The Knowledge of Good and Evil


Keynote Address

Royal Australia New Zealand Congress of Psychiatry

Hobart, Tasmania

May 14, 2003









Allen R. Dyer, M.D.,Ph.D.

Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

James H. Quillen College of Medicine

Box 70,567

East Tennessee State University

Johnson City, TN 37614, USA

Tel: 1 423 439 8010

Fax: 1 423 439 2210




Revised August 22, 2003




ABSTRACT: The Knowledge of Good and Evil:

Ethics for the Post-critical age

Ethics for the 21st Century











The Knowledge of Good and Evil


Allen R. Dyer




Good and Evil are much in the news these days. That is probably a good thing. But the accounts of good and evil that are put before us seem to presume a knowledge of good and evil. They often lack the nuance we might find useful in trying to distinguish right from wrong. Even color televisions reduce the complexities good and evil to black and white. Conflict is portrayed much as it was in old movies of the American West where good guys wore white hats and bad guys wore black hats.

We recognize that not everything called “good” is good; nor is everything called “evil” not good. There is a fundamental human tendency to define “good” as that which is in the interest of the self and to define “evil” as that which stands in the way of self-interest. The consequences of such deception compel urgent attention to the knowledge of good and evil.

Good and evil are polar opposites of the best and worst of human behavior. We should strive to do good and avoid evil. How are we to know good and evil? Religions chart the course for civilizations, but science (psychology) elucidates the dynamic conflicts that confront each individual. Two ways of knowing, two cultures. Can they be reconciled in a coherent view of moral life? Though science and religion are often seen as mutually incompatible, it is my conviction that a coherent fusion can be achieved.

I propose that we tackle this question of the knowledge of good and evil by taking a mythological journey, observing closely what we see. I would like to look closely at the Garden of Eden story, but first I propose we enter the mythic realm with an aboriginal story about the Eagle and the Crow.

In a land not far from here

In a time long ago,

A time the people called dreamtime,

The crow and the eagle were friends,

And the crow was white.

Each day they went out to get food.

The crow said to the eagle,

“You go up into the hills and try to catch kangaroos,

And I will go down to the bilibong

And try to catch ducks.”

The crow swam under the water breathing through a hollow reed

And snared the ducks by their feet.

He feasted on the ducks, but did not share them with the eagle

As required by laws they both understood.

One day the eagle came back early and went down to the bilibong.

He saw that the crow had been eating ducks.

He saw that the crow had grease on its mouth

And that there was grease around the fire.

The eagle got very mad and threw the crow into the fire.

The fire singed the crow’s feathers and turned them black.

Also some of the eagles feathers got singed.

And that is why some eagle feathers are brown.

I would like to make a couple of observations about this story to prepare us for the work of our journey ahead:

First: Myths provide explanations for observed phenomena, eg. crows have balck feathers; eagles and crows don’t get along.

Second, in aboriginal, Native American and other animistic cultures, human motives are ascribed to animals. If you want to understand human behaviors, look at the animals.

There is a feature of the dreamtime stories that I find particularly powerful and interesting. Dreamtime is consciousness in a non-waking state: sleep, before life and after life. The belief in consciousness after death (and before life) sounds much more plausible to my scientific imagination if it is based on such naturalistic observation, a phenomenon familiar to all of us: consciousness during sleep, the dream. (Greene, Tramacchi, Gill, 2003)

Now let us consider the Genesis story. History suggests that the Genesis story is one among many accounts of the origins of the tension between Good and Evil. Notable are Persian myths from about the same epoch (second millennium BCE) as well as even earlier accounts from Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian cultures. These stories feature powerful figures in a struggle between right and wrong. The Judeo-Christian tradition eventually appropriates this theme in the struggles between God and the Devil. But before the Devil enters the picture, the Genesis story locates the problem of good and evil in the heart of man in relation to a god that cannot be seen. (Mercatante, 1996)

We will look at this myth to understand the history of a people as well as the development of a person. We consider the story in both its mythic-religious as well as psychological-developmental dimensions.

