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Copyright © 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 by Jay B. Gaskill
Suicidal grievance is the hallmark of this age. It is the common thread that links the actions of an exploding Seder terrorist with the angry father who murders his sleeping children then himself, leaving his widow to live in horror.
Is this evil or mere pathology? The normal visceral response to these acts is a simple message from deep in the human unconscious:
To make that statement are a serious moral claim would have been unremarkable, even trivial, two hundred years ago. But for a significant part of the “modern” thinking members of the culture, statements about “evil” and “evildoers” are throwbacks, in the category of, “Witches should be stoned.”
The denial of evil’s reality is one of the most dangerous of illusions. Its denial is a profoundly disabling feature of any ethical system. The first stage of engagement with ethical reality is the recognition of evil.
Most 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
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
Coincidentally, a few months later, I was asked
The following was adapted from my notes:
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:
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
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.
Several years ago, I joined a panel discussion
As a public defender, in three decades of face-to-face contact with a large criminal population, I encountered guilt, innocence, immorality, frailty, failure, even wickedness, but almost nothing like the kind of calculated, large scale evil visited on the 20th century and that we Americans experienced on 9-11.
We need now, more than ever, to understand evil, and to reach a broad social consensus about what that term means in practice. Evil is a vitally useful insight into moral reality. It is a term that should be applied sparingly, but unflinchingly. But, for those gripped in a facile and fashionable ethos of political correctness, rarely can true evil be confronted, and even more rarely defeated.
The honest recognition of evil calls for unambiguous condemnation and opposition. These are not “PC” responses. While the recognition of evil calls us to responsibility, the preference for comfort calls us to denial.
All Americans who are awake to moral reality learned on 9-11 that the sudden appearance of evil on one’s very doorstep is real; evil pierces denial and moral ambiguity. Evil cuts through the fog of cultural and moral relativism like a searchlight in an ally. But the fog is denser in some minds than others. Evidence of the confusion in the contemporary culture over moral issues is abundant. Moral uncertainty in some quarters is matched by misplaced moral arrogance in others.
In the popular culture, the whole notion of evil has lost all precision. As a rhetorical device or epithet, evil is an overused term. The troubling question is whether a common social vision of evil can emerge in the current world culture. This is a subset of the question whether a common moral vision can emerge period.
The degree of diversity of belief and disbelief within the modern and post modern world is hard to overstate. Within the religious camp, it runs from fundamentalist literalism to new age spiritual hedonism. Within the secular camp, it spins from ethically centered humanism to value neutral rationalism. We have theism without religion, religion without theism, spiritual practice without ethical grounding, and ethical grounding without spiritual practice. And we have those who are simply lost in materialism.
Many thoughtful non-theists who are spiritually enlightened, and those with a sense of history and a traditionalist’s respect for the common moral foundations of ethics are readily able to recognize the existence of evil in the world and to formulate a moral response. But many secular non-theists tend to relegate evil to the dustbin of archaic concepts, or to trivialize it by misidentifying it with the social conditions in which it germinated. Some attempt, inappropriately, to “clinicalize” evil, by calling it mere mental pathology.
Without the recognition of evil, good is defeated at the threshold. When non-evil is misidentified, the forces against real evil are dissipated. To understand how the culture arrived at this juncture, we need to review the last century.
When Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God, his announcement followed the observation by Dostoevsky’s character who said, “Without God, everything is permitted.” We might paraphrase. Without a north pole, the compass needle just spins as it will.
The 20th century was the bloodiest in history. I think we can reasonably ask, What does the 21st century portend?
The status and prestige of religious belief among the dominant western intelligentsia has sharply fallen over the last half century. If you doubt this assessment, consider that, in most academic circles, it is far easier to come out as gay than as a religious believer. The retreat of religion was accompanied by an attitude of value neutrality, permeated by various forms of moral relativism, that still prevails in the academy. The fact that nihilism is afoot in the larger culture is not unrelated. To battle nihilism from a platform teetering on a foundation of moral relativism is awkward at best. It’s like trying to swat flies while balanced on the back of a chair.
Whether this cultural condition has been or will soon be arrested is one of those great undecided questions.
Allow me a personal reflection. There was a sea change for most Americans on September 11th last year. 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.
The events in Manhattan on that dark day revealed an important truth. Evil’s appearance illuminates and calls forth the good in us, because our ability to recognize and identify evil illuminates and informs our ability to recognize and identify the good. So if we can achieve 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.
We desperately need to find a universal ethical perspective that bridges the religious and the secular humanist traditions. Identification of true evil is an important step toward that goal. But the identification of evil requires careful discrimination. Evil may prey on human frailty, but it has become clear (at least from my criminal justice experience) that human frailty neither excuses nor constitutes authentic evil. The (typically literalist) clerics who hurl thunderbolts of condemnatory rhetoric at certain sexual practices and corrupting music, or who rail at those who allow “infidels” into the temple grounds, labeling all outside the faith “evil”, are as wrong as are the secularists who think that a serial child rapist-murderer is merely “misguided.”
