An Essay by

Jay B Gaskill

Attorney at Law


On September 11, 2001, I was in Manhattan, within walking distance of Ground Zero. My wife and I remained there for another ten days, moving among the stunned, the worried, the grief stricken, seeing more American flags, and more respect for that symbol of a truly free civilization, than I ever had before.

Shortly after that dastardly attack, I e-mailed my children in California.

“Evil is real.

“Tuesday morning it came to this city, near the Manhattan apartment where we are staying. Evil announced itself in a succession of grotesquely unreal images, and a monumental murder.

“Good is real. The last few days here have renewed my belief in the human capacity for heroism and virtue under duress. It is an honor to be among the New Yorkers. I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now.

“Evil has too often been excused or ignored or defined away. Yet it returns like a night flare on a battlefield, illuminating the configuration of forces. That terrible light clarifies everything. In its actinic glare, all the differences among the good melt into insignificance.”

When you actually encounter authentic, full-on evil, it is absolutely unmistakable, and qualitatively different from the merely bad and despicable.

In that baleful glare, I looked around and saw the rest of us, the cab drivers with turbans, the shopkeepers, the tourists, the ordinary crooks, the beautiful people and the broken ones, and I realized two things with a terrible, unforgettable clarity: Evil is a very narrow category, terrible and dangerous, and in its presence we are privileged to see all the rest of us, however imperfect, as versions of the good.

Nihilism is the dark mirror image of honor and character. On a philosophical and ideological level, nihilism is the outright rejection of honor and morality as “absurd” or “mere” social constructs. The anti-heroic trend in literature – popular and otherwise – is crypto nihilism, as is the more extravagant misogyny of gangsta’ rap.

Nihilism is more dangerous than common criminality because it can corrupt the very source code of the human operating system – when you disable the module called “conscience”, the system begins a ‘self destruct” sequence.

The collateral damage can be huge.

Nihilism is a pathogen of the soul, an “infection” that usually ends in death. This is why evil’s half life is nasty, short and brutal. Nihilists can be recruited, but once that mindset gets rooted in character, it cannot be merely “converted’ or “reformed” out again. Something more like a latter day exorcism is needed.

Nihilism is a disease that was propagated by some of our intelligentsia. Some of these elites play with nihilist ideas as if they were harmless. I notice that very few professors (even the ones who spout crypto nihilist rhetoric) running around raping and pillaging neighborhoods. That is small consolation. They are the Typhoid Maries of the culture. The clever notion that there really is no morality is just a parlor game for them.

We are living through a period when the moral immune system has been dangerously weakened.

This is not the first time. In the decades just before the Bolshevik era in Russian and in Weimar Germany just before the rise of Hitler, there were similar signs. The Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky recorded the cultural change in his novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

The story, set in late Tsarist Russia, presages the looming Marxist disruption. Dostoevsky’s character, Mitya, is in jail, accused of murdering his father. He is “sorry for God” because, as he puts it -“Your Reverence, you must move over a little, chemistry is coming!” Then he adds: “How…is man to fare after that? Without God and a life to come? After all, that would mean that now all things are lawful, that one may do anything that one likes.”

In a paraphrase, “Without God, everything is permitted.”

How, indeed, is humankind to fare after that?

How Do We Explain Evil?

Why does the problem of explaining evil continue to fascinate so many of us?

My own views on the topic were strongly influenced by the attack of September 11th, 2001, which became for me and many others, a moment of catastrophic clarification. Even so, “Why?” becomes an entangled question, bound up in evil’s recognition and definition, and nested in the still larger questions.

Can we avoid defining evil in the confidence that “We’ll know it when we see it”? Apparently not.

Many members of the secular intelligentsia seem to think of evil as the discredited artifact of ancient superstition. For these minds, morality itself is a conditioned cultural response, and the good represents that which we, as “sovereign” individuals, choose to it be. The ambivalence of the intelligentsia is a symptom. Their moral relativism is the malady.

Moral relativism can be considered a mental disorder because it impairs the very ability to recognize evil for what it is. The resulting disability is life threatening. This is why the events of September 11, 2001 presented an interesting test for the post-modern culture.

If your mind was not yet compromised, you were able to see that attack for what it really was: an unambiguous instance of evil in the world, directed at the core values on which modern civilization has been organized. The identification of evil becomes a partial definition by example, as in “we can at least all agree that the holocaust was evil.” If you are predisposed to recognize the universal themes that are occasionally revealed in major events, the arrival of large scale evil can be a “teaching moment.”

The events of 9-11 convinced me that once one actually confronts a major instance of authentic evil in the real world, the moral order of things becomes painfully clear in broad outline if not fine detail. I experienced 9-11 in Manhattan, close enough to Ground Zero to smell the dust and see the tears of the bereft in the days following. It was a profound “teaching moment.”

Coincidentally, a few months later, I was asked by a Berkeley California organization to organize and participate in a forum discussion on the topic of Evil. The Board member who contacted me probably thought of me as an “expert” on the topic because of my three decades as a public defender. As it turned out, my 9-11 experience was much more important. I recruited two theologians and a judge who had earlier served as a prosecutor to join me and the organization’s board member for an evening’s discussion. It was a very interesting evening, particularly because if the venue.

The following was adapted from my notes:

Allow me a personal reflection. There was a sea change for most Americans on September 11th last year.

The sudden appearance of massive, purposeful evil on one’s doorstep pierces denial and moral ambiguity; it cuts through the fog of cultural and moral relativism like a flare on a night battlefield. In that descending, actinic glare: the configuration of all the forces is revealed; and things are instantly sorted out. We can see the forces of evil that threaten us and the rest are revealed– however flawed and whatever their differences – as versions of the good.

But evil not only clarifies, it frightens. And it frightens those in its path more deeply to the degree that there is no sustaining relationship with the true and the good as universal values rooted both in and beyond our frail and transient lives. In other words, we humans may lack courage to face evil to the same degree that we lack roots in the universal.

Thankfully, such fears did not paralyze the battalions and companies of fire and police and their chaplains who charged into the maelstrom in the morning hours of September 11, 2001.