In Genesis 2 after the creation of the heavens and the earth and after the creation of the beasts and of man,

The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the Garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:8-9, Oxford Annotated, Revised Standard Version)

And the Lord God commanded the man saying, “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

To appreciate what is to follow, we must pause to imagine Adam in his state of innocence, unconscious of the inevitability of death, uncomprehending of what is being told to him, and certainly uncomprehending of the possible consequences of his actions. He has no reason to doubt what God says, but little basis for appreciating what it might mean. At this point Adam is a babe, innocent and completely dependent. He has not progressed developmentally beyond a symbiosis with his creator. I depart here from the usual exegetical stance of looking at history as the succession of events of adult actors, for I believe that the only way to respectfully appreciate the importance of myth in our lives is to imagine what such a story might mean to our pre-reflective selves, our coming to understanding and knowledge.

The story gets more complicated with the introduction of more characters, the woman and the serpent. We must keep in mind the development of the infant and the increasing complexity of its consciousness when he or she becomes aware that there are two parents of different sexes and that his or her relationship with mother differs from the relationship with father. Sex and the consciousness of sex must be part of this story, not in a literal Oedipal sense, but in the sense that confusion and uncertainty precede understanding and insight. Children have difficulty anticipating and appreciating the consequences their actions may bring at a later time. And parents wish they could spare their children the consequences of bad choices by telling them what not to do.

Enter woman and then the serpent, and

The serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. (Genesis 3:4-9)

Nakedness and embarrassment were the first consequences of the decision to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve become aware of themselves in a way that was novel to them. But they did not immediately die; they became conscious of their mortality, and they became conscious of their creatureliness.

Adam and Eve as mythic figures are symbolic of the developmental path of Everyman and Everywoman, every boy and girl. The Fall from Grace represents the fall every child must experience when it becomes aware that it must leave the Eden of primary narcissism, the bliss of being the center of the parents’ world, a world where their every need is met and where they experience themselves, for a brief time, the center of the known world. We stand with awe before the authors of the Genesis story, aware and remembering a time in development and in history when things were different, better, more idealized, and then cast this story as a universal event in human experience.

Myth and psychology fuse in this experience and this telling of the experience. I borrow from the language of both to tell this story in tandem: story as myth as we look back in history; story as psychology as we try to recapture the experience of the child moving forward in life; the story of a people and the story of a person.

We describe this experience psychologically as “narcissism,” borrowing a subsequent vocabulary and mythology. Narcissism is a childish condition, which is tempered in the mature adult by the impact of other realities and other selves. But at best rationality and the perspectives of others never completely overcomes preoccupation with the self. The low self-esteem of the depressive is considered unhealthy, but the selflessness of the saint may be seen as a desperate attempt to overcome the tensions of self in relation to others. Narcissism is inescapable as a central feature of the human condition (Dyer, 1994).


This is what I take to be Ernest Becker’s essential point in his seminal work, The Denial of Death (1973). The awareness of the inevitability of death compels us to make something of life. Becker stands in the tradition of Freud, Otto Rank, and Erich Fromm in their attempts to make sense of mythology in psychological terms. Becker calls into question the attempts to heroism as a way of escaping from the reality of death, attempts at immortality through the deeds of a lifetime. Stories of heroism usually go unquestioned. The hero is heroic. Indeed most stories are stories in one way or another to make something of life, something that will transcend death. Of this, Becker suggests, we should be wary. And I would add that as psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts—rational scientists—we should sympathetically temper ambition with understanding. We should understand that it is in human nature to try to recover from the Fall, and that in the end, we fail. We aspire to greatness (to be like God in the knowledge of good and evil), a greatness that ultimately transcends us.


* * * * *


From our psychological vantage point, we anticipate that the next major developmental event our child must contend with is sibling rivalry. The arrival of siblings is one of the events in development that heralds the end of primary narcissism. No matter how devoted the parent, there is a limit to what she or he can do for the child, and with the arrival of a sibling, time must inevitably be divided. Genesis goes straight to this rivalry of siblings. Genesis 4 is an account of Cain and Abel and their relationship with the Great One. Cain, the firstborn, was a tiller of the ground, and Abel a keeper of sheep, a farmer and a nomad. They way the story is told, it is God’s favor the children seek, but we recognize the contours in relation to a parent-figure.

