Thursday, March 29, 2012

Some Thoughts on Good and Evil

by Miki Kashtan

Seriously, don't you wonder if anything can be written about this topic that hasn't already been said many times over? I did, too, until I encountered Nonviolent Communication while I was in graduate school pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology. I wasn't studying good and evil, at least I didn't think I was. I had no idea, at the time, that my interest in the relationship between reason and emotion was intertwined with the deepest and most perennial questions of human nature, hence with matters of good and evil which I had set aside for years.
I never liked the Medieval belief that human beings are innately evil, bad, or sinful, because I intuitively couldn't fathom why and how nature would give rise to sinful creatures. I also didn't ever find more satisfaction in the modern notions of "evil" such as the "selfish gene" evolutionary theory or the Freudian notions of an innate aggressive drive. Proponents of all such theories are hard-pressed to explain acts of true kindness, especially in the face of potential consequences, such as those who saved Jews during the Holocaust at risk to their own lives.
Like most people who balk at theories of sin, the only alternative I could come up with was to imagine human beings as being innately good. That, too, didn't fit the reality I saw. As a Jew growing up in Israel, the Holocaust was simply too vivid a memory, presenting too much evidence to the contrary to dismiss. I was left with too many unanswered questions whichever way I looked at the issues.

When I first encountered Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I had no idea that a notion as simple and basic as human needs could finally address, at least to my satisfaction, the fundamental questions of human nature. Because of the name, I thought I was learning a communication process. I now know that placing human needs at the center of all theory is a simple act that radically questions our notions of human nature.
Like David Brooks, in his recent NYT article When the Good Do Bad, I am not comfortable with the notion of there being some specific evil people who stand apart from the rest of us who are fundamentally good, allowing us to feel pure. I agree with Brooks that if mass murderers like Robert Bales are often remembered by their previous neighbors or friends as kind, normal, nice people, then the picture ought to be more complex. I don't, however, see him as offering a complex solution. Reversing the assumption of goodness into the assumption of evil by suggesting that "we're natural born killers" leaves the big question equally challenging. Even if "the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so," the question still needs to be answered -- why do some people kill and others don't. His answers, if I understand them correctly, fall into the very approach to evil that he deplores. To say that people who commit massacres often live with "forward panic," or that serial killers "are often charming, but have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world," amounts, once again, to defining unique character traits or flaws that set them apart from those who don't kill in some fundamental way that cannot be explained. I find his prescription, inviting Robert Bales and the rest of us to a process of "struggling daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, [by] policing the small transgressions to prevent larger ones," even more problematic.
I now believe that the idea of evil, and especially the perception that some form of evil, or sin, is intrinsic to human nature and that we therefore must be controlled and tamed, is a mirror image of the fundamental thrust of the agricultural revolution, namely that nature, the source of all life, must be controlled rather than trusted. Over time, in Western civilization, we accepted this idea so completely, that even when we balk at these notions, we continue, by and large, to raise our children with that same fundamental suspiciousness toward their natural inclinations. This is how I understand Brooks' prescription: control the "sinful" parts and all will be well.
Why am I concerned about this approach? In part, because I want a much deeper understanding, for all of us, of what leads any of us to take actions that are so harmful to others, especially when we also act, at other times, in caring ways. More importantly, I have not seen, ever, that controlling anything works over time. Like Charles Eisenstein, in his review of the movie Thrive, I am painfully aware that attempting to control anything rather than engaging with it results in an ever spiraling and unsustainable effort over time; it's guaranteed to fail. This is true about controlling pests in agriculture, germs in medicine (the two examples Eisenstein cites), our children (who eventually are big and strong enough to rebel against us), or any destructive impulses within us. I like the way Eisenstein says it: "the War against Evil never ends, because it generates a limitless supply of new enemies."
Just as much as I am concerned about the sin theory of violence, I am also concerned about approaches that minimize the issue in the first place, or place responsibility entirely on the "system." I want an approach to understanding violence that honors human dignity by acknowledging our agency and our capacity to make choices even in difficult situations at the same time as we recognize the context within which violence is born. In this, I feel aligned with Brooks in intention and value despite our great difference in method and philosophy.
What I find in the needs-based approach to human nature and violence that NVC offers is a way to acknowledge that human beings have been and continue to engage in harmful behavior and a way to make sense of that persistence without portraying us as bad, sinful, or powerless victims of systems or others. It's also an approach to reducing and possibly eliminating harmful behavior without having to control anything by taking full responsibility for our needs and finding productive and meaningful ways of addressing them.
Here's how friend and fellow NVC trainer in Sri Lanka, Jeyanthy Siva, expressed the fundamental departure from traditional notions of human nature that a needs-based approach makes possible:
"I believe it's a useful philosophy to hold that people are neither good nor bad innately but are beings who try to meet their needs with the tools they have at hand. And those needs include wanting to take care of themselves, connect with and contribute to others. And if they see that they can get their needs met without harming others, they will only be happy to do so. In fact, my hope is that when they have this consciousness, they will see that their own needs won't get fully met until everyone's needs are met as well."
What this simple insight means is that we are born not with a propensity for good or for evil. Rather, we are born with a bundle of needs we want to fulfill, from infancy to death, and with a profound sensitivity to having our efforts to meet our needs, or even our needs themselves, thwarted or shamed. In this framing I join the ranks of Alice Miller and James Gilligan who, in their different and complementary ways, give us loving and painful accounts of the psychological and societal context within which human beings resort to extreme acts of destruction. When we are born into a world ruled by separation, scarcity, and powerlessness, we are not likely to receive essential outside support for our human vulnerability as we emerge from infancy into childhood and adulthood. Monstrous human acts are born from brutalizing and shaming someone's body and soul, to such an extreme degree that the core capacity for empathy - towards self and others - shuts down. Not knowing or honoring our own and others' needs is a key part of what makes it possible to desperately engage in destructive strategies as a path to meeting needs we are unable to recognize let alone own. Here's where the quest for control can turn on its head. The greatest paradox I know about destructive human behavior is that the more we attempt to control our needs out of shame about them, the more likely we are to be reactive when our needs are endangered. Conversely, the more we befriend our needs and inhabit the emotional world that surrounds them, the less likely we are to lose our capacity to choose how we respond to life. Both personally and systemically, the path to reducing violence passes through attending to everyone's needs.