May we never forget.

My wife and I were staying in Manhattan at 26th and Madison on the morning of September 11 and the days following. Something miraculous happens when you find yourself in the descending glare of evil.

When evil arrived on the scene, there was an awakening. People were visibly changed. Within the huge diversity of secular and religious perspectives that you find in New York City, a combination of kindness and heartfelt resolve just rose up from the ashes. Our time in Manhattan was a sacred experience.

As our plane left the runway at JFK, I felt that my optimism about the human condition was justified. Somehow, I thought, Creation has equipped Homo Sapiens to deal with Evil. How could this be?

The events in Manhattan of 9-11 revealed an important truth. Evil’s appearance illuminates and calls forth the good in us. Our ability to recognize and identify evil informs our ability to recognize and identify the good. So if the discussion of evil can suggest a common human vision of what is truly evil, a vision of the universal evil, if you will, we will at the same time have exposed a common vision of the good.

Defining the Beast

As a rule, evil is too often over-identified by fervent religionists and under-identified by equally fervent secularists. The problem for both groups (assuming the secularists haven’t rejected the very notion of evil) is their shared confusion of definition. Outside of history’s catastrophic manifestations of malevolence, the task of identifying evil calls for a more fine grained definition for the sin obsessed and a more robust definition for the ambivalent. As this discussion progresses, I will make the case for greater clarity of definition and more backbone.

As a “first cut” definition, we can observe that Evil is commonly detected by using a value scale, a good-bad gradient. However our subject is defined in detail, people seem to agree that evil lurks deep in the bottom-feeding territory of the “bad”. In some vague, general way, the identification of authentic evil (at least in its most flagrant manifestations) is apparent to all who retain common sense. Even the morally confused can be led to see contours of evil as an extreme extension of the bad. And even for them the “bad” can be readily defined: After all, those things we would prefer others not do to us or to those whom we hold dear are easily identified as “bad” are they not?

In a letter printed in the journal First Things (12-04), I pointed out that:

Moral behavior in the day-to-day world is distributed along a crude bell curve of probity, with the sociopaths and naturally enlightened occupying the respective edges, and the rest of us populating the middle group. Even the most self evident moral principles are generally not self executing. Most people, most of the time are governed by a combination of moral inclination, moral training (currently in decline in this culture) and the classic rule-consequences model (now weakened by moral relativism).

Arguably, the next step in our analysis should be easy: Evil is that which far exceeds the merely “bad” in dangerousness, intensity and scale. Surely, at this level of definition, this isn’t “rocket science”.

At least you would think this kind of moral judgment is not rocket science. But listen to the pundits who rail against the “evil” encoded in children’s cartoon characters on the one hand, and the others who are still constructing apologetics for the murders of innocent non-combatants done by the IRA. You would be entitled to conclude that confusion and moral incoherence are alive and well in the culture.

And if you listen closely enough, you can still hear deluded lunatics who claim that the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers were the work of “heroes”. Though many of these voices are more covert in expressing this twisted notion, you may be shocked to discover that such fevered minds populate as many protected positions in the academy as they occupy rooms in the psych wards.

As we proceed with our discussion, the definition and description of evil will require us to agree on a large scale moral context, and to explore the explanation question much more deeply. But let me start with our destination. I propose a threshold definition of evil cast in terms of the kind of moral obligation that follows its detection:

Evil represents that malevolent volitional tendency in human conduct sufficiently abhorrent that it becomes the duty of all moral agents to work tirelessly for its defeat.

Frankly, we humans don’t have the time or energy to work tirelessly for the defeat of the merely bad. Our definition of evil therefore must be more parsimonious. On some deep intuitive level we seem to already know that what we call evil contains a threat element that is connected with something dangerously bound up with our own nature. I’ll return to that idea a bit later.

But those who live in a universe where nothing meets the “the duty of all moral agents to work tirelessly for its defeat” test are teetering on the threshold of nihilism. That so many people seem comfortable in such a precarious position prompts two observations: (1) One consequence of the inability to explain evil is the tendency to deny its existence. (2) Any culture that strongly values individual comfort devalues the significance and reality of evil. This is because, as moral agents, we are called to give up comfort and oppose evil with energy and courage.

The Importance of Purpose

I propose that we can’t explain evil unless we can also grasp the nature of moral purpose, which in turn requires that we explain conscious action within moral context. That explanation will require us to acquire a deeper sense of the value context within which human conscious action takes place. This is no small thing, because whole legions of “modern” intellectuals have concluded that there is no value context in which conscious action takes place, just biological and physical behaviors that in turn generate human “preferences.” Preferences don’t generate obligation. When the line between taste and morality is erased, both good and evil become part of esthetics.

The element of purpose is central to the identification of evil: As Oliver Wendell Holmes has observed, even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked. By this, Justice Holmes meant that “everyone knows” mere accident is less culpable than the intentional infliction of harm. To say that even a dog is capable of distinguishing malevolent purpose from the relatively benign mindset preceding a mere accident reveals a universal moral precept. The purpose difference is one of those universal moral ideas that transcends circumstance. In common usage, we recognize that evil is more like that kick and less like the stumble. The difference is the element of purpose.

Our need for explanation is triggered by the element of evil purpose. Why? Just as a dog instinctively knows that your ill tempered kick had a different meaning than the time you stumbled over him in the doorway, we humans intuitively sense the qualitative difference between avalanche deaths in Switzerland and car bombing murders in Oklahoma City. When someone talks about the “evils” like plague and famine that have beset our species over the centuries, they are using the term “evil” in a loosely impersonal (and therefore amoral) sense. Randomly inflicted natural disasters in life don’t require much explanation beyond the mechanical. Those who talk about the “evils” of natural disasters are debasing the coinage of moral discourse.

That the side of the cliff gave way as a result of erosion and the weight of the rock is an adequate explanation. But when we hear that the murderer killed 100 children and teachers at a day care by poisoning the water with cyanide, we are still waiting for an adequate explanation.

What is Explanation Anyway?