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. (Genesis 4:3-4)


We wonder why God would favor the offering of one of his children over the other. The psychologically minded will be acutely aware that Abel, as the second child and still baby of the family, had yet to experience the sibling displacement that so disappointed the firstborn, Cain. Abel still basks in his infantile narcissism.

What happens next is as rich a description of emotion and motive as one could hope to find in literature:

Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?” If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching[sic.] at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:5-7)

Enter sin, like a predatory animal, crouching at the door, a warning. And here we sit, like spectators in a drama we have seen many times before, knowing what it to follow, yet not being able to influence the outcome, not being able to forestall the inevitable.

Cain said to Abel his brother, “let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8-9)

God is angry with Cain and curses him. God tells Cain that the ground will no longer yield to him and he must be a fugitive and a wanderer. When Cain protests that his punishment is more than he can bear, being “hidden from God’s face” and worries that he will be slain, God says,

“Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. (Genesis 4:15)

What follows this event is nothing less than the sobering human history of bloodshed, vengeance and retribution in each generation. I shall just mention Cain’s great, great grandson, Lamech, to put the problem of evil into historical perspective. Lamech came home one day and said to his wives,

“Hear my voice, you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say:

I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.

If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23-24)

* * * * *

Looking at these interpretations of the Genesis account in tandem provides an opportunity to maintain two simultaneous perspectives, the development of a religious mythic world-view, which parallels the psychological development of the human infant. Epistemologically this entails two ways of knowing, exterior and interior. Although many would suggest that these two ways of knowing are incompatible and mutually exclusive, the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities, or science and religion, I think we can push this understanding further. I believe the mythic and psychological understanding of these timeless stories come together in a seamless understanding.

Another way of making this observation is to distinguish between received truth and derived truth, that is knowledge revealed to man and knowledge which man comes to understand through experience. Do theology and anthropology tell different stories or is theology an anthropological attempt to reflect on man’s experience and to make sense of that experience? That is I believe the core question of faith. Anthropological reflection offers a way of making sense of the received stories for what they illuminate of the knowledge of good and evil and the choices that are forced upon us in our lives.


* * * * *

The knowledge man and woman gained by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was the awareness of mortality. Homo sapiens was no different from the other creatures in the necessity to scrounge for food to forestall a death that was ultimately inevitable. Unlike the other creatures, however, this creature was aware of the death that was to follow. The import of this consciousness cannot be overstated. But at the same time it must be appreciated that life could not go on from day to day, if this central preoccupation of human existence were to remain at the forefront of consciousness. To capture the central insight of psychoanalysis, the fear and dread of death is repressed, stuffed into the unconscious as a way of trying to consciously create meaning in life, even as the awareness of and fear of death is temporarily denied. It is through these attempts to create meaning in life that humankind tries to forge some sort of immortality, in essence a denial of death.

All the great religions of the world have addressed this central reality: how to bear the end of life. Hinduism and Buddhism use consciousness to deny the desire for immortality, but not the belief of the continuity of consciousness. Other religions anticipate life after death, and link fate in the next life to some systematic moral code, which will determine the outcome of the choices we make in this life. The great religions of history share with traditional shamanism and early cults a central feature of man’s heroic, narcissistic, attempts of overcome death: facing the spirit world courageously, entering the world of the dead, spirits and ghosts, and returning a new person, to tell others that these fears could be overcome.

I recall meeting Nepali shaman, a jhakri, in the Langtang Valley near Tibet, who told this essential story. At age thirteen he had been lost in the woods, where he was vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, wild animals and ghosts. When he returned unharmed, the other jhakris took him in and instructed him in jhakri things, the rituals and incantations that drove away bad spirits, so that ancestor spirits could be contacted and instruct the living in what they must do to overcome the soul loss, the sickness that accompanies the loss of a loved one. In essence, in this Tibetan shamanism, healing is coping with grief. In this feature it is not essentially different from Western medicine.

