phases in Season Two, when we have our first werewolf. I think werewolves are a bit of a caveat to the question of demon morality, because they are fully human for the majority of their lives, and when they are werewolves they are feral, non-sentient creatures, without the volition for good or evil, unlike most of our demon fare. They're more animal than anything else - werewolves are dangerous, but they're not innately evil, in either form (unless they choose to be, like terrible awful we-hate-her Veruca). So I would argue that, even with the complication of werewolves, soulless demons are still considered strictly evil.
Season Three is when the morality really starts to murk itself up. We've had evil humans prior to this, but this is our first time watching a human turn evil (if not ultimately irredeemably so), in Faith's fall from grace. Faith started on the side of good as one of humanity's warriors against evil, but she willingly chooses to side with the Mayor, a decidedly evil force. This, coupled with a few sympathetic demons (I point to the newly-human Anya and to Skyler (Skyler? Really?) the Horned Demon whom Faith violently kills for the Books of Ascension - he's not particularly evil, more of a survivalist), is important in two key ways: it paves the way for the spinoff show, Angel, as well as for the main conflict of Season Four of Buffy.
And it's very important that we, along with our core Scoobies, have made this transition into murkier distinctions of evil in time for Season Four - otherwise, we wouldn't appreciate just how cut, dried, and semi-ignorant our original mentality was. But when Riley, and the rest of the Initiative, expound the views of Demons Bad All the Time, we roll our eyes - how simplistic! Because we know better now. I mean, we're still not - and Buffy's still not - yay-demons-all-the-time-let's-hang-out. But Anya's managed to integrate herself into the gang and not much is said about it (granted, we remember more of Anyanka's hijinks than the Scoobies do because of magic, but still - they remember the events of Doppelgangland). And Anya's integration is important: while she is biologically human again, and accepted as such - soul-having, and therefore not innately evil - she still thinks like her demon self, especially at the beginning. It falls on Xander and the Scoobies to teach her, not just social mores, but what it is to have human morality again.
But what all this moral equivocation means for our Scoobies is that we've redefined whom we kill and why. Most of this problematizing of Soulless Demons Are Evil comes in the form of Chipped Spike. While it's clear the writers were grasping for excuses to not kill off this exceedingly popular character and actor, Spike poses a huge moral problem that perhaps is never really adequately addressed until later seasons. Chipped Spike is harmless to humans - at least physically - a containment method employed for unexplained reasons by the Initiative. This is Buffy's rationale for not killing Chipped Spike - he no longer poses a threat, and he can offer useful information on Adam and the Initiative (sort of - being evil, he's only helpful enough to be kept out of the sun). One could argue that the rationale goes along with not killing Season Three Angel for the crimes of Season Two Angelus - he's not the same man, and shouldn't be held to the same accountability. And while I agree with that assessment regarding Angel - especially as we saw Buffy was willing to kill Angelus for his deeds, and actually did "kill" Angel, to save the world - I don't know that it translates adequately over to Spike. Chipped Spike may have had his wings clipped, but he still yearns to fly. Spike would rather Adam won that battle than Buffy, and even into Season Five Spike is attempting to have his chip removed so he can enact bloody vengeance (you know ... before he gets that pesky crush). Spike can't harm the Scoobies, but he still plots for their downfall. He's not a reformed demon - not yet. And honestly it seems like the only reason he's not killed in Primeval - when his betrayal is blatantly obvious - stems more from weariness on the part of the Scoobies than anything else - "He's clearly not going anywhere, we'll get around to him later." By the end of Season Four they don't consider Spike enough of a threat to worry too much about taking him out.
But back to the Initiative. In addition to our seeing just how simplistic our viewpoint was in Season One, as represented by Professor Walsh's army brats, and realizing how much more complex that can be, we're also gifted with some more nefarious human activity. I mean, come on - scientific inquisitiveness or no, there's no non-evil-intent reason I can come up with for creating a hybrid demon-human-robot soldier thing. A super soldier? But made out of demon scraps? If nothing else, it exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of the Initiative - demons are evil toys for us to experiment on, they say, but also let's see if we can build some hybrid monster things for the side of good oh wait we can't control a sentient thing oops I got stabbed and now I'm bleeding to death. More or less. The short version here is: we're seeing more evilish humans, and one of them is even a human-demon-hybrid type of thing.
