Good And Evil

“We need more good people with guns to protect us from the bad people with guns.” — National Rifle Association.

“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare

“The line between good and evil passes through every human heart” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The concepts of good and bad or good and evil are entirely dependent on context. Nothing is good or bad of its nature; the same phenomenon may be good under some circumstances and bad under others; it all depends on what the desired end is. By definition something is good if it leads towards the desired end, bad if it leads away from it. It is possible to derive benefits even from events that seem to be purely evil. We are able to cure neurological diseases today as a result of the ghastly experiments carried out by Dr Mengele in the Nazi death camps. This does not excuse or condone those experiments, but it does point up the difficulties we encounter when we make sweeping moral judgments. 

Good and bad behavior follow the same rule. The same behavior can be considered good or bad according to the circumstances, and the same person can act with good intent or with evil intent at different times and under different circumstances. Mafia leaders who acted with the utmost brutality in their business dealings were often beloved pillars of their communities that local people could go to for help, confident that they would get it. Even describing intent as good or evil is problematic. Everyone at all times wants to do the right thing. Nobody deliberately sets out to what is in his own mind wrong. Whatever he decides to do, he does it because he believes it is right, otherwise he would not do it. This is why appeals to a person’s moral conscience will often fall of deaf ears. An appeal to someone to do what he knows is right depends for its effectiveness on his agreeing with you on what is in fact right. 

A person’s views on what is right and what is wrong depend on a great many factors. Religion, socio-political beliefs and observations, social class, the views of one’s peers, upbringing all have profound effects upon our ideas of right and wrong. Things were simpler in the days when people looked to religion for the answers to moral questions; today we are expected to work it out for ourselves. Little wonder that cult leaders who proclaim with great conviction a set of beliefs gather great followings. Their adherents are seeking certainty in an uncertain world, and are happy to pass on the burden of decision making to someone else. 

This is the great danger of absolutist thinking and teaching. Someone brought up in a religion that claims that it alone preaches the truth, and that all other religions and philosophies are false, learn two distinct things: first that there can be such a thing as a universal exclusive truth, and second that their particular religion has it. The danger is that they will discover the falsity of the second, while still believing the first. This makes them prime victims for cults and extremist political groups. They simply substitute one false belief for another. In many cases their adherence to the new beliefs, being, as they believe, a conscious choice (though that judgment is highly questionable) will be even stronger than to the old ones.

What all of this means is that there are no good people and bad people, there are just people who act in all kinds of ways under different circumstances. Some of these ways are classified by society as evil because they run counter to the aims of society. All of us have the capability of behaving in these ways; fortunately most of us are not put in circumstances that cause us to do so. People do not like to admit this to themselves, so they Tell themselves that it was caused by something inherent in that person, that they themselves do not have.

Even those of us who do recognize that we all have the potential for such acts often believe that we ourselves have sufficient self-control that we could never actually carry them out. Again, many are right, but even for them there is some set of circumstances under which they will lose control. It will be different for everyone, but we must always be alert to the danger. All of us have the capacity for that great disinhibitor, anger. Our lives these days give us many opportunities for anger, both chronic and acute. We are not good at properly directing our anger at its true cause, so we take it out on often innocent bystanders. When someone displays anger towards us we tend to get angry in our turn, and so the fire spreads. Anger often turns to rage, which enables us to ignore our inhibitions against antisocial behavior.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for many people. They prefer to think of school shooters and the like as “other” in some fundamental way. If we can just get rid of that element, they think, then we can be rid of the problem. Unfortunately it does not work that way. You cannot draw a line to divide the good from the evil; all of us have the potential for either.

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