There is No Good and Evil, Just Smart and Dumb (Part 2 of 2)

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This is part 2 of a 2-part post.  The first half is here.

If there’s no good and evil, why do people steal and hurt others?

Because they’re dumb.  They just don’t know any smarter and more rewarding ways to live.

Ok, ‘dumb’ is a little misleading.  There are intelligent people who commit crimes and atrocities too.  A person can have a genius IQ, yet still misbehave himself into addiction, ruined relationships, or prison.  ‘Foolish’ might be a better adjective.

What they lack is wisdom.  Insight.  They just don’t know how to cultivate peace in their lives.  So they grasp at things that provide fleeting scraps of fulfillment: money, power, gratification.  They don’t know where else to look.  But of course it’s never enough, and so desperation mounts.  They begin to feel an even stronger draw towards gratification and security, mistaking them for some kind of salvation, and soon they are stepping over others (or worse) to acquire these things.  They just don’t get it.

A common argument is that without morals, we wouldn’t know how to behave.  We’d become greedy, cruel and petty, slaves of every selfish impulse we have.  Well, I don’t think so.  I don’t know about you, but I’m smart enough to see the benefits in being good to others, and the drawbacks of being mean.  There are natural incentives built into both love-based and fear-based courses of action.  It is clear to me that this is exactly what religions were trying to teach: that there are smart ways to live, and dumb ways to live.

If you try to make your way through life by stealing, hating and killing, you will suffer.  This is a guarantee.  And it doesn’t take a vengeful deity to dole out that punishment.  You do it yourself!  By approaching life with disdain and greed, you create suffering in your own life.  You create guilt.  You create resentment in others.  You create enemies or jail sentences or self-loathing in your life.

Acting from love and acceptance, on the other hand, provides abundant natural rewards.  More friends, a higher quality of consciousness, inner peace, well-managed finances, a pleasant worldview, a happy family, self-acceptance, and more.  It is these acts that create a high quality of life for a person.

The Bible makes clear the benefits of acting out of love.  Unfortunately, power-hungry theocrats reframed these smart and wise choices as orders, enforced up by severe, state-sanctioned punishment.  I suspect the word ‘commandments’ was carefully and purposefully chosen, centuries after the Bible was written.  This violent reframing sabotaged the value of the message by making them fear-motivated acts, rather than love-motivated.

A sin is just a thoughtless or foolish act that creates some degree of misery for yourself or others.  It is not an abomination that makes you unworthy.

The Good and Evil mentioned in scripture, are not invisible, polarized external forces controlling people.  Evil is just a descriptor for unconscious, egoic behavior, while good is just a descriptor for loving and wise behavior.  They work as metaphors, certainly, but they were never meant to indicate anything other than those two different modes of human consciousness.  If quality of life is what we’re after, one approach works very well, and one doesn’t.

The Sopranos is a particularly brilliant show, because it shows characters attempting to find happiness by going about it in all the wrong ways.  And thankfully, they show the humanity in these people; they don’t characterize them as unfeeling monsters.  Even though they are murderers, thieves, and adulterers, we can’t help but love them.

No matter how much Tony Soprano loved his family, he never learned smarter ways to play the game of life.  He was educated about how to deal with life by his gangster father and his bitter, broken mother.  He keeps coming back to the methods he’s been taught: violence and force.  And that approach creates all kinds of hell for him and for those around him: broken families, enemies, legal trouble, guilt and death.

‘Evil’ — which I would describe as unskillful and destructive ways of living — punishes itself.  Act out of hatred, contempt, pettiness or greed, and you will suffer, there is no question.  The forms of suffering vary, but they will find you:

  • low self-esteem
  • enemies and paranoia
  • attachment and addiction
  • world-weariness and cynicism
  • unmanageable debt
  • legal trouble
  • persistent dissatisfaction
  • identification with material possessions
  • untrustworthiness
  • insanity

There is no escape from this natural mechanism of compensation.  These are the punishments scripture refers to. But unfortunately, some historical bad apples took the opportunity to take on the role of punisher themselves, in order secure the power to do whatever they wanted.  And in doing so, they made a tradition out of moral judgment and disdain, and permanently warped the message of their religion.  Nice job, boys.

Everybody is subject to the forces of selfishness, anger, resentment and hate.  Everyone has those feelings, but some of us know better ways to deal with them than others.  I’m sure all of you can think of people in your lives who are very short-fused and reactive, and I’d bet any money that their lives are far less enjoyable in general than the people in your life who are calmer and kinder.  The difference is not morals, it’s skill and wisdom.