But we've also got the possibility of redemption - Faith returns to the narrative, waking from her coma with a vengeance, and at first it seems more evil is afoot - certainly she feels that's the only port left for her in the aftermath of the Mayor's failed Ascension.. But we see her cracking at the edges, hiding inside Buffy's skin, and that arc continues on her crossover episodes on Angel. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has been trucking along, full of sympathetic demons (dammit Doyle. dammit Joss.) and evil-minded humans (Lindsey and the rest of Wolfram & Hart). Angel has been busy muddying up the line of good and evil more and more even as it starts all that "Champion" nonsense. In the world of Angel, demons aren't guaranteed evil. Humanity and souls are by no means guarantors of good. This is the only place that Faith could hope to achieve redemption - the lines are still too clearly drawn in Sunnydale for her to pull out of her hole. For it is in LA that Faith realizes, with such muddied distinctions, she can choose to be good again. But, unlike Chipped Spike, she has to pay for her past actions, and accepts her incarceration with far better grace than she did in Season Three of Buffy.
Season Five's two big morality explorations come in the form of (again) Chipped Spike and Ben. Chipped Spike is at first continuing on his merry bloody path until he develops his awkward crush on Buffy. I actually have an entirely separate essay I'm drafting on the Arc of Spike (and Why He's Better Than Angel), so for the sake of brevity and non-redundancies, I will be brief. Spike's feeling for Buffy begin as an infatuation, but as they develop into love, they teach him a new morality. He's always been love's bitch and as such will do whatever he can to win the heart of the woman he loves. To win Buffy's heart he must learn to be heroic, and to fight on the side of good. At first, he Truly Doesn't Get It (pointing out how he's not feeding on victims? Not the way to anyone's heart, dude), but by the time of Intervention, even with the creepy-if-hilarious icky sexbot, he demonstrates that he will protect Dawn, someone in whom he should theoretically have no stake, because he doesn't want Buffy to be in any more pain. He's still not necessarily a good man yet, but so long as his compass point follows Buffy's north (that came out way dirtier than intended), he can do good deeds.
Then we have Ben. Ben is an ordinary guy (a doctor who can't pronounce the word muscles, but otherwise fairly ordinary). Were he not placed in extraordinary my-sister-is-a-God-and-also-shares-my-body circumstances, he would probably stay ordinary and never be tested to see just how good of a person he wasn't. Joss Whedon, describing Firefly character Jayne Cobb, said that he was a good enough man to realize he wasn't a good enough man - meaning, aware enough of the morality at stake to realize he wouldn't always make the right choice. I would say that Ben isn't ever a good enough man to realize just how much he's not a good enough man. He's not self-aware enough (ironic, since his transitions to his sister are wiped from the memory of anyone who sees them). Because here's the thing about Ben - he, unlike any other humans around him, is aware of Glory. He's aware of her powers, he's aware of her penchant for sucking brains, and he's aware of her plan to suck everything into hell to get home, once she finds the Key. His problem solving techniques include summoning evil snot monsters from outer space to kill the surplus of crazies in Sunnydale, so, you know, he's also a killer. So much for Do No Harm, amirite? He's not entirely evil or anything, but his goodness is strictly on the mediocre level - yes, he tries to get Dawn to run when he realizes she's the Key and that Glory is coming. But when he gets summoned to help an injured Giles in Spiral, wouldn't it have been easier for Ben to offer to send a doctor who wasn't also the evil God chasing them? I'm just saying. He showed poor judgment. But his failure to be a good man, or at least a good enough man, comes to fruition in The Gift - we see him try to rescue Dawn, but after a fight with Glory, he chooses to go along with the plan, to sacrifice Dawn and any other collateral damage, on the promise from his insane unreliable sister that he will be permitted to live. Giles is the one who clarifies this failure of goodness, of course, when he says to Ben, of Buffy, "She's a hero, you see. She's not like us," and then he does what Ben was not a good enough man to do: he takes Ben - and thus Glory - out of the equation by smothering him to death.
In this moment Giles also further clarifies for us Buffy's own morality - she won't kill a human. More specifically, she won't kill someone - or something - with the potential for goodness. And so by the end of Season Five, that too is why Spike lives. She not only recognizes his potential for goodness, she also demands more of him. She is aware, though perhaps unconsciously, that he is learning his morality from her - a challenge for a soulless demon. And so she asks him to protect Dawn, a promise he takes so seriously that he continues to honor it even after Buffy herself is dead, with (as far as he knows) no hope of ever being brought back. This, more than anything else in the course of Season Five, is the beginning of Spike's true arc of redemption - he has lost his Buffy moral compass, and chooses to fight on the side of good regardless, to protect Dawn. Sure, he plays kitten poker and enjoys watching the mayhem of the demon bikers - but he makes Dawn wear a helmet when they go on the motorcycle.