A respect for the coherent logic of such a traditional or primitive view of the world enables us to respect the analogous primitivism of the developing child and the reality of magical thinking. The child’s fears are fashioned out of the way it views the world. It experiences confusion about cause and effect relationships, and the child experiences confusion about the limits of its own powers. In the state of primitive narcissistic bliss, the child in a loving environment has the power to make things right in the world. A simple whimper can bring an end to discomfort, hunger, and distress, laying the foundation for a belief in real magical omnipotence. This is the state before the fall. A deprived child has reason for real anger, but even the most loving parents ultimately disappoint the child and give it reason for anger. Parents must set limits, they must sleep themselves; they must search for food and prepare it; they must tend to siblings and to their own needs. The infant has no way of knowing that the malevolent feelings and wishes it directs to the parents at this point will not be fulfilled in the same way as other wishes.

The rational mind distances itself from such primitive thinking and often prides itself on a more “objective” or external view of the world. The rationalist views the world from a position outside the world as if he or she were not a part of the experience being witnessed. It is the great insight of psychoanalysis and in particular the penetrating genius of Freud to develop a scientific method that reconciles these two world-views. Freud’s great contribution is the method of participant observation, a kind of observation of the self observing the world.

For Freud, his science was the project by which he attempted to overcome the fear of death and oblivion and to achieve immortality. He is thus his own best subject as he courageously laid out his own dreams in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) as an example of the neurotic process. He provides the method for assessing his own shortcomings as he offers the world the possibility of a broader understanding. Ernest Becker, in his trenchant analysis of Freud’s contribution in The Denial of Death, makes the following observation, which lays out the tension between a scientific way of knowing and a religious way of knowing.

[Freud] was unable to give large expression to the mystical, dependent side of himself, . . . which would have led to a larger problematic view of human creatureliness. But such a view is the seeing-ground of faith, or at least brings the person right up to faith as an experiential reality and not an illusion. Freud never allowed himself to step on this ground. Eros is a narrowing down, in Freud, of a broader experiential horizon. Or, put in another way, in order to move from scientific creatureliness to religious creatureliness, the terror of death would have to replace sex, and inner passivity would have to replace obsessive Eros, the drive of the creature. And it was just this twofold yielding—inner emotional and conceptual—that Freud could not quite manage. For to do so . . . would mean to abandon . . . his whole unique passion as a genius, the very gift that he had fashioned for mankind. (p. 124)

In mythic terms, Freud’s uses the Oedipus story to explain an important insight about the human condition. When Oedipus realized what he had done, he punished himself by putting out his eyes. What could be more symbolic of man’s sinfulness, incest, patricide, and looking at one’s own basest impulses? Becker’s point is that Freud helped us overcome our unwillingness to look at our own moral choices, but he could have gone further. The Garden of Eden story pushes this insight even further: it is not just obsessive sex and murderous rage that we are afraid to look it; it is mortality itself. Man’s self-awareness in face of this fear is so fragile that that he must create symbol-systems to defend against this unbearable reality.

(I would include religious symbols in this defense system.)


Ernest Becker appraises this achievement with the following remarkable statement:

The most astonishing thing of all, about man’s fictions, is not that they have from prehistoric times hung like a flimsy canopy over his social world, but that he should have come to discover them at all. It is one of the most remarkable achievements of thought, of self-scrutiny, that the most anxiety-prone animal of all could come to see through himself and discover the fictional nature of his action world. Future historians will probably record it as one of the great, liberating breakthroughs of all time, and it happened in ours. (Becker, 1971)


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Theologians distinguish two kinds of evil: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is the wrongdoing of human agents. Natural evil is the kind of pain and suffering caused to humans by natural events, floods, storms, pestilence, illness. Moral evil is the concern of my remarks here. I am concerned with evil as human cruelty. How does this come about and what can be done about it?

Before addressing the question of moral evil, it is appropriate to consider the traditional understanding of natural evil. It would not be surprising to find not long after the Garden of Eden story, the story of a flood, and man’s attempt (anthropologically understood) to come to terms with the meaning of such a natural disaster. The Genesis account of the deluge is as much an account of God’s attempt to understand and come to terms with man:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold I will destroy them with the earth. (Genesis 6: 11-13)

Note the tension here in this early account. Noah is the son of Lemech, three generations from Adam. Already we have a picture of vengeance, violence, corruption, and retribution. And here we have a picture of natural events caused by human behavior. In the early imagination, an all-powerful being punishes those judged violent and corrupt by a natural disaster, natural evil. Where was this natural disaster brought on by the violence and corruption God saw upon the earth? Archeologists tell us that the great deluge described in Genesis occurred in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, that great crucible of civilization, that great cauldron of violence and corruption.

