On the Essence of Evil


The title of my paper is called “On the Essence of Evil”. The question and nature of evil has been a
human preoccupation since the rise of civilization, yet we can find no consensus on what constitutes
its essence. The instantiation of evil unequivocally contributes to the necessary social manufacturing
of law and order, religion, morality, justice, and systemic mechanisms of restraint as well
as punishment that govern individual and collective relations within all societies. Psychoanalysis
generally has tended to focus upon the pathological dynamics that motivate evil actions, from
primary, malignant, and traumatic narcissism to primitive defensive enactments, superego
lacunae, failure in internalization and empathy, sociopathy, selfobject deficits, developmental
trauma, and attachment pathology, rather than on the question of evil itself. For example,
is evil a human phenomenon, or does it have a metaphysical structure? What makes evil
(by necessity) what it is, or is it merely a relative enterprise fashioned by our subjectivities?
Any determination of evil stands in relation to the meaning of value and the value of meaning,
for what differentiates a natural act (such as animals killing prey, extreme weather phenomenon
resulting in environmental disasters with loss of life, and so forth) from a human act
is the construction of meaning and value inquiry within ethical agency. Furthermore, are actions
in-themselves sufficient to determine the essence of evil, or does psychological intent
become a necessary ingredient? What if such intent was unconsciously harbored yet unacknowledged
by the conscious subject, let alone enacted, the evil within? And what about the consequences
of both action and intention as a touchstone by which to adjudicate evil? These questions
tend to situate the problematic of evil within a moral realm. But what if the question and
nature of evil has nothing to do with morality whatsoever?
In this lecture, I wish to explore the essence and ethics of evil. What I will conclude is
both controversial and counter-intuitive. But before we get there, let us first begin
with basics: What is evil? In classical Greek, (kaw-kose) historically signifies that which
is intrinsically bad, whereby the term evil is a transliteration. Etymologically the origin
of the word is unknown, but many philologists believe it is derived from the proto-Indo-European
root kakka, taken from ka-cow to defecate. The term is taken up in numerous contexts
in classical antiquity and has generally informed our modern conception of all valuative discourses
today. Kaw-kose refers to (a) persons and their character: bad, lowly, wretched (see
Herodas, Mimographus, 3.42); (b) of appearance: ugly; (c) of birth: ill-born, mean; (d) of
courage: craven, cowardly; (e) of kind: worthless, sorry, unskilled; (f) of things: pernicious
(see Homer, Odyssey, 10.64); (g) of omens: unlucky; (h) of words: abusive, foul; (i)
of actions: to do harm or ill to another (Illiad, 2.I95); and (j) in the moral sense: base,
evil. Interestingly, kaw-kose is a cognate of (kaw-lose) , its opposite, namely, the
beautiful, the good. Here we may see how good and evil are dialectically related and mutually
implicative. In other words, we cannot have any discussion of either concept without invoking
the other. This makes evil, by definition, contingent on a notion of good, which is itself
equally presupposed, debatable, and problematic. There is a natural simplicity to splitting
based upon a perfunctory economy. This is an elementary aspect to mental functioning
and observed endlessly as a normative process, whether in society or in the clinic. This
natural (hence normal, inborn, instinctual, or organic) tendency to think in terms of
binaries same/different, good/bad is a rudimentary mechanism of thinking that is superimposed
on all experience. It is only with cognitive development and the acquisition of self-consciousness
or a reflective function (often referred to as mentalization) that the binary proclivity
is breached through attempts at entertaining complexity, holism, integration of opposite
perspectives, and synthetic attempts at unification or reconciliation of opposition and difference.
