Tag Archives: empathy

The Nature of Evil

         The nature of evil will be addressed from a perspective consistent with with panentheism (see Definitions). Panentheism is a philosophy that was first articulated in 1828 by the German philosopher Karl Krause. More recently, this position has been reflected in the works of writers such as Franklin Merrell Wolff, Lynne McTaggart, Amit Goswami, Robert Lanza, and Menas Kafatos. The central feature of these views is the primacy of consciousness. Consciousness is construed as a unified field of consciousness, the primal quantum field or as an indivisible whole in which we and the universe are entangled (hereafter simply the Field). Some might equate this Field with God or Unity Consciousness. Everything material is a manifestation of the Field, which creates an apparent dualism between matter and spirit or consciousness. Life plays an important role in this apparent dualism, which depends on subject /object relationships that require a perceiving organism.

 The question naturally arises as to why are the material universe and subject/object relations exists. One perspective is that they exists to provide the Field with an experiential context. Creation of an experiential context suggests that the Field is engaged in self-development. The material universe then is an artifact of Consciousness that has rendered a portion of itself ignorant of the rest so that dualistic representations of itself can interact. One might think of the material universe as a canvas created by an artist for the development of his or her creative talents. In short, the dynamic interactions that we think of as life are permutations of subject/object relations grounded in the Field. Ultimately speaking, subject and object are ONE and the material universe is an illusion.

 Human beings represent an important component of the material world simply because their capabilities greatly expand the range of experience possible. The key psychological component governing most subject/object interactions involving human beings is ego. Ego is the identity cloaking that portion of the Field manifest in human form. The development of ego draws a veil between self and the Field, thereby creating the dualistic illusion of me and not me. Everything animate and non-animate beyond one’s self-awareness is not me.

Good and evil, therefore, represent a dualistic pair of categories that can be applied to intentional actions by ego in the material world. This dichotomy is like all dichotomies is ultimately an illusion because the Field is beyond dichotomies. It is a spiritual singularity or indivisible whole. However, it is a very “real” dichotomy for individuals lacking direct experience of the Field and therefore awareness of the illusion. If the Field created the material universe in order to impose a counterpoint to itself for the purpose of gaining experience, then the “struggle” between good and evil would appear to be an important and necessary dimension of experience.

In other terms, good and evil can be thought of as the difference between enlightened actions and actions grounded in ignorance. When construed this way, actions grounded in ignorance blind one to one’s true nature, that is, as an aspect of the Field or God. Thus, evil arises out of spiritual ignorance that leads one to invest one’s sense of being in ego. Life then consists of each individual’s struggle to overcome ignorance and thereby achieve enlightenment. This dichotomy between enlightenment and ignorance might be thought of as a bipolar construct where one end is anchored by selflessness (loving/kindness) and the other end is anchored by selfishness (egotism). The further one’s identity falls toward the selfishness or egotism end of the scale the greater one’s ignorance and the potential for evil actions.

An interviewer at the Nuremberg trials for Nazi war criminals was asked if he had learned anything from his interviews. He replied that what he had learned was that evil was the total absence of empathy. Empathy can be construed as the ability to expand one’s sense of “me” to include others. Carried to its logical conclusion, this inclusive expansion submerges ego and becomes selflessness, which is the antithesis of “me” or ego. True selflessness requires the evolution of consciousness which requires the expansion of empathy that leads to a life grounded in compassion and love.

Evil then in this scheme of reasoning arises from attempts to gratify ego desires. Desire is what one wants as distinct from what one needs. One needs shelter but wants a penthouse apartment on Affluence Avenue. Desires are rooted in status seeking, righteousness, jealousy, lust, pride, power, honor, envy, fame and fortune along with many other similar obstacles to the expansion of empathy, spiritual development and enlightenment. When objects are perceived by ego as merely means to satisfy desire, they have no inherent value independent of one’s use of them. People, animals, plants, physical elements are all treated as objects for satisfying one’s desires. The desires of ego are an expression of ignorance and the source of evil in the world. Satan, in Christian theology, might be thought of as the personification of ego desire. Thus, to be consumed by the fires of ego desire is, metaphorically speaking, to be in Hell.

Equating self with ego is the initial step leading to treating others as objects. Think of this initial step as ego becoming an image manager. We are almost all image managers to some degree. The greater the degree to which we engage in image management the greater the extent of our self-absorption. An image manager desires ego to be viewed by others in a particular persona. Sometimes one has an intentionally constructed public persona and a private persona that differ from one another. Both will involve some degree of deception. A public persona deceives others while the private persona deceives self. Self-deception perpetuates ignorance, which can only be avoided by not equating self with ego.