The saddest consequence of this trend is that it has become common to apply an all-or-nothing approach to people.  Many honestly believe that there are two types of people in the world: good ones and bad ones.  The quote I mentioned in Part 1 (and its disturbing popularity) provides a perfect example.

Part of the reason for this myth is that the gulf between those of low skill level and those of higher skill level widens throughout their lives.  As the years roll on, wise and skillful people create more and more joy in their lives, and troubled, unskillful people create more and more suffering.  There is often such a stark contrast between two people, that it almost appears as if they are utterly different in nature.  In this sense, people do seem to take one of two distinct paths, but the direction they are headed is a function of their wisdom, rather than their worth.

Don’t Fuel the Fire

Since we all have more or less the same instincts, the place people end up in the happiness spectrum primarily depends on their upbringing — a factor which nobody is able to choose.  Yet our culture tells us to hate and condemn those who hurt others.  We can’t help but feel that initial emotional reaction to somebody doing something harmful, but I think we are not serving humanity by expressing disdain for them.  It is worth biting our tongues, and letting the negative feeling go when the urge to condemn arises, because to trust and act from that feeling really only fuels the fire.

People who are unlucky enough to be in the habit of destructive behavior make themselves constant targets for derision of others.  Any ‘bad’ person has assuredly been sneered at, punished, belittled, kicked and punched throughout their whole lives, and this can only serve to build a stubborn, rationalized (some might say justified) dislike for other people in general.  By hating ‘bad’ people, we are creating monsters who are capable of much more destruction than they would be otherwise.  Don’t be an accomplice.

Often, it is only an initial, unbearable dose of disdain and mistreatment that starts people on a troubled path in life.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with the effects child abuse.  When a person grows up in an environment where they are hurt repeatedly, they will find it virtually impossible not to recreate more suffering for themselves and others.

Whenever news a heinous crime breaks, I often see letters to the editor of this type:

I don’t care if they had a bad childhood.  I don’t care if mommy didn’t love them enough.  A killer is a killer, and should be punished severely.

This is the prevailing mindset where I live.  Whatever your views on corporal punishment, we have to admit that not caring about the origin of terrible behavior is a huge reason why there is so much of it.  To think that it has to do with a lack of morals is shortsighted.  It assumes that we’re all starting from the same place mentally, and if I couldn’t do something that bad, then anyone who could must be an agent of evil.

Whether a person has done something ‘bad’ before receiving such cruelty from others is not relevant.  It is ridiculous to think that we can somehow mete out exactly as much suffering as a person ‘deserves’ for what they’ve done, yet our whole culture, as well as our justice system is built on the assumption that we can and should.  Surely we have to have legal consequences for crime, but I think the more we can keep hatred and moral idealism out of the process, the better.

The Habit of Judgment

Moral judgment just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  You can always apply a judgment to someone else’s actions, but who is helped by it?  It just complicates and subverts the natural learning process, because judging others (as warned in scripture) is one of these ‘naturally punished’ acts (see Matthew 7:1 .)  Character judgments have a cost.  When you judge a person’s worth based on their behavior, you paint a little bit of your world black.  You create a dark spot on the reality you see, and it stays there as long as your verdict remains unexamined.  If you are particularly judgmental, most of your world eventually becomes stained in this way too, until you live in a world you don’t like.

The most judgmental people I know are, correspondingly, the most unhappy.  Chronic judgers complain about how nobody can be trusted anymore, how greed runs the world, how society is going to hell, blah blah.  What they don’t see is that they’ve created that world.  They’ve slapped a “this is unworthy” label on most of the people, ideas, and organizations that make up their world, and they mistake it for reality.  Not wise, and thus, they suffer.

And of course, the most tolerant, loving and appreciative people I know, are the happiest.  Whether they learned these lessons from the Bible, or another source, they understand deeply how beneficial it is to understand and accept others, rather than measure them against something.

People who do good don’t do it because they possess some exclusive ‘moral compass’, or because they learned to in Sunday school, they do good because it directly benefits them. They are simply wiser than those who steal and hate their way through life.

Treating others with compassion invariably results in less suffering for yourself.  Those who spend their lives mistreating others are never pleased with their lives.  Try to find an example to the contrary.  Some people identify this principle at some point in their lives, others miss it altogether.

There are people who are outwardly friendly, yet well-being eludes them because their friendliness is rooted in fear and desire for acceptance, rather than compassion.  They seek to receive, rather than give.

There appears to be some sort of inalienable mechanism that ensures this compensation.  It may be a function of our psychology, or sociology, or some as-yet unknown influence.  It is often described as karma, which has unfortunately picked up all kinds of undeserved connotations about magic and religion.  It’s simple cause-and-effect.

