Some Thoughts on Good and Evil
What more can be said about good and evil?
Posted Apr 03, 2012
I never liked the Medieval belief that human beings are innately evil, bad, or sinful, because I intuitively couldn't fathom why and how nature would give rise to sinful creatures. I also didn't ever find more satisfaction
in the modern notions of "evil" such as the "selfish gene" evolutionary theory or the Freudian notions of an innate aggressive drive. Proponents of all such theories are hard-pressed to explain acts of true kindness, especially in the face of potential consequences, such as those who saved Jews during the Holocaust at risk to their own lives.
Like most people who balk at theories of sin, the only alternative I could come up with was to imagine human beings as being innately good. That, too, didn't fit the reality I saw. As a Jew growing up in Israel, the Holocaust was simply too vivid a memory, presenting too much evidence to the contrary to dismiss. I was left with too many unanswered questions whichever way I looked at the issues.
Like David Brooks, in his recent NYT article When the Good Do Bad, I am not comfortable with the notion of there being some specific evil people who stand apart from the rest of us who are fundamentally good, allowing us to feel pure. I agree with Brooks that if mass murderers like Robert Bales are often remembered by their previous neighbors or friends as kind, normal, nice people, then the picture ought to be more complex. I don't, however, see him as offering a complex solution. Reversing the assumption of goodness into the assumption of evil by suggesting that "we're natural born killers" leaves the big question equally challenging. Even if "the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so," the question still needs to be answered -- why do some people kill and others don't. His answers, if I understand them correctly, fall into the very approach to evil that he deplores. To say that people who commit massacres often live with "forward panic," or that serial killers "are often charming, but have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world," amounts, once again, to defining unique character traits or flaws that set them apart from those who don't kill in some fundamental way that cannot be explained. I find his prescription, inviting Robert Bales and the rest of us to a process of "struggling daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, [by] policing the small transgressions to prevent larger ones," even more problematic.
Why am I concerned about this approach? In part, because I want a much deeper understanding, for all of us, of what leads any of us to take actions that are so harmful to others, especially when we also act, at other times, in caring ways. More importantly, I have not seen, ever, that controlling anything works over time. Like Charles Eisenstein, in his review of the movie Thrive, I am painfully aware that attempting to control anything rather than engaging with it results in an ever spiraling and unsustainable effort over time; it's guaranteed to fail. This is true about controlling pests in agriculture, germs in medicine (the two examples Eisenstein cites), our children (who eventually are big and strong enough to rebel against us), or any destructive impulses within us. I like the way Eisenstein says it: "the War against Evil never ends, because it generates a limitless supply of new enemies."
Just as much as I am concerned about the sin theory of violence, I am also concerned about approaches that minimize the issue in the first place, or place responsibility entirely on the "system." I want an approach to understanding violence that honors human dignity by acknowledging our agency and our capacity to make choices even in difficult situations at the same time as we recognize the context within which violence is born. In this, I feel aligned with Brooks in intention and value despite our great difference in method and philosophy.
Here's how friend and fellow NVC trainer in Sri Lanka, Jeyanthy Siva, expressed the fundamental departure from traditional notions of human nature that a needs-based approach makes possible:
"I believe it's a useful philosophy to hold that people are neither good nor bad innately but are beings who try to meet their needs with the tools they have at hand. And those needs include wanting to take care of themselves, connect with and contribute to others. And if they see that they can get their needs met without harming others, they will only be happy to do so. In fact, my hope is that when they have this consciousness, they will see that their own needs won't get fully met until everyone's needs are met as well."