Can we live without evil?

Black or white?

What you label as evil essentially depends on which side of you are on.

Being directional, having a goal, being in pursuit involves labelling things and people as allies or obstacles. In pursuit of our goals, we do many things which we may think are perfectly okay, but somebody else will thinks are evil. I am typing this on a MacBook Air. If I were a Chinese person, I would probably have good reason to consider Apple evil. As I am on the consumer side here, I feel somewhat overcharged and not having a lot of options beside MacBook, nonetheless meaning that they are my ally. Good and evil, all at once.

My actions inadvertently lead to the death of the cutest and friendliest cat you can ever hope to meet. This made me see myself as someone who can do evil, even though it was never my intention to do evil. Whenever someone else did evil previously, I felt they were, well, evil. Bad. Shouldn’t exist. This experience has taught me to see things differently.

Another throwback to my 1990s Russian childhood: there were some Roma people around. They have vanished since; I’ve no idea where they’re gone. I guess that’s just part of the lifestyle of those people I witnessed. The unfortunate prejudice was that you need to hold on to your wallet when one is in sight. Indeed, on occasion, I would witness some cursing shopkeeper shouting as a Roma woman was running away. As a child, I recall wondering what stimulates these particular women to live this life. It is really quite clear and much more relatable when you are an adult.

Indeed, a lot of the the men and women whom we may regard as criminals are in pursuit of their goals: they have babies to feed, bills to pay, whatever. We may feel that it is unfair for them to rob what we’ve earned with our hard labour (as if robbing isn’t labour). They may feel it is unfair that we sit in a comfy office pushing paper (as if pushing paper is that easy). Our motivations are actually quite similar.

I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.

how do you tell good from evil
Grim but beautiful. Wicklow mountains

A Darwinian life

Any kind of goal-directed behaviour is likely to result in someone else’s suffering. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t even the goal-directedness of our behaviour, but the fact that nature makes us compete. Are win-win situations really that great when you consider the wider context? Tesco (a kind of British Walmart) not only allows residents of small towns to purchase goods cheaper, but it also creates jobs in the small town: someone has to pack the shelves, look after the purchasing decisions, etc. It is also well known that whenever the likes of Tesco move into a small town, for every job they create, they kill two jobs (who wants to buy from the butcher now that you can get the “same” stuff cheaper). Whether it is good or bad on balance, it is Darwinian and it causes suffering for the butcher.

Or consider my poor moths. I lived in a carpeted apartment for a while. Mid-plank I noticed that some bits of the carpet were bare and then found that there were moths living under it. I had to commit absolute genocide against them. Three rounds of poisonous chemicals. They must have “thought” I was evil. But did I really have a choice? Again, a Darwinian reality of them versus me.

In an insect’s mind, the most important life on this planet is an insect’s life. It’s all the insect has – nAot unlike us, though some of us think of life in a more abstract manner.

In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?

why can't we live without evil
You can have perspective even when its cloudy. Kerry mountains.

Happiness and accomplishment

This is why being terribly obsessed with goals and accomplishment is so disturbing: it relies on a concrete framework of wanted and unwanted events. For those who are especially interested, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a great example of how being goal-directed can cloud one’s perception of good vs bad.

A lot of readers indicated that they wish to hear more on the subject of happiness. Read the fable “Blessings in disguise” in this context. Events that we see as undesirable could well be good. I sometimes look back at my failures. In what now seems like a former life, I was interviewed with McKinsey. After what seemed like 17 000 rounds of interviews, I received a phone call from the partner. As he greeted me, I assumed I had it in the bag. Why else would he call me? No, it was a kick in the stomach. I went digging and found out that some slightly younger guy with a reasonably unremarkable CV got it instead of me. I couldn’t figure out the conundrum for ages (I naively believed I could). I now feel that it was a lucky escape.

I even look back at some of the events I then labelled as successes and think: I wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole.

My working hypothesis is that to feel happiness one need to experience or perceive change and have perspective. Perspective is largely a set of cognitive judgements. I don’t want the reader to think that absolutely any event can be rationalised into being perceived as good when it was first thought of as bad or evil.

I want to simply highlight that some of our judgements about good and evil are completely off the wall.

