Ming the Mechanic:
What is Evil?

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 What is Evil?2004-09-29 19:28
picture by Flemming Funch

That isn't really a very hard question, but it gets hard if one sort of starts in the wrong place.

If you start off by assuming the universe and the life in it is just some random and meaningless occurrance, then it is a fairly meaningless question too. It just becomes something to say about people you really don't like. Or if your starting point is a story about God and the Devil, then it becomes a really convoluted thing to try to explain.

I start with the observation and assumption that everybody and everything fundamentally is good. Not particularly "good" in a good versus evil sense. Not a polarized idea. Rather, everything is inherently tending towards being and doing something that has a constructive angle to it. It is good for something in the bigger or smaller picture. Or at least it is neutral.

A rock is a certain piece of something that has certain properties. It doesn't do a whole lot, but it can be a piece of a mountain, or a wall, or many other useful things. If a rock once in a while falls on somebody's head and hurts them, it isn't because the rock is evil and was trying to do some damage. It is rather passively just being a rock, and obeying the law of gravity and things like that. Obviously.

A tree is an alive entity that does a whole lot more, and actively extracts stuff from the environment, grows certain structures, and reproduces, etc. It has a certain natural cycle of how it does things. If one day a dead branch falls off a tree and kills somebody, it isn't because the tree is evil and meant to do that to be mean. Dead branches fall off eventually, and it was just time, and the wind helped a bit and then a bird sat on it. None of which was meant to harm anybody.

How about animals, then. They spend a good deal of their time going around killing other living entities. At least they eat plants, killing them in the process. Or they hunt down other animals, kill them and eat them? Is that evil? Well, we might not like it when we look at it, but the animals appear to have no ill will about it. That is just what they do, and they need to eat. Even the animals eaten don't seem to be as stressed about it as we humans might be when contemplating it. A fish eats another fish. They second fish would instinctively get away if it could, but if it gets eaten there doesn't seem to be much involved that we'll recognize as emotion or suffering. Nothing evil anywhere. Even if they sometimes do it for sport. Our cat will happily keep a wounded lizard alive for as long as possible, while lazily dashing it around. Or bring a half-dead bird into the house and drag it around. Is it evil? Well, we sure don't like it, but no amount of yelling about it seems to make any difference. It will happily do it again. Because it serves a function. A cat in the wild would of course need to practice its hunting skills in order to get food and survive. Nothing personal about it. It is not that it doesn't like birds or anything.

So, now, us humans are a little more complicated. We think abstractly and have feelings about complicated things. But most of the time we also just go about our business. We learn how to do things, find a spot to do it in, we eat, reproduce, entertain ourselves, form social groups, build tools, etc.

Everybody's inherently just trying to live and do what seems to be there to do. When provided with a choice, we'll generally choose the better one according to our aggregated instincts for what we're trying to do and what works. Life is trying to survive well and do better. It would be fair to assume that such a fundamntal aim is built into all life-forms. Certainly we can observe it in anything that lives.

But we humans are more vulnerable to bad information. In part because we do many things abstractly, apparently as opposed to many other players in nature. And, related to that, that our activities get very complicated. It is no longer just to eat the first thing that comes along that looks edible whenever we're hungry. The choices concerning maintaining and improving our lives are increasingly made with abstract information, and with the real stuff being quite removed from us. And we're tied into abstract social systems that might be beyond us individually to understand.

So, if I'm a soldier trained to kill people, and I do so, is that evil? Not necessarily. I might have the information that I'm doing so in order to protect the large social group that I consider myself belonging to. I might have been brought up and educated and trained to look at it a certain way, and I simply do what I consider my duty, and what seems logical. Not necessarily anything personal against the people I kill. I'm acting according to the information I have, the training I've been given, and the circumstances I'm in.

If I were a German soldier controlled by the Nazis, does that suddenly make it different? Not really. I'm still a victim of the information I have and what I've been trained into, and I might have limited choices available to make it all different.

What if I'm a burglar or bank robber, stealing with a gun in my hand, to fund my crack habit. Evil? Maybe just the only solution I saw available to me. Again, doesn't make it right or permissible in society, but for the individual it might still be a matter of doing the best I can with my limited options, and possibly false information and misguided beliefs.

