While discussing life with a friend the other day the word evil came. He sees America as an “evil empire” that commits acts of torture that surpass anything al-Qaeda has done. I think he was referring to all the bombs dropped over the last 100 years. In any case, this provided grist for my mind’s mill. For starters, the idea of evil immediately brings to mind the Tao Te Ching chapter two: “The whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad”. ( Ha! No wonder Taoist thought has never caught on.)
When I look around me, I see no evil or ugliness in nature. Nature is just self right as the Chinese ziran (自然) puts it.
Nature includes everything, including the behaviors arising from our biological nature. So surely seeing evil in any human action, no matter how unpleasant, doesn’t really hold up. Therefore, I have to wonder what calling something evil actually means from a symptom’s point of view?
Thinking that something is evil is plainly a projection (reflection) of what one hates (1). I seem to recall hearing the phrase, “I hate evil” more than a few times. I expect this comes from biblical proverbs 8-13 “To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech”. (My word, what a sharp contrast to chapter two’s view of good and bad, beauty and ugly.) As I see it, ‘hate’ and ‘evil’ share the same side of the coin. Namely, evil actions arise out of hate filled emotion. So, seeing something as evil just means we are seeing something we hate. That begs the question: what does hate actually mean from a symptom’s point of view?
There is another way to see evil
Hate really boils down to that which we find unpleasant and dislike in the extreme. Conversely, love is that which we like. Why then do we love some things and hate other things? I see the survival instinct as work here. Namely, that which we feel beneficial, we love, that which we feel harmful, we hate. This simple process of attraction and aversion, based in survival, is common to all life. The stronger we feel either one, the more active the response. Two factors unique to us—tool use and cognition—greatly influence our response to these universal drives.
Just imagine what would happen if an angry dog had a gun and a finger to pull the trigger. Clearly, without tools we’d mostly be throwing feces at each other instead of guided missiles. Considering our capability to destroy anything that disturbs us, it is remarkable that we don’t wreak more havoc on the planet.
Next, imagine how tormented that angry dog might be if it could think. All its emotional currents could exist larger-than-life in imagination—it could hate! Clearly, animals (including humans) without thought would mostly experience the moment, ‘up’ or ‘down’, with no cognitive means to magnify and fixate on it. As it is now, we haul around our ‘loves and hates’ like so much extra baggage. A worry-free life remains beyond our reach as long as we hang on (2).
There is another way to deal with evil
Our exceptional ability to think and our ability to devise tools share the same side of the coin, and bring with them unintended negative consequences. Nevertheless, as a species, we are not going to return to the use of the knotted rope nor, know yet think that we do not know anytime soon. Still, it amazes me that a rational view of our predicament is not more widespread (3).
We just seem to go around in circle. The typical approach of ‘fighting evil’ is completely ironic, hypocritical, and futile. Understanding ourselves as animals first and foremost helps brake this cycle. Knowing that our highest ideals are not answers to our problem, but rather symptoms of our problem can truly help one return. Of course seeing our ideals as symptoms rather than as answers may depend on how comfortable we feel being without thought of self. Yep, there’s always a hitch.
(1) Also curious is how one person’s hated and evil is another’s loved and good. The inconsistency and hypocrisy I see in moral outrages are striking (although quite natural, of course). A most obvious example is how the ‘right to life’ conservative sees abortion as evil, but condones capital punishment. On the other hand, the ‘free to choose’ liberal often see capital punishment as evil, but condones abortion. When it comes to killing, humanity’s line in the sand moves all over the place (except for Jainism I suppose. But even Vegans, like the Jains, are moving that line by judging what is sentient. That reminds me of a post I was considering—Is a Rock Conscious? Maybe that’ll be next up.)
(2) Letting go is made all the more difficult because our ‘loves and hates’ are inextricably linked. To paraphrase chapter two, the hates and the loves complement each other. As long as you hold out for one you get the other.
(3) It is possible our inability to see ourselves more rationally is tied to our inability to really do anything about it (ourselves). Just as questions demand answers, seeing problems probably evokes an instinctive drive to fix them. Perhaps this limits our ability to seriously consider problems that are truly natural and beyond our ability to fix? I can even imagine our belief in free will, explicit or implied, may be somewhat tied to this limitation.