blog post
Ethics, Middle Way Philosophy, Psychology, Religion


Some people see evil as a supernatural force, whilst others deny its existence or seek to ignore it. I want to avoid either of these approaches and to account for evil, with all its power, in human experience. Just as God can be supremely meaningful without being an object of belief (see Jung and the Meaning of God) so can evil. The meaning and seriousness of evil seems to be undermined and trivialised in modern culture (illustrated most strongly by the slang use of the terms ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’ to mean conventionally good), but at the same time it is easy to see why this has happened. It demands an absurd level of fraught anxiety to regard ordinary human desire as the work of Satan, when our experience of desire is that it is largely both unavoidable and – up to a point – beneficial. If we have let go of that anxiety and accepted our desires as human, then that is a starting point, but we then need to start taking seriously the need for moral awareness and moral effort. We can only do that with an awareness of what we are avoiding – of ‘evil’ in a broad sense, neither supernatural nor naturalised into nothing.

So what is evil, if it is not Satan outside us, or human desires within us? My thesis is that evil is not a person or a set of feelings or desires, but a type of belief: that is, metaphysics. The integration model explains how we do not have ‘good’ desires and ‘evil’ desires, but rather desires that can be more or less effective as they get more or less integrated. Desires that I may experience as ‘evil’ (say, the desire to be insulting in an argument) are just unintegrated: they are in conflict with my other desires. However, if I then ask what prevents the integration of ‘evil’ (i.e. currently rejected) desires with ‘good’ (i.e. currently accepted) desires, the answer is fixed beliefs. Those beliefs may, on the surface, be about ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but they rigidify and simplify what I understand as good so I can idealise and hold onto it regardless of challenges, and rigidify and simplify what I understand as evil so that I can reject it, regardless of what it may have to tell me. My thesis is that such rigidification tends to occur around metaphysical beliefs – i.e. ones that cannot be incrementally addressed in experience but merely asserted or denied.

So, what is evil, in the broader and more helpful sense, includes metaphysical beliefs about good as well as metaphysical beliefs about evil – along with other metaphysical beliefs such as those about self, fate, freewill, God or nature. It may run against the mental habits of a lifetime to start thinking about the belief in an ultimate good as evil: but we only have to consider the amount of alienation and conflict created by sincerely held ideas of ultimate good to begin to appreciate why this is so. This doesn’t imply that those who hold such beliefs are ‘evil’ or even that they are mainly motivated by evil: only that the impact of such metaphysical beliefs on them is evil, within the context of wider moral development gained by experience. Great saints and religious leaders with strong metaphysical beliefs may often have had a largely good impact – but my thesis is that they were handicapped, not aided, by those beliefs. Their moral objectivity came not from those beliefs, but from the degree of integration created by the other conditions working in their lives, often including the meaningfulness of the symbols (such as God) that they also had metaphysical beliefs about. Similarly, great figures widely regarded as evil (such as Hitler) had a variety of conditions working on them. They were not evil as people, but their rigid metaphysical beliefs dominated their lives to such an extent that their actions strike others as evil. In the case of Hitler it is not only Nazi ideology, but also his beliefs about himself and about the destiny of himself and the Germans, that could be identified as the metaphysical source of this evil.

But what does this have to do with Satan or with evil as traditionally conceived? The picture above, in Jungian terminology, is a picture of the Shadow: the rejected energies in ourselves that we project outwards onto Dark Lords, villains, evil spirits, unfaithful spouses, bad bosses, evil capitalists etc. It is interesting what features we typically give to our depictions of evil. They are usually features associated with narrow left-brain dominance rather than with integration: empire-building, scheming, ruthlessness, and false emotion (such as the evil laugh). Psychologically, then, it appears that what evil means to us is unintegrated desire. We allow evil itself to dominate, however, if we project that unintegrated desire outwards and treat people or things as themselves evil. An appreciation of complexity, or of humanity, is an antidote to this. We also allow evil to dominate if we even treat our desires themselves as evil – for they are part of us. Evil instead works at the level of belief. It is the belief in the ultimate truth and completeness of his schemes, and the ultimate justification of his ruthlessness through the idealisation of current egoistic desires, that makes the Dark Lord evil.