The ego, as image manager, makes choices that are believed to maintain or enhance ego’s self-image or self-conception. A self-image can embody a positive or negative persona depending upon the purposes that it serves. Ego affects choices about things that include but aren’t limited to one’s personal narrative, physical appearance, possessions, public behavior, employment, social and intimate relationships. Image management is about “ME” (ego). I’m an important person, I have authority, I’m no good, I’m a victim, I’m beautiful, I’m handsome, I’m entitled, I’m helpless, I’m popular or even I’m spiritual, among many others. Once one has a “ME” narrative, then that narrative begins to control much of what one does. Ego becomes fully self-absorbed and to be self-absorbed implies that one has a selfish identity. A selfish identity means one acts from ignorance, which makes one highly susceptibility to engaging in what might be perceived as evil.

Evil is not dependent upon any particular act but rather on the intent of the actor. To do harm to another individual unintentionally is not evil. The same harm resulting from an intentional act committed in the service of ego desire is evil. Graduations of evil or ignorant actions depend upon the degree of damage to “objects” that result from the satisfaction of the ego’s desires. The nature of the harm whether physical, psychological, social or economic is less important than the degree of damage knowingly caused. Evil of whatever degree is subject to escalation through the power of an egoist to impose his or her desire broadly. Given someone with power willing to cause damage in the service of ego desire and the evil will be multiplied. Acts affecting groups of people are greater evils than comparable solitary acts simply due to the multiplicative effect of power in the service of ego desire. Another consideration is complicity in evil through support for or ignoring the action of others, the outcomes of which serve one’s own ego desires. Bystanders are not necessarily innocent but may be passive partners in evil actions and thereby bear part of the burden of such evil. A final consideration are acts that take on the appearance of being motivated by good intentions. Surely, there are selfless acts motivated by good intentions. However, the criterion for evil offered herein pertains to acts motivated by ego desire. A benefit that accrues as a result of actions motivated by ego does not justify the actions or neutralize the evil. The point is simply that there is in some manner of speaking a continuum of sorts along which one might arrange acts of evil with varying degrees of precision. While all actions in the service of ego desire are, by definition, evil there are lesser and greater evils among them.

A question can also be raised about evil and the satisfaction of needs. This poses a fundamental question about natural rights. When a mountain lion kills a deer for food, we would not describe this action as evil. It is the natural right of the lion to acquire sustenance from its environment. In the case of human beings, it might also be argued that they have a natural right to meet their life sustaining needs. One could argue that a human animal has the same natural rights as a lion and taking its sustenance by force is no more evil than the taking by the lion. Evil would be avoided, however, only by using no more force than is necessary, taking only the minimum that is needed or a fair apportionment whichever is less and engaging in no retribution. Even so, an enlightened individual would recognize that the situation is simply one “act” in an evolving human drama intended to provide opportunities to overcome ignorance. Thus, such an enlightened individual might refuse to participate in the drama and accept starvation. By doing so, the enlightened individual maintains detachment from the drama of the material world while serving as an example to others and possibly contributing to their spiritual advancement.

Finally, there is the general question of how should one respond to evil action? This will depend upon the development of one’s sense of selflessness. Someone operating from the selfish side of the identity scale will respond in-kind and strike back in anger with a desire for revenge and thereby perpetuating ignorance. This is the morality of retribution. If a direct response isn’t possible or avoided out of fear, the object of the evil action may at least harbor ill will (hatred) toward the perpetrator, which will also serve to perpetuate ignorance. In the case of a response to an unprovoked action engaged in for defensive reasons even if the defensive actions are in-kind, they are not evil. A purely reflexive defensive action may be grounded in ignorance but it isn’t an intentional attempt to satisfy ego desire. Ignorant because the defender has not learned the negative moral implications of emotionally motivated in-kind, counter-aggression. This is, of course, the way the majority of human beings can be expected to act, which often leads to an escalating cycle of response and counter-response. Ignorance follows the path of least resistance and ignorance is the soil in which evil takes root.

A person operating from the middle of the scale will probably engage in defensive counter-aggression but without emotional content. In other words, an emotionally detached response is more likely to be a constrained response. Someone operating from the selflessness side of the identity scale will recognize the evil nature of the “attack” and the need for a measured response. Such an individual will engage in counter-aggression as a last resort and will then only do so with emotional detachment. This is not unlike the concept of warrior-priests embodied in the Chinese Shaolin whom legend has it used moral authority, paradoxical responses, persuasion and acceptance when the object of evil action. Direct action was only taken to protect life. These priests were alleged to have the skills necessary to respond in a graduated manner that never employed more counter force than was necessary. This graduated and minimal defense was made possible by complete emotional detachment and thereby without investment of ego. Such an individual would have a well developed understanding of the nature of evil and how to make a humane response to it. Finally, a fully selfless and enlightened person who is the object of evil action might embrace and absorb the action to the point of physical annihilation knowing that the action cannot do any real injury and recognizing that such a response to evil may serve as an instructional demonstration.