But this synthetic function, I argue, is a developmental or ideological ideal that is
never fully achieved as a hierarchical reality when it comes to certain matters, especially
those involving the human emotions, including the notions of right and wrong. In fact, an
ideology of right can intensify this bifurcation and fortify a rigid antithesis that blinds
us to the opposing perspective, which further introduces a danger of imposing an absolutism
on phenomena, phenomena that by definition are open, transient, fluid, and pluralistic,
thus radically resisting unification. Here there is no transvaluation of values, no Aufhebung,
no discernable space beyond good and evil; rather we have an impasse, a gap, lacunae,
or parallax where there is no synthesis among the two polarities. We cannot make each opposition
the fork between good and evil a unified position based on fanciful logic alone. It defies all
social realities. It betrays what we know about the human psyche as an unconsciously
desirous and conflicted animal. There will always be a firm obstacle, limit, or check
between these opposing forces in the mind. Yet it all depends upon what perspective you
take. Evil is typically construed on the negative
pole of the dialectic, a construct defined in relation to absolute difference. Evil as
contrast to its opposite highlights its one-sided polarity, one based on pure negation, yet
this duality forms an ontological unit. Since antiquity, evil has been signified by its
privative function and formally instantiated as innate badness, namely, that which deracinates
and generates social disharmony by lacerating all semblances of moral order. It is none
other than the introduction of radical negativity, to the degree that existential preoccupations
with its recalcitrant presence has generated the psychological need for elaborate systems
of theodocy to explain its occurrence. Here reconciling the appearance of evil with the
good and with the question and meaning of God has elevated the notion of evil to a metaphysical
factor. Historically, God has been extricated from evil while being attributed instead to
fallen angels or man, yet this fantasy is hardly intellectually worthy of support. In
today’s secular world, the reification of evil to a supernatural hypostatization (i.e.,
the Devil) is an untenable explanation for the atrocities committed by human beings.
In the absence of divine presence or intervention, evil is exclusively a human phenomenon.
What would a secular theory of evil look like? First we must explore whether we can pinpoint
its essence, namely, that which necessarily circumscribes and defines what it is, without
which it would not nor could not exist. Here I am chasing after the question of universality:
Can evil be shown to have an essence, and if so, does it apply universally across modes
of human phenomena that are adjudicated to be or deemed as evil? This would imply, all
things being equal, that any universal attribution of evil would carry epistemological and hermeneutic
agreement to warrant such generalizations, even if only confined to theory. But is this
possible? This would mean, hypothetically, that no one instance or particularity would
elude the label of evil if it was deemed a universal attribution. This surely would challenge
the notion of context, contingency, accident, and chance. Perhaps we should not assume that
universality and context are mutually exclusive, especially when they ontically inform each
other. Perhaps evil may be viewed as a certain positionality as fixation on one side of its
dialectical polarity, what may also be said of the good, whereby both positions form a
tension arc between their oppositions. Here we may posit that both good and evil involve
a radical splitting of the other, one that is obstreperous to mediation or synthesis.
Because evil is historically by definition the absence or privation of good, it requires
opposition in order to lend it structure and meaning. Here evil is value laden, hence it
stands in relation to the question and nature of morality. This presupposes that evil cannot
be amoral as it signifies a judgment about value and agency. But what if evil is in itself
a relative construct, that there are no absolutes? What if it has no value? Then this would imply
that there is neither good nor evil, for valuation itself is either held in abeyance, neutralized,
suspended, non-existent, or devolves into a meaningless construct. But how can a material
act or embodied event lack valuation, how can it escape human judgment? Perhaps we may
conclude there are no absolutes due to the relativity of conferring value judgments while
still observing appearances of evil that are universal. Conversely, can the notion of pure
negativity carry with it a metaphysical value even if it lies outside of human valuation?
In other words, can evil exist without agency? These are difficult questions to sustain.
Evil is often defined as an act of transgressing, which in many cultures corresponds to something
that is wrong, yet we immediately encounter the thorny issues of determining what constitutes
wrongness, the non-good, and what it means to transgress, as these determinations stand
in relation to a contextual and collective attribution of meaning as valuation. Here
evil is not merely an intellectual concept, or the religionization of human desire and
action, for it stands in relation to an absolute value that has been contravened, devalued,
or occluded. But because value judgments are determinative and transpire within a given
material culture and linguistic social structure replete with local customs and prejudices
of meaning, the question of absolute value may succumb to relativity. Regardless of the
questionable antipodes and extremity of either absolutism or relativism, the essence of evil
is found in its contextual valuation whether absolute, universal, or relative in its instantiation
and scope. This necessarily places valuation at the heart of any determination of evil,
and since valuation stands in juxtaposition to greater collective meaning structures within
any given society, evil becomes a social artifact. The term evil is burdened by its history.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition that has dominated Western thought, evil is considered
to be that which violates God’s will. We may already see an ideology at play by presupposing
a Supreme Being to begin with, one that dominates world discourse and preys on the fears, emotional
vulnerability, ignorance, and religious prejudices of contemporary cultures. Promulgating such
a way of thinking further reinforces the unconscious social fantasy that such a reified Ideal exists
by which all humans will be compared to and judged by divine authority. In ancient times,
the God posit served many pragmatic and psychological purposes, but it hardly serves as a touchstone
let alone justification for an operational definition of evil. I see no valid rational
argument for perpetuating this psychomythology that evil is deviation from God’s way, but
we must take seriously the notion that evil is the privation or absence of good. This
was set out by Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae (see Part I: Treatise on The Distinction of
Good And Evil [Q 48-49]), which was earlier echoed by Augustine in his Confessions (Bk
3, vii [12]), what Plotinus believed, in the Enneads, was a psychic or subjective event,
hence belonging to the soul (I, 2.1-3; 8.8), not a godhead, yet at the same time an ontological
condition based upon the fact that we are embodied. But the privation (steresis) theory
of evil (kakon), although debatable, may be said to have its genesis in Aristotle who
discussed the notion of lack, such as when something is deprived of an attribute belonging
to its nature, for a thing comes to be from [its] privation (see Physics, bk 1: 191b15).