To do something because “it is right” is at best just parroting what your parents and your culture have taught you.  The benefit of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is an intuitive understanding that cannot really be taught; it must be discovered.

It is very difficult not to react judgmentally when we see or hear about someone committing a crime or behaving cruelly.  But you have to remember, they are doing it because on some level, they’re just not very smart.  It could be an acute episode of mindlessness, such as when someone takes an insult the wrong way and gets violent.  Or it could be just another upsetting incident in a very counterproductive lifestyle, born of a tragic lack of wise influences.

Leave Out the Hate

I propose we remove the condescension from the equation.  People misbehave because they, for whatever reason, do not find themselves capable or aware of a smarter action at that time.  If anything, their poor choice is evidence of a failing on the part of all of us to recognize the real reasons behind bad behavior.  It is time to remove the venom from ‘sin.’  It is not helpful.  Bad behavior should inspire compassion and an urge to help, rather than condemnation.  But only if you want to make the world a better place.

This is not a prescription for excusing hurtful or destructive behavior, just a way of explaining it.  There are no magical forces, just varying degrees of wisdom.  Those who live lives of crime are not happy.  From the street-level thug to the Columbian cocaine god, a habit of taking selfish and underhanded actions does not lead to fulfillment.  It can lead to a stream of momentary pleasures, certainly, but habitual ‘evildoers’ are missing the vital component of what it takes to be happy: love.  That’s what the Bible is all about, in my humble opinion: love and its extraordinary benefits, as measured against fear and its pitfalls.

So next time you feel the rush of anger at what someone has done, remember that there is a bigger picture behind it.  Morality is an attempt at explaining bad behavior without looking any further than the perpetrator. It would certainly be convenient if the causes of malevolence were contained within some personal scorecard we call morals.  That way we could (as we commonly do) direct our frustration at a person, as if that person is the beginning, middle and end of the problem.  But that just isn’t looking deep enough.  The person is just a clue hinting at the real problem, which is a pervasive human ignorance of how to be happy.

Let’s get something straight: any hate you express, whether it’s for people who drive too slow, or for Osama Bin Laden himself, is only adding to the problem.  This costly indulgence, though it is extremely common, actively creates thieves and killers.  This is not an exaggeration.  Indulging in disdain, no matter the target, is just an unskillful response so the passing emotions of frustration and resentment we all feel.

If you don’t understand what I’m saying, then for now just try to do as little harm as possible.  We’re all in this together.  Be smart.

This is part 2 of a 2-part post. The first half is here.

Photo by Francis Storr

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{ 57 Comments }

Ed February 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I appreciate the response, and the post itself. The wording you used was really the main (maybe only) disagreement I had with this post. The way ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were worded as ‘wise’ and ‘dumb’ distracted me a slight amount while I was reading. Because it did sound like you were simply creating an incognito dichotomy. I assumed this wasn’t intentional based on the points you were stressing. I also realize that it is hard to word it any other way. I just came across this post and this website so I read the article as if I did not have the unwritten understanding that is required to truly understand your meaning. All in all, great post! Things like this are honestly a breath of fresh air. Thanks for everything.

Paul March 1, 2011 at 3:26 pm

It’s a lovely sentiment, But it assumes some kind of cosmic justice that simply is not there. The reality is much more complicated with people being happy or sad due to a whole range of circumstances eg. (genetics, ignorance, wisdom) which often have little to do with their own choices.

David March 1, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I’ve expressed misgivings with this article in the past, but I don’t think I came off as arguing that there is a cosmic justice system, only that serving oneself in short-sighted ways that cause harm to others creates the inescapable consequence of suffering on oneself, which manifests itself in all sorts of ways. This is not the same as saying that all unhappiness is a result of our choices. The concept I was getting at is called karma vipakka in the Buddhist view, and reading about it will probably give you a better idea of what I was getting at than what you read here :)

Karma is hugely misunderstood in contemporary culture as if it’s some kind of cosmic moral balance. Karma is a collective term for your intentional actions, vipakka are the real-world consequences of those actions. If a person’s ultimate goal is to alleviate anxiety and other unpleasant states (and I would argue that it is for everyone, even if they don’t realize that the impulse to avoid or escape unpleasant states is behind every desire), then stealing, cheating and killing are unskillful ways to go about it, even if we don’t make any moral judgments about those acts.

