Is Evil Necessary?

It depends.

“Good” and “Evil” are useful constructs and are shorthand for much longer explanations and justifications for beneficial and harmful behaviors. They are also useful in that they have the backing of the Divine so that if someone asks “Why?” then someone else with divine authority can reply “Because your behavior will determine whether or not you’re punished or rewarded in the afterlife.” Good and evil are simple and easy to understand in most cases.

There are two problems with “Good” and “Evil”.

The first problem is the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) where we treat the behavior of others as one of their essential characteristics. For example, we might see John stealing a loaf of bread and say, “John is a thief” whereas if we ourselves stole a loaf of bread we might say, “If I hadn’t taken that bread, I would have starved to death!” So we may say that John is evil but in fact, John was simply starving when he stole the bread. (For more info see: Wikipedia).

The second problem is the assignment of Good and Evil relies in large part on who is the authority in such matters. Some religious authorities have views of what is good that others would find irredeemably evil.

My personal view is that:

We are all little monkeys just trying to get by.

It is amazing to me how far we have come in our ethics in the last two thousand years. That’s just 100 generations of humanity.

2500 years ago genocide was not a crime, it was the way that wars were conducted. Read your Greek history.

Our prisons are filled with people whose behavior compares very favorably with our primate cousins. Large clever psychopaths were kings in Europe for most of its history. But that’s not good enough be a free human now. Are the folks in prison evil? I don’t think that’s a useful way to think of them. Most prisoners are functionally illiterate. Some behave dangerously and without remorse, others have no empathy for others, others use drugs, still others have very poor impulse control. Those are more specific and thus more useful ways to think of miscreants and may lead to more effective alternatives than prison for some of them.

If we view someone as evil, we also tend to view them as less than human, even irredeemable.

Wars are always portrayed as battles between Good and Evil because then we can dismiss the suffering we incur on our enemies. We are Good and They are Evil.

So it is my devout wish that humanity will one day transcend Good and Evil and live together under the Buddhist virtues of:

  • Compassion: The intention and capacity to relieve the suffering of ourselves and other living beings.
  • Loving Kindness: The intention and capacity to bring joy and happiness to ourselves and other living beings.