I should be clear about what I mean when one explains something. What do we really mean, for example, when we want to explain evil?

Explanation, at a minimum, requires us to integrate that which needs to be explained with our own world view. In other words, we explain by connecting the dots to our personal model of reality. The greater the coherence and integration we get by this process, the more satisfying we regard the explanation. Because evil is a moral judgment, its explanation requires a personal reality model that has a certain normative architecture.

Natural disasters happen because of natural causes that can be investigated and understood on that level. Our modern world view accommodates natural explanations. Within the limits of human technology, prevention and avoidance are made possible by the mechanical level of explanation.

The core reason that we moderns feel evil needs explanation is that evil, as purposeful malevolence, do not fit a rational world view.

Understanding the Scale of Evil

What we might call petit evil can be understood as an extension of human moral weakness. Suppose we hear of some terrible crime where innocent people are terrorized and murdered. The explanation in such a case might be limited to understanding how someone might have been motivated to do such a terrible thing. I’ll assume that you and I have never done anything that terrible. When we learn that the miscreant was a prison escapee, that he was holding up a bank and confronted by a guard, and that he shot his way out, the incident is “explained” in the sense that we can grasp how someone might do that. We understand the survival impulse, greed, and the desire to be free, though we have never been in prison or held up a bank. The explanation may not be fully satisfying, but the commonplace (or petit) evil represented by ordinary crime does link up with our world view. This is because, at some point, most of us can imagine being tempted to cross that first line or know people who are.

We can see how someone might make a series of bad choices ending up in the bank and faced with the choice: give up or shoot his way out. We may not have robbed a bank, but I’ll wager that most of us have done something mean spirited, perhaps by shouting an epithet at someone who didn’t deserve it, or even kicking a dog. The difficulty with those who conflate such ordinary sins into evil, is that we become morally blind to the scale differences that should trigger the call to implacable opposition.

Beyond common thuggery and lesser sins, there are “senseless” crimes and horrendous behaviors (because of huge scale, bizarre motivation or both) we tend to see as inexplicable because we lack any referent in our experience. At the same time, such senseless crimes are likely to be described as “evil” behavior.

On an emotional level very large scale crimes seem evil. So it becomes far easier to call a mass murderer evil than someone, however villainous, who kills only one. This is why a consensus of sorts still exists among civilized people about the major horrors of recent history. For example, there is a consensus that the calculated mass murders of millions of innocent people by the Nazis was evil. There simply is no analog within our own conduct for purposeful harm done on such very large scales, a scope of harm so vast that, even the video game overheated mind recoils from entertaining it.

Yet, in these extreme situations, the “explanation” of evil as a more severe case of that which we, in our weaker moments, may have contemplated, just doesn’t work. The sheer magnitude of the purposeful harm earns the label, evil, for much the same reason that “senseless” crimes tend to be seen as evil. In this way, we tend to use “evil” as a descriptor for the incomprehensively bad. But it would be too easy – and a cop out – to simply redefine evil as incomprehensibly bad things done for reasons we find incomprehensible. The sheer scale of damage and intentionality that is associated with this brand of evil distinguishes it from the merely bad for reasons that go beyond our common sense of repugnance and bewilderment. More definition and explanation are needed.

“The Cost of Innocence

Most of us are thankfully innocent of contact with evil in either sense, except as a result of historical narratives. That evil of this type needs explanation is an artifact of our own innocence.

The onset of adulthood might be defined as that point in human development when our reality models begin to grow well beyond our strictly personal narratives. Obviously, most of us only learn about large scale evil by integrating other narratives. But for our reality models to make sense, more is needed than could be constructed from all of the purely historical narratives, whether personal and imported. We need to organize our world pictures around sets of principles that belong to the “how” and “why” categories. We do this automatically and, to a degree, unconsciously.

Most of us carry a world picture around with us, one made up of sets of assumptions and expectations. Whether or not our world pictures are religious, they tend to paint a reality whose nature is “purposeful”, “providential” or “rational” and so on, such that evil is necessarily seen as a gap in the overall scheme. Those who see reality exclusively in this way tend to perceive degrees of good, only. This kind of mindset is a relatively new development in the human condition, the product of the “modern” tendency to explain human behavior in terms of the rational progress paradigm

Our Intellectually Disabled Culture

So called “primitive” minds tend to see the world as filled with good and evil forces locked in an eternal struggle. The primitive mindset comes pre-equipped with software, as it were, that automatically explains evil. Too many modern minds can no longer run this old “software.” Should we revisit this ancient perspective and update the software? I believe our species’ survival may well depend on it.

The members of the modern scientific consensus are predisposed to discount the very existence of evil except as a blip on the screen of nature. The very notion of evil, especially as conscious, even highly intelligent malevolence, conflicts strongly with the model of progressive rationality. Therefore, strongly purposeful malevolence is particularly incomprehensible to many of the intelligentsia. One reaction is to discount evil in all its forms as ignorance, curable irrationality, a medical condition or as the absence of “enlightenment.” Authentic, truly dangerous, calculating evil doesn’t fit into an otherwise benign or rational universe, except as a version of natural disaster. In its own way, this view is as naïve and potentially suicidal as the primitive view of communicable diseases as divine punishment.

Both religious and secular minds continue to struggle with the notion of evil, although for different reasons.

The secular, scientific minds among us tend to have a general view of the universe as rationally ordered. These minds see the role of science as achieving material progress by harnessing the tools of rational investigation to the task of human betterment. This is a particularly naïve view where evil is concerned. But the very notion of evil as an “archaic, pre-scientific superstition”, maintains a tenacious hold on the culture in spite of the fact that malevolent of minds from time to time get into positions of great power. From these positions, evil tyrants have found it remarkably easy to co-opt scientists to produce weapons of immense killing power, pain-infliction procedures beyond the wildest imaginings of medieval torture specialists, techniques of social control that earlier dictators could never have dreamed of achieving, technologies for efficient mass executions, and so on. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Reich minister, wrote from his prison cell how the Nazi regime exploited the amoral enthusiasms of the technicians and scientists. Even physicians could be persuaded to devise ways to more effectively kill people and were freed of moral constraints that got in the way of useful experiments that required live subjects. He might have added that the scientists and technicians who proved most useful to the Reich were blind to the reality of evil.