With stipulations, this may be (loosely) interpreted to mean, that which is evil comes into being
from what it is lacking. Perhaps this is merely an inverse tautology: evil is the lack of
goodness. Of course this sentiment is inherited from Plato: evil is the destroyer and corrupter
of all things (Republic, 10.608e), which can never be done away with (Theaetetus, 176a).
That which is deemed objectively beneficial is good, and that which is deemed evil is
not. As for the nature of evil, it is derived from the natural desire of food of drink of
sex, but not for the momentary pleasure it produces, but rather from its consequences
(Protagoras, 353c-e). Here we may see a kernel of neoPlatonism influencing the Christian
perversion of pathologizing human nature as sinful. Despite the fact that discourse on
the nature of evil was inspired by the pre-Socratics, and can be historically found in virtually
all records of early civilization, good and evil have become the positive and negative
exemplifications of moral absolutes. The Relativity of Evil
Now let us turn to the question of relativity. I have a country home on a modest fishing
lake surrounded by many acres of forest and bush in the lush Canadian wilderness. My closest
friend was visiting from the States when my wife, while taking a walk with our daughter
on the property, called me on her cell phone alerting me to her discovery. There were several
large fish pooling together in a shallow area of the lake near a water drain that connects
to a stream. She had no clue what kind of fish they were, but she found the discovery
of concern. I immediately feared they were Asian carp attempting to migrate upstream
to spawn in the spring. Asian carp are an invasive species that kills practically everything
in its ecosystem and have received much attention from anglers and ecologists in Ontario, hence
stimulating governmental campaigns designed to combat their contamination of indigenous
waters. The invasion of Asian carp have been so damaging in the United States that it is
estimated that approximately ninety percent of the ecosystem in the Mississippi River
has been decimated. I am a catch-n-release bass fisherman, forester, and conservationist,
and the last thing I want is my precious fishing paradise destroyed by unwelcome intruders.
Upon this news, I immediately grabbed a large fishing net and walked briskly with my friend
to the scene of the crime. As I feared, these were not largemouth bass
but 1-2 foot carp waiting for the right moment to swim upstream. I instinctively started
to scoop them out one by one with my net in a frenzied manner and threw them onto the
shore to die. Only a few escaped back into the lake. When the deed was done, I looked
at my friend’s face
and could immediately see his visible discomfort with my murderous act. Was this evil? From
my perspective, I was protecting my lake. From his, this was morally reprehensible.
Here witnessing the killing of living creatures was disturbing, and I must admit I did not
enjoy it one bit, but I felt compelled to safeguard my habitat. One could even say this
basic instinct, as biologists will tell you, is evolutionarily programed despite the elevation
or sublimation of self-consciousness we typically confer onto reason and moral conscience. But
herein lies a clash of values that provoke basic ethical questions. Despite the fact
that we are hardwired toward predation, adaptation, and survival, should human consciousness be
obliged to rise above its naturalized tendencies? Should one kill another living thing? Is it
evil to set a mousetrap or swat a fly? Moreover, is it innately base? Necessarily so? Or do
we value some entities more than others to justify our acts of killing? World societies
face these dilemmas every day. In other words, is killing intrinsically evil?
