The Problem of Evil

Jan 02

"Evil" is a word which has featured prominently in public discourse after September 11th. It is a term with strong religious connotations, but not all religious systems share the idea. Buddhism, for one, does not find the concept of evil a useful one. Buddhism is primarily concerned with suffering and the ending of suffering. An action is considered unskilful if it increases suffering, either of one's self or of others. It is considered skilful if it leads to a lessening or elimination of suffering.

This puts an entirely different perspective on problems of ethics. Things become less absolute, and more importantly, less personal. In Buddhist thought, there are no evil persons. There are only persons behaving in an unskilful way. There is no final damnation, and the possibility of change is always recognized. Unskilful actions, i.e. those which increase suffering, are always motivated by greed, hatred or ignorance. Skilful actions are those based on generosity, good-will and wisdom.

When the two sides in a situation of conflict are viewed in terms of good vs. evil, the possibility of reconciliation is removed. The only acceptable outcome is the elimination by force of the "evil" opponent. Analysis and investigation of underlying issues is made superfluous. Violence and counter-violence becomes inescapable. The tragic results of this way of thinking are all too evident in the world today. Ironically, the concept of "evil" which seems so absolute and clear, is really a relative one. Both Osama Bin Ladin and George Bush can claim to be fighting evil and defending the good. Both are probably sincere.

The Buddhist way of thinking allows much more hope for peaceful resolution. Analysis begins with considering whether a proposed action increases or decreases the suffering of sentient beings. If other beings commit actions which increase suffering, analysis turns to consideration of the underlying defilements. Were they driven by ill-will? Have we on our side done anything hateful to which they are responding unskilfully? Were they motivated by greed? Are they responding to our own greedy appropriation of resources? These kinds of considerations do not excuse the harmful acts of wrong-doers, but they do help in the formulation of useful long-term solutions.

We should add a caveat here. It would be a mistake to think that Buddhism advocates a loose moral relativism. To say that the concept of an evil person is not a useful one, is not to say that there are no right or wrong actions. Buddhism does have definite moral precepts. Killing is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Committing adultery is wrong. Telling a falsehood is wrong and bewildering the mind with intoxicants is wrong. In its own way, the Buddhist tradition can be quite absolute about these precepts. But the person who transgresses them is not "evil", he is behaving unskilfully and the result will be suffering for himself and others.

Thinking in this way has a great practical effect at all levels of human relations. We have already touched on international conflicts. On the social level there is an obvious application in how we deal with criminals. The focus shifts from retribution to rehabilitation and restitution, and even more fundamentally to prevention. In our personal relationships with friends and family, conflicts are more easily resolved if we don't categorise the other person but deal with their skilful and unskilful actions instead. A final point to consider, that applies to all these levels of discourse, whenever we label someone else as "evil" we are allowing ill-will to enter our own mind, and are behaving unskilfully ourselves. The result is bound to be more suffering.

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