Religious minds – especially the modern variety – have different problems. Some wonder: given a benign deity, the morally perfect creator of all that is, how could evil be permitted to exist?

Various theological accommodations have been constructed to solve this apparent contradiction, usually by positing some form of divine self-limitation. These “theodicies” tend to talk about creation as having been deliberately constructed with room for moral choice, leaving a sort of divine loophole or crack through which evil then entered the world. For many thinkers, a contradiction persists. For example, for those who assert the ongoing reality of divine intervention (or providence), the question remains: why this intervention and not that?

A second kind of religious problem flows from what I call the “inevitable triumph of the meek” paradigm, in which evil is seen as the result of excessive aggression and anger, tendencies that religion can tame and which, over time, will gutter out on their own like a dying fire. Secular humanism also tends to share this mindset. Thus, the very need to confront what we used to call evil is obviated by the “meek will triumph” approach whose eventual success is ordained by the creator. Traces of this mindset were operating within the Jewish ghettos as thousands of children and adults were herded like compliant cattle to the remote slaughter houses from which only bones and teeth were recovered.

The creation of the State of Israel as a robust force devoted to “never again” has become a lightning rod for those who are ambivalent about evil. For them, the very use of proactive military force to shore up the protective envelope of a nation state dedicated to Jewish survival is illegitimate. This criticism persists in spite of the obvious challenges to Jewish survival posed by the coalition of aggrieved terrorists and Middle Eastern nations that threaten a second holocaust. What is behind these critical responses from the intelligentsia? In this and many other examples, we are witnessing a convergence of the “modern” secular and religious perspectives in which the moral claim to oppose evil has been delegitimized or negated whenever it seems too self confident or self assertive. At the end of the day, evil disappears when moral relativism replaces moral discernment.

From each perspective (secular and neo-religious), the inability to give a satisfying account to explain evil in the world has begun the process of historical redaction. In a morally confused universe, evil is edited out of the picture. Put another way, a world view in which evil is denied, marginalized or ignored, inevitably decays into a world view in which morality itself is denied.

Rediscovering Moral Context

The essential reason that our modern, post-modern culture is disabled is that it lacks a moral context wide and deep enough to accommodate evil as an active force in the world. At the beginning of this discussion, I disclosed the 9-11 borne insight that our “evil epiphany” (that moment when we achieve the gut recognition of a major instance of evil) has an important beneficial side effect: it reveals the good. This was another way of saying that the recognition of evil can illuminate the large scale moral context. Or reveal its absence.

Are there a few, simple organizing principles for the essential good that is threatened by evil? Is there an overarching moral context for human action?

I believe that the moral context of human action is framed in a few, basic affirmations and related precepts, and that the mutual interrelationships of these precepts and core values reveal what evil really threatens.

In this, I share the conviction of those humanists and religionists alike who believe that a universal good always transcends our sectarian perspectives. There actually is an organizing set of affirmations from which what we might call the universal good can always be derived. This represents a potential convergence of secular and religious ethical thought.

There are three universals that form the root affirmations for all authentic ethics: life affirmation (especially human life), respect for the integrity, nature and value of conscious, feeling intelligent being (which for us is human intelligent being), and reverence for creation (especially for the creative endeavors of humanity that have served to protect and enhance human life). Do you detect the natural progression here? It begins with our life affirmation, leads to our affirmation of conscious being, and proceeds to our affirmation of the value all creation, including our own creative potential.

Starting with life affirmation, our species has proceeded to honor the value of consciousness itself, because it is an inextricably bound affirmation; conscious intelligence serves life; were it otherwise we wouldn’t be here. The recorded human experience is a chronicle of the value of conscious, creative intelligence to the human enterprise.

All conscious being starts out by serving the life interests of an individual organism within the context of exchange relationships with other organisms. Think of a fire: animals flee; plants burn. And humans learn to actually control fire.

After a period of development, human conscious intelligence arose to serves the interests of human life by developing social and engineering technologies, the arts and ethics. The latter were indispensable to supporting stable forms of social exchange leading to humanity’s greatest social technology, civilization itself.

At its most developed stage, conscious intelligent being (again, I’m speaking of the human variety, while leaving the door open a crack for the discovery of other instances) achieves the capacity for value universalization. I may begin as a child, for example, supporting the value of my one life, my own security, my own freedom, but eventually I (we, most of us, at least) learn to value these things on an increasingly universal level.

Universal Values and the Gift of Conscious Intelligence

Value universalization is a natural stage of development, and can be seen in the context of the development of conscious life in the universe. Conscious being is the property of life itself having awakened; eventually, awakened life learns to recognize other life and ultimately to value it. The entire history of human ethical development recapitulates that of the infant who first learns to love mother, then sister, and so on, as the circle inevitably widens. This can be understood as a profoundly universal tendency: Life is the property of the universe that localizes and intensifies the tendency toward self direction, conscious interaction and ultimately self creation. Humanity has greatly intensified that tendency.

Conscious being, as it has developed in the human species, intrinsically represents the gift of at least three powerful, life-serving capabilities:

Creative innovation.

These faculties of the human mind suggests the moral purpose of the gift of conscious being as well as pointing to its ultimate provenance.

The nihilists (and their intellectual apologists) have co-opted the gift of conscious intelligence in a profoundly warped attempt to destroy the validity and reality of common human values. Their attempted perversion of this supreme gift fails because human survival is an overriding imperative that eventually trumps all attempts to insinuate self-destructive incoherence.

Conscious being supplies its own justification. It is the venue of significance, without which the question of value would be incoherent.

