What is evil? What does it refer to?
As usual, there are many answers – each with some value.
Personally, I don’t find the word very useful and rarely if ever use it, apart from when I explore it in inquiry or as I do here.
So with that caveat, here are some answers to the question: what is evil?
The easy answer is that nothing is inherently evil, and nothing is what we call it. Evil is in the label. The idea of evil is created from a mental overlay.
We could also say that it’s intentionally causing harm to others, whether as a byproduct of getting to another goal or for its own sake. This is tricky since we all cause harm to other living beings in our daily life – especially to non-human species, ecosystems, and future generations.
And that’s a reminder that what’s evil depends on who we are. If we are a human, then evil can be seen as what other humans do to us when they act in ways that systematically harm us. If we are a non-human or an ecosystem, we can say that the current behavior of humans is evil since it systematically harms non-human life. Animals are imprisoned and killed just so they can provide food or other products to humans, and they often suffer immensely in the process. Ecosystems are systematically damaged and destroyed so what’s extracted from them can temporarily support human activity. And if we are any being in the future – any future human or non-human being or ecosystem – then the current human behavior is evil. It’s destructive for all future generations. This means that, in a sense, we are all evil. Each of us is evil to someone. And our current human society, the way it’s organized, functions in an evil way. If we chose to use the word evil, and if we want to be honest with ourselves, we have to include this view.
And, related to “it’s all in the label”, evil – as anything else we see in ourselves or the wider world – is a projection. It’s an idea we put on something in the world. And the idea, as any other idea, is made up by our own mind by a combination of mental images, words, and sensations. We may feel that something is evil, because it’s connected to sensations in our body that makes the idea seem solid, real, and perhaps even true. And that, in turn, is happening because we have learned it from our parents, friends, subcultures, and our culture in general. (That’s probably why I don’t find the word very useful or compelling: I didn’t grow up in a culture where it was used much or was seen as meaningful.)
In a more pragmatic sense, what we conventionally label evil in humans is often their reaction to their own trauma and pain. Hurt people hurt people. When we see someone acting in a way we can call evil, it’s often because they themselves have deep wounds they don’t know how to deal with in a constructive way, so they react to their deep pain by inflicting pain on others. Or, at the very least, by not caring very much if they inflict pain on others. (This gives us some understanding and empathy for people acting in this way but doesn’t in any way condone their actions. It’s still our duty to do what we can to stop harmful actions.)
This lack of caring can also happen if we are very removed from the consequences of our actions. If most humans today can be seen as evil from the perspective of non-human species, ecosystems, and future generations, it’s not because we wish to inflict pain and suffering on these. It’s because the consequences of our actions are often far removed from us. We don’t see the consequences and don’t get immediate feedback. And it’s also because we live and operate within a social system that’s created in a world (in the 1800s) where the resources and garbage-absorption capacity of the natural world seemed infinite and is still – for the most part – considered infinite in our economic system. It’s not, in itself, evil, but the consequences can certainly be experienced and seen as evil.
How can I work with this in my own life?
I can explore my ideas of evil in this way, and through inquiry (The Work, Living Inquiries, Big Mind process etc.). I can find in myself the qualities and characteristics I see as evil, and see “out there” in the world and other people. (Even if what I find are perhaps much smaller or even just seeds and potentials.) I can put myself in the place of others – including non-human species, ecosystems, and future generations – and ask myself how they would see my behaviors, and perhaps use that as a correction. I can inform myself about the far-reaching and distant consequences of my actions and use this as a correction and guide for my own life. I can invite in healing for my own traumas and wounds so I am less likely to create and operate from ideologies aimed at protecting me from my own pain (racism, sexism, uncaring anthropocentrism, general dehumanization etc.), or lash out when my pain is triggered and harm myself and others.
Personally, I find my actions are evil from the perspective of nonhuman species, ecosystems, and future generations. It’s not intended to be evil, but I know it can easily be seen that way. After all, I operate within a system that doesn’t take the long term and distant effects of our actions much into consideration. It’s not incorporated, because it didn’t need to be when our system was developed. I also know I my actions have caused suffering for others, especially when I have not been able to be completely honest or in my own integrity because of my own pain and fears. That is something I am working on, both in terms of finding healing for my issues creating this behavior and preventing it by being honest, taking care of my own needs (some of it has happened because I didn’t), and be more in integrity.