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home >> the library >> article archive >> The Concept of Evil

The Concept of Evil

by Andrew Bard Schmookler print version
print version (graphics)
The Spiritual Dimension of Power Politics

Our present rulers don't want the Geneva Conventions ban on torture to hold them back. Other Americans are struggling to return our country to a willingness to be ruled by law, and to sheer human decency.

Our present government has no interest in restraining greed to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change and other degradations of the biosphere. Others in this country are devoting our energies to moving America toward a way of life in harmony with earth's living systems.

The forces now dominating America are moving relentlessly to shift power from the weak and vulnerable to those already mighty, and to transfer wealth from those who have less to those already rich beyond any rational need for more. Many of us are striving to create a country where principles of justice hold sway.

Such struggles have characterized the whole sweep of civilized history. On the one side are forces that care for life and work to create and maintain life-serving structures. On the other side are forces that tear such structures apart.

To understand the interplay among such forces, the religious tradition of our civilization has employed the idea of  "the struggle between good and evil."

But that's a concept rejected by many of my sophisticated -- and, for the most part, liberal-minded -- friends.

For one thing, some do not regard the moral dimension as being truly fundamental to the nature of reality. They've been persuaded by that philosophic current that sees an unbridgeable gap between is and ought; they believe that moral judgments are just subjective preferences.

But it is particularly the concept of evil that they reject. Too primitive a notion, they say, manifesting black-and-white thinking. Too dangerous a notion, fostering demonization and self-righteous self-delusion.

By becoming more tolerant and more aware of psychological complexities, they see themselves as having advanced beyond the terms of our ancient spiritual traditions.

But I've come lately to believe that the concept of evil captures a vital human reality. So vital that its disappearance from the cognitive maps of many modern sophisticated people is a dangerous development -- dangerous because when people do not recognize the nature of the forces they are up against, they will be less able to deal with them effectively.

How the concept of "evil" became more real for me

Much of my adult life has been spent studying the play of destructive forces in the human system. (The word "evil" even occurs in the subtitle of one of my books.) But it was not until recently that my experience of these destructive forces plumbed me so deeply that the notion of "evil" became a palpable reality.

Part of what opened that door, I believe, was my having had, in the spring of 2004, a spiritual breakthrough regarding the very opposite of evil. This experience gave me a vision of a Wholeness and a deeper sense of reverence for the good, the true, and the beautiful. This experience seems, in retrospect, to have sensitized me to those forces that work to destroy such wonderful forms of good order.

Another part of what opened the door, it seems, was that for the first time it was from inside their domain that I was examining such evil forces. In other words, it is one thing to study the pathologies of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia from the safe remove in space and time of my own comparatively humane America. But it is quite another thing to experience dark forces coming to rule the world around me.

Political underpinnings of a spiritual realization

Although my thrust here goes beyond the level of politics, the best way to bring that realization to life here is to report on those perceptions of our contemporary political drama that brought the concept of evil to life for me.

Something important is now visible in our politics, but the heart of it is not at the political level -- not, that is, at that level where liberals and conservatives divide. What's alarming about the political forces that have taken over is not the conservative nature of their stated political positions, nor the traditional nature of their stated moral values. America would do fine, I believe, with leaders who were in reality the moral and political conservatives these people claim to be.

The problem with the forces now ruling America is, rather, at that deeper, moral and spiritual level -- the level from which spring values like fairness and honesty and compassion that are shared by decent Americans of all political stripes.

It is at this level, as I see it, that these ruling forces have been unusually adept at obscuring their true nature: under the sheep's clothing of a false righteousness, these forces are giving free rein to the wolf of their unbridled lust for self-aggrandizement.

Indeed, it was my witnessing the success of that deception in seducing many basically good people that led me to confront the nature of evil more deeply than I ever have before.

The face of evil hidden in plain view

The dark truth of America's current peril is not hidden away, awaiting revelations from secret tapes. It's right there in front of our faces, playing out chapter-by-chapter on the news on prime time TV.

Anne Coulter and Sean Hannity

It's there in the way these forces have injected what I call a "culture of falsehood" into the American body politic. With their almost habitual disregard of truthfulness in their own utterances, their contempt for science and for objective analysis of all sorts, their insistence on forcing reality to conform to their beliefs rather than vice versa --America's current rulers are degrading that heritage of honest deliberation on which American democracy rests.

It's visible in how unrestrained by any notion of justice or the common good these forces have been in their insatiable pursuit of wealth and power for themselves and their cronies.

It's visible in the unscrupulous way they pursue political advantage -- for example in their consistent practice of character assassination against any who might meaningfully challenge them.