Consciousness and life affirmation necessarily lead to creation affirmation, though the deeper understanding of the universality of the processes of creation, of the roots of life and consciousness in those processes, and of the incarnation of ongoing creation in the human mind. Consider the single example of the technology of flight. Other species developed the capability gradually over several million years. But, aided by the creative capabilities of the human mind Homo Sapiens went from fire to Kitty Hawk in a fraction of that time. The creative capabilities of human cognition replicate the trial and error of biological evolutionary innovation at a vastly accelerated — and accelerating – pace. From the Wright Brothers’ bi-plane to the Apollo Moon rockets in less than a century, human creative innovation trumps bio-evolution in the blink of a cosmic eye.

The Integration of Moral Reality

Whether you come from a religious or non-religious perspective, it is possible to recognize the creation engendering properties of the human mind as the life supporting, protecting and enhancing capabilities that bind us, as semi-autonomous individual living beings, with the ultimate moral context. This binding effect is the result of a policy of reality integration (which, if you think about it, is the faith stance of all scientific explanation). The three core affirmations, life, conscious being, and creation, are mutually reinforcing and interconnected.

You will find these affirmations imbedded in various ways in all world religious ethical systems. Life affirmation, respect for conscious being and reverence for creation are the innate affirmations of the enlightened being. For the theistic religions, they are at the heart of the human — deity relationship. And for ethical humanists, this value triad makes up the foundation stones of the core human agenda. We’ll come back to the primary importance of this benign integration because, as we will soon see, evil in all its forms represents a direct attack on that integration.

The Civilization Imperative

But human life, conscious intelligence and creative potential are difficult, even impossible to nurture and protect in a raw state of nature. We have been able to overcome the limitations of that raw struggle by a single powerful social technology. Therefore a single powerful idea bridges our species’ cultural, religious, and ideological differences: respect for the value of civilization itself. Nothing else reliably protects and nurtures human life, freedom, and creative achievement. A civilization dedicated to protect these values is our best defense against evil. Not all civilizations are equal in that respect.

The evil mind is inevitably engaged in or in support of acts that are directed at undermining, overcoming, or destroying one or all of the three great human callings: the affirmation of life, particularly human life, the affirmation of conscious intelligence, and the affirmation of creation, particularly human creative endeavors. These three core principles frame the normative architecture of the moral mind.

When the threat element of evil is understood as simultaneously attacking one or all of these three core affirmations and undermining the human civilizations erected to protect them the scale component of evil becomes apparent not only on the emotional level, but self evident on the rational level. This is what Edmund Burke undoubtedly meant when he said, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” This yields a definition of evil on the Edmund Burke scale:

Affirmative alienation from the affirmation of human life, freedom, and creative achievement is an evil mindset.
Realistic actions to further that mindset are evil.
Such evil actions rise to the Edmund Burke scale when they threaten civilization and the core values civilization is designed to protect.

Explaining Evil Motivation

To understand evil, we need to fully grasp the sutuation of purpose and conscious action in the context of a universe that contains both benevolent and highly malevolent purposeful, conscious action. Because the future will present increasingly powerful forms of evil, the past has much to teach us. In short, we need to revisit the “primitive” view of the world without surrendering the insights with which modernity has gifted us.

Given the moral context just outlined, it is easier to understand that the evil mind is must be animated by a desire to undermine the core values on which human civilization is founded. But why entertain such a desire? How could it come about in a universe that contains moral context? The animus toward evil actions is typically manifest in connection with one or more of the following categories of perversion:

Malevolent leveling. An evil mindset is very often accompanied a particular perversion in which its own sense of failure or despair must be ameliorated by bringing down the life, conscious intelligence and creative aspirations of those around it.

Moral solipsism. The evil mind is always in a state of radical moral solipsism, the mindset that edits the normative context to redact the legitimate interests of other thinking, feeling beings.

Intoxication with the power lure of destruction. One of the famous characteristics of evil is its seductive character. Were it otherwise, the appearance of evil would be far rarer. The lures of evil almost always take the form of an unbalanced desire for power and include one or more of these four:

  1. The lure of sadism, especially for the powerless abused or ignored;
  2. The lure of the grand suicidal gesture, especially for those overwhelmed with grievance and a sense of powerlessness;
  3. The lure of pleasure perversely linked with malevolent conduct that involves exercising power over others (e.g., sex crimes against children), and more generally;
  4. The psychological lure of destruction, especially for the frustrated powerless. This is the power lure of identifying with the entropic tendency. In the short term it is always easier to break the vase than make it, to kill the child than raise her, and to destroy the city than build it.

Instances of each of these seductive destructive psychological tendencies can readily be found in the history of civilization and in last year’s news. Like the character Golem in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Dr. Faustus in Goethe’s Faust, we mortals are seduced by the promise of power as a value in itself, and we are destroyed by it.

Human Passion as a Sword – Plowshare Cusp

The evil mind is strongly animated by very attractive motivations that, when they are not perverted, ordinarily serve moral purposes. This is our species’ dirty little secret. Homo Sapiens comes equipped with passions that serve our interests, powerful drives like sex, power, recognition, among others. These passions are like our best technologies in that they exist on that classic sword-plowshare cusp at all times.

In the morally disciplined mind, the pursuit of power, pleasure and legacy lend motivational support to actions directed toward the protection and nurturing of human life, conscious intelligence and creative actions. Think of the pleasures of affiliation that cement loyalty among family and friends, of the desire to acquire the power to protect them from harm, and of the ultimate wish for a worthy legacy. But when these and other potentially benign motivations have been co-opted by the evil mind, the pursuit of power, pleasure and even legacy can be made to serve death, the negation of conscious intelligence and the suppression of creation. Think of the many evil acts that are done in the specific hope that they will be noticed and remembered.

The modern mind shrinks from the recognition of the fact that evil can be pursued with both intelligence and passion.

Fixed Evil Mind?

Evil may completely capture a mind; sometimes a mind can recover, and in other instances, that prospect is completely unrealistic. I have seen both. A fixed evil mind is far more dangerous than someone who has the prospect of recovery.