Season Six returns again to the question of the potential for evil in humans. While Spike's behavior throughout the season is by no means sparkling - his relationship with Buffy (much as I ship them) is toxic on both sides, that ridiculous plot with the eggs in As You Were, and the horror of Seeing Red - there is still a track of growth; in fact, these very pitfalls is the point the writers are trying to make - while Spike seems to be unique among vampires, in that he seeks redemption even soulless (and then seeks a soul when that doesn't work out too well), he serves as a very clear reminder that a soul is still key to being a true hero, to having any potential of being Not Evil.
But Spike's plot is secondary to the larger question of the villains of the season. Both versions of the Big Bad of the season - the red herring of the Trio, and the much worse villain of Dark Willow - are importantly humans; the demons have now truly taken a backseat to the danger of humans who are embracing a more amoral viewpoint. While Warren is clearly much more of a sociopath and a raging misogynist than either Andrew or Jonathan, they do make it their mission to torment the Slayer, the recognized defender of humans against the dark (I mean, come on, Jonathan, you gave her a freaking parasol three years ago! Stop what you're doing. Look at your life. Look at your choices), as well as some petty theft and less-petty rape. And then they accidentally kill Katrina, except probably not that accidentally because did we mention Warren was a sociopath?
Anyway, we have these three humans with not much else going on in their lives but mischief and little but comic relief to redeem them. As pointed out in Normal Again, the villainy has gotten somewhat less epic this season. But part of the reason for that, of course, is that they really are mere distraction - as well as a good set up demo of evil-minded humans - from the plot of Willow's magic addiction, which has been brewing all season. While my opinions on this metaphor are many, what we see is someone who has chosen, for the past six years, to fight on the side of goodness, gradually increasing her skills and thus usefulness in that fight. Unfortunately, that increase in skills has taken its toll. Not even touching the addiction part of it, we see Willow's dependence on magic to solve all her problems in a frankly amoral manner. Setting up the birthday decorations with a wave of her hand? Sure, whatever. Transporting people in and out of dimensions so she can have different music at the Bronze? Not so cool. WIPING HER GIRLFRIEND'S MEMORY OF A FIGHT? EXTREMELY NOPE. While she spends half of the season climbing out of this, the lesson is not yet well-learned - after Tara's murder, Willow spirals out of control, killing Warren (or ... not, if you read the comics), attempting to kill Jonathan and Andrew, and striking out at anyone who gets in her way - Anya, Dawn, Buffy, Giles, and even Xander. And then she decides it'd be easier if she just destroyed the whole world. Xander is eventually able to pull her back, reminding her of that which makes her vulnerable and human, and - we can assume - reactivating the guilt and grief and soul-type stuff.
While Season Six explored the evil potential in humans, Season Seven returns us yet again to evil demons, and Grand Epic Final Season Villains, like the First Evil, the UberVamp, and uh Nathan Fillion. They're ... well, they're pretty straight-up evil, without much equivocation. As the First said, in the guise of the Master, we're going back to the beginning. The beginning, when the lines of evil were clearly drawn. We also have several souled characters - Willow, Faith, and Souled Spike (sort of Andrew? kind of? I don't really care) - attempting to make amends for their pasts, earn back the Scoobies' trust, and to avoid getting pulled in as tools or puppets by the strength and manipulation of the First Evil.
And we have one character, who has always walked the line of human and demon, treading water on both sides, having to wrangle yet again with her identity. Anya started her time in Sunnydale as an evil demon. After being forced into humanity, she struggles through the rest of Season Three, and through Season Four, to understand how to be human again. Even up until she returns to her demon ways at the end of Hell's Bells, Anya occasionally says things which reveal how much her thinking still follows the amoral-at-best mentality of a Vengeance Demon. What's striking about Anya in Season Seven is what a complete reversal she's made - now she is a demon again, but thinking all too frequently as a human. This thinking is hurting her work as a demon and causing gossip among the other vengeance demons; it is, however, significant that her thinking is still hybridized - enough so that Buffy considers her morality ambiguous at best, and not at all trustworthy. This finally comes to a head in Selfless when, in addition to Buffy making it clear that Anya cannot be allowed to live if she continues this behavior, Anya herself is horrified at the deaths she has caused, and begs D'Hoffryn to reverse the spell. He does, at the cost of Halfrek's life and Anya's powers, and Anya is once again human. It is also in this moment that we see D'Hoffryn take a definitive side with the evil branch of this final fight, further solidifying the Soulless Demon = Evil mentality. Back to the beginning indeed.
And so as Season Seven draws to a close, our lines are once again firmly drawn on the evilness of demons, returning to our Season One stance.
Except Clem. Clem is awesome. But all the other demons are evil.