Of course we may differentiate the act of killing from murder, as the world masses must
eat, and have no malicious intent when harvesting grain, plants and vegetables, or slaughtering
animals to put food on the table in order to be healthy and thrive. The cold brute fact
of nature is that we must necessarily kill in order to live. Despite the well-intentioned,
ethically conscientious objector who demands that we as humanity transcend our primitive
natures as desirous, self-enhancing agents, most of the world pays very little attention
to this moral question when a hungry stomach cries out to be fed. Here we value our own
sustenance over an axiological category or lower form of life that we determine is secondary
to human need. But here I had no intention of eating these fish. They were an atrocious
enemy that needed to be eradicated in order to preserve what I have and value. This basic
splitting in my consciousness at the time may be compared to a simple economy that justifies
hurting others, including murder and warfare, based on the notion of relativized experiential
value. On Universality
Let’s switch gears for a moment. On January 10, 2015, Nigeria’s militant Jihadist group
Boko Haram (which literally means Western education is forbidden), after going on a
mass killing spree in Baga on Lake Chad, strapped explosives to a 10 year old little girl and
sent her off into a market in M?digur? as a human detonator (Nadeau, 2015). This atrocity
comes after the April 14th, 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 school girls from the Chibok
Government Secondary School by the terrorist group, of which the girl is believed to be
one of the abductees. Although reported accounts vary, as many as 276 are still missing, all
of which are believed to be used as sex objects and domestic servants.
On December 16, 2014, seven members of a Pakistani Taliban extremist group entered the back door
of an army public school in the dustbowl border city of Peshawar and indiscriminately opened
fire with machine guns and explosives strapped to their vests, killing 132 schoolchildren.
The Taliban proclaimed the attack was a vendetta for an army offensive in North Waziristan
in June that beset militant insurgents. Pakistan’s Taliban spokesman Mohammed Umar Khorasanin
plainly stated their motive: “We targeted the school because the army targets our families.
. . We want them to feel our pain” (Inayat, Qazi, & Bacon, 2014). Among the copious voices
of world outcry, Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper said in a news conference: I think it’s hard for any of us as rational
and compassionate people to understand terrorism, to understand why people would want, in the
name of some political cause, to simply terrorize, hurt, kill innocent people, whole sections
of society, but I think it is just beyond, it is beyond our comprehension why somebody
would target children. (Canadian Press, 2014) These words read alone do not convey the felt
emotionality of his speech. This psychological perplexity of disbelief nicely encapsulates
the unfathomability of bearing witness to a universal horror. What is beyond comprehension
is that innocent helpless children would be brutally murdered by deliberate, malicious,
and calculated actions of men. It is as if the response of the collective psyche were
to say: “How could human beings do this? Only animals prey, for they are instinctual evolutionary
organisms that have no self-reflective function or moral conscience by natural design. Humans
are supposed to be different.” But whether we accept the inherent animality to humanity
or not, the line has been crossed. It is only on the condition that slaughtering
innocent children in cold blood would be permissible in any possible world that one would even
question its moral significance. In other words, it would never occur to most civilized
people to ask whether it is moral or immoral to kill innocent children who have done nothing
to others, for the Kantian categorical imperative already speaks a universal language of prohibition.
In such instances, where the masses identify with the purity and holiness of childhood,
whether as a cultural symbolic or through the direct empathic identification with their
own families and personal lives namely, their own relatives and the child within, the immediate
dissociation of understanding any rational means behind such atrocities is emotionally
unfathomable for the simple fact that it disrupts our psychic need for a moral order in the
universe. Such an imposed confrontation with universal horror forces us to question the
presupposed universality of a moral universe to begin with, for it eclipses all value as
we know it. Here our rational “unfathomability” that is “beyond comprehension” is none other
than our own emotive dissociation to the realization (that must be disavowed) of the dissociation
of ethics hence the renunciation of “right” perpetrated by the Other. In other words,
we would have to suspend or abandon a universal concept of what is right and wrong, not to
mention entertain a mentalized stance that others would not share our own sense of values.
