Evil and Suffering

Good and evil are necessary to existence, like yin and yang. Man is naturally good and evil. Suffering is caused by ego, desire, uncreative will and chance.

Goodness as part of a greater reality

Generally we think of the good in life as both virtue and pleasure, while the bad is evil and suffering. In some worldviews, good and bad are seen as merely illusory, but for most of us in daily living they are real. No denial can get rid of pain, except for individuals of extraordinary stoicism, so we have to find some satisfactory explanation for it. Good and bad cannot be dismissed as merely relative, for like everything else in life they have ultimate values: there is absolute good and absolute bad. Taoism helps us understand how these things are part of a greater whole, an overall pattern of polarities which we broadly label as yin-yang. Polarities or opposites are as fundamental to our world as balance and harmony (with which they form a triad). Indeed, in their range and intensity they may explain the apparent uniqueness of Earth, for where else in the cosmos are such polarities found?

Opposites in relationship

Opposites everywhere co-exist in a complex relationship. They feed off each other in a constant creative tension. The good has no meaning without the bad and seems to invite it to come, and vice versa. To cite a contemporary example, prosperity in 2007 “invited” the global financial crisis, and the pain of this crisis inevitably led to the reforms of the post-crisis period. In the long term, goodness always seems to prevail, if only just. The simple fact that we exist, if we take this as a sign of goodness, suggests that goodness always has at least a small margin of advantage, hidden or obscured though it may be. However, the traditional Christian idea that God has ultimate power over evil and suffering is erroneous. God, interpreted simply as goodness, has no more than equal influence over the affairs of the Universe. At best, we can say that goodness counteracts evil and ameliorates suffering. Badness cannot be removed; good and bad, like yin and yang, co-exist in perpetuity.

Bad intentions, actions and outcomes

Why bad things happen is part of the unfathomable mystery of the Universe. Plainly the interplay of good and bad has led to our present advanced state, but this does not explain why it has to be so. If good and bad are not simply co-equal parts of the one overall reality, which is what is proposed here, there must be another explanation. This might be the Zoroastrian belief that good and evil are both original, or the monotheistic (including Christian) view that the one God, for reasons of his own, has allowed the existence of evil, perhaps to give meaning to the free will of humankind. Some people see bad merely as the absence of good, or as a cosmic disorder, and some have other explanations. Given the mystery of evil, and suffering too, we might be wise to avoid asking why it occurs and simply accept it as an unavoidable fact of all life, which we fight not only in our own lives but universally.

Evil and corrupt nature

If our ideas about God and goodness are updated, our ideas about evil and suffering should be updated too. Some see human beings as inherently good, though flawed, others as inherently bad. However, reality has both feet on the ground: we are all intrinsically both good and bad. Our character is but a microcosm of the character of all nature. The divine is within us, if only we have eyes to see it, but so is evil. It is important for us to have this understanding, for our view of the essential character of humankind determines our whole approach to life. Thus, the sanest and also most life-affirming view is that bad behaviour is always to be anticipated though not expected, no matter how lost from goodness a person might seem to be. There is something of God in everyone.

The causes of suffering

Suffering is an outcome of more than evil or human weakness, for chance also plays a large part. Some from different branches of religion see suffering as ordained (or mitigated) by a deity, however the laws of causation appear sufficient to explain life outcomes, whether pleasure or pain. Apart from chance, the causes of our suffering lie mostly in the opposites of goodness, summed up as desire, ego, and destructive or uncreative will. Desire, a perversion of truth, is certainly at the heart of many of our problems. Ego is at the heart of other problems – ego which is consumed with self and therefore excludes love and other healthy relationships with others. Errors of will can cut in either of two directions: sheer destructiveness on the one hand, or failure (through fear or apathy) to restrain destructiveness. Society has created mechanisms to protect us from ourselves and our human failings, but no matter how tough-minded or sophisticated, they are never adequate.

And now, for a poet’s perspective, read Because We Can

In a world of opposites, the existence of goodness naturally implies the existence of things that are bad. We too are both good and bad; the two are forever symbiotic, like yin and yang. Goodness (God) is not responsible for evil or suffering, but it counteracts evil and ameliorates suffering.

Suggested further reading

Abhedananda, Swami. 1900. Philosophy of Good and Evil. New York: Vedânta Society. http://www.hinduism.co.za/goodand1.htm

Dale, Ralph Alan, trans. 2005. The Tao Te Ching [by] Lao Tzu: A New Translation, Commentary and Introduction. London: Watkins.

Neiman, Susan, 2002. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.