Am I saying that there's no evil, and everybody's just acting within the information they have? Not quite. That's what's going on most of the time. But there's still something we could call "evil". Which is relatively rare.

You know, when one looks at what is going on in the world, and one doesn't get around to seeing it in such an "understanding" fashion as I attempt here, one might well reach some different conclusions. There are bad people in the world, and they seem to get away with it. Being bad works. It is much easier and more productive to think about just yourself, and not care about anybody else.

It is a misunderstanding, really. Again, based on faulty information, an individual looks around him and concludes that other people are evil and therefore they have the upper hand. And insted of continuing to be the victim of them, he flips around and instead assumes what he believes is their kind of personality. Bad. Evil. Thinking just about yourself, and not caring who gets hurt when they get in your way.

It is not about certain types of actions that are inherently evil. Those depend on the context. What is key here is the intention. Somebody who actually intends to do harm and it doesn't bother them.

It is a fake personality. Nobody really were like that originally. There are no evil babies. But a sufficient amount of torture and abuse from an early age from one's parents or from authorities or from what one perceives as "the system" can do it to the best of people. Or one might simply take a "logical" overview of the world and mistakenly conclude that being evil is the way to go.

One might do all that unconsciously, without thinking it through, simply changing one's personality to survive. Or, more chillingly, one might consciously conclude that it will work and one will get ahead over others by being that way.

Very few people have adopted what we could call an "evil" personality. Maybe a couple of percent of us. But that can create a lot of havoc. And any of us might in some moments, for reasons we might not completely understand ourselves, instinctively choose to be evil, and to act with the sole intention to hurt others, maybe to bring oneself ahead.

Either way, it is a copy of what we think others are doing. Which they probably weren't really doing for the reasons we think. The parent who was mean to you when you were little might have had their own story of being a victim of the circumstances and of bad information. They might think the Bible told them to beat you, to make you a better person. Or they were repeating what their parents did to them. Or they were lost and stuck and unaware.

But one way or another, some people end up acting as if they're evil, and they will deliberately hurt other people and enjoy it. Psychopaths. That only happens when they're already pretty bad off, when they've closed their hearts, when they never developed any empathy for others, and when they're loaded with false information about how life works. But there's plenty of that around, and no general education that teaches you how to be social.

So, what to do about that? Well, with the majority of people, who're mostly trying to do what they think is good, reason and kindness and good information will work. If they do something that hurts others, one can make them understand that, and they would naturally feel bad about it and try to do it better. But with the smaller number of people who're stuck in the evil personality, it is quite different. Being nice to them is not going to help, and will only show them how weak you are; and showing them how their actions hurt others is only going to encourage them. Because they aren't really there, but they have adopted a strategy quite opposite to yours or mine, and they've invested a lot in cementing it into place.

Anybody might change. One might wake up and realize what one is doing, and change one's ways. But with this kind of thing, it doesn't happen easily or casually. It does happen, though.

But in the meantime it would be valuable to develop a keen ability to notice who's who. If the person in front of you is still connected with their basic goodness, then you can talk with them, give them information, tell them truth, share how you feel, and you might get along better, and they'll use what they learn to make better decisions afterwards, more beneficial decisions. If the person in front of you is one of the very few who have lost touch with who they really are, and adopted an evil personality, then it is all different. They'd use everything they learn about you to gain an upper hand over you and get you out of the way.

Now, many people have bad inter-personal skills and foggy perceptions and lots of emotional baggage and might easily conclude that what I described fits perfectly on their ex-wife or their boss. So let me say again that the odds are that it isn't so. Most likely any differences could be sorted out if the emotional baggage gets out of the way, and it becomes evident that all parties really would like things to work.

It is a bit dangerous to even have labels like that, as people who can't figure out how to understand each other and get along are likely to hide behind horrible labels they apply to each other. You know, if you have a different belief system than I, and you do things I don't like, you're just evil. No, it is not that I'm talking about.