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. (Genesis 9:6)

For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. (Genesis 8:21)

Before returning to the theme of moral evil, I want to comment on the theme of natural evil in the Book of Job, which will occupy our attention so much this week. Job’s suffering and the steadfastness of Job’s faith in face of what is inflicted upon him are almost incomprehensible to his friends, who can only conclude that Job must deserve his fate; he could not be blameless. Job’s friends are narcissistic children; they can only believe that the actions of the Omnipotent Being are caused my man’s actions. They are confused about cause and effect. If Job suffers it is because he deserves to suffer. Job, on the other hand, is a new kind of being; he offers us a new vision of maturity, and mature faith. He suffers, but he does not assume that his suffering is caused by his actions or that it says anything about God’s intentions in relationship to him.

The stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Lemech, Noah, and Job and others, pose for us questions of good and evil in relation to the moral choices we must make in face of the conflicts we will experience between self and other, desire and need. Questions of law and forgiveness and atonement will add to the complexity of these considerations. But already we see a tension of mutually contradictory beliefs, which have perplexed the faithful since at least the time of Job.

God is omnipotent

God is omniscient

Evil exists

Why would God allow evil, and can these beliefs be held while at the same time believing that God is unknowable?

A clinical example underscores the perplexity:

A 45-year-old woman presents at the emergency department depressed and suicidal. She is thinking of slashing her wrists, which she has done on one previous occasion several years earlier. Six-months ago her 21 year-old daughter died after a long illness from complications of congenital cardiac anomalies. She says,

God has taken my child. I cared for her for 21 years. It is because I am a bad person. Everything about me is bad. I deserve to die. I want to die.

We recognize her feelings as guilt associated with depression. Will it go away after treatment with an antidepressant medication? Can psychotherapy help her get in touch with her feelings, then question the “reasons” for feeling the way she does? Did she ever experience abuse in her life and feel that it was her fault and that she deserves to suffer? Would it be helpful to ask a chaplain to talk with her about the unnecessarily self-destructive aspects of her beliefs? Or might a chaplain reinforce her guilt and ask her to pray for forgiveness for her sins? Does her constellation of beliefs—God is omnipotent, omniscient, and evil and suffering exist-- force her into a masochistic relationship with a God who causes suffering? (Jones, 2000) And does this understanding of her relationship with God serve to defend against feelings she would rather not acknowledge: feelings of anger, hostility, passivity in face of events she cannot control, feelings of dependency and futility?

(I will not try to answer all these questions directly.)


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Moral evil, the evil of human cruelty, may be understood as narcissism gone awry. Human cruelty has in origins in earliest human experience when the infant can’t make the transition from a world in which self matters most to a world that fully includes others. On the one hand, evil is an aberration, which occurs only rarely in those individuals who cannot give up their infantile omnipotence. In another understanding, it is rare to find individuals who successful transcend that time of life. Everyone is striving throughout life to make sense of existence and to make life matter. The urge to make something of oneself and one’s life comes at the expense of someone else. Evil is rooted in inequality. Inequality is an inescapable feature of human existence.

There is no happy outcome for the tensions narcissism creates in life. The best parents disappoint their children only gradually, in finite doses; so they can tolerate the disappointments of living in a world where others matter too, matter as much as they do. Stated mythically, this is a fall from grace. Things will never be as good as they once were. Things will never be as good for the infant as they were when he or she occupied the center of the parents’ universe. Things will never be as good for mankind as they were in the Garden of Even.

To call this condition narcissistic borrows from one myth to explain another. The condition of narcissism, the human condition most starkly understood, is more basic than the boy Narcissus, falling in love with his own image in the reflecting pond, every hair in place. It is more like a baby giraffe, dropped from the womb, struggling on spindly legs to stand up to reach its mother’s teats. Or to use a more continent-specific analogy, primarily narcissism is like a kangaroo, expelled from its marsupial pouch, to forage a dry, dusty, and most inhospitable Outback. The kangaroo’s saving grace is that it does not contemplate its mortality. It has not eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Narcissism gone awry gives rise to a variety of psychopathologies, which are self-defeating in sense that they prevent the self from fulfillment in the social world. Pathological narcissism, paranoia, anality (understood as creatureliness), sadism, sociopathy are the psychopathologies that the mind uses to rationalize cruelty, evil justified as good or evil rationalized in preservation of the self. Me first. Self first. The other that stands in the way of “I want or I need” must be denigrated in the interest of self-justification.