And it is visible, too, in their consistent fostering of division -- both among groups within America and between America and the world. By systematically focusing on those issues that divide Americans, and never on those values that we share, these ruling forces have made the American people more polarized than the pollsters have ever seen before. And, by their way of wielding American power on the world stage, they have made this country the object of more hatred and distrust from the peoples of the world  -- even among our traditional friends -- than ever before.

And it's there perhaps above all in their consistent dismantling of the traditional structures of good order -- in their consistent degradation of the structures of international order, of environmental regulation, of Constitutional restraint on political power -- all those structures that might otherwise restrain their freedom of action.

If, as I believe, goodness is to be understood in terms of wholeness -- the arrangement of the parts of a system in a harmonious, well-ordered and life-serving way -- then surely evil, as the opposite of goodness, will involve the kind of destruction of harmony and good order manifested by such developments as those I've just described.

But it's not only the destructiveness of these ascendant forces that led me to my new sense that evil was an important concept. There is also something in the dynamics of their rise to power, as I'll soon relate, that made the ancient notion of the battle of good and evil seem valid and important.

The liberal discomfort with the idea of evil

When I began to speak out about my sense that dark forces were consolidating their grip on our country, I did not feel a need to use the e-word. It seemed adequate to use less spiritually loaded terms like ruthless and amoral and dishonest and bullying.

But as I continued to explore the dark spaces that I'd seen, those words soon seemed insufficient. There was another element that these words did not capture, and soon I was speaking to liberal audiences about the "evil forces" at work.

Although the people in these audiences opposed many of the same trends and practices that alarmed me, many were not comfortable with my using that ancient and freighted term "evil" to describe them. I came to understand that underlying this discomfort was a worldview. And I�ve come to believe that this worldview -- widespread in liberal America -- is part of what has made it possible for such dark forces to gain power.

For this reason, I have been glad to confront the controversy raised by my using this deep and spiritual concept.

Objections to the concept of evil

One objection I've heard from liberals is that it can't be right to see our current ruling group as agents of evil forces because they really believe that what they're doing is right. But it is a complete non sequitur that if people believe in their rightness that they can't be the instruments of evil.

As if most of the world's evil weren't done by people who'd persuaded themselves they were doing right -- from the torturers of the Inquisitions, to the Nazi mass murderers, to the men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.

As if the psychologists hadn't shown us that, if you understand people only in terms of the motives they acknowledge in themselves, you'll hardly understand them at all.

Indeed, if part of the essence of evil is a pattern of brokenness, one would expect precisely that kind of psychic brokenness -- that profound disconnect in the realm of self-knowledge -- in which people can persuade themselves that they are doing God's work when in fact they are serving their own darkest impulses.

A related objection, and perhaps the most frequent one, is that one should never label others evildoers because, historically, so much human destructiveness has accompanied such accusations.

Admittedly, through the millennia, great peril has surrounded people's wielding of the ideas of good and evil. But the same has been true for all ideas about which people feel passionately -- God, truth, love of country. Any beliefs that come from the core of people can lead to destructive or constructive consequences depending on how whole and clear, or how broken and twisted, are the souls or psyches of those who hold them.

So while there are reasons for great caution when operating from the deepest and most passionately felt beliefs, it hardly follows that we should reject these beliefs or ignore them when we act in the world. In particular, from the fact that the idea of evil has often been used in distorted and destructive ways, it does not follow that it's never important and right to label as evil the forces one sees at work.

Evil as a Moral, Spiritual and Historical Force

Moral relativism and the opening of the door

Perhaps the deepest element in the widespread liberal resistance to the idea of evil lies in the strain of thought called "moral relativism." It's surprising how widely such thinking has infiltrated our culture. Among students I've dealt with across two generations, it's been common to hear, even from those who describe themselves as Biblical Christians, such statements as "What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn't what I would have done, but from within their perspective it was right, and so it was right for them."

The idea that there is no important distinction to be made between right desire and wrong desire has its sources in modern philosophical thought but is probably most powerfully driven by our consumerist economy, which doesn't care what kind of impulse we gratify so long as we seek our gratification through what can be bought and sold.

But whatever the sources of this moral relativism, among the results of this failure to distinguish between choices that are good and those that are not has been a radical transformation -- a degradation -- in this nation's cultural expressions.

Compare, for example, the films made in the 40s and 50s with those of more recent vintage. The older ones are filled with an ethos of aspiration toward an ideal, toward some image of how human life should be lived. In recent decades, movies are more likely to encourage us to indulge our most crass, even our most debauched, impulses. We're more apt to see a film about a serial killer than about anyone worthy of our admiration.

This unraveling of old moral ideals, in which American liberalism has been largely complicit, is one of those cultural developments that has diminished the power of the forces of goodness to resist the advance of evil.