Here lies the pathological breach, an incipient a priori knowledge, that human nature is at
base a primitive, feral process that fractures all illusory notions of a civilized, just,
and loving world, for it only takes one act of barbarism to remind us that evil is no
illusion. On the Question of Essence
Let us begin to try to sketch out a more refined definition of evil. First of all, as stated
earlier, I categorically reject the notion of the personification of evil as a supernatural
force or being derived from theosophic perspectives, theodicy, or onto-theology. Having said this,
there are certain metaphysical principles that are operative in any account of evil,
such as the institution and/or experience of pure or radical negativity, disorder, disharmony,
or disintegration as a structural process endemic to the instantiation of destruction
and decay, but these factors may also be viewed as a necessary complementarity to life, for
without such events, there can be no change or growth, only stasis. I cannot conceive
of the universe without process, therefore without privation, variation, difference,
conflict, and negation, there would be no motion, evolution, or creativity; hence negativity
in itself cannot be condemned as evil, and in fact may be deemed a metaphysical good
because it leads to variation, heterogeneity, and plurality. But this discourse on metaphysical
evil hardly satisfies our quest for an answer to essence.
Natural disasters and tragedies happen every moment, from the Lisbon earthquake that sparked
the theodicy movement to overcome the aporia of how such systemic destruction could even
be allowed by a benevolent godhead, especially now when the problem of evil and gratuitous
suffering remains the most severe challenge to justified theology (Frances, 2013), to
the banality of death, from the butcher’s block to political warfare and military science,
but we do not impart a malevolent intent to the impersonal hands of cosmic forces. They
merely happen through the blind random mutation of organic nature, as well as influenced or
expedited by human intervention, as we may readily observe as global populations slowly
destroy our planet through climate change, global warming, pollution, exploitation of
natural resources, desertification, and the despoliation of our ecosystems. But when people
burn coal to warm their homes or cook food, there is no malignant intent to cause harm,
only to survive. Despite the fact that these continued practices, if allowed to go unrestrained
or unchecked, may bring about the demise of our planet, to call them intrinsically evil
would mean that we must abort our natural inclinations toward self-sustenance dependent
upon a social infrastructure that promulgates and provides the necessities of life. This
is not to say that societies should not improve upon such cultural institutions through collective
education and social consciousness, but to call them inherently evil, I suggest, is misguided.
After all, most people value their own immediate concrete lives over an abstract principle
or a fish in the sea, even if such suspension of reason or ethical myopia leads to slow
global suicide. We must first attempt to isolate a key ingredient
before formulating an answer to the question of the essence of evil. In paraphrasing Aristotle,
for something to be, it must necessarily contain certain essential qualities, elements, or
forms that make it what it is, without which, it could not be or exist. In other words,
if something does not possess certain features, it would not be fundamental to its nature,
hence it would not be a vital aspect to its ontological structure. The essence of anything
must be indispensable, critical, requisite or basic, hence the lifeblood of its being.
Does evil have an essential form? Does it have essential properties? And what would
they be? If evil necessarily encompasses pure negativity,
and negativity is an indispensable property to its constitution and appearance, then its
instantiation must issue forth or bring about a modicum of violence. Violence may have many
appearances, from the pulsating threat of passion or power to the intensity of fear,
intimidation, felt aggression, hostility, brute force, abuse, ferocity, viciousness,
cruelty, savagery, and death. Slavoj Zizek (2008) identifies subjective violence as the
phenomena of subjective experience, which is the most salient among the masses perpetrated
by an identifiable agent or entity. By contrast, objective violence is both symbolic, that
which is constituted through language and semiotic orders of understanding, as well
as the myriad forms it may psychically appear. In fact, language itself is violent: it places
a proverbial demand on the other whether solicited or not through aggressive encroachments and
superimposed universals of meaning; while systemic violence is instantiated through
our economic and political institutions that are operating as concretely inscribed mechanisms
within our cultural infrastructures and social unconscious ideologies. Here we must differentiate
the ontological structural elements of evil from their subjective phenomenological-hermeneutical
counterparts. A defining characteristic that differentiates
subjective from objective evil is that subjective experience or its qualitative, hermeneutic
equivalent may elude a universal appraisal of its definition. This may be due to a lack
of shared personal experience, linguistic meaning, social convention, consensus, or
objective standards of measurement and their interpretation that separates the individual
from the collective. We have already encountered this with the problem of relativity. Here
empathy may play a key ingredient in sympathizing with how another may interpret a particular
personal experience as evil or not, but the form of the experience and its adjudication
is nevertheless a subjective enterprise. The question becomes whether or not it is universalizable.
