There is a paradox that used to upset and confuse me. Here it is. On the one hand it seems like evil is a disorder of the will. We know that hurting a person or ourselves is wrong and we do it anyway. It is just so tempting to be bad. This is the explanation of sin, and is popular among the religious.
On the other hand, it seems like evil is a mistake of the mind. The person who lashes out is laboring under the mistaken belief that his victim is a threat. The self-indulgent person believes, wrongly, that his indulgence will make him happy, or as happy as he is ever going to be. This view is popular among the academic.
The puzzle bugged me because I could never keep from slipping back and forth between the two positions. Even very wicked people were taught by their parents that might makes right — so they had a false belief. And people from a long, long time ago it seems weird and silly to call them evil. Is the ape-man in 2001 who kills another ape-man with a tapir femur, or his real life Olduvai counterpart, evil? That’s a nutty thing to say.
And yet when I tried to settle into the view that nobody ever does something bad just because he’s bad it always seemed a little fake. For one example there is me. I know I sometimes do what is wrong even though I know it. And how can I have one rule for me and one rule for everybody else, since, obviously, we are the same kind of item. And it’s not only me. If I try to get into the headspace of somebody who brutally and continually bullies some one weaker from a position of privilege, I get mad and I can’t help but saying — that’s wrong! You are not just making a mistake! You are being a horrendous person.
This morning I thought maybe I had blundered on to a sort of solution to the paradox. When I blame the other person’s will it almost always seems to be when I get angry. And when I praise the other person’s will, when I admire what a fabulous thing it is that such a good person is walking around on their feet and legs, I am responding emotionally too.
I think the difference between blaming sin and blaming ignorance has to do with the degree of emotional involvement I have, or allow myself to feel, about the other person. When I am emotional I feel it is sin, when I am cooler I think it is a mistake.
And this makes sense. Because when we are angry we try to make a change in the other person, and by railing against their sin we are using the most powerful language at our disposal to bring about a change — right here, right now. While when we are less angry and take a more dispassionate view of things, we invoke mistakes. We can still bring about change — by teaching and thinking — but it is a slower less urgent motion towards change.
It also explains why I thought there were different rules for myself and for others. I was willing to allow myself to be angry at myself, or a part of myself, in a way I wasn’t willing to allow when it came to other people.
I think that’s the answer to the paradox. Mistakes are willful when we’re angry about them, mistaken when we are feeling cool. Like all answers it generates more questions.
How can the world be something that is correctly responded to both intellectually and emotionally? How can it be a world that is by turns a infuriating problem, a joyful gift, and a fascinating puzzle?
I’m tempted to give Jnanagarbha’s answer to the question “how is it that anything appears to be the case given that all is emptiness”.
His answer was: It is just that things appear to be the case. What more is there to say.
But I find that answer, TBH, a bit annoying!