Thursday, May 25, 2017

The conflict between good and evil in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

For months now, there has been a quiet conversation in my head, a sort of reduction process to understand just where good and evil come from. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I do not believe in good and evil. Good and evil are terms that come from religion, a sort of supernatural explanation for helpful and challenging behavior observed in human beings.

In this context, there are really only two kinds of people. There are those who are confused, people we might call "evil" and those who are less confused, those we might call "good". I use the terms "good" and "evil" here to keep the subject matter simple and easy to understand rather than to justify that behavior with a supernatural explanation.

When I watch pop culture, a movie or a TV series, or read articles in the news, and there is violence in the story, my mind will go to that question, without fail, and ask, "why would anyone do such a horrible thing to another person"?

To put it differently, and a bit more personally, I ask the following question of myself, every day, all the time: does this serve me? Does this action meet my needs?

Good and evil, for the purposes of this article and discussion are really about how we get our needs met. Children will learn to lie if they fear for their lives or physical safety. They are not being evil. They are just confused by caregivers who believe that violence will grant the caregivers the relief they need. Even the caregivers are not being evil when they commit violence against children. Yes, their actions are abhorrent, but those actions are evidence of confusion, not evil. Violence doesn't serve any need other than self-preservation in self-defense, and even that is a matter of controversy.

In almost every example that I choose to look at, transgressions are really about getting needs met, but not knowing how to get those needs met without saying, "please". From a trivial offense, to violence, to corruption on a massive scale, it must be clear to anyone on the outside that negotiation in good faith is not a skill held by the "evildoer".

When I see one man seeking to acquire and exert power and control over another, I have to ask myself what need, exactly, is that person seeking to satisfy? We can explore this a bit with the chart below, a chart of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and take an act which we might define as "evil" and place it in context.


Physiological needs are like air, water, space and are governed by instinct. Safety is the need to preserve oneself from harm and is also governed by instinct. Love and belonging, managed by the higher thinking parts of the brain along with some instinct, are best described as fellowship, friendship, mate or spouse, and family. Esteem is a warm regard and compassion for oneself. And then there is self-actualization, the realization of one's calling and utilization of one's talents in the service of others.

I can take any movie plot and deconstruct it with this line of thinking. I wrote about Star Wars not too long ago and attempted to put the plot in this context. I wondered aloud about the antagonists in the Star Wars movies. When the lead antagonist gives the order to blow up a planet, what need is he seeking to meet? As a leader of a well financed, very well organized military organization, all of his basic needs for food, air, water and space are met. He is safe in his ship, which is armed to the teeth and has no adversaries to fear.

Has our Star Wars antagonist ever experienced love and belonging? Well, that is an open question. In almost every interaction that Darth Vader or Senator Palaptine had with others, there is no question of the power they hold over others. Subordinates know that if they speak out of turn, their throats will be constricted by the use of the Dark Side of The Force, in a possibly fatal encounter.

So, when Darth Vader crushes the throat of his subordinate almost to the point of suffocation, what need is he meeting? It is most certainly not fellowship or anything even remotely close to that of love. Is he meeting his need for personal safety? He's wearing a suit for his own protection, is armed with a laser gun and light saber and can count upon the obedience of everyone else in his army for protection. Side note: the only thing that punishment teaches is obedience, and in that army, obedience is in abundance.

Fellowship exists where intimacy is permitted. You cannot have intimacy between two people when one person exerts and maintains overwhelming power over another. Both parties are scared. The one with the power is afraid that at some point, his subordinate will lose fear of that power. The subordinate fears for his life. You cannot have intimacy with all that fear hanging around. So fellowship and any possibility of true love are lost with an overwhelming imbalance of power. In such a relationship, there is power and obedience, and there is no room for love or even a mutual warm regard.

Where there is a vacuum of esteem, we can expect to find a boatload of power and the willingness to use it against others. To put it differently, if you don't respect yourself, you won't respect others. If you talk with negativity and profanely against others, there is a very high probability that you do the same to yourself, too. Most people who think poorly of themselves, believe that everyone else knows the same thing.

So if you have power, but still don't believe that your need for personal safety has been met, you will continue to seek more power, more security, and you may never find that what you have is enough. An all powerful being who is still mortal, will spend days and even months, planning for every possible contingency to ensure his needs are met and that everyone else is obedient to him. At some point, that person will need a break. He might need to get high so that he can stop all that thinking.

Blowing up a planet would induce the brain to release adrenaline. That would be nothing less than an exciting event for someone who lives on power. That is a gigantic high for someone we might deem to be "evil". But is it self-actualization? Being responsible for the deaths of billions of other living beings is not exactly creative. It will not prove that one is lovable, far from it, even when love is what we really want. At best, it is addiction in the extreme.