Additional Reading:


  1. The mother of my daughter tried to murder her when she was two months old. The baby was sleeping and she walked into the bedroom and picked her up from the crib disturbing her sleep. The child gave out a small cry from being disturbed and the mother went into a fear driven rage raising the child over her head to throw her against the wall. In her blind rage she did not remember I was in the room five feet away. I was frozen in position because my mind could not understand what was happening but as I watched her raise the child over her head I instinctively sat up and my movement was caught by the corner of her eye and she remembered there was a witness to the murder she was about to commit and lowered the child all the while screaming and crying. She held the child away from her body as if she was being burned and dropped her on the bed running out of the room feeling rejected and unloved by the child. Evil is a contagion from parent to child and child as adult against community and their children. Evil is born in the absence of love.(respect for and understanding of the sanctity of life)
    The evil are always lonely for they are unable to feel a part of the greater whole, they stand outside looking in. They feel no connection to anything including themselves, they are the walking dead. Evil is a state of mind that is created from unnatural acts against it.Those in this state will use violence and call it love, those in this state will use violence to secure love but end up being feared(unloved)so in their rage use more violence. Evil,Love and fear are bound together and power determines its expression. There was no difference between Hitler and the mother of my daughter, their motivations were the same only their methods were different.

  2. I have been desperately seeking answers to these dilemmas as I have a child who behaves in ways that, if were he an adult, would make him considered a danger to society and to himself. I have felt much shame and loneliness about this until recently. My saving grace is that I have two other children who do not behave in these challenging ways. I'm sure I have some responsibility in this but I cannot say that his behavior is being passed from parent to child. There is much more mystery than that going on.

    I have found some deep insight from James Gilligan and also from Gordon Neufeld. Neufeld maintains that the most fundamental human need of all, even before physical nourishment, is the need for attachment. In fact, the fundamental principle of science is that all things seek attachment, which could be characterized as pursuit of proximity, or secure connection. How did I miss something so basic? This puts so much into perspective for me and helps me begin to release some crazy ideal i have had of being independent and not needing love and connection with other humans and the natural world. It also helps me understand my son, who is like many who behave aggressively. He is ultra-sensitive and needing of love and yet pushes people away and behaves in ways to guarantee aloneness. He is super-defended against his own vulnerability.

    Looking at needs, not just as a smorgasbord of needs but with the need of human attachment as the most basic need of all, changes the picture for me completely. Neufeld explains in a very believable way that behind aggression is always some form of frustration that has not found an outlet through agency or tears of futility. Without those outlets, and in absence of the maturity of mixed emotions, frustration turns to aggression. And, furthermore, that frustration is most commonly frustration around the need for attachment not being met and some level of resulting defense against vulnerability.

    I can see this dynamic crystal clear in my son and it helps me understand that adults are no different. And adult who behaves in ways we would call "evil" is someone who has simply lost touch with their vulnerability, or buried it in defense. They have not been able to mature naturally and have a hunger for attachment as strong as any child. I have great relief and hope in being able to see "evil people" and "bad children" in such a deeply human light.