The four most prominent danger signs of a very deeply rooted evil mindset are each associated with dangerous feedback loops:

a. Links to a strongly ingrained pleasure feedback mechanism. The use of addictive psychoactive drugs can reinforce and sustain an evil mindset. Many serial sexual assault / murderers are locked in a sick power/pleasure feedback loop.

b. Links to a delusion of reinforcing transcendence. This is recent history. Think of the suicide killer-martyr, who has been promised some post-death reward. People locked in this mindset are essentially beyond persuasion within the time horizon of their foreshortened lives.

c. The conscious adoption of a firmly held ideology that demonizes the universal values on which life and civilization are based (aspects of life, consciousness, creation, and their necessary corollaries). These ideologies can provide strong social feedback loops that enable evil. This is abundantly illustrated by the tenacious hold that many anti-life and anti-creation ideologies have been able to achieve in the last century.

d. The deeply held grievance or grievance intoxication. Examples are as common as yesterday’s news; but it is worth noting that the more legitimate one’s deeply held grievance, the greater the risk that it can be perverted to support evil conduct.

Much more can be said about these four conditions and the extreme difficulty of dislodging an evil predisposition from anyone who fits one of the profiles. Human literature and history are replete with chilling examples.

When, if ever, is someone irredeemably evil? There is a practical side to this question and a theological one.

The theological question is a separate matter. As a Judeo-Christian, I tend to understand sin in the moral context outlined in Martin Buber’s masterwork on ethics, “I and Thou”. Secularists tend to forget that Buber described a three way relationship, I – thou (as in you-me) and I Thou (as in the human-deity relationship). Sins are those acts, omissions and mental states that break the right relationships in that triad. Most of us can’t get through a week without sin in that sense. All sins open the path for evil to enter the mind; hence the value of moral introspection and renewal. Evil is, as we say, another story entirely. It is not so much a fall from the path as a conscious, firm reversal of path.

The practical aspects of this “Can we cure evil minds?” question would be different if we humans lived forever in the world. Too many of evil people will simply not live long enough to change, even if society were willing to devote the resources.

So we must consider a different question: When is an evil mindset no longer a danger to the rest of us? The practical answer (with exceptions so rare that they should never be allowed to drive public policy) is that once someone has been in the thrall of an authentically evil mindset and has done significantly dangerous evil acts, the rest of us are safe only when he or she is completely disabled, dead or under very, very reliable social control.”

“The Evil Mind: How Dangerous?

Not every little sin, crime, or bad act can invoke the “all moral agents must work for its defeat test.” Therefore there is a characteristic scale of harm to evil, whether actual or potential. This is the reason that evil minds are dangerous, especially the intelligent ones. The scale of threatened harm becomes a necessary part of the moral context that places a particular “bad” action or intention into the “evil zone”.

Forest fires grow from brush fires and small fires grow from single flames. Under some conditions, a single match can blacken a million acres. The moral context needed for the identification of evil must include the presence or absence of tinder.

The Evil Enablers: The Depersonalization Regimes

Martin Buber’s masterwork, I and Thou, concisely sets out the basis for interpersonal ethics in the difference between I – you, and I –it. Depersonalization always enables the evil mindset. There are at least six sets of depersonalization regimes:

  1. Chemical blocks.  Anyone who has witnessed the personal meltdown of the integrity and moral center of someone desperately addicted to narcotics cannot escape the realization that this is a form of chemical slavery and personal destruction.  Great wickedness has been committed by people in this desperate state of disintegration because in the extreme versions of this state, there are no other persons of value.
  2. Indoctrination in targeted martyrdom.  Suicidal evil acts are suddenly made possible in this mind set, otherwise impossible to incorporate into an evil agenda.  In this induced mental state, based on delusion, one’s ethical will is made subordinate to an evil agenda, the victims of which become psychologically invisible to the martyr.
  3. Developmental blocks.  Brutal social conditions and other developmental problems are fully capable of stunting or warping the natural human capacity for empathy sometimes to the degree that evil acts are committed without the restraining effect of conscience or compassion.
  4. Ideological blocks.  Ideologies that separate their followers from the rest of the human family, promoting the ideological adherents to superior moral status can justify any level of homicidal action “in the cause.”
  5. Rationalized encapsulation. The depersonalization of others can be achieved by creating a separate world (“capsule”) outside of which evil acts can be ignored, countenanced, or encouraged with impunity.
  6. Apocalyptic Intoxication: the lure of the abyss.   The bromide that “misery loves company” captures the seed-state of a classic depersonalization regime in which the mind is in despair, whether through ego frustration or authentic pain.  Perversely, the mind may seek a catharsis by negative leveling.  This flows from the illusion (really delusion) that one’s own misery  will be ameliorated by causing others to be miserable, that one’s own ego devaluation will be repaired by the devaluation of others, and ultimately that one’s own wish for self destruction will be validated by dragging others into the abyss whether they want to join or not.

All forms of encapsulation have two special properties: (1) Encapsulation predisposes someone to perform evil actions, but evil action is not inevitable because authoritative moral teaching and strong social restraints can still be effective. (2) Encapsulation predisposes those affected to ignore evil actions taking place outside the capsule.

Evil’s Apologists

The “ir-rationalizations” for evil are many and varied, but at the end of the day they seem to fall into four categories, each defending a form of psychological/moral encapsulation:

a. Nationalistic and regime encapsulation. Reality disengagement takes place through various forms of disconnection and willful ignorance. This is typified by the willful ignorance of so called good Germans living near Nazi concentration camps.

b. Religious and tribal encapsulation. Value disengagement is achieved through various forms of social encapsulation. Think of the forms of religious tribalism that exclude or devalue the larger human community as outside the realm of ultimate moral value.

c. Location and affinity encapsulation. Responsibility disengagement happens via the seductive appeal to acquiescence based on, “Not in my territory” and “Not my problem.” This is the great weakness of hedonism.

d. Disguised or Undisguised Nihilism. Morality disengagement is the consequence of the post-modern notion that morality and belief are mere conventions. Post-modern ethical disengagement is just the most recent version of the radical existentialist pose that individuals completely determine their own morality. In their most extreme forms these stances deny the very possibility of moral context and moral action, except as matters of arbitrary individual choice. If, for example, I decide to make you morally irrelevant, my decision to deceive or harm you is outside any binding moral context. Evil quickly takes root in this mental soil.