Here is where a potential objective dimension materializes, namely, does it resonate with
other subjects and their subjectivities that can form some basis of consensus that is adopted
as social convention. Whether this makes something objective is still another matter, for one
can envision a community of others that hold onto propositional attitudes, false beliefs,
emotional prejudices, distortions of truth and realty, and socialized delusions based
on subjective fantasies peculiar to a group, mass, or culture.
Let us propose a distinction between (a) and evil act and (b) an evil intention. An act
always leads to some form of a consequence, while an intention may be passive, active,
conscious, unconscious, and either linked to a motive or action, suspended, disavowed,
or even held in check, hence non-enacted. For example, an act that brings about death
may be accidental, such as a motor vehicle accident, but there was no intent to kill.
The same applies to forces of nature, such as a tornado or tsunami: weather has no personal
intention to destroy, it is merely a series of random or teleonomic physical events. In
these cases death and destruction result from acts without intent; despite being tragic,
dreadful, and disastrous, I would not classify these as examples of evil. Hence for something
to be evil, this requires agency. This implies that a certain modicum of intentionality is
at play in operationalizing evil. And when it comes to the human psyche, this would necessarily
require consciousness (even if consciousness lies on a continuum) that aims at a particular
act as an intentional meant object. This means that an act that brings about a certain negative
consequence we deem evil must stem from an intentional stance, hence it is deliberate
although not necessarily deliberated, as acts may be spontaneously enacted and not particularly
well thought-out; albeit it would have to stem from an intention all the same, for no
action is devoid of a motive or purpose driving an act, even if it is unconscious.
This brings us to speculate that a certain state of mind must be operative in acts of
evil, whether this be (a) dispositional or (b) intentional, as well as bearing a particular
(c) qualia or (d) psychic form (e.g., emotion) attached to the intentional act. And here
is where we may consider a state of mind that is ontically or dispositionally aggressive,
which is the manifestation of the purely negative pole of the dialectic. Here violence becomes
an ontological feature structurally infused in the very essence of evil. This commits
us to accepting a universalizing principle to evil, for every form of evil must participate
of a rudimentary violence. We may further say that in its pure (abstract) form, dispositional
violence is the inscription of radical negativity, while evil is the manifestation (hence the
appearance or enactment) of dispositional violence. Not only is this subjectively constituted
in each person (viz., dispositional evil), it materializes in empirical reality when
externalized in society. In other words, it takes on objective properties and consequences,
is institutionally organized, signified, and represented in the concrete universals that
comprise our social, economic, and political suprastructures, and as Zizek points out,
is systemically politicized through reinforced ideologies operative within hegemonic, socio-symbolic,
and cultural unconscious processes. Not only is there a phenomenal appearance to evil,
it is ontologically encrypted in the very fabric of worldhood itself.
From the side of phenomenology, the qualitative appearance of intentionality manifests as
a certain mode of dispositional violence that takes on a malevolent form: namely, there
is a certain malignancy, spitefulness, and maliciousness directed toward an object of
aggression. Therefore, there must be a certain desire to hurt or cause pain to another person
or thing, even if this is a prereflective act. Here the agent, the intent, and the act
must display its dispositional violence, while the consequence may or may not bring about
an evil outcome based upon the success or failure of the intentional act to achieve
its goal. For example, the intent to inflict pain, suffering, or death on another may be
thwarted, but the intentional act is nevertheless evil. Here we may say it is predisposed. The
corollary is that dispositional violence ontically informs intentionality and action. This means
that people are evil, and not merely their behavior. Here we may conclude that the disposition
toward evil is structurally constituted, because human nature is predisposed toward violence.
But the ontology of evil may or may not be enacted based on impulse and restraint, therefore
relegating the domain of evil to a bifurcation between desire, emotionality and thought on
the one hand, and the instantiation of intentional action on the other. In other words, we are
inherently evil (as that which is onto-structurally innate), but not all people engage in evil
deeds. Here a principle of restraint supersedes our base primitive constitutions, if not for
the beacon of reason attuned to the reality principle, or else due to the development
of identification and empathy for others, conscience, and the pursuit of the good or
virtue as an ethical comportment. But this involves a process of socialization and domestication
based on self-renunciation and a taming of the inner shrew, as Freud (1930) famously
points out, the sublimation and foil to our primitive propensities.