Let me finish, then, with a compilation of evil laughs. Note the falseness, the association with a separate universe constructed in one’s own mind, the alienation from others, and the group mentality. All of these are evil – but they are not an indication of a supernatural force. Rather they are the features of metaphysics: of fixed beliefs and goals in a super-dominant left brain.

Devil picture by Rex Diablo (Wikimedia Commons). Picture can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons licence if attributed.


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


4 thoughts on “Evil

  1. What’s to be done or (more realistically) what am I to do about my super-dominant left brain?

    Seek an elective lobotomy? A cortical analogue of the ‘gastric band’? Is there a psychic diet worth taking up?

    Practical advice, please Robert 🙂

    Posted by bagmanhattan | October 20, 2012, 4:17 pm
  2. You don’t give the impression of having a super-dominant left brain at all, Mr Bagmanhattan. Rather quite a reliance on the intuitions of the right. 🙂

    The left brain is an essential part of the solution, not the problem. So starving or incapacitating the left brain is the opposite of a solution. The left brain just needs a bigger perspective, especially because of its inability to grasp its changing nature over time. It needs to be able to go beyond thinking that its current desires and beliefs are final and absolute.

    The long answer to the question of what to do to integrate the left-brain-at-one-time will be my next three books on the integrations of desire, meaning and belief respectively. Maybe the best overview of the subject of practice I have published so far is chapter 5 of ‘Truth on the Edge’.

    The short answer is: do things that help you get a perspective on those absolute beliefs. The most clearly useful practices for integration, it seems to me, are meditation for desire, the arts for meaning, and critical thinking for belief. But there are a wide range of other practices that may help to develop the basic conditions for integration, including social and political activity, because integration is not just an individual matter. We need to be able to catch ourselves making unhelpful assumptions, which requires sufficient basic awareness and critical habits of thought. I think there is also a tendency for the different types of integration to act as pivots for each other: so, for example, work on meditation might create the condition for a breakthrough in thinking, and new kinds of thinking about our beliefs might lead to a new perspective on egoistic desires. If you’ve been working in one area and getting stuck, try another. That’s about as far as my advice can usefully go in this space.

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | October 20, 2012, 6:45 pm
    • Your comments here are spot-on, and very helpful – a ‘direct transmission’ of insight, especially your awakening my awareness of over-reliance on right-brain faculties, and unwillingness to persevere with exercises to develop critical thinking, in part the result of unexamined anxieties about failure – hinted at in earlier posts of mine and highlighted by your mentioning ‘unhelpful assumptions’. But you are a good teacher and have set me on the right path through encouragement and skill in humane ‘pointing out’ areas of developmental potential.


      Posted by bagmanhattan | October 22, 2012, 1:54 pm
      • Hi Bagmanhattan,
        Apart from the first paragraph (which was half-joking), my comments were intended to be general rather than directed at you in particular. Nor am I sure that anyone can be unhelpfully over-reliant on the *right* brain. That would be a bit like an assembled model being over-reliant on the glue. If one tries to take the right brain’s part (as Iain McGilchrist does in the bits of ‘The Master and his Emissary’ where he gets a bit too carried away) what one is actually doing is being a left brain that identifies with the idea of the right brain. So, my comment above was not meant to imply that you over-rely on the right brain (as if I could tell that over the internet!) – just that your comments didn’t strike me in general as ones that depended too much on the left (which is a different point). It would be quite possible to have a strong use of intuitive functions (right brain) and then turn what you got from your intuitions into a mere idea which became the obsessive concern of the left brain. Again, though, that’s a general observation, not an attempt to offer personal advice at a distance.

        Posted by Robert M Ellis | October 22, 2012, 3:50 pm

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