Apr. 20th, 2011

I have often said that I don't believe in 'evil'-- mostly because of connotation, projection and context issues, as well as the usage of the concept to ostracize and marginalize people. The sheer frequency of the time people use the idea to Other groups/individuals who're simply different, the amount of times it's used in anger/disgust, the amount of labelling that goes on and shunning, etc-- none of it seems to make 'evil' a useful concept. Saying something is evil seems like an excuse to make it either out of control (let god take care of it) and/or so monstrous as to not be 'us'-- that is, either you're good or you're evil, and you can't be both good and evil, as the terms are generally understood.

Anyway, so looking at some Buddhist writings randomly, on Nirvana vs Samsara and Mara vs Buddha nature, I was thinking that perhaps it could be said thusly: evil exists, but only on the macro-cosmic scale. That is, systems of mass oppression or instruments of genocide can be Evil, and individuals are justified in organized resistance. This is the evil you should not accept as part of you and it's okay to isolate it and destroy it as much as possible. On the other hand, all individuals are exempt from this term; individuals are evil-neutral, and their acts either constructive or destructive. Likewise, only individuals can be good: this is only applicable on the micro scale. Individual acts of kindness and love, individual intentions, and personal codes of honor are valid and can be Good. On the other hand, any systemic application or code that creates moral structure and imposes order is defiled-- or rather, it cannot be called good. Groups (social structures) and systems cannot be good: they are only (at best) good-neutral (that is, do not cause too much harm, or harm is balanced with good).

So it's not individuals that are good or evil: it is actions and intentions. Further, individual actions may be destructive and misguided, but not evil (in this context), simply because the word is too heavy to apply both to slavery and genocide and to an individual act of rape (say). I want to be very careful, because the individuals who commit instances of slavery aren't innocent, but neither are they fully aware and individual agents. You cannot fully contrast a slave-owner's destructive actions centuries ago with the positive ones of a modern-day person who volunteers to mentor at-risk minority youth (say). You can say that the individual volunteer, when not part of an organization that requires it as a service, is acting out of the goodness of their hearts and spreading kindness in the world. Unless the slave-owner can similarly be divorced from their context (which is highly unlikely), you cannot hang the entirety of the weight of 'slavery' on their shoulders. It isn't that organizations aren't (likely) supporting the volunteer, but that they initiated their actions purposefully and knowingly, so they can be seen as a reflection on their character. You can't say that every slave owner participated in the institution as a reflection on their character; with rape/murder/etc it's more nuanced. Obviously it's highly destructive and unforgivable by society, but on an individual level, few-to-no people do things with the purpose of 'doing evil'. On an individual level, I think 'evil' is either a perversion of good (when a person defines 'good' as 'self-benefit' and then serves that), or a product of desire/passion uncontrolled (often anger or hate). Anger and hate aren't evil: they're just negative when uncontrolled. Things like death-camps aren't products of 'anger' by the time they're institutionalized and systemic: they are actual forces of evil no longer fully controlled by anyone and need to be eradicated.

I do not know to what degree it satisfies me to think so, but currently I like the concept. The bottom line is that I want to accept individuals and reject systems of oppression, which is reasonable regardless of how I apply it. Of course most common-sense people would agree (as would most Christians), but in terms of application it seems that Christians (at least) have a ways to go.


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the one who stumbled

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