Has Satan Disappeared?

In ancient biblical terms, evil was seen as the product of a single malevolent meta-consciousness, the anti-god, the “evil one” who was in rebellion against the Supreme Being, the Holy One. There is some truth in this vision, even for the non-religious. But I believe there is a fundamental misconception, too, aside from all of the modern quarrels with ancient theology. It has to do with the very nature of ultimate good and the lessons encoded in humanity’s monotheistic insights.

In “Stage One monotheism”, God was supreme over other gods and pretenders. In second stage monotheism, there was only one God. In Stage Three, all reality is seen as deeply integrated. Ultimate Creator is Ultimate Being is Ultimate Unity of Being.

Evil violates the integration of being that lies at the core of the ultimate moral context for all human action. Evil, by its very nature, subverts the essential integration that is the core nature of the Creator, the One.

From a “Stage Three” perspective we can see Evil as the pervasive undertow, operating as the dis-integrating tendency within consciousness, and therefore manifesting “itself” (i.e., its tendency appears) within any setting where the departure from wholeness, ultimate or divine integrity allows an opening. In this way, evil stands in opposition to the integration of the values that form the overall moral context.

Evil’s omnipresence acts like a background pathogen, an opportunistic infection of the spirit. When it strongly emerges in consciousness, it can produce the illusion of a coherent force, conjuring up the Satan-like persona, a video game monster of conscious being. In this sense, the image of Satan captures a latent tendency that has the potential to inhabit any thinking being anywhere. “Satan” is the Anti-One, the Great Dis-integrator and the Great Dissembler.

From both religious and non-religious perspectives, evil represents a subversion of the integrity and wholeness of being. From a 21st century spiritual perspective, evil is the force that attempts to negate the Supreme Unity of Being, the attempt to subvert all that the Creator (or creation) and the Holy One (or One-ness) represent to humanity in this universe.

To the mystics, the enlightened ones, the saints (including those whose spiritual tradition does not name God) evil is that dark presence (easily personified because it manifests, after all, in malevolent human minds) of the tendency toward a breach or rupture of the state of enlightenment that connects each to all being. From each major human ethical perspective, the evil conduct itself and the choices it represents are understood as purposeful, and represent an ongoing possibility within each precious conscious moment of decision. Evil is the omnipresent threat of the abyss. In this sense Satan lives on into the 21st century.

The Power and Relevance of a Renewed Primitive Perspective

Therefore, I believe that the primitive perspective is essentially true: The world actually is a venue where evil and good forces are locked in an eternal struggle. Several questions naturally arise:

Why? What value does evil add to a universe in which we humans act within a universal moral context? Or is it a design flaw, the dirty residuum of creation than can’t quite be scrubbed away? How could the capacity for motivated evil arise in this universe?

An adequate answer to these questions can be found only in a view of the natural world that includes purpose and counter-purpose as a necessary part of the moral and natural order.

I believe that we humans will eventually face natural forces so powerful (and seemingly cunning) that they will achieve the capacity to extinguish life, conscious intelligence, and the creative process itself. Our species’ flirtation with nuclear war was nothing compared to the natural disaster 65-66 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs and nearly sterilized planet earth. That was just a hint of the challenges our species will face.

Evil trains us and prepares us to overcome challenges of unimaginable magnitude. Evil inaugurates the arms race that will eventually save us.

I am fully persuaded that the very conditions of existence that allow conscious intelligence in the universe and our human minds in particular to achieve profound creative accomplishment, must necessarily permit such huge latitude of cognitive and decisional freedom that evil minds will always arise among us along with the creative ones. So it must be.

The Courage to Have Courage

Faith is the essential companion of all action in a world that conceals parts of itself from us. There will never be a time when we humans can “see” everything. But paralysis is not an option. We all live in faith or we don’t live at all.

Our faith must require more of us than the conviction that the good is better than the evil. We humans are able to survive and thrive because of the justified faith that the creative tendency is and will remain over time more powerful than the destructive ones, even in the extreme case where the destructive tendency is coupled with intelligent motivation.

The panel discussion I referenced at the beginning touched off a process of dialogue, inquiry and reflection that led me to insights only some of which were evident to me then. But I would not change how I concluded that post 9-11 dialogue:

It is my hope and prediction that the spiritual significance of creation by human agency in all its forms, the innate holiness of the human creative enterprise as it serves and enhances life and conscious being, will be at center stage in the spiritual practice and ethics of the 21st century. It is often said that the opposite of evil is the good. I think the opposite of bad is the good. The opposite of evil is the holy. And central to that stance is our species holy encounter with creation.

Whenever thinking people of good will encounter evil at the Edmund Burke scale, they will find no neutral ground. There are no passive bystanders who are entitled to say, “This is not my struggle.” No brilliant minds entitled to say, “Not my problem.” There may be non combatants, because some of us may contribute only by teaching and example, while others may sacrifice their very lives.

We can now be confident that the “primitives” were right in that the world does present the drama of the eternal contest between good and evil. More to the point, we can draw out the implications: The primal fact of evil’s ongoing existence is part of the moral context of our day-to-day lives. We are called to respond with intelligence and realism, without joining the evil-obsessed, nor becoming trapped in paralytic denial.

Those of us who aren’t on the front lines under live fire can certainly afford to support those who are even when that stance is not fashionable. Whatever our individual circumstances, we can all afford to act with primal clarity and resolution, good humor and realism. This is, after all, a multi-level struggle, one of ideas and ideals, example and exhortation, as well as bullets and bombs.

Many of our brightest and best show the bruises of the presumed excessive moralistic authority of parental figures, their former churches, teachers, and so on. Their rebellion seems to color everything they see and do.

But the lesson of evil to those in rebellion against moral authority is very bright line: Get over it. The horrors that follow the collapse of moral authority will eclipse all of the small grievances of childhood. By all means show kindness, flexibility and humor. But when evil surfaces – and it always will – show some backbone, too.