I recall one scientist tell me that he won’t consider his career successful until he gets a paper published in Nature as a first author. Even if we ignore the needy narcissism, what a miserly contract to make with yourself! This is what I call off the wall.

Furthermore, everything is a chain of events.

If my aunt hadn’t suffered a medical negligence case, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go in on a rescue mission and reconnect with her, something that was way overdue. At the time of course, it all seemed like a bad dream.

can we live without evil
Grey’s a happy colour. Mizen Head

 

 

34 Comments Add yours

  1. Again, a thought-provoking blog. The assumption that competition is necessary for survival may not present the whole picture. Cooperation has been shown to enhance survival, as well as the reaction “tend and befriend” rather than fight/flight. And of course, that which we most soundly fear and condemn is likely to be part of our own shadow (Jung)–part of being human we would rather not deal with. And finally, it occurs to me that if something good comes out of a difficult, sad, destructive, or “evil” act or event, this does not change reach back in time and change the nature of the original event or act. Suffering should not be glamorized or downplayed, but it is true that good can come out of such….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, Rita! I agree – I would like to add –

      I don’t really mean that competition is an attitude. There are x resources in the world and y people (and creatures). I couldn’t really befriend my carpet moths.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr F. , What is your definition or meaning of evil?

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    1. Good point! We need a definition. In the context of the above post, it is an emotional definition: if something “feels” like it is evil, then it is. I then go on to show that the feeling is often misplaced.

      As for a real definition, I think when one breaches their integrity, one commits evil.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dr F. ,

        ” As for a real definition, I think when one breaches their integrity, one commits evil. ”

        Very good! You surprised me. I agree to this definition. you must have come to this after deep, independent and honest thinking.

        I would like to request you to expand on your definition if you will.

        In my own words I would put it like this: When one deceives herself or lies to herself etc. for whatever noble or ignoble reasons, she is committing evil.
        What do you think?

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      2. Wow, thanks. I think that self-deception is indeed a breach of integrity, so our definitions are congruent. I think though that people may not always be aware of self-deception, e.g we rationalise etc. I wonder if your definition is narrower than mine. It all comes down to awareness!

        I will write more about it for sure!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. “I think that self-deception is indeed a breach of integrity, so our definitions are congruent. I wonder if your definition is narrower than mine.”

        Yes, my definition was narrower than yours. But now I like your definition better than mine because my definition left out something essential.
        So now my definition of evil is:
        When someone breaches her own integrity then she commits evil.
        What is breaching your own integrity and what is not breaching your own integrity has to be clarified yet though.
        I have learned something from you. Thanks.

        ” I think though that people may not always be aware of self-deception, e.g we rationalise etc.”

        Certainly you are right in this. Actually, seems to me that a person can not lie to herself or deceive herself while being consciously aware of doing so. Self-deception happens in a state of unawareness subconsciously. Rather than doing self-deception, she lets self-deception happen. It is like willful blindness. Like turning a blind eye to something. This is what I meant but did not explain before.

        It is rewarding to have a conversation like this. Thanks.

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      4. Thanks ontologicalrealist, me too. I will certainly elaborate on this, when it crystallises a bit more for me. Getting into real philosophy here, you and I – very inspiring question, bring on more!

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    2. jamason123 says:

      I greatly enjoyed this little thread here and I was hoping I could jump in without imposing :). As for me I no longer believe in good and evil and it’s in a similar context that Dr. Martina has pointed out in the article. If we say evil is breaching ones integrity then evil is relative. If it is then why do we continuing to use the word evil? This word (evil in English) has deep connotations and meaning within pretty much every culture that has ever exited, so trying to update it creates more problems then what its worth. However, this is might be the fun or the point of trying to update it so we can move beyond it. I feel if we provide an alternative moving beyond the concept will be a natural/evolutionary process. I like the term wholesome and unwholesome, a concept/idea that I’ve more recently learned as I studied more eastern philosophy. This too opens up some problems because it is relative and until we define where it is that we want to go it means nothing, just as Dr. Martina points out. This might be difficult right now at this point in our history as I feel we are like adolescence learning that our parents no longer have control over us and the idea that everything is relative leads some to think everything is now ok and nothing is off limits. This is true but we will likely create hell on earth but I digress. Thanks for hearing me out and I hope I added a little bit :).