When we bicker about evil in the marketplace of ideas, when we use the epithet “evil” like a schoolyard taunt, when we indulge the impulse to demonize our opponents, we debase the currency of our discourse. The real thing tends to be forgotten or marginalized.
Identification of true evil requires careful discrimination. I recall the stories about British civilian plane spotters in WW2 who were trained to identify bomber silhouettes. Clearly, intelligent identification requires some guidelines. So what are the parameters. What is the shape of true evil?
The core nature of the threat matters.
Think of an earthquake or tornado, and contrast an example of large scale, human directed malevolence, like the Nazi death camps or the Pol Pot massacres. In common natural disasters, structures and the physical basis for life are imperiled. Our response is calibrated accordingly. When purposeful human malevolence looms, we are threatened on the immediate physical level, but we are also attacked on the level of our deepest values.
We need to identify and confront evil in terms that are readily understandable to the whole culture. This requires us to reach a common understanding of the good.
I share the conviction of those humanists and religionists alike who believe that there really is a universal good that transcends our sectarian perspectives. Let me suggest that there are three universals that are root affirmations for all authentic ethics: they are life affirmation, respect for the integrity, nature and value of conscious being, and reverence for creation. There is a natural progression here. It begins with life affirmation, leads to affirmation of conscious being, and proceeds to reverence for all creation.
Starting with the core value of life affirmation, our species has proceeded to honor the value of consciousness itself, because it is an inextricably bound affirmation. We have learned the significance of conscious being to life itself. Conscious being starts out by serving the life interests of an individual organism within the context of exchange relationships with other organisms. Then, after a period of development, conscious being serves the interests of life in the context of civilization, (its most important technology). Finally, at the most developed level, conscious being achieves the capacity for value universalization. I believe this is a natural stage of development because conscious being is the property of life itself having awakened; this is meant in the same sense that life is the property of the universe that localizes and intensifies the tendency toward self creation.
Conscious being intrinsically represents the gift of at least three powerful, life enhancing capabilities:
· Compassionate empathy
· Creative innovation
This suggests the moral purpose of conscious being as well as its provenance. Conscious being is the venue of significance, without which the question of value would be incoherent. In this way, consciousness and life affirmation necessarily lead to creation affirmation, though the deep 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. Creation is the link between individual living being with the ultimate.
These three core affirmations, life, conscious being, and creation, are mutually reinforcing and interconnected; you will find them 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.
Therefore a simple idea can bridge 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.
From this perspective, scale always matters, as Edmund Burke undoubtedly meant when he said, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Let me pose a contemporary definition of evil on the Edmund Burke scale:
Alienation from the affirmation of human life, freedom, and creative achievement is an evil mind set. Action to further that mind set is evil. That action rises to the Edmund Burke scale when it threatens civilization and the core values civilization is designed to protect.
In ancient biblical terms, evil is seen as the product of a single malevolent meta-consciousness, the anti-god, the “evil one.” There is some truth in this vision, even for the non-religious. 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, by its very nature, subverts the essential integration that is the core nature of the Creator, the One.
I 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 divine integrity or authentic enlightenment allows an opening. Evil’s omnipresence is like a background pathogen, and when it emerges in consciousness, it produces the illusion of a coherent force, conjuring up the Satan-like persona, a video game monster of the mind.
Within this perspective, evil represents a subversion of the Supreme Unity of Being, the negation of all that the Creator, the Holy One represents to this universe. To the mystics, the enlightened ones, the bodhisattvas, those whose spiritual tradition does not name God, evil is the dark presence, as if personified, of the tendency toward a breach or rupture of the state of enlightenment that connects each to all being. In each 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.
Two common errors arise in the identification of evil: Over identification, because evil is not mere sin; evil is not ordinary selfishness, nor the dark mirror image of altruism; evil can be of the altruistic and of the selfish variety. And evil is not the blind operation of nature. Under identification, because evil is not just active conduct but may include passive acquiescence by those who enjoy the power to prevent evil’s triumph but decline to use it; and separately, because evil is not justifiable by prior grievance, no matter how deeply felt the wound.
Our universal values are protected within almost any civilized enclave more than in a brutal state of nature. But it is a simple fact that not all civilizations, social conditions and regimes support these values equally. We require the robust infrastructure of a civilization dedicated to protect life, consciousness, and creation. The making and remaking of human civilization is a work in progress.
I note that the value of creation, alone, provides us with an interesting test of a particular civilization. In that moment of liberation when an evil regime is defeated, human creative activity resumes and music plays. When evil seizes control, the creative community attempts to escape. The creative ones are the canaries in the mine.
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.
All that said and acknowledged, morality without engagement is mere gesture. And engagement without practical knowledge is dangerous. As practical moral agents, we start with the threshold understanding that reality has its own structure. Utopian impracticality has ruined lives. Escape from reality is not an option.
