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Is it beneficial to have a sense of good and evil?

JeroenJeroen Do it with a smileNetherlands Veteran

It’s an interesting question. In a way calling something ‘evil’ is an exaggeration, nothing in nature is truly wicked or irredeemable. It sets you up for a fight, it tells you here is something you must defend yourself from. Good too is a caricature, very few people truly have your interests at heart, almost everybody has his own agenda. To see the world in caricatures prevents you from seeing the true motivations of humans and animals.

Still there are human impulses which are deeply unbeneficial, such as cruelty, anger or ruthlessness. These are things one should guard against because they can block out one’s heart feelings, to as the saying goes ‘harden one’s heart against mercy or pity’. Whereas in fact our true nature is to live in compassion and love.

I find it a pity that the sense of irredeemable wickedness has grown to be so popular. Movies such as those after Stephen King’s stories, or something like The Ring, or even series such as Good Omens provide numerous examples. It’s a cheap tactic to cast the villain as being an embodiment of evil, while in fact the vast majority are only exceedingly greedy.

Comments

  • federicafederica Seeker of the clear blue sky... Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    edited November 20

    all opinions are learnt. All opinions can therefore be changed. The exception might be diagnosed serious mental conditions. But an influence can affect even those of those dispositions...

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran
    edited November 21

    @Jeroen said:
    It’s an interesting question. In a way calling something ‘evil’ is an exaggeration, nothing in nature is truly wicked or irredeemable. It sets you up for a fight, it tells you here is something you must defend yourself from. Good too is a caricature, very few people truly have your interests at heart, almost everybody has his own agenda. To see the world in caricatures prevents you from seeing the true motivations of humans and animals.

    Still there are human impulses which are deeply unbeneficial, such as cruelty, anger or ruthlessness. These are things one should guard against because they can block out one’s heart feelings, to as the saying goes ‘harden one’s heart against mercy or pity’. Whereas in fact our true nature is to live in compassion and love.

    In the D&D world there is some debate on the legitimacy of alignment. If anyone isn't familiar the system tracks three horizontal categories of lawful, neutral or chaotic and three vertical categories of good, neutral and evil. Then the 9 categories where they intersect, lawful good - chaotic evil.

    The argument against is that its just way to simple an understanding of motivation and people move back and forth between them. That makes sense to me, we do things for psychological reasons, not because we have some white hat or black hat essence that makes us act in certain ways.

    That said people take it to the point of saying that its immoral to make assumptions about classes of "evil" creatures and not treat them with dignity and respect. To which I say, if 90% of orcs raid and pillage villages, rape and murder people to make their way in the world rather than engage in productive labor or peaceful trade I'll absolutely call that evil and assume an orc is "evil". Not necessarily because they are essentially evil (though lore wise an argument could certainly be made that way) but because acting in such antisocial ways is so harmful.

    My point is that we should seek to (as John Green puts it) view others complexly. Or in Buddhist terms look to causes and conditions rather than essences.

    I think the balance is in not seeing the world in terms of absolutes and also not falling into the opposite of relativism. The nuanced stance I'd say is that of pluralism. Moral, cultural, ideological, temperamental, etc. The idea that these areas aren't binaries where one way is right and any way not that is wrong and also not that any position is as worthy as any other. Its that in the landscape there are many peaks and many valleys. I'd also throw in the idea that since there are many skillful ways of viewing and meeting the world no one way is going to be comprehensive, so a synthesis of a variety of perspectives will offer the most comprehensive approach.

    I find it a pity that the sense of irredeemable wickedness has grown to be so popular. Movies such as those after Stephen King’s stories, or something like The Ring, or even series such as Good Omens provide numerous examples. It’s a cheap tactic to cast the villain as being an embodiment of evil, while in fact the vast majority are only exceedingly greedy.

    I'm not so sure that isn't something that has always been pretty popular. There are also many examples of flawed protagonists and sympathetic antagonists in popular culture these days.

    FosdickKotishka
  • DavidDavid A human residing in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Ancestral territory of the Erie, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, Mississauga and Neutral First Nations Veteran
    edited November 22

    "Good" and "evil" seem to have a lot of baggage. I'd use different terms like "right" and "wrong" or better yet, "skillful" and "unskillful". I think viewing it in the latter terms shows the benefit or value of discernment.

  • JeroenJeroen Do it with a smile Netherlands Veteran
    edited November 22

    Yes, exactly @David, they do have a lot of baggage. But if reinforcement from the society implants these concepts in you and you have no choice but to view the world this way, you end up being a very unhappy person. That was kind of my point.

    As someone who is trying to learn from the Buddha, it is helpful to leave these concepts behind, and gain a clearer understanding of what motivates people.

  • This is actually a good philosophical question. From what I've learned, good can be categorized as something that benefits a whole or more than one, and evil is something that is synonymous with selfishness. I think most movies often portray this example, but sometimes movies don't really put any good message out there.

  • DavidDavid A human residing in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Ancestral territory of the Erie, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, Mississauga and Neutral First Nations Veteran

    @Jeroen, I'm not sure we should leave the concept of right and wrong behind unless it is already ingrained. That is, I think people have to be able to understand that we've all been conditioned and feel its implication on a practical level to break through and regain the beginners mind we were blessed with as children.