The developmental dynamics of evil in terms of its relation to psychopathology will be congenial to a psychiatric audience. Pathological narcissism, paranoia, anality, sadism and sociopathy may be variously understood in terms of sexual development, sexual drive and frustration. But more basically they may be understood in terms of their origins in failed narcissism. They arise when the world fails to sustain the self. They become rationalizations for the self in relation to the hostilities perceived in that world. Vengeance, retribution, hostility are rationalized, and elevated to the status of honor and virtue. Evil is a result of self-deception.

Herman Melville understood this as well as Freud, and his great epic Moby Dick (S. Dyer, 1994), The Whale, chronicles the narcissistic rage of Captain Ahab, who has lost his leg in a previous encounter with the white whale. “It was Moby Dick that dismasted me,” he tells his crew. Ahab’s obsession for revenge drives him to drive his crew and his ship to ultimate destruction. “Vengeance on a dumb brute!” his first mate, Starbuck exclaims, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” (Norton Critical Edition, p144)

Madness indeed, the kind of craziness that occurs when passion overwhelms rationality, the kind of craziness that can only end catastrophically. Anything that opposes the self is rendered dumb. The Other becomes the justification for the shortcomings of the self, and only the self’s perception of its own inadequacy drive the need to overcome the Other. Evil is born in self-deception.


* * * * *


Psychoanalytic thought has carefully elucidated the ways in defense mechanisms protect us against the disappointments we face in life. They are the lies we tell ourselves that let us go on living. Time does not permit the development of all the possible permutations of psychopathology that fit this bill. They all share in common this feature of the self justified against a world that is perceived as hostile. Mythically speaking, narcissism goes awry at precisely the point that we eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21). Mankind is not inherently evil or fundamentally evil or originally evil. But all men have the potential for evil at the point at which they realize the world is not designed to meet their needs and wants.

If evil is understood as the failure of naricissism to sustain the self, then goodness may be found in the transformations of narcissism: empathy, humor, creativity, art, and wisdom, especially in the appreciation of the finiteness of life.

Goodness is more difficult. Goodness does not come naturally to man, this creature who kills for sport, kills its own kind, and kills for vengeance. The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Goodness requires something more. Goodness is an achievment of the conscious mind. (See Murdoch, 2001) It requires maturity. It requires an empathic appreciation of the situation of the Other. It requires that self put aside its own interest in favor of the interest of others. It requires a willingness to believe that one’s own needs are sustained best when the needs of others are also considered. Goodness requires banding together and living in a social order with others. Some people can never reach this point, and few can always live by the demands that Goodness imposes.

Goodness is not the natural condition of man, which occasional rogues depart from. Goodness is one of the fictions we maintain to make it more comfortable for us to bear the truth of our existence. We like to think of what we do as good.

Evil is about probability. Goodness is about human possibility. Good is something we strive toward, the perennial themes of truth, beauty, and justice.

(When I first drafted this formulation, I shared it with one of my students. He observed that many people do good for selfish reasons: the expectation that doing good will be the way to get into heaven or avoid hell. We recognize this deferred selfishness as a stage of moral development. Not all goodness is purely altruistic. Hope and fear can be part of the complex equation that keeps less noble instincts in check.)




* * * * *

I would like to offer a final observation on the respective contributions of religion and science as ways of knowing good and evil. All religions pose this juxtaposition in human behavior, and all religions offer guidance in dealing with the alternatives that one must inevitably face in life. The greatest shortcoming of all religions is their lack of guidance in dealing with people of other faiths. This may be one of the great challenges mankind faces in our time.

Science might have something to say about that problem, the problem of how best to reflect on our human situation. Science, broadly understood as the attempt to use systematic reflection to understand problems, can draw on the relevant disciplines of anthropology, psychology, moral philosophy (ethics), theology, and psychoanalysis to understand good and evil.