No, we're more talking about serial killers and otherwise criminally insane psychopaths. Oh, and some of the people who are gang members, muggers, terrorists, etc. But far from all. And indeed there would be people in the group that wouldn't be very obvious at all. Well-educated CEOs of companies, government officials, people who on the surface appear to have great people skills, be charming and eloquent, have families, etc. But underneath, their modus operendi is to sabotage and disable everybody else, preferably in the hidden, so that they can get their own way and the others don't. Everything looks right on the outside, to the casual observer, but inside we have the walking dead, and they leave a trail of destruction in their wake, which they well might succeed to make appear as somebody else's fault. Hard to pinpoint, but very important, to spot the psychopaths that don't look the part. And not to pick them as your leaders.

As some point we might with some luck have a society that makes it easier for us to connect with our basic humanity, and which no longer rewards psychopathic behavior. Until then it is just very necessary to pay close attention to what people's basic motivations really are.

Another angle on it is that despite our individually fairly noble intentions, we might very well accidentally create organizations that possess similar characteristics as that of a psychotic individual. It is not very hard for a large corporation to be evil, and to act in its own interest to the detriment of anybody who gets in the way. For that matter, it is inherent in its design. Only if some of the people running it go way out of their way to make it act more decently and socially can it be otherwise.

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29 Sep 2004 @ 22:27 by jstarrs : When I stub my toe...
...on a chair leg, the chair-leg, for just a few seconds, becomes inherently evil.
Luke-warm bath water can take on the dimensions of liquid Hannibal Lecter.
But over-cooked spaghetti - I'm on the phone to the Vatican for their best excorcist!!!!  

29 Sep 2004 @ 23:22 by Gunter @ : A task for you
Flemming, very good post, but now I have a task for you. Put this information into the form of an allegory.
Old master like good old J. or B. had the right idea by passing on their wisdom in form of allegories. They just work better because they anchor the wisdom to something already experienced, and they last longer. Even if the outer form gets garbled over time, there is a much better chance that the gist of the story - the pay-load so to speak - remains intact.
It's very noticable how well this works with kids. I for example try not to tell Zen all the things he should learn directly - I package them in stories, and he remembers those - I doubt that he would be able to re-tell me a sermon I had given him just five minutes later, but when Old Shatterhand with his Red Indian friend Winnetou go after the evil railroader in the wild west - he remembers that.
Sometimes the abstraction to his own life lags a little (or a lot, as the case may be). Once, I was so proud of the story that I invented where his super hero Alan Tracy from the Tunderbirds learned a great lesson on what damage unneccesary lying can cause. One minutes later, we get out of the car, I ask him something - and he lies... Boy, do I have to work on my story telling skills.  

30 Sep 2004 @ 00:54 by ming : Stories
Yeah, you're right, a good fable with a moral just teaches better. Is more easily remembered at least. And doesn't meet much resistance.

Like, here it could be the story of two friends who go for a walk while discussing good and evil. One person believes that people are good and is optimistic about life. The other one doubts it and complains about all the bad things in the world. While they walk they run into a series of other people. Each one does something apparently bad to them. Cheat them out of money, gives them wrong directions, trip them so they fall, etc. And the gloomy guy decides that, see, everybody's just evil, so why not be the same. And he goes off an does something really mean, sets somebody's house on fire or something. But immediately after that it becomes clear that what each of the "bad" people did really was something entirely different from what it seemed. Some revealed context brings to light that they really were saving lives and doing extraordinarily nice and self-less things. Or they had a stomach ache or were sad because somebody died or something. And afterwards it all becomes really clear. But it is too late, and the guy who misunderstood it all and did what he thought was the same stuff is put in jail or jumps off a cliff or something. And all the other guys turn out to become great friends and have a party around the camp fire, and have spaghetti that is cooked just right.

Ok, gotta work on the details for it to make sense. But I can see how it can work.  

30 Sep 2004 @ 10:41 by jmarc : The story thing
looks like it could shape up well. I can see your sense of humour shining through in it already. Maybe as an example of evil you could bring forth the instance of a spammer that stops by peoples logs, like three times in a day, giving them false hope that someone was actually interested in what they said, only for them to find it was another ad for some canadien pharmaceutical...
Nice article.  

30 Sep 2004 @ 12:08 by jwwells : Very good
I like the article. Have you read Peck's "People of the Lie?" It is an attempt to create an objective definition of human evil.