    A lot of people are all too eager to abandon the raft before it is finished serving its usefulness.

    personRen_in_black
  • JeroenJeroen Do it with a smile Netherlands Veteran
    edited November 22

    Hmm, I rather think “right” and “wrong” are not on the whole synonymous with “good” and “evil”, and so considering that switch rather reframes the debate. There is an argument that “right and wrong” are useful throughout much of the spiritual journey and shouldn’t be discarded too soon. I’m not sure a similar argument could be used for “good and evil”. Once one is conditioned to view the world in those black and white terms, it really harms one’s ability to accept nuance.

    @namarupa, there are some really egregious examples out there. For example The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron is cast as evil by virtue of his title as Dark Lord, his corrupting influence, his desire for dominance and so on. Or Star Wars, where the Emperor desires to rule the Galaxy and has his minion Darth Vader ruthlessly crush all resistance.

    These are some of the most loved stories of all, and they set you up to believe in a fairytale, something that’s not related to the real world. In our world, politicians more often rule through brokering deals, through partnership and subtle influence. Everything has an agenda and is selfish to a degree, has its own motivating factors rather than some inimical quality.

    personDavid
  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran

    @Jeroen said:
    there are some really egregious examples out there. For example The Lord of the Rings, where Sauron is cast as evil by virtue of his title as Dark Lord, his corrupting influence, his desire for dominance and so on. Or Star Wars, where the Emperor desires to rule the Galaxy and has his minion Darth Vader ruthlessly crush all resistance.

    These are some of the most loved stories of all, and they set you up to believe in a fairytale, something that’s not related to the real world. In our world, politicians more often rule through brokering deals, through partnership and subtle influence. Everything has an agenda and is selfish to a degree, has its own motivating factors rather than some inimical quality.

    I'm not really sure where I come down on this. On the one hand Lord of the Rings came out of Tolkien's experiences in WWI where he saw "evil" on a level most of us couldn't even comprehend. Dan Carlin makes a good argument that WWI may very well be #1 on the all time list of worst war to be a soldier in. And Star Wars follows Joseph Campbell's the power of myth to a T.

    But I think nuance is more realistic and more interesting, to me at least. More recent highly popular stories are Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, both have characters and plots that look at people from a deeper perspective. Even the really wicked ones like Joffrey and Ramsey had some sort of reason for their behavior.

    Jeroen
  • DavidDavid A human residing in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Ancestral territory of the Erie, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, Mississauga and Neutral First Nations Veteran
    edited November 24

    @Jeroen;

    Hmm, I rather think “right” and “wrong” are not on the whole synonymous with “good” and “evil”, and so considering that switch rather reframes the debate. There is an argument that “right and wrong” are useful throughout much of the spiritual journey and shouldn’t be discarded too soon. I’m not sure a similar argument could be used for “good and evil”. Once one is conditioned to view the world in those black and white terms, it really harms one’s ability to accept nuance.

    I hear you and agree which is why I use "right and wrong" instead of "good and evil". Mind you, whenever I get plagued by thoughts of not being good enough or any other self depreciating talk, I end up smiling at Mara where they used to be able to hide.

    Funny that.

    Jeroen
  • JeroenJeroen Do it with a smile Netherlands Veteran

    For me, the big change comes when I think what is beneficial and what is not. In the sutra’s those terms are also sometimes used to explain what is right and wrong. To consider what is of benefit is a much more wholesome way of thinking than dividing the world into good and evil.

    personDavid
  • DavidDavid A human residing in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Ancestral territory of the Erie, Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, Mississauga and Neutral First Nations Veteran
    edited November 24

    @Jeroen said:
    For me, the big change comes when I think what is beneficial and what is not. In the sutra’s those terms are also sometimes used to explain what is right and wrong. To consider what is of benefit is a much more wholesome way of thinking than dividing the world into good and evil.

    Exactly. That is also the thrust of the Kesamutti (Kalama) Sutta more than free inquiry.

    So, Kālāmas, when I said: ‘Please, don’t go by oral transmission, don’t go by lineage, don’t go by testament, don’t go by canonical authority, don’t rely on logic, don’t rely on inference, don’t go by reasoned contemplation, don’t go by the acceptance of a view after consideration, don’t go by the appearance of competence, and don’t think “The ascetic is our respected teacher.” But when you know for yourselves: “These things are unskillful, blameworthy, criticized by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to harm and suffering”, then you should give them up.’ That’s what I said, and this is why I said it.

    https://suttacentral.net/an3.65/en/sujato?layout=plain&reference=none&notes=asterisk&highlight=false&script=latin

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think the liminal space Veteran

    I also like to think in terms of pros and cons. So when you find yourself thinking of something as bad take the time to reflect on possible positive aspects and vis versa.

    David
  • JeroenJeroen Do it with a smile Netherlands Veteran

    @person said:
    I also like to think in terms of pros and cons. So when you find yourself thinking of something as bad take the time to reflect on possible positive aspects and vis versa.

    I used to do that quite a bit back when I was managing a team of programmers, it can be a practical way of thinking because it shows up downsides as well as upsides. But on encountering Buddhism I’ve started to think that just seeing the upsides and their relative sizes may be more wholesome for me.

    The thing is, as soon as you start looking at pros and cons you are engaging in a wide search, which involves looking at the solution to a problem from multiple points of view. It’s in depth thinking and actively looking for negatives. I don’t find this goes very well with the meditative mind, while looking for what is the most beneficial feels somehow cleaner? My intuition likes the process a lot more.

    YMMV…

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