Taken in context, I can't think of a single act of evildoing that really meets any human need. At best, evildoing serves as a distraction from the pain that one can be in when the skills to sooth oneself, or to ask for help are lacking. Evildoing is really just challenging behavior, but we use the term "challenging behavior" to describe kids, not adults.

Challenging behavior in kids is modeled by the parents. If the parents yell, the kids yell. If the parents are not flexible in their expectations, then kids will not be, either. If the parents hit, the kids will hit. If the parents lie, the kids will lie. If the parents have a low tolerance for frustration, the kids will, too. Kids look to the parents to know how to act and respond to changes in the environment - they imitate the behavior of the people around them.

Challenging behavior is what kids do when they lack the skills to meet the demands of their environment. In adults, this is what some challenging behavior looks like:


What Mr. Reich observes may be a moral crisis, as he put it, but to me, it's a lack of interpersonal skills. White collar crime is not what we see on the local news. The local news is about violent crime, one person doing something awful to another. The local news is replete with stories about one poor person doing some awful thing to another, and neither person has the skills to get their needs met. These are people with no power to control the news of their unfortunate fate.

A person committing a violent crime is "acting out" because he lacks the skills to meet the demands of his environment. We can call him "evil" but that doesn't really explain why someone would commit an act of violence against another. Once that person is caught, we cast him off to prison as if prison is going to teach him the skills he needs to avoid that situation again. But American prisons are hell on earth by design, they are not places where one learns the skills of civilization. In prison, Americans learn the ways of the jungle.

Let's have a look at the white collar transgressions above:

  • Insider trading
  • CEO pay that is unhinged from productivity
  • Wage theft
  • Bribery
  • Gambling with other people's money
It's almost automatic that when we look at those activities, we think, "evil". I look at those kinds of activities and wonder what needs are met by participating in such activity. With some effort, I can imagine how one might feel doing all that. Here I think of someone like Bernie Madoff, or a hedge fund manager who is caught trading on insider information that everyone else is not privy to.

In every case listed above, there is adrenaline, pure and simple. White collar crime involves adrenaline just as much as violent crime, if not more. Because it often plays out over time, it is a longer, slower high, but it is still mood altering, it is a distraction from reality - how we are feeling, thinking and doing. White collar crime is just a very profitable addiction.

What needs are being met by white collar crime? We're talking about people who have so much money, they're never going to be on the street. They're never going to be poor. Even after paying fines, they can park what remains of their money in a Vanguard 500 fund and live quite comfortably selling a part of the growth at 5% a year on average. Then they can just paint pictures in quiet solitude if they want to. So now we know that the first two rows of the hierarchy of needs are fulfilled. 

What about love and belonging? White collar criminals might not have that anymore once their family figures out what is going on. Or maybe the family is fine with it, but as any soap opera fan knows, it's thin ice. And I can't imagine how anyone could have esteem while committing a white collar crime. Even if the transgression is "legal", like how the CEO of Home Depot still got a pot of cash after being ejected from the company in 2007. He was a taker. How does one find esteem in that?

None of that activity, even if it's legal, comes even remotely close to "self-actualization". How does one feel good about buying a company, loading it up with debt and wiping out the employee pension fund for personal gain? This is what Mitt Romney did, yet millions of people voted for him in a presidential election.

When I think of human suffering in the context of skills, I find compassion for others. When I see people suffering, I see people who lack the skills to respond adaptively to the demands of their environment. When I see grown men and women defending a system that allows white collar transgressions against the people who serve them as employees and how they justify it, I also see people who lack the skills to meet the demands of their environment - without saying please. Money is a terrible substitute for interpersonal skills.

To me, this is the subtext of the circus on display in the White House and in our Congress. Underneath all the drama is the realization that most of those people do not know how to get their needs met without imposing their will upon someone else. Negotiation in good faith is a rare skill to find. Corruption is rampant.

This is why I use compassion first when someone makes a mistake. I avoid assuming that people are motivated to make mistakes. I assume that a mistake arises from a lack of skill, not motivation. When I see people suffering, I see them as lacking the skills to do better, not motivation. And it doesn't matter how much money or power you have. It doesn't matter if you're beautiful, either. If you don't have the skills to appreciate what you have, you will always want more.

No amount of punishment nor reward will teach the skills we need to appreciate what we have or each other. The best tool for teaching the subtle skills of discernment and appreciation is collaboration. When we collaborate, we teach the skill of cooperation, too. And when we collaborate, we begin to discover that The Force is within, not without.

True, some see the situation in American politics as dire, and I would agree. But it took a long time to get here. It may take some time to get out, maybe a generation or two. While we're waiting, we can focus on teaching our kids (and everyone else in our lives) the skills of collaboration, for when we teach them, we teach ourselves, too. It's time for Plan B for Humanity

We must teach skills before punishment. We must teach compassion before punishment. Perhaps then, we can finally find peace as a species, because we're going to need peace in order to collaborate and solve the problems we've created for ourselves.
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