There are two SF books which also do a good job of framing the concept of evil, those being Niven & Pournelle's "Inferno" and Chaulker's "Midnight at the Well of Souls."
In Inferno is one important concept that never leaves my mind: A man is chained to a bicyle with noxious fumes pouring into his face if he stops peddling. The story goes that he was an important leader of the environmental lobby: He knew his actions in opposition to nuclear power caused harm to innocents, but continued his actions because "without the movement, I would have been nothing." That concept is crucial to understanding the concept of "knowing" in regard to the leaders of all human groups. There are far too many who know their actions cause harm and continue for only their own personal reasons: Their continuance is one form of evil. Understanding continuance-evil (and how to counter it) is crucial to understanding the problems we have in reducing our child-abuse rate.

Placing these concepts into stories is a fantastic idea!


30 Sep 2004 @ 17:24 by ming : Selfishness and competition
I think there's an important dividing line, which is maybe hard to find. The point where trying to do as well as possible turns into making sure others don't do as well as possible. See, I think that in itself it is a good thing that humans are trying to do better and improve their situation. It is a great thing. A drive towards making things better. Likewise I think competition for who can find the best ways is a healthy and useful thing.

But in typical economic competition we right away see many instances where that line is crossed. McDonalds doesn't put another of their fastfood restaurants right next to an existing Burger King in order to serve us better. They do it to hurt the other guy by taking away their business.

But if it is, say, a film festival where we compete to make the best film, it doesn't hurt you per se that people might like my film better. Quite possibly we both made better films because we were very motivated to do so.

Is it better to have 20 books about french cooking in the bookstore than one? Yes, of course, at least if I have enough information to make a choice about which one I prefer. Competition can reward good work and discourage bad work.

No, it is when people start trying to hold others back, rather than being the best they can be, that the game turns sour.

And, yes, I think you're right that there are a myriad of small ones, and they add up. Little dirty tricks that make us look better than others, without being better. Covertly hostile conversational techniques. Information we just pretend to forget to pass on. Actions that really have a different purpose than what we pretend they have.

All of that sabotages our natural tendency to pick the best and most beneficial options. And sometimes truly lousy choices become what a majority will pick, even though much better alternatives are available. Because somebody clawed themselves into a certain position they didn't deserve.

So, the tricky part is how to find the sweet spots, where people are stimulated to do the best they can, but where there would be little advantage in cheating. Like, a soviet style communist society was very bad at giving most people a reason to do well. And, likewise, a globalized U.S. style market tends to encourage cheating, rather than simply doing great work.

And sometimes incredible productivity indeed comes from forgetting about any competition and all working together for a common goal. Often works best when there's a big outside threat, like a war, or a somewhat cultish religious belief that is trying to save the world. I.e. when there's big time competition on the outside, we might drop our inside competition and work together.

Anyway, what is interesting is to pursue how we might find a better way of being together, socially, that naturally will maximize the doing-good.  

30 Sep 2004 @ 17:34 by jstarrs : Self-cherishing or....
cherishing others?
I saw a street ad today by a socially conscious association for equitable commerce.
It showed an agricultural worker from some under developed country and the caption was "You'll eat when you're competitive".  

1 Oct 2004 @ 00:53 by astrid : Dual....>
Devil > Double > Double Standard. That's all what's evil. Think about it for a moment... Sure It can take on some monumental expressions!....We've seen that, and besides; History is FULL of it: "It's OK for ME to do/act/express my self this way(-usually in selfish, brattish ways, that are LIFE-DESTROYING in character) BUT NOT FOR YOUUUUU!!!!/NOBODY ELSE!!!!!!" Simple.Isn't it?  

1 Oct 2004 @ 07:55 by b : Nice essay Ming
I am glad I can see your log again. Thanks. I think evil is best defined as mean and cruel. So it is easy to spot and even teach children that it exists. When meaness and cruelty become intense something has to be done to prevent it.  

1 Oct 2004 @ 16:07 by ming : Selection
I tend to believe in the magic of a free market. That the collective result of many individuals making even quite self-interested decisions can be a good thing. But I think that the reason why it often isn't working is that what is created usually isn't just the result of those many individuals making little decisions.

