While discussing life with a friend the other day the word evil came up. 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 2: 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 good, evil, beauty, or ugly in nature. Consider the Chinese word for nature: zì rán (自然). Zì (自) = self; certainly. Rán (然) = correct; so. Accordingly, Nature = self-correct, self-so, certainly-so. In other words, reality is not duality! The extreme duality we perceive might well be a result of the disconnection from Nature we feel, and vice versa.
Nature includes everything, including the behaviors arising from our biological nature. Therefore, it is oxymoronic to regard any human action as evil, no matter how unpleasant, i.e., nature can be unpleasant but it isn’t evil. As a result, I have to wonder what calling something evil actually means from a symptom’s point of view.
Thinking that something is evil is most likely a projection (a reflection) of what one hates (1). I 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”. What a sharp contrast this is to chapter 2’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 at work here. Namely, that which we feel beneficial, we love; that which we feel harmful, we hate. This simple process of attraction and aversion is common to all life. It is the fulcrum of survival. The stronger we feel either one, the more active the response. The only two factors that are unique to humans are tool use and cognition. These greatly influence our responses to these universal survival instincts.
Just imagine what would happen if an angry chimp had a gun and a skillful finger to pull the trigger. Clearly, like chimps 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 than we do.
Next, imagine how tormented that angry chimp might be if it could think. All its emotional currents could exist larger than life in its imagination — it could love and hate! Clearly, animals (including humans) without thought will 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 onto our ‘love and hate’ narratives (2).
There is another way to deal with evil
Our exceptional ability to think, and the manual dexterity to make tools, brings with it many unintended harmful consequences. Nevertheless, as a species, we are not going to do as chapter 80 asks, return to the use of the knotted rope, nor what chapter 71 asks, 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).
Our typical approach to ‘fighting evil’ is ironic, hypocritical, and futile. We’re fighting fire with fire. Understanding ourselves as animals above all else would help break this cycle. Knowing that our highest ideals are not answers to our problem, but rather symptoms of our problem can truly help. Of course seeing our ideals as symptoms rather than as answers may depend on how comfortable we can feel being without thought of self, as chapter 7 puts it. Yep, there’s always a hitch. The ‘good’ and ‘evil’ duality we perceive is simply a projection of what the ‘self’ needs and fears.
(1) Also curious is how one person’s ‘hated and evil’ is another’s ‘loved and good’. The inconsistency and hypocrisy 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. Yet even Vegans, like the Jains, are moving that line by judging what is sentient. This reminds me of my next post — Is a Rock Conscious?
(2) Letting go is all the more difficult because our ‘loves and hates’ are inextricably linked. To paraphrase chapter 2, the hates and the loves complement each other. As long as you hold out for one you’ll get the other.
(3) It is possible our inability to see ourselves more rationally stems from our real inability to do anything about ourselves. Just as questions demand answers, seeing problems most likely evokes an instinctive drive to fix them. Does this limit our ability to fully consider matters that are truly natural and beyond our ability to fix? Perhaps our belief in free will, explicit or implied, is somewhat linked to this limitation. No doubt, we have a serious need to feel we are in control… Ha!