And it is in that interplay between opposing forces that we find one indication of the value of the idea of evil: when there's an opening, the forces opposed to goodness will advance. We see an opportunism in these forces, as if they were animated by some spirit of darkness looking to expand its empire.

Evil as transcending the level of the individual actor

Another clue comes from how, in this interplay, these forces work through human beings, as if the forces were the master and the people their instruments.

Some people reject the ideal of evil because they believe it takes what is happening inside human beings and projects it out onto some beyond us that works to drive human events in a twisted and destructive direction.

And accordingly, I have heard liberal and enlightened people say things like, "This supposed evil is just a projection of what is really just inside us as human individuals.

But talking about the motives for human action as lying within us is an over-simplification. Yes, of course, our motivations are inside us. But we ourselves are substantially molded by those systems, cultural and  historical in which we are embedded.

Just as a hen has been described as an egg's way of creating another egg, so also can we human individuals be seen as our culture's way of perpetuating certain patterns. Through our socialization and our life-experiences generally our culture creates us, for better and for worse, in its own image.

History isn't made just by people; it's also made by forces.

This is the vital dimension that wasn't captured by talking about the ruthlessness or amorality of individuals, and that led me to use the "e-word." I saw something about the way that those forces operate, about how patterns can lurk in the cultural interstices, awaiting the chance to impose themselves again.

When I saw, for example, how that manipulative genius, Karl Rove, effected his seduction of many traditionalist Americans, I recognized an old pattern -- one used a century before to seduce poor whites in the Jim Crow South.

In the Jim Crow South, and now again in Karl Rove's America, the leaders inflame passions around peripheral issues to distract their supporters from what the leaders are really doing with their power. A century ago, the hot-button distraction was racial purity. Now, the leaders whip people up about issues of moral purity. In both cases, unjust leaders use deception to exacerbate divisions useful to magnifying their own power and wealth.

Dark patterns lurk in the system, like some dormant virus, ready to erupt when the culture's immune system weakens.

Good and evil as forces contending to spread their patterns

Wholeness begets wholeness; division begets division. The patterns compete in the human arena.

Wholeness within the human being consists of harmony among the elements of the psyche. The crucial challenge here is to reconcile the natural energies of the human creature with the need for order in the overarching human system. But when the surrounding order imposes too harsh and punitive a morality -- when the culture wages war against the creature -- such harmony becomes impossible.

Brokenness begets brokenness.

George Meadows, "murderer & rapist," lynched on scene of his last crime. L. Horgan, Jr. (dates unknown). Photograph, c. 1889. LC-USZ62-31911

The broken regime of racial persecution in the American South -- as Lillian Smith showed in her classic Killers of the Dream -- built upon the broken psyche of white Southerners brought up with harsh moral strictures that prevented the harmonious integration of natural sexual impulses. The forbidden impulses were then projected out to be rediscovered, and punished, in the darker race.

In Nazi Germany, as Alice Miller showed in "For Your Own Good", the broken regime of ethnic annihilation built upon the psychic brokenness created by generations of child-rearing practices that legitimated the systematic brutal treatment of children. What was driven underground in the child emerged with a fury against "inferior peoples" to be destroyed in the name of the noble Fatherland.

In each case, the pattern of brokenness gets spread from the culture to the individual and then back again. The harsh culture, making war against the natural needs and will of the growing human, spreads its pattern of division by preventing the human creature from reconciling -- or even acknowledging -- the elements within it.

At its core, the lie of false righteousness is a lie to oneself -- a basic split between a person's real inner experience, which is rejected for being intolerably painful, and the false representation of that experience, which is fabricated as an escape from that pain.

And such a broken psyche -- with its conscious identification with a harsh morality and its estrangement from the natural creature -- needs to find "enemies" against whom to enact its inner conflicts and divisions.

It has been said, "by their fruits shall ye know them." Thus the nature of a ruling spirit shows itself by the pattern it imprints upon its domain. This is why that systematic fomenting of division and conflict within America and between America and the world is so clear an indication of the nature of the spirit that has lately been ruling this country. That spirit that tears things apart is an evil spirit.

The opportunism of evil forces

What's new in America is not the existence of these destructive patterns and forces but rather their ascendancy to such dominance.

America has long contained an empire-building impulse, but until now it has largely been balanced by ideals about a just order that should displace the rule of  might makes right. In earlier times, the American nation employed a destructive combination of arrogance and hypocrisy to dispossess the natives of this continent of their lands. But only now has that unwholesome posture become the essence of the face presented to the world at large.