Like, in that case, somebody set up the system they're doing it within. There's a financing system in place that charges interest for loans, and that allows property to appreciate, and makes it desirable for the owners when it does. That sets up a system with certain traits to it. It makes certain choices logical and others not logical. Of course, if I have the choice, I'd prefer owning a house that's worth three times as much to owning a house that keeps the same value. But I didn't choose the system itself. Somebody did that for me, on a centralized basis, without predicting and taking responsibility for the full consequences.

So, yes, the individual actions might not quite predict the end result, and the end result might be bad. But from a systemic level, it would also be predictable by somebody who thinks about things at that level.

The creators of a system bear an enormous responsibility. It is often not looked at at all. One looks at the results, but forgets to examine how the system was created in the first place.  

2 Oct 2004 @ 11:21 by jwwells : Psychopaths
Psychopaths exist and are one piece of the puzzle. We must remember that evil among humans is a rather complex jig-saw puzzle, each small piece and each subassembly affecting both the whole and other pieces.

There was a study recently published on psychopaths and their effects in the workplace: There is real and measurable loss of humanity and efficiency in workplaces affected by psychopaths. Unfortunately, the only measure of psychopathy we have, the Hare, is not reliable with females, so we do not know the real picture of psychopaths in the workplace.

Each time we put some of our thought into understanding evil we take a tiny step towards understanding society. I think, the approach of thinking of society as a single complex machine helps in this understanding.

We can say evil is:
the result of tiny innocuous-in-themselves items,
the actions of psychopaths,
the actions of those who know better, but choose to do evil,

and ??????? There are many more pieces.....


27 Jan 2005 @ 22:38 by ming : Good
Well, if we try to avoid the polarized way of defining things, we could say that everybody's trying to make things better, if nothing else for themselves. So, a certain built-in tendency to pick the better of any set of choices one is presented with, based on what one happens to know about them. Or we could say that "good" is an observation about how constructive or useful or enjoyable something is. And there'd be varying degrees of that. And some experiences or some choices might be destructive or unpleasant, and we might say they're "not good". Doesn't make them evil, just not supporting what we're looking for.

And, again, I'd say that "evil" is when one has misunderstood the whole thing, and one thinks one has to be evil in order to fight back against all the other evil people, who really aren't the way one thinks they are.  

1 Aug 2008 @ 03:51 by Edward @ : The thing about logics and economics
Just a preface I may have gotten the fact that a number of you say that economics can be good wrong but that doesn't mean my writing is entirely without merit, it just means it is a little off point. The concept are interesting though.
Yes a number of you point out that a logical economic system based on selfish decisions creates a good force. However, what I would be concerned with is the where this logic comes from. Logic can justify almost anything when it is put to task. Logic I would argue is immoral and depends on the individual using it. So when someone says the economic system should be good based on these decisions seems logical. But it all depends on who regulates the system and their interests. For example a large company like the Hudson Bay Company or East Indian Trading Company would think it logical for them to have a monopoly because their job is to benefit the most. The problem with believing that an economic system is logical and reasonable is that it depends on lawmakers and people with power to make decisions. What is in their interest may not be in their interest. However, you may point out that that is true in the short-term but not the long term. You are right, unless the law is applied unevenly, or corruption takes place or people decide to sacrifice short term gain at the cost of the long term. In fact the last example is an econometric idea that states when given a choice between having chocolate or fruit right now normally chocolate is chosen. But when given the choice to have chocolate or fruit a week from now you choose fruit. However, you take the chocolate now at the expense of the fruit later. Just like a credit card transaction buy now but pay later at a worse cost. The concept is well described on this site: http://harvardmagazine.com/2006/03/the-marketplace-of-perce.html  

19 Dec 2014 @ 23:58 by Rose @ : ODmFhGkTRyhelreuj
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29 Apr 2016 @ 05:48 by Katty @ : QFnFsGZxCSCTCGpKZSue
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Other stories in
2014-09-27 00:04: You must be an expert by now
2014-09-26 15:15: Brevity
2011-11-06 21:33: Counting what counts
2011-01-23 13:46: Authenticity
2010-08-23 01:31: Semantic Pauses
2010-06-27 02:28: Doubt
2009-10-25 17:04: Opinions, perceptions and intuition
2009-10-15 08:32: Abstraction
2008-06-29 16:47: Complicated and Complex
2008-02-20 16:39: The universe as a virtual reality

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