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      1. Thanks for the kind comment. I think that most of the value of thinking about this is in the process. I don’t think that people will ever agree on a definition of good and evil, even to agree to disagree (“it is subjective”).

        As for your comment about adolescence – it reminds me of the writings of F. Dostoyevsky. If you haven’t had a look yet, you’re in for a treat – assuming you like fiction of course.

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  3. Indeed. There is no good-deeds without evil. What’s good to me doesn’t always good to everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Conversations in Ubers says:

    Thoughtful read, as always. I try to remind myself that “good people” can do bad things. There’s more to an individual’s morality than a net moral score, though that is such a simple heuristic to live by that I use it for myself.

    On another point, I also made it to the very last round at McKinsey only to hear a partner say “you just had to push a little more on the business knowledge”. I have many friends in the industry and at that company that have made it clear that once a candidates makes it to the final round, giving an offer becomes a muddled process. I’m sure you’re doing brilliantly as is :).

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    1. Thank you Nedgma! I think that context changes everything when it comes to heuristics, but we simply cannot bear the complexity at all times!

      As for McKinsey, I am sure it is a great place to work. I ended up going down a more independent entrepreneurial route. I suspect that I would have either completely not fit in or become too attached to an organisation like McK. So for me, it was my blessing in disguise 🙂

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      1. Can I Have It All says:

        What do you do now? Do you have your own patient practice?

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      2. I practice, mostly privately, and only part-time. I had a number of hobbies, including a small education venture – this now takes up most of my time. Other hobbies that grew included jewellery and artisanal goods. If you are keen, you can take a closer look at them via the About page (https://thinkingclearly.co/about/)

        I gather you are involved in entrepreneurship yourself?

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  5. “I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.”

    Maybe it would be helpful to do the whole “practical vs. ultimate” thing?

    On a practical level, white is *not* black. Ultimately, they are both subjective and transient experiences– and so, in that way, white *is* black (they’re both just mind-things)..

    Practically (from my personal perspective.. of wanting to get my way as I go through life) good is good and bad is bad, but ultimately the terms are meaningless (what is good for me, will not always be good for you).

    Seems to me that there can be no universal / objective good or bad.

    Seems to be a context thing.

    A fun read 🙂
    thought provoking!

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    1. Thanks Steven, I agree. I tend to stay in the realm of the practical, but even here it is important to remember that we are interdependent and our interpretations are as good as the depth of the context.

      I somehow missed all the updates to GnoTruth – just looking at them now, what a treat! Love the variety and learning about syncretism now. Great work and looking forward to reading more 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! It’s been a creative time!

        Conversations keep arising related to all this “practical vs. ultimate” stuff.

        This morning I had a thought about pieces, whole things and Gnosis (Prajna, AryaJnana, Bodhi Mind, Wisdom, or whatever).

        So it became clear to me that we can’t know whole things. Our minds operate dualistically. We only know black from white, yes from no, up from down, one from zero, etc.

        Gnosis, for me, is the experience of slipping down beneath and between all those opposing opposites — in many ways it is “The Philosopher’s Stone” as “the union of opposites”. But, the philosopher’s stone is out of ego’s reach. It can’t be plucked out and presented for dissection, because it is a whole thing– something intellect can’t touch.

        And, I began thinking about how wildly impractical it all seemed! 🙂

        But, then I remembered someone saying something about our ‘need for wholeness’. I can’t remember where I heard that. It makes sense now to me tho.

        When we are deeply broken. Physically, mentally, spiritually broken. Facts don’t always help. When facts don’t help, there is relief in the practice of deep ‘letting go into Gnosis’ or ‘going beyond into Gnosis’.

        But! “There is no way out but through”. Hence, the importance of unflinching mindfulness.

        It’s like Jesus says, in the Gospel of Thomas:
        Know yourselves and you will be known and you will understand that you are children of the living one.

        Much Love. Many Formless Blessings!

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      2. I want to reply, but there is so much to think about, it will be another post soon!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Maybe we should work on something together ?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I would love to! I will be thinking of ideas, unless you already have one?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I’m still inspired by this ‘practical’ vs. ‘ultimate’ thing.

        Like, when is it practical to “abide in the ultimate”? mystics across time and space have suggested that resting in the ultimate has practical benefit. Now, neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology, shows us exactly how this practice of resting discriminative thought produces real structural changes in our brain.