In conclusion, an undeveloped or under-developed sense of empathy is clearly an obstacle to spiritual growth. Thus, being ruled by ego desire and thereby satisfying one’s wants through treating everything that is “not me” as an object with no purpose but to serve one’s desires blocks the path to spiritual development. To open the path to spiritual development requires a freely made choice to let go of attachments to wants and expand one’s sense of empathy through identification and perspective taking until ignorance and selfishness are crowded out by love and compassion. When the spiritual path is freely embraced one has taken one giant step in the evolution of consciousness, selflessness and enlightenment.

My Most Challenging Unitarian Universalist Principle

Commentary on an essay by Richard S. Gilbert on UUA Principle Two: We affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Printed in With Purpose and Principle by Edward S. Frost (ed.).

          In opening, Reverend Gilbert offers us a bit of history for his discussion of Principle Two, including the focus on practical application of religious principles to daily life promoted by Faustus Socinus in the 16th century Minor Church of Poland; Ralph Emerson’s emphasis on deed over creed in the 19th century; and the contemporary appeal by Eugene Pickett “…to create heaven on earth.”

 Rev. Gilbert follows up on this introduction with a discussion of several concepts associated with Principle Two:

The essay defines compassion as shared suffering, which leads to empathy and finally to action. He goes on to ask, “How can we presume to understand our society without deep feelings of moral outrage at the pervasiveness of suffering and injustice?”

 As I discussed in an earlier piece, I think the development of social perspective taking leads to an expansion of empathy, which in turn engenders compassion. Compassion motivates an ego-free response, if any response is possible, toward the person for whom one feels compassion. I think that “moral outrage” is an emotionally motivated egotistic state that is incompatible with both empathy and compassion.

Personally, I don’t pretend to understand our society, which is the reflection of very complex, dynamic and organic processes. I suspect that Rev. Gilbert doesn’t understand it either. I think that he has certain beliefs about society through which he filters and construes his observations. While he doesn’t elaborate on what those beliefs are, they are no doubt the source for his emotional state of “moral outrage.”

The essay also offers us the position of David Williams that states, “We are joined together by a mystic oneness whose source we may never know, but whose reality we can never doubt…We are our neighbor’s keeper, because that neighbor is but our larger self…”

David Williams seems to be offering us a vision of a transcendent self that is merged in the unity of All That Is, which is similar to the unified field of consciousness that I have mentioned in previous talks. I would suggest that Williams’ perspective on caring for our neighbors grounded in the understanding that our neighbors and we are joined through the unity of transcendent consciousness is a firmer basis for compassionate action than “moral outrage.” Thus, I find it hard to reconcile “moral outrage” with “mystic oneness” and personally would find true compassion to be more likely to arise from the latter than the former.

 It seems to me that “moral outrage” must be against the alleged perpetrators of perceived injustice, which creates a dualism that is incompatible with the non-dualistic “mystic oneness” of David Williams. The “victim versus the perpetrator” struggle in Rev. Gilbert’s dualistic conception merges into transcendent unity in Williams’ non-dualistic conception. The former seeks victory of one over the other and the latter seeks reconciliation of differences. I would argue that the implications for actions arising from these two views are very different and makes this section of the essay a study in contradiction. Personally, compassion flowing from “mystic oneness” resonates better with me than “moral outrage.”

The essay states that equity is not equality but fairness. Rev. Gilbert then asserts that equity is the measuring rod for social justice and that social justice demands that society improve the conditions of its impoverished and call into question the corruption of its affluent. He asks, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?”

 I think it is important to understand the term “fair” since this is the core meaning of equity in Rev. Gilbert’s definition of the term. According to the dictionary, the primary meaning of “fair” is “free of bias or dishonesty;” and the secondary meaning is “proper according to the rules.” Of course rules can be or not be biased or dishonest so I’ll focus on the primary meaning. Bias in a negative sense implies that a rule is constructed in such a way that it arbitrarily favors one person over another person.

For example, a law prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because of their skin color is not fair or equitable because it is based on an arbitrary characteristic of the person. On the other hand, prohibiting someone from using a public water fountain because they have a communicable disease that can reasonably be expected to be transmitted through use of the water fountain would be fair and not an arbitrary bias. Thus, the issue is not bias per se but arbitrary bias or arbitrary discrimination. I would suggest that “dishonesty” is simply another way of saying “arbitrary bias.”