Freud’s appropriation of the questions of classical philosophy for science enrich our understanding of what it means to know oneself and to be responsible for one’s actions. Psychoanalysis was consistent with the Enlightenment ambitions of science to promote a better world through knowledge. Psychoanalysis as therapy positioned itself to alleviate human suffering on an individual level through insight. and the restoration of choice previously limited by unconscious compulsions. Psychoanalysis as science is poised to offer understanding of the large consequences of rationalized misbehavior, but has inevitably failed to lessen the evils perpetrated in the name of greater goods. At every turn, we see human misbehavior rationalized and justified: lying to protect the self; theft justified in the name of need; greed in the name of creating capital; killing for revenge; the wars fought in every generation in the name of what is (believed to be) right.

Science is clearly not enough to put an end to evil—even a science that illuminates the inner workings of the mind. Science helps us see though the deceptions by which we defend ourselves against understanding our true motives. Science can help us be vigilant against the rationalizations that provide sanction for evil. Ultimately goodness can come only from realizing the possibility of evil. Ultimately we cannot escape the consequences of eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


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By looking back at the origins of good and evil, we are now in a position to consider the future of good and evil. We see evil at an individual level in the failure of narcissim to transcend the wants of the self, and we see goodness in the possibilities of transcending narcissism: self in relation to other. The transformations of narcissism occur in family, tribe, community. We must also consider good and evil in the relations of nations and civilizations. Global politics are writ large in questions of good and evil and people of every nation must cope with their needs and wants on a global stage.

What will the future hold in terms of good and evil? Can we hope for transformations of narcissism at an international level? Will our nations sustain us or lead us into grander forms of evil and destruction? What will future historians say of the 21st century? Will it be a time of great catastrophes? Disasters, natural or man-made—flood, famine, or nuclear winter?

Will the 21st century witness a collision with a great meteorite of the sort that did in the dinosaurs? At one time such an event would have been considered natural evil, but now we would more likely consider it a great cosmic accident.

Or perhaps we will see the acceleration of global warming, which will make the planet uninhabitable in a matter of decades. Cheap oil,one of the intended consequences of the recent war in Iraq, may lead to increased greenhouse gases, an unintended and catastrophic effect. If so, it will probably be scientists here in Tasmania that first alert us that we are approaching the point of no return.

Will wars make the world a safer place or perpetuate the cycle of violence and vengeance?

There is an optimistic scenario for the 21st century, but only if we strive to make it happen. Perhaps the 21st century can be a turning point in history when we realize our responsibility for the stewardship of the planet and its peoples.

Perhaps the 21st century will be seen as the time in which we began to consider the needs of others with a greater empathy--other peoples, other religions, other nations, other civilizations?

Evil temps us to look inward and backward.

The possibility of goodness requires us to look outward and forward.

If we can learn to see the situations of the Other as we see our own needs, perhaps science can yet make a contribution to the furtherance of good over evil.









Ernest Becker, “The Fragile Fiction” from The Birth and Death of Meaning, ((New York: The Free Press, 1971) quoted in Walter Truett Anderson, ed., The Truth About Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern world, p. 35. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995

Becker, Ernest: The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

Dyer, Allen R., “Self Psychology as an Avenue to Pre-Oedipal Experience,” Psychiatric Quarterly, Vol 65, No 1, Spring 1994, pp 3-14.

Dyer, Susan K, “Narcissism in the Novels of Herman Melville,” Psychiatric Quarterly, Vol. 65, No.1, Spring 1994, pp 15-30.

Green, Gracie, Joe Tramacchi and Lucille Gill: Tjarnay Roughtail; The Dreaming of the Roughtail Lizard and other stories told by the Kukatja. Broome, West Australia: Magabala Books, 2003.

Jones, Mark: “A Critique of the Theodicy Through Understanding the Relationships Which it Forces Upon the Christian Faith in Relation to its God,” An Honor’s Scholar Thesis , East Tennessee State University, April 2000.

Melville, Herman: Moby Dick, edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker, New York: Norton, 1967.

Mercatante, Anthony S., Good and Evil in Myth & Legend. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.

Murdoch, Iris: The Sovereignty of Good. London: Routledge Classics, 2001).

Polanyi, Michael, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952.