        …Something in this area would be fun. We could have a conversation, going back and forth on recent findings and ancient wisdom?

        Let’s figure it out via email 🙂

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      6. Sounds very interesting! I will shoot you an email shortly!

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  6. Steve Ruis says:

    I love your posts in that they are always stimulating!

    Regarding “In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?” Consider a little thought experiment: imagine the Earth before “civilization.” Now, remove all of the people. Is there any evil or good? I argue that there is not. There just is. Predators hunt and kill. Vegetables are ripped screaming from the ground by herbivores. Life goes on.

    So, what are good and evil? They are judgments, made by humans regarding any damned thing they wish. An earthquake can cause a landslide that causes a village to be buried under it. A shaman from not far away can declare this an evil act of a sorcerer of his knowledge, A survivor can call the act an evil act of some god. What evil and good are is all about us and nothing about a Darwinian nature of which we are part.

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    1. Good point. Good and evil are often a feeling: we always feel bad for the screaming vegetable and the bison who didn’t escape forgetting that they are part of the survival condition for other creatures.

      However, I think that as humans, we are self-centred and that’s not as bad as it sounds. For us, having a moral compass is important. “Am I doing what’s right?” can only be answered with some kind of good/evil map.

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  7. Wow! Martina, I will give your creations more love’n in time.
    Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks MR! Saw your YT comments, will do my best!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Herbert Uba says:

    This was very thoughtful. I remember one thinker said Every Action Is Indifferent; It Only Becomes Good Or Bad According To The Intentions Of Its Architect. This was my maxim for good and evil for a long time until I read a story about a tumor that gave pedophilia to one American man. He raped his step daughter, was convicted of the crime and then started complaining about severe headache whilst in prison. Neurologist determined that he had a tumor and also that the tumor had caused his pedophilia. It was removed, he was released but he started having paedophilia again after a while. He reported this himself and then an investigation determined that the tumor had come again. It was then removed, meticulously this time. So this tells of a component of evil that you didn’t directly address; the natural evil in the most literal sense. Earthquakes, lightning, landslides etc. I think this I’ll of evil affirms that evil, in general, is somewhat absolute but that maybe we are just not to blame. After all, for some unknown reason and defying stringent probabilities, earth aligns perfectly well with the proverbial Axis Of Evil. Of course, in cosmology this Evil carries a different context but I’m sure you get the point. Evil is just a fault in our stars.

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    1. There are things beyond our control of course. While it takes almost superhuman power to not judge them as good or evil, ultimately there is no point in judging them. What is unavoidable isn’t to be judged, only our own actions – that’s how I feel about it. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hello, I enjoyed the post and thread; some very interesting points of view here. I would like to throw my hat into the ring, as it were, as regards the definition of both good and evil.
    I would regard both as human constructs and therefore of no actual value in universal terms. What if, instead of using such subjective terminology, we referred to both ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’? If a person is to undertake an act that is ‘unnatural’, as in running contrary to the natural order, then would that equate to ‘evil’, as we generally understand it? On a more intense level of action, the terms ‘human’ and ‘inhuman’ (though again with subjective association) could be applicable, as in paedophilia is inhuman, as well as unnatural. Opinion?

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    1. Could you describe what this natural order is? I get the gist of it, but the same subjectivity applies: everyone has their own view of what is a natural order

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The natural order is what is normal in nature. I understand that we could engage in semantics at every turn (what is normal?), but will try to define it as behaviour usually attributed to mammals, which is what we are at the end of the day. There could be greater refinement of the term, of course. In any event, surely evil has no meaning outside of human definition? When a bear kills a moose, is it evil? When it kills the young of another bear,as they often do, is that an evil act? Is it, instead, part of the natural order, i.e. as nature intended?

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      2. I understand. That makes survival the main virtue and a lot of altruistic things meaningless. Sometimes I look at the Old Testament and think – that’s is purely Darwinian.

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      3. Yes. I hope that I haven’t misrepresented my viewpoint, in that I do agree that such concepts as good and evil are necessary in order for Homo Sapiens to properly ‘evolve’. However, in the grand scheme of things I believe them to be purely artificial constructs.

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