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.
This essay is in large part grounded in two earlier essays: The Nature of Evil and The Natural Mind. A brief summary of those two essays is included but reading the essays could also be helpful.
In the Nature of Evil essay it was posited that within relative reality, which is subsumed by absolute reality, there is a bipolar conception of behavior that ranges from ignorant at one end to enlightened at the other end. Of course, as with any bipolar construct one might define a number of intermediate positions between the anchor points at either end of the dimension. In the earlier essay, ignorant behavior was defined as including what is generally thought of as “evil” but went on to include many types of behavior that probably would not generally be thought of as evil, though they might still be considered wrong. The core defining characteristic of ignorant behavior is perceiving everything external to oneself (subject) as an “object” suitable to be used in anyway one sees fit to meet one’s needs and especially wants (egocentric). Wants in this case being something that one has no objective need for but has acquired a desire to possess or consume in some manner. Objects external to the self can be anything, including material objects, social structures and biological organisms, especially other people. The core defining characteristic of enlightenment is Self-realization or recognition that one’s consciousness is in fact not an individual phenomenon but is a localized manifestation of a unified and universal Consciousness, which becomes the operative form of Consciousness within enlightenment (Oneness). Some residual subject/object functioning remains a necessity even for an enlightened person, due to the necessity of operating in a relativistic context. However, egocentric wants will no longer drive the motivational state of such a person, and thus such a person will not view objects in the world to be simple means to an end.
In The Natural Mind essay, a state of functioning that might be thought of a ego-free but without unity with universal Consciousness was described. A state of child-like innocence was offered as a state analogous to the natural mind. The Natural Mind is a follow-up to a discussion of ways in which one can work to eliminate or modify conditioned programs that govern much of our emotional/behavioral functioning. Methods for working on conditioned, automatic programs (APs) [see sub-section in Part I). These conditioned programs are acquired largely through our socialization and come to be organized around and understood through a narrative, which may consist of multiple related stories, constructed from our memories. In the essay, this narrative was called the fictive-self. Neutralizing many of our conditioned ways of interpreting the physical and social environment facilitates becoming free of ego-driven thinking, feeling and acting; i.e., deconstructing and ending our identification with the fictive-self. Once operating from the natural mind, one is available for (i.e., not resisting) a transformation of consciousness through an opening to universal Consciousness. This is not, however, something that one can “make” happen but must allow to take one (see the brief essay Taken).
The question then arises as to how one functions in the relative world when no longer motivated by the fictive-self (egocentric self) and is not yet an open channel for universal Consciousness. As long as one lives in the relative, there will be choices arising out of the dualistic underpinnings of relative reality. Jon Marc Hammer in one of his books makes an interesting distinction. Hammer referred to the earth and the world as being distinct. The former is Gaia-like, which according to Wikipedia, refers to a hypothesis proposing that “…organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.” Hammer would go one step further and say that this complex system is an organism and that all components of it arise out of Consciousness and to varying degrees possess consciousness. The world according to Hammer is a complex of ideas, concepts, beliefs and expectations that govern a drama called “human culture and civilization” performed on a stage called earth. Hammer’s drama recalls to mind some lines from a poem (Outlaw) I wrote many years ago in an effort to capture a truth revealed to me during a noetic event (see note at end)*. Several lines from that poem: :
And the man knew God
And he was made free.
All history and tradition
Culture and words
Rescinded — Grace.
Freedom from the past
And from the future.
Eckhart Tolle makes a similar distinction albeit on a smaller scale. He speaks of one’s life-situation versus one’s life. Your life-situation is analogous to how you “stand” in relation to the world. Your life is related to your role as one of the biological organisms of which the earth is partially comprised. The world and life-situations are governed by the mind while the earth and life are governed by natural processes.
Consider the world to be a large web spun around the earth. The strands comprising this web can, for example, be thought of, but not limited to: political systems and ideologies, systems of law and concepts of justice, economic and financial systems, occupations, art, music, fashion, religions, philosophies, moral systems, science and technology, social mores, educational systems, systems of kinship and social classes based on racial, ethnic, wealth, gender and various other characteristics. One’s life-situation results from the strands one identifies with and uses to define oneself through. Now, imagine that all human life were eliminated from the earth. What would happen to this web comprising the world that most of us think of as reality? It would vanish instantly, clearly showing that it was not real at all but simply the product of the mind. What would happen to the earth and life? They would continue on following the natural processes that have always ordered them.
A person acting from a conditioned mind is entangled in the world and cannot see beyond it. When one is functioning from a conditioned mind or ego, choices are ruled by APs, which are conditioned programs, many of which reflect beliefs, opinions and expectations that we have adopted about the world. Such choices are often described as judgments or prejudices. Someone who has regained their natural mind acts through the application of refined thought or discernment. Thus, the natural mind functions in the world through the development and practice of discernment. Discernment means seeing the “unfiltered” nature of things or seeing through the web. Thus, the natural mind must weave its way through the world distinguishing between essential and superficial characteristics when choices must be made.
Do understand that the web comprising the world is not an illusion and has real consequences that one must take into account. However, the natural mind helps give one a perspective on the web that opens the possibility of navigating it without becoming lost in it. The American mystic Franklin Merrill-Wolff spoke of what he called the “high indifference,” by which he seemed to be referring to this ability to rise above the web and gain some perspective on it. This does not mean one is indifferent to the real needs of the living but only that one responds to them independent of egoistic influences. While Merrill-Wolff recognized that it is virtually impossible to completely disengage from the world, he thought that one could function in the world without being of the world. The natural mind is grounded in life and being not in the world of the mind or as Leonard Jacobson prefers, “…in the world of time.”
Some choices involve simple preferences and do not require discernment. For example, given a choice between several flavors of creamer for your coffee, personal preferences are adequate for making a choice. However, having found your way back to the natural mind, one no longer has beliefs and opinions (prejudgments) to rely upon in making most choices. One is left with discernment as the basis for making these choices. This means carefully considering the worldly context for a choice and then determining the best course of action, which minimizes any potential harm that might result from the choice to yourself or others and making choices that could potentially be life enhancing. This seems to be close to what the Buddhist mean by right action. There are no hard and fast rules for right action. However, if one approaches decision points without being entangled in and identified with the world, one will usually intuitively understand what to do. For those who have freed themselves from the conditioned mind, right action arises from the heart, not the mind.
* A noetic event, in my experience, is a shift in consciousness that, while it may not always be permanent, one nevertheless never fully returns from it. You can read more about noetic events in my life here: A Personal Odyssey. The term “noetic” was popularized by the moon astronaut Edgar Mitchel who used the term to describe something that happened to him on the way back from the moon. He subsequently founded the Institute for Noetic Sciences (IONS) to study noetic events.