We owe the future nothing less than our moral authenticity and engagement. Are we not called to seek and support the good and to avoid and oppose the evil? Well?

It’s not rocket science, after all.


My Saturday, September 29, 2001 Conversation with a Buddhist Monk

Note: I’ve redacted my friend’s name, position and some personal asides. These notes otherwise reflect my understanding of a significant conversation with someone I recognize as possessing a deep ethical integrity. Any misunderstandings of his position or misattributions of what he may have said to me represent my own errors.

Yesterday I drove my Buddhist Monk friend to a place where he was able to spend a joyful 90 minutes with a musician who agreed to demonstrate a truly remarkable musical instrument, one of only a handful of guitars in the world made by a certain famous craftsman.

On the drive there he and I talked about good, evil, peace and violence, all in the context of 911. I was still raw from my experiences in Manhattan and had brought some photographs I had taken while staying there in the days following. I knew he would be troubled because, for nearly all Buddhists, the peace / non-violent ethic must be always lived, even in the face of evil.

So I shared my recent experiences in Manhattan, the stories of heroism and compassion, of loss and resolve. He (I’ll call him “CH” for this version) was moved by the photos I had taken of Ladder Truck 24, dust covered, festooned with flowers, candles, pictures, and scrawled messages of love and support. This was the ladder company of Father Mychael Judge, a Catholic chaplain who was killed while accompanying his firefighters into the burning skyscraper. CH winced at the photo of a destroyed fire truck being ferried out on Canal Street, and stared at the descriptions and photos of the spontaneous gatherings in Union Square for a long time.

I said that New York had been filled with floating sacred spaces.

Then I said that, without doubt, those who attacked and killed thousands of innocent people were of “fixed mind”, a Buddhist term I had learned from my late cousin, also a Buddhist. I told CH that I had seen this mindset occasionally in my contact with thousands of criminals over three decades, most of whom had made a series of human mistakes and missteps. Their “issues” were usually a tendency to take impulsive selfish/foolish actions, disregarding the feelings and interests of others. They also shared a radically foreshortened time perspective and a crippled capacity to take consequences into account.

In short, most of the crooks I met in my practice as a public defender were bad but not truly evil, even when their misdeeds caused great harm. They were challenging cases for reform, to say the least, but not impossible cases.

But I had also encountered authentically evil people, (men for the most part) who were in so the grip of malevolent mind set so tenacious that it seemed to define their very souls. They were of fixed evil mind. Any hope of redemption or turning away for them was so remote that we were safe from these people only when they were held securely in custody. Clearly they were never ever to be allowed freedom, or more innocent people would suffer. I decided not to say, also, that some were so dangerous even while in custody that their execution would have been fully justified, even a moral imperative.

I continued my narrative and CH listened intently, occasionally responding. Then I said that until almost all the people alive become enlightened, the world will be full of grievances. And, I reminded CH that the worst kind of grievance is the justified grievance. When the grievance is not justified it often can be dissipated by pointing this out. But justified grievances are immune to logic. These grievances exert a fierce and tenacious hold on the mind and spirit. People in the grip of such grievances are drawn to hate, self destructive, apocalyptic world views, and suicidal violence.

I told CH that I believed that the leaders and planners of the 911 murders are so full of grievance and fanaticism that their minds will not turn away within any immediate time frame, probably never. So we may reasonably assume that they will attempt to strike and do immense harm in the future. And we may reasonably worry that they are actively seeking nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. We can pick a date. A year. Three. What are the chances of a change of heart in that small time frame? Effectively zero. So they must be stopped ….unless we are willing to accept the mass murder of innocents again…. And again.

Which presents the classic problem, does it not? Do we, as moral agents, act to prevent great harm, even evil, by doing great harm, even by killing?

I said: Consider the law of necessity. In almost everything that Albert Schweitzer has written, the core of realism in his ethic was clear. As a physician, he understood the rule of necessity. One did no harm to sentient life except as strictly necessary to prevent a greater harm. He seemed to recognize the corollary obligation (after all, he was a physician) that not to fail to do that which is necessary to prevent great harm. You do no more harm than necessity requires. But no less.

I reminded CH that the Dalai Lama had said that, in life, there is occasional need for “strong action.”

Consider, I suggested, the plight of those brave soldiers and other whom we are counting on to prevent further great harm to innocent people. I’m very certain that some of these brave men and women are presently risking their own lives, and that others will do so soon. Some will die. When someone like this acts for us, for humanity, who prays for them?

I asked him to consider a situation. A person deeply committed to peace is faced with an immediately imminent violent assault on innocent children. To prevent this assault, there is no time for persuasion or gentle intervention. There is only time for killing. Two alternate sacrifices are presented. Sacrifice itself cannot be avoided. One choice sacrifices the innocent children through hesitation or inaction. The other sacrifices the innocence of the rescuer who must kill, and thereafter suffer the interior damage that enters the killer.

Who prays for this rescuer? Who ministers to this rescuer?

CH agreed that I had made a “clear statement” of the problem. Then he told me of an authoritative tenet of the Chinese Buddhist tradition (CH was educated in the Chinese tradition). It was a bodhisattva precept (bodhisattva being a holy, good being, as I understand it, what other traditions might call a saint). In a similar dilemma, one of CH’s teachers taught that the one who killed to prevent greater harm would go to hell. But, knowing of that consequence, that person should nevertheless go ahead and do the necessary thing even if it meant going to hell.

CH went on to express the alternative view that, if one can be of pure mind, emptying oneself of all malice and anger, the resulting actions (even this one?) would not be wrong.

Like the mind set of the martial arts? I suggested. He smiled.

These were all useful insights he said and he would remember them….

The Author, Jay B. Gaskill, was the Alameda County California Public Defender 1989-1999. Ho Do We Explain Evil?, Copyright © 2005, 2011& 2017 by Jay B. Gaskill, is available with additional materials for discussion groups.

For permission to print, copy or reproduce, contact Mr. Gaskill via email at law@jaygaskill.com or at outlawyer.gaskill@gmail,com”

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