For example, the naïve souls among us assume that those grievances that fuel evil objectives and conduct can be safely mitigated solely through dialogue and accommodation. But they can’t. Hitler’s Germany was a product of the accumulated grievances of bruised national pride and class resentment.
Grievance will always be with us, but we can never afford to accommodate evil. Not if we value civilization.
The status of “enemy” and the identification as “evil” need to be sharply distinguished. What we normally mean by enemy reflects a common aspect of life. Human actions are usually self directed, and they frequently generate opposition, sometimes anger. While I don’t believe that ordinary selfishness can be per se evil (after all, many good deeds are done in situations where self interest coincides, and many evil deeds are done in an act of altruistic sacrifice) we should never unnecessarily acquire enemies. That said, sometimes matters are outside our control. When the opposition to our agendas becomes determined and personal, we may well have acquired what is usually meant by “enemy.” Any inventory of one’s enemies, as a general category, may well include the evil forces in the world, but the status of “enemy” cannot, per se, be evil. Were it otherwise, we would be evil vis a vis anyone who thought of us as enemy.
This is not to trivialize the nature of human conflict, nor to endorse it. As moral agents we must grant conflict its place, even its occasional value in the greater scheme of things. Because creation engenders competition and conflict, it tends to create enemies; our very survival requires us to distinguish ordinary enemies from evil. As moral agents, our role is strive to eliminate or mitigate conflict’s lasting harm. This is a lesson that lower animals have learned. Few competitions for territory within the same species are fights to the death.
Evil is coupled with an attraction, a negative force, and a downward tendency; these are seductive qualities that can be experienced in any receptive mind. It is as if evil represents the conscious incarnation of the entropic tendency in the universe, ripped out of its natural context of life process, a tendency to extinguish life, consciousness and creation, become motivation. We may speculate endlessly about its origin, in abuse, alienation, grievance, and crippledness of spirit, but evil is the undertow that – if we but let it – can suck all good things with it into the pit. One of the well documented characteristics of the evil mind set is its seductive character. Were it otherwise, the advent of evil would be far rarer.
The lure of evil includes:
· The psychological lure of destruction, especially for the frustrated powerless;
· The lure of sadism, especially for the powerless abused or ignored;
· The lure of the grand suicidal gesture, especially for those overwhelmed with grievance;
· The lure of pleasure perversely linked with malevolent conduct.
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 Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Dr. Faustus in Goethe’s Faust, we mortals are seduced by the promise of power, then destroyed by it.
How are we as moral agents called to respond to evil?
I think of how theists are to respond to God and how non-theists are to respond to the benign flow of creation in the world. Love is our proper response; commitment is our proper stance; and hope is our proper attitude. This frames the context of our response to Evil.
Recall that, as defined here, true evil represents the conscious and purposeful subversion of the gifts of life, conscious being and creation (to theists, of deity’s gifts). Evil is the malevolent converse of the core value alignments of life over death, of creation over stasis, of consciousness over mindlessness. Looked at discerningly, evil opposes the ultimate integration of creation. Therefore it is not sufficient, nor even accurate to identify evil merely as the dark, reverse-mirror values of love, commitment and hope. Certainly, hate, faithlessness, and despair can be symptoms of evil’s hold on a mind, but true evil (in the view presented here) represents much more; true evil represents the authentic presence of an active, malevolent purpose, the dark agenda that is anti-life, anti-consciousness, and anti-creation.
To theists and their allies the duty to oppose evil becomes the corollary of the obligation to love God. To all moral agents, the same alignment to the benign flow of creation entails the same duty to oppose that which threatens it; that of implacable opposition to evil with the same energy and passion, and the same call to courageous intelligent engagement. I think this leads to a remarkable fact: The recognition of real evil generates the genuine possibility of unified action. In other words, the mere identification of evil creates, in the mind of any moral agent, the obligation to oppose it in practical terms, in the specific context where it appears, with such intelligence and resolve that the differences among the non-evil forces become trivial.
We are called to grapple with and overcome the undertow, to oppose evil’s attraction, its adherents, and their harmful actions in the real world.
If suicidal grievance is the hallmark of this age, heroic opposition to evil is the necessary response. In this moment, all are needed. There may be non combatants, because some of us may contribute by teaching and example, through spiritual enlightenment, and other gifts. But there must be combatants or we will fail. Some may be called to sacrifice their very lives. Human civilization flourishes via cooperative specialization. We are all engaged on the side of the good whether our response is exemplary, declarative, concretely supportive, or heroically active. We are all engaged, because nothing less will prevail.
Nothing short of engagement with keen discrimination, relentless commitment, and divine courage is expected of us; nothing short of coordinated action among all people of good will. 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.”
I first published this essay in 2003
Since then I have had the occasion to study several murder cases in depth. One of them the murder of Pamela Vitale by a teenager who carved a Satanic symbol in her back, particularly caught my attention.
I wrote the following:
For permission to copy, print or distribute, contact me via email:
Jay B. Gaskill, Attorney at Law Office@jaygaskill.com