by David Shackleton (Contact David at

In his book The Lesser Evil, Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff writes, “In [the play Medea], evil appears as the incapacity to take any distance – through reason – from the primal force of feeling, so that all strong emotion becomes automatically self-justifying.  Evil  can also appear in rational form, in the careful and deliberate choice to do harm, motivated by a rational but mistaken calculation of anticipated good.” [1]

Mr. Ignatieff is here describing the two poles, or extremes, of a balance between feeling and thinking.  He goes further than I have to date, in describing the two extremes, the positions where feeling totally dominates thinking, or thinking totally dominates feeling, as evil.

But I think that he is right.  If we are completely unbalanced on one of these psychological dichotomies, then we are literally mentally unbalanced.  And the results of our one-sidedness will in fact be harmful to ourselves and others.  Our good intentions will not excuse us from responsibility for the evil we do.

How do we recognize if we are unbalanced?  There are two ways that I know of.  The first is a lack of reflection, of introspection in our lives.  The second is the presence of anxiety when our beliefs are challenged.  Let’s consider an example of each.

I recently speculated to a friend that modern music had less catchy melodies because a significant fraction of the simple, attractive melodies had already been discovered, that we were in fact running out of catchy tunes.  What do you think of this idea?  Take a moment to consider it.

My friend was instantly indignant, claiming that the number of catchy tunes was essentially infinite, could never be used up.  He may be right, although I think not, but what is of interest is how immediate was his opinion.

He had never encountered the idea before, and yet he was instantly certain that it was wrong.  This is clear evidence that what he was experiencing was a feeling reaction against it.  For thinking takes time, one has to consider an idea on its merits, evaluate its probability based on thinking about numbers and possibilities.  This is what I mean by reflection.

If you find yourself instantly certain about whether a new idea is right or wrong (what happened for you with this idea, for instance?), you can be fairly sure that your reaction is unbalanced towards feeling and against thinking.  Feeling dominates your psyche, and your thinking is subordinated to it.  This type of imbalance is very common today, and may in fact be the dominant psychological dysfunction of our time.

What about the second indicator of imbalance –- anxiety when we are challenged.  This is very interesting, for it indicates that at a deep level we know that our beliefs may be unsound, but we don’t want to look at it.

Challenge someone on a belief that they are strongly attached to.  Religion, politics and sport are usually good subjects for this.  Argue with them for the opposite side than they hold.  Someone who is balanced will either already see and agree with the points you are making, or will be interested to see if they can learn something from what you are doing.

They will be eager to find out if there is anywhere they might be wrong, so that they can improve their understanding.  They may argue strongly with you, but they won’t be stuck in their views or anxious that they might be proved wrong.

But if they are unbalanced in the area you are exploring, they will eventually become anxious and defensive, arguing righteously for their existing set of ideas.

It is in this last behavior that the evil nature of extreme imbalance is seen.  For the person defending imbalance is defending a lie against the truth.  In his book The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck has said that mental health is an ongoing dedication to truth at all costs.  Imbalance is the opposite of this, it is dedication to a coherent set of lies at all costs.

Conservatives are dedicated to the lie that conservative politics provides the complete answer to political questions, that conservative ideas are all that are needed to govern well.  Liberals have the same wrong ideas about liberal politics.  Feminists are dedicated to the lie that history is a story of general oppression of women by men.  And so on.

When we are dedicated to a lie, we are dedicated to defending illusions and denying truth.  We are enemies of truth, and this is evil.  We oppose the growth of people towards balance, including our own families and children.

Many families have been torn apart because one member reached for balance, for truth, and became too threatening to the others, and so was rejected or ejected from the family.  Indeed, since the majority of people remain largely unbalanced, an early consequence of becoming more balanced is that one becomes more lonely, rarely understood or appreciated.

Coming to terms with this is a necessary aspect of the journey towards balance.

[1] Ignatieff, Michael, The Lesser Evil, Penguin Canada, 2004, p.14