Thus far we have deconstructed evil as having an ontological (hence a necessary and universal)
edifice based upon our primordial psychic constitution that interpellates the individual
and society by natural proclivity and desire on the one hand, as well as through the objective
institutionalization of social, semiotic, and symbolic practices that condition our
being in the world. Therefore, the psychic dimension of evil is structural as both (a)
innate disposition due to our organic embodiment fueled by drive and desire, as well as (b)
socially superimposed by concrete (hence environmental) materiality via our thrownness into culture.
Here structuralization accounts for the universality of our corporeal and cultural embodiment as
an objective fact. But the phenomenal dimension of evil is concerned with lived subjectivity
or psychic qualia. This may be radically relative or pertinent to personal experience under
hermeneutic variants even if shared by a collective ethos.
We have already determined that a degree of intentionality must be operative (even if
prereflexive) in conditioning the phenomenology of evil, but the qualitative forms of such
appearances must emerge from dispositional violence and ingress in the intentional act.
The subjective state of mind is pertinent, as there is an affective qualitative manifestation
of ma-lef-i-cence that is mobilized in evil intentionality, a negative emotional intensity
of the will. While the appearances of evil are literally innumerable, let us further
analyze its ontological structure. The Evil Within
When my daughter was not quite 4 years old, my wife gave birth to our second child. Upon
bringing our daughter to see her mother and newborn baby sister for the first time in
the hospital with roses in hand, we visited them both at bedside, our new baby swathed
in a blanket. After giving our eldest a flower to give to her mother, she took the stem and
starting poking her baby sister in the belly like it was a knife. To my daughter, this
wasn’t her baby sister, but rather a thing, an encroaching object that commanded special
attention and displaced her importance in a fraction of a second. There was nothing
playful about her action: she wanted to hurt or kill it, for she wanted it to die, or simply
vanish. It came to steal away her mother. It had taken her place. We may joke about
Oedpalization, sibling rivalry over parents’ affections, or the feelings of abandonment
and hatred for the replacement object, but there was also an air of innocence to this
event, an evil normalcy, so to speak, conveyed in this automatic behavior.
Everyone is intrinsically evil: it is a structural invariant of the human psyche as normativity.
Why is this so? Because everyone is predisposed to aggressivity and violence, to hurting others,
to intentionally inflicting verbal, emotional, relational, and physical pain, even abuse
of various forms and vicious maliciousness no matter how unsavory the thought, or how
one vociferously objects to or disavows such characteristics, or how saintly a person may
appear. Psychoanalysis has illuminated this psychological fact to the point that it bears
no further justification or empirical demonstration, for all one has to do is observe a child in
daycare or turn on the evening news. Our world is a festering cesspool of pathology. But
we cannot say the same about the good. Goodness or virtue is not structurally intrinsic like
evil; rather it is a developmental achievement acquired through socialization and education,
unless one prefers to define goodness as a purely biological-ethological category belonging
to our animal bodies, such as nurturing and protecting one’s young. The naive notion that
we are born good and become bad is as infantile as the most guileless fantasy that we have
fallen from God’s grace into sin by natural desire, corruption, and choice. Not only is
this illogical, for it would mean denying our embodied natures, it also negates all
empirical facts that we are libidinal and aggressive creatures by virtue of our evolutionary
drives. Many psychoanalysts today do not take seriously the notion of drive theory, when
it is a biological fact that human psychology is conditioned on and derived from our material
embodiment. It is beyond dispute. We are capable of anything, from killing to loving, to giving
into instinct and impulse, to ethical sociality, to self-sacrifice for an ideal, to transcending
our basic animality for the greater Other. It seems superfluous to even have to argue
for the obvious, but I shall briefly sketch out why evil is structurally inherent as part
of our unconscious ontology. Roughly, the argument goes, because we (men and women)
are biologically conditioned toward aggression and violence, it is a natural disposition
that can either be activated or inhibited. The potentiality is inherent within everyone,
which is now over 7.5 billion people worldwide, and a variety of circumstances can ignite
or defuse its potential occurrence. These sociological factors do not concern us here,
but suffice it to say that drives are stimulated by external factors. The inner a priori ontological
preconditions, however, do not mean that all human beings will enact their evil tendencies.
