Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Evil—Reconsidering the Problem

Originally posted on January 6, 2011

There are several kinds of evil. One is mere misfortune that may even be the acts of many people colluding in a venture that fails, such as some of the economic “bubbles” that have afflicted Europe and America for several centuries. Another involve “acts of God” that are really Mother Earth—Gaia—who hardly knows humans exist, though she’s developed some “skin blemishes” and dry patches on her skin, occasionally itches and scratches (we call the earthquakes), but it’s all really quite innocent, planet-wise.

The key is that evil operates as an expression of scope of consciousness. From the egocentric child, anything that is a frustration cannot be differentiated from evil. Mom’s not buying that toy at the market—even when you whine, for goodness (or badness) sakes, to show that you really neeeed it—well, she’s at least mean if not outright evil. (Never mind that you have toys coming out of your ears.) As for nepotism and protection and greed for your family, well, if you don’t who will? “They” would exploit and rob  (or even torture and kill) you if you don’t do it to them. This rationalization applies also for communities and even nations. It doesn’t seem evil to you because your intentions are good—at least for the “we,” who must be protected from the “they” who will only do us harm. Ditto with coyotes or wolves who eat “our” sheep.

What makes acts evil, then, is the emergence of what seems to be a broader view, a more encompassing or longer-term perspective. From those perspectives, many acts that seem good in the short term for the narrow circle seem evil in the larger view. I draw on my understanding of Alfred North Whitehead, here, and don’t claim these ideas as my own—and if I misunderstand the good late philosopher, please correct me.

The point of this mini-essay is to temper our inclinations to be judgmental. I don’t mind judging in the sense of noting what to us seem to be higher versus lower values. I don’t think people can truly withhold at least unconscious feelings of preference. But they can also combine this with compassion, the awareness that many issues may have several points of view, and in other ways hold off on simplistic moralizing and premature conclusions. All this must be taken in the spirit of the species becoming more conscious, less limited in perspective. I confess, though, that there are many issues about which I have not come to a firm conclusion; these continue to be problems for thoughtful people in our own era. It feels that it would be evil of me to think of others who don’t agree with me as evil. Sometimes a holding-off on judgment and remaining open to negotiation and discussion seems better.

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