Nina Maryn March 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Thank you so much :) I loved this article xD

The passage where you discuss ignoring the unbringing of an individual because of their actions struck me in particular. A dear friend of mine was recently transfered from our school because he was accused of bringing a legal marijuana-like substance to school. Several weeks after an adversary makeshift court session was held, with his mother sitting right in the room, paralized from Lou Gehrig disease which he has had to deal with since he was small, he was “sentenced” to a school transfer. Shortly thereafter, my friend killed himself on January 20th. The school system showed no concern for the insignificance of the crime or the hardships he’s delt with at his home.

People are not just good or evil. They are just people.

David March 16, 2011 at 4:58 pm

People are not just good or evil. They are just people.

That’s all I’m trying to say with this huge long-winded post. The idea of good and evil can be used to justify anything.

Irina July 16, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Agreed. Humans are neither good, nor evil. Everyone is trying his/her best to be happy. Some people choose destructive paths – and for that there are many reasons.
Also agree that doing good is beneficial. Unless ur a sociopath…
However, when you are writing about hate or anger I agree partly. Understanding that everyone has his/her reasons to be ‘evil’ really helps in most cases and the anger doesn’t even appear. But that concerns minor things or things that happen to others.
If a misguided ‘dumb’ person hurts you in a serious way, or harms your loved one, you naturally feel anger and/or hate, even if you realize the criminal had a tough childhood.
You may sympathize that the poor guy had a rough time in his life, but that wouldn’t stop you from wanting a punishment for him if he raped ur daughter or killed ur brother.
There is a limit to how much understanding the root causes decreases the anger/hate occurrences or intensity.
So Id say anger/hate are destructive in most cases, but in some they’re natural, justified and a person experiencing them shouldn’t feel ashamed of the fact. At least on the current stage of evolution )) It is only human to make bad choices and cause harm, but so it is to scream when you feel pain or to hate when u’ve been hurt. Of course, you want to get rid of the negative feeling someday, but not necessarily straight away and under the pressure of being perceived as an idiot unable to ‘be smart’.
Just some thoughts on the subject…:)

Caleb Reynolds July 30, 2011 at 2:02 pm

For further thought on developing a common moral baseline from which we can operate, see Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape”. It’s an insightful work dealing with the foundations of “morality” and how we can use them to our advantage in trying to create a better world

South African July 25, 2012 at 3:16 am

Please tell me how three people breaking into a house, raping the mother in-front of the father whist another stands on her face, then shooting both in the head, then going to the 12 year old boy’s room, tying him up, and throwing him face down into a bath full of almost boiling warm water to drown is not evil. I am sure no person, of any religion or belief would say that such an act is not evil? Or tell me how there is no “right or wrong.”

True story by the way: http://www.beeld.com/Suid-Afrika/Nuus/2-het-kind-verdrink-in-kookwater-20120724

As the quote from K-Pax goes “every being in the Universe knows right from wrong.”

It is easy to sit in the western world and muse over the good versus evil debate from the comfort of our homes.

Welcome to South Africa. Incidents like this are abundant.

marc henry April 29, 2013 at 4:30 am

Great article. To me, behind your idea of wise/ smart vs foolish/ dumb behavior, is the concept of inevitability and causality. I’m not philosopher, but didn’t Spinoza and J Krishnamurti say something like this- people will do what they will do because they will do it. In some way , all such actions are interconnected and therefore people’s decisions are inevitable. The data/ information analogy is close too. But for me, the ideas of inevitability comes through very strongly. Seen this way, how can you judge people? They are doing only what they can and will do. Like a tree, which is busy just being a tree. And putting aside the practical benefits of punishment of “evil-doers”) ie deterrence, public safety etc, punishment has no positive function whatsoever. Yes, if someone killed a family member might get enraged enough to want to kill him back. But if his action was inevitable, what purpose would it serve. Other than ego inflation, and giving me some satisfaction in dealing with my grief- which is often self centered anyway (“how will I live without her”, “I miss her”, etc etc-i am talking from experience). Seen this way, it shows we all have a responsibility to ensure more wisdom is inevitable in the world. Knowing what we wise people know (we have better access to data), knowing that people with psychological problems, traumatic childhoods, poverty and lack of data/ insight or wisdom do actually exist in the world, we should do what we can to divert the course of the river. Make more wisdom inevitable. It reminds me of one fo the school massacre killers, and i imagine looking back into every single detail ofthe person’s whole life…i imagine one would see how each tiny little thing or fact – a hurt, a slight, an obsession etc etc- led to the next which led to the next which led to…and you wonder where along this change the inevitable could have been made the impossible.

garce x May 14, 2014 at 4:42 am

C’est un véritable plaisir de visiter votre post

double May 16, 2014 at 11:42 am

On va dire que ce n’est nullement absurde ..

Hassie May 16, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Magnifique poste : comme d’habitude

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