This is subject to many factors including inhibition, defense, and transformation as
well as their failure, which always stand in relation to social systems, institutionalization,
and intersubjective relations. But the point here is to emphasize that to be human is to
always stand in relation to the evil within. In fact, our humanization requires us to confront
our evilization. We would not be human without such a confrontation, for this demands that
we examine our interior and social environs, and analyze what is preferably good from what
is innately bad. Although this conundrum is a subjective enterprise that is inscrutable
and open to many estimations, it is also a social requirement that influences the parameters
of institutional law and order. Without such dialogue, we would merely be slaves to self-interest
and biological instinct at our own peril. It is rather elementary to remind the audience
of the primacy of the drives (Triebe). The basis of Freudian theory from its inception
allowed for the polymorphous perversity of the drives if not for the simple fact that
desire has no bounds. Desire is free-floating and can attach to any object. While desire
is unbounded in itself, only a drive can appear bound, whereby its aim is to achieve satisfaction.
While drives may be temporarily sated by infusing or incorporating an object in reality or fantasy
(which is completely variable and arbitrary), desire is always an incessant craving that
is never satiated. Because the fantasized object of a wish is always transient and never
permanent, unconscious fantasy and its potential foci are fodder for the imagination ripe for
the enactment of evil. This means that our libidinal investments will always entail aggressive
complementaries in the strife and gratification of any wish fraught with contention, competition,
compromise formation, and defensive countermeasures that define psychic process. This structural
tension produces antithetical dialectical relations that influence the internality and
manifestation of our pathos. The theoretic speculation of an inherent death
drive (Todestrieb), although controversial, does not preclude the reality of dispositional
violence oriented toward human aggression, but rather accounts for it as a destructive
ontological principle channeling negation and conflict within an evolutionary framework.
The human psyche is born/e of negativity and radical splitting, which initiates a procreative
or generative process that is simultaneously life enhancing yet paradoxically self-destructive.
The logic of the interior that suffuses unconscious organization fuels this antithetical impulse
as a will toward life and death, hence creating antinomies and impasses in their ability to
meet resolve or find a synthetic node of unification. But as Freud (1920) reminds us, before the
will toward murder as an externalized aggressive fantasy belying our true primitive natures,
there is also a primal impulse as suicidal self-negation that may be equally enacted
through volitional eruptions in psychic space. The analyzed mind cannot deny these human
proclivities, because they materialize every day in the clinic and the social world, which
tells us something irrefutably profound about human nature. The human animal fights the
evil within on a daily basis as an inherent self-renunciation we are obliged to accept
on the one hand, and as the refusal to take ownership of our desire on the other, that
which is part of our clashing dialectical symmetries, hence the formal dynamics underlying
the structural tensions bolstering our unconscious pathos. Here self-repudiation is only possible
on the condition that we secure a psychic space for the fulfillment of our pathologies,
where we may unconsciously enjoy our evil fantasies mired in the realm of jouissance,
that realm of excess so satisfying yet so repugnant that it cuts.
The dispositional wickedness of urge, affect, fantasy, behavioral impulse, and thought is
scarcely capable of being eradicated, only mitigated. What ultimately matters is control
over its enactment. This is the functional introduction of an ethical social introject
as a prohibitive law or ideal that facilitates human sublimation over brute instinct often
initiated by empathic identification with others based in human attachment. But the
fantasy life of world masses carry on in a sordid underworld where satisfaction is achieved
through the contemplation of the nefarious as a fantasized internal drama that brings
about both horror and relief, but only on the condition that it is consigned to fantasy
with our self-reflective awareness of such. Those who are not able to maintain an internal
reflective ego or mentalized stance of self-consciousness may beckon the dark call of the shadow, the
demonic, or whatever term we may wish to employ to signify the destructive forces of evil.
Thinking evil thoughts and wishing evil deeds or events is not the same as doing them. This
defensive containment of self-restraint makes all the difference in the world between a
civilized human being and a criminal. Despite the fact that we are all dispositionally evil,
it may never come to light. So here we have a crucial difference in the
value parameters we assign to our definition of evil. Although we may be constitutionally
predisposed toward evil, it does not always appear. That is, evil dispositions and intentions
may be relegated to thought rather than actions, hence inhibited and transformed. What this
means is that evil remains hidden in some while disclosed, unconcealed, or enacted by
others. This makes the qualia and empirical quantification of evil contingent upon its
modes of manifestation, or how it appears. But our pithy unsavory conclusion is hardly
trite: everyone by nature is evil, it’s just a matter of degree.




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