Rethinking “Evil”

by Scott Noelle

If you watch the news (not recommended) you see people committing despicable acts of violence, and the general consensus is that these people who do evil... are evil.

Ironically, when you have decided that someone is evil, bad, or wrong, it’s easy to justify doing evil things to them. “An eye for an eye” makes everyone blind.

All this evildoing perpetuates the false belief that humans are inherently evil and would behave badly if not for our prohibitive laws and the constant threat of punishment.

In truth, humans are social animals, which means we’re evolved for connection, cooperation, bonding, and love. But we’re also evolved to kill our food, defend our kin, and feel anger when our autonomy is threatened.

In other words, aggression is a part of our nature that’s supposed to be aimed at our prey, our predators, and our challenges — not each other.

When we become violent toward each other, it doesn’t mean we’re evil, it means we’re confused and have we lost touch with our amazing capacity to create harmony.

Improve Your Groove

Today, whenever you feel interpersonal tension, conflict, or disconnection, notice that you are somehow judging the other person to be wrong, inadequate, threatening, or otherwise “bad.” (You may be judging yourself, too.)

Entertain a new thought:

They’re not “bad,” they’re confused. They’ve lost touch with Who They Really Are: powerful, free, creative human beings who would choose harmony if they could see a path to it.

How does this thought affect the way you respond to these people?

PS: After I posted this Groove, someone asked if I was denying that evil exists.

If you re-read the first paragraph, you will see that I very clearly acknowledge the existence of evildoing. What I deny is the notion that one who does evil is inherently evil.

If someone sings out of tune, I don’t assume he is tone deaf. I would assume that for some reason he wasn’t fully connecting with his capacity for intonation. Many inexperienced singers get easily confused between the pitch, intensity, and timbre of a note. (You tell them to sing “higher” and they sing louder or brighter.) With support, such confusion can be remedied. It would be evil for me to tell him that he’s tone deaf and should give up any hope of ever singing in tune.

Saying that someone is doing evil is a statement of fact, but saying they are evil is a gross over­simplification of human nature.

The point of this Groove is that if you let go of the idea that someone is inherently bad, it’s easier to see how you can help them reconnect with their innate goodness (evolved sociality). And that doesn’t preclude taking protective action to prevent further harm in the meantime.

In other words, you don’t have to deem someone inherently evil in order to acknowledge that they’re doing evil things. You don’t have to make them “wrong” to justify stopping their harmful behavior. And if you see them as an innately good person who has lost their way, you will be inspired to help them find their way rather than to retaliate and punish them.

Instead of answering evil with more evil, you can respond with strength and love.

Originally published on 2015-02-06
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