American capitalism has long had an element of systemic insatiability, but till now that voraciousness has been held in check, at least to a meaningful degree, by ideas about responsibility to the greater good. We've long known, for example -- from the stories of the tobacco and asbestos industries -- that America's corporate systems are prone to succumb to the temptation to put profits ahead of caring for life. But it is only now that, to the alarm of much of the rest of the world, the deadly pattern of those industries has become enshrined as national policy: in the present White House, we now know, the scientific reports regarding potentially catastrophic climate change was being denied and distorted to keep public concern from interfering with corporate America�s immediate profits.

In a morally healthy society, the darker elements are kept subordinate to the dictates of good order. They are held in check by those frameworks that a culture has developed at all levels -- in the psyche, in the realms of cultural expression, in the domain of governance -- to nurture and protect good order. But when these frameworks break down, as they have in America in our times, the dark forces, the old patterns of brokenness, that lurk in a society will arise opportunistically to tear things apart.

After decades of an imaginative life in television and movies, for example, that continually rehearses Americans in the indulgence of their lower selves, fewer people can recognize the good, and fewer still are devoted to it. Amoral desire gains in force, and counterfeit goodness more readily passes as the real thing.

After well over a decade of a talk radio culture that teaches people to indulge their self-serving beliefs, the gratifications of wishful thinking erode the structures of integrity in the pursuit of truth. Without that ethic of intellectual responsibility that requires that we bow to the truth, it becomes far easier for deceptions to win out in the corrupted marketplace of ideas.

The deep insight of the Western religious tradition

The nature of evil as I believe I've glimpsed it, then, goes beyond its being destructive of the good. It is also central to evil that, unlike the destructiveness of a tsunami, works through the realm of human choice. And it is its use of the wounding and twisting of the human spirit that gives evil its morally dark and cruel aspect.

But it is also its operating on a scale far vaster than the individual human will, and its opportunism in spreading its patterns of brokenness, that give the impression of a vast spirit at work in the world, expanding its empire wherever there is an opening.

(The force of goodness works similarly in many ways. But not in all ways, for the process of building wholeness has inherent differences from the process of tearing it apart.)

I am not inclined, myself, to credit our religious tradition's personification of these forces as mighty and eternal conscious beings, like God and Satan, possessing benign or malign intent, and standing behind the forces of good and evil at play in the world. To me, these forces have appeared as empirical forces embedded in the dynamics of human systems unfolding through time. These forces seem comprehensible in naturalistic terms, but also so vast and enduring that they require an expansion of our usual narrow perspective for us to perceive them; so subtle and transcendent in their operation that they do seem of a spiritual nature�acting as if they were animated by benign or malign intention.

Guido Reni's archangel Michael (Capuchin church of Sta. Maria della Concezione, Rome) tramples a Satan with the vividly recognizable features of Pope Innocent X.

But whatever the ultimate nature of these forces, the religious traditions of our civilization, it now seems to me, have grasped a most basic truth about how such forces --for good and for evil -- act in the world. It no longer seems to me a primitive notion, but rather a factual reality, that there is a battle for the power to shape human affairs between the forces that weave things together well and those that tear things apart.

The traditional religious vision of the struggle between good and evil I now see as embodying deep insight, as a way of naming something quite real and most fundamental in shaping our destiny. And calling things by their right names is important -- particularly for those things that are at once so difficult for us to grasp on the basis of our immediate and mundane experience and so vital to understanding what's happening in our world and what we are called upon to do to about it.

[This piece was first drafted in June, 2005, to serve as the basis for a talk that I would give in a variety of venues. Among these venues have been several Unitarian Churches, and a class at LifeLong Learning in Albuquerque. I remain available and eager to give this talk, and to discuss its ideas, to any venue, to any audience, where there is interest and where suitable arrangements can be made.

More recently, a version of this piece as appeared on the web on and on It is that version that I am presenting here.]

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Andrew Bard Schmookler is a prize-winning author, radio commentator and public policy analyst. He is the creator and author of the website None So Blind, which is devoted to understanding the roots of America's present moral crisis and the means by this present challenge can be met. He can be reached
at Schmookler does regular talk radio shows -in both red
and blue states -- discussing the questions of meaning and value that we face in our lives.

Schmookler's commentaries on social and political issues appear regularly in The Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Albuquerque Tribune.

Dr. Schmookler served during the 1990s as a member of the "Global Problems
and Opportunities Group" at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington, D.C., helping to prepare for the Congress and the
President an assessment of international issues and contingencies for which
American policy-makers should prepare.

In 1984, Dr. Schmookler was awarded the Erik H. Erikson Prize by the
International Society for Political Psychology. And in 1985, he was
selected by Esquire Magazine as "one of the men and women under forty who
are changing the nation."

He has written two books on the problematic relationship between economic forces and human needs: "The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny" and "Fool's Gold: The Fate of Values in a World of Goods".

Dr. Schmookler's most recent book is "Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide", which explores some of the basic issues that underly this country's current polarization.

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