 We can conclude then that justice requires that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Indeed, one of the primary meanings of justice is the quality of being equitable and one of the secondary meanings is that of lawfulness; that is, justice requires laws free of arbitrary bias both in wording and in enforcement.

 The notion of “social justice” is peculiar given the understanding of justice just arrived at. Justice could of necessity only be reflected within society either at the community, state or national level and is thereby inherently social. Thus, those who use the term obviously mean something different from the meaning of justice just discussed. The term social justice was initially used in 1840 by a Sicilian priest and was, a few years later, taken up by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. The initial use of the term was a call for virtuous behavior by parishioners in their personal dealings with others. Mill’s use of the term implied that society should behave virtuously.

 The idea that an abstract entity, “society,” could take on virtue in the sense that an individual can be virtuous seems to me to be a case of fallaciously attributing human characteristics to an abstraction. Thus, what I take Rev. Gilbert to be suggesting is that some “agent” acting on behalf of society should impose his or her notion of virtue on the aggregate of individuals comprising society. This was precisely what Benito Mussolini did in his national socialist state in fascist Italy, which he proudly proclaimed to be a totalitarian state. At the time, totalitarian meant that the agent acting for the state, for example Mussolini, imposed his notion of virtue on all aspects of society or the total. Interestingly, emulation of Mussolini and his totalitarian state was suggested to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s as the way to overcome the economic depression. Fortunately, Roosevelt declined to fully embrace the idea.

 Rev. Gilbert asked the question, “How does one allocate resources and by what criteria in a free society?” I think the answer is that you don’t, because the question contains inherently contradictory elements. You can’t have an agent (or agents) acting on his or her notion of virtuous behavior decide how to allocate resources and have a free society at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. Having a so-called virtuous society would require an agent that can impose decisions about what is correct and incorrect behavior on the total population. In short, a totalitarian order imposed by dictatorial powers.

 The essay goes on to address justice, which I have already given considerable attention to earlier, separately from social justice. Justice according to Rev. Gilbert requires more than can be achieved by mere compassion. He states that justice requires a systemic approach that addresses underlying problems. A systemic approach he says must address government policy, taxation, welfare programs and income redistribution among others. It requires transcendent values or virtues that, according to Rev. Gilbert, cannot be determined by democratic processes or market forces. Thus, by implication he is arguing that a systemic approach must rely on values or virtues derived from and imposed by an authority.

 It seems to me that it matters little who that authority is. It is a call for an authoritarian or totalitarian approach to governing society so that it might be recast in the image of an individual or group of individuals believed by some to be virtuous. Clearly, this goes well beyond the definition of justice derived earlier as requiring that the rules or laws in a community, state or nation should be equitable, that is, free of arbitrary bias. Personally, I can embrace a definition of justice based on “equitable law” as previously discussed but find Rev. Gilbert’s notion of justice alien to my notions of equity and fairness.

 The essay continues beyond the three basic elements of the second principle to talk about the Beloved Community and the Prophetic Imperative. Rev Gilbert states that the concept of a beloved community best characterizes a liberal religious concern for justice, equity and compassion, which he finds to be in step with the UU tradition of attempting to build “heaven on earth.” I am immediately reminded of a quote from the philosopher Karl Popper, “The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.”

The reason I think that Popper draws this conclusion is that there has never been a successful utopian community over the long term. Such communities invariably fail because they ultimately require a totalitarian order formulated according to the beliefs of some authoritarian leader. Since no one is infallible, there is always a flaw in the vision of such “leaders” and ultimately “heaven” sinks back into the mundane world in which real and ordinary people live.

 The prophetic imperative is, for Rev. Gilbert, the requirement that we all work to make the beloved community or heaven on earth a reality. He argues that we should attempt to repair the world, for in doing so we will repair ourselves. I’m not sure what prophecy his prophetic imperative is grounded in, but whatever it is, I am certain that it is flawed as have been all such idealistic notions.

 The need to repair something implies that at one time it was in good working order. What specifically does this repair intend to restore and when and where did it exist? I believe life is too “messy” for it to ever exhibit perfection. Can a community, state, nation or indeed the world be improved? I believe it can through a spiritual practice. I also believe that it can only be done by starting with oneself, not some abstraction such as society.

 In an earlier piece I offered some thoughts on employing a personal ideal or standard to guide one’s own behavior in interacting with others. Setting and following a personal ideal is a spiritual practice in its most basic sense and probably the best way to “repair” oneself. The primary way in which a personal ideal needs to be expressed is through interaction with others within the context of family, work and associations. It is in these very personal and daily relationships where you have the most power to affect the world. It is the cumulative effect of this type of action that changes the world. Change is a bottom-up process that begins with oneself, not with an abstraction. This I think was the intent behind the original use, by the Sicilian priest, of the term “social justice.”