    Thank you for the additional reading. Gilligan was profound reading for me. I will check out Alice Miller too. I am so grateful for these ongoing conversations that attempt to unpack the complexity of life.

  3. Origins of Violence at c.4000 BCE. Read and learn:

  4. What follows is my immediate response to your thoughts. I will give a more thoughtful response soon.

    My letter to the Editor of the New York Times

    To the Editor:
    Re: "When the Good Do Bad," by David Brooks (column, March 20):
    A postmodern notion reflected in David Brooks' column is that evil is resident only in people but does not exist as an external spiritual reality. Those who deny the existence of spiritual beings deny powers in the world responsible for encouraging in humans overweening pride, fear, and hatred, thus disregarding 4000 years of wisdom. The hateful step-mother who kills the beautiful Snow White with a poisoned apple is not a person but the mythical expression of envy and hatred. Snow White is resurrected by the love of the prince. The snake in Eden is in the garden along with Adam and Eve. Job resisted the wiles of Satan. Christ says, “Get behind me Satan.” Nothing these beings of infinite cleverness would prefer more than that we be blind to their existence.
    Ronald Petrou
    267 421-7749

  5. Hi Miki.

    Just finished reading "Thoughts on Good and Evil" and found it missing one element. Fear.

    I know you are Jewish, and may not be familiar with the New Testament, but I have a couple examples of Christ's teaching to illustrate. This is not an attempt at proselytizing or conversion, just passing on some wisdom, and after all, Jesus was a Jew. A Rabbi once told me there is nothing in "The Lord's Prayer" that a Jew or a Muslim would not pray.

    Scholars who study these arcane things tell us that the Gospels record 121 times Christ spoke in the imperative voice. Of these 121 commands, the most common was some form of "Have no fear." ( Fear not, be not afraid, etc.) This command was recorded almost three times more than second most common command:love God and love your neighbor.

    While no one can adequately explain what motivates a serial killer (although your explaination of meeting needs and repression is the closest I have seen) fear accounts for a great deal of violence in the larger, societal sense; fear of the outsider, the different religion, skin color, language, etc. We see them as competing groups.

    To conquer this, I must use another New Testament example, the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus spoke this parable in answer to a rabbi's question, "Who is my brother?"
    As you know, the Samaritans were an Abrahamic people, they separated from the Jews during the breakup of the kingdom after Solomon. They developed a different culture and religion, and throughout the centuries, there was low level warfare and border clashes between the two groups. In short, they were an enemy tribe. But it was the Samaritan who rescued the mugging victim. As Christ asked, "Who then was the neighbor to the one who had fallen among thieves?"

    To tie it all together, I use another example, from the Sermon on the Mount. After he tells us to love our enemies, he asks "If you love them that love you, what reward do you expect? Even sinners do that. And if you salute only your brethren, how are you different than anyone else? Even sinners do that also."

    I believe in both the Good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount examples, Christ was trying to get us to expand our circle of "neighbors," When you do, you stop seeing them as enemies and competitors, and once you begin to understand them, they become neighbors.

    I'll leave you with a Buddhist concept: Karma, or as we Americans say it, "What goes around comes around."

    Or not.... I just thought of an Old Testament passage that is a good practical example. It comes from the story of Rehobeth in the Torah.

    When Isaac's herders fought with the Philistines over water rights, Isaac kept digging more wells until there was enough water for everyone.

    Isaac did not avoid conflict by devious and cowardly actions, as we see many times in the stories of Jacob. Instead, he defused this situation by seeing the big picture, reaching beyond the immediate conflict to address the real problem. Instead of fighting over pieces of the pie, he made the pie bigger. The water was there, the wells just had to be dug.

    Robert Underwood
    Seattle (the second "O" is a zero)

    PS: I identify with the patriarch Isaac, He is my favorite biblical character, and the one I think I am most like. (He also loved barbecue, the finest cuisine ever developed. (His last request was for "savory meat.") If your ever in my neighborhood during the summer, stop by for some excellent ribs or lamb chops right out of the smoker.

    1. Dear Robert,

      i truly enjoyed reading your post, and found it rich and informative.

      i want to only say a couple of things, neither of which is to negate what you are saying.

      one is that overcoming fear is clearly a sine qua non for any of us who want to embrace nonviolence. not only Jesus, Gandhi also expressed similar thoughts, and i see the significance of this regularly in my work with people.

      the other is that fear itself is connected to human needs. i see fear as arising from interpreting reality in a way that implies that our needs are not going to be met. fear and shame are both emotions that are challenging for people, and many find anger an easier route to respond to life.

      i am confident some of these themes will reappear over time.

      thank you again!