Whether discussing theories of international relations, religion, or philosophy, one question that always ensures lively debate is whether or not humans are inherently good or evil. Most often the response turns out to be somewhere in the middle — we do good things and evil things, and there are humans of all flavors. Yet I can’t help but answer that deep down, humans are good because they are a product of nature (or of God, if you so believe).
The Christian response to this would be that humans have “fallen.” But if we look into the Adam and Eve allegory, it becomes a bit unclear how we should take it. Humans have fallen not because they have given in to a change in nature causing them to be evil, but that they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. While in popular parlance that has come to mean an apple, think through what else this can symbolize.
We have a new kitten. The kitten is playful, she is constantly jumping on my lap as I type this, and her behavior is neither good nor evil. She’s jumping on my lap out of self-interest — I was petting her last night for 45 minutes as she sat there, and she apparently likes that. But when she plays she might scratch or bite — at this point she’s small enough that it doesn’t hurt, but she’s not doing that out of malice. I have known cats who seem evil though — who hiss and scratch anyone who comes close to them. One such cat had been in a theater play as a kitten and the high school actors had tormented him — he appeared evil because he had very bad socialization to humans.
But most of the time we don’t attribute evil to animals or pets; they are in nature and acting out of instinct. When they go bad, like a pit bull dog or cats like the one mentioned above, it’s blamed on the owners or instinct going awry. The reason is clear: animals do not know the difference between right and wrong, or good and evil. They are reactive and instinctive. While science shows they have the capacity to reason — at levels we earlier did not expect — it’s not moral or critical reasoning of the kind we have.
But we have knowledge of our actions, and can reflect upon them. Cats in a cat fight are reacting to stimuli, and probably don’t think much about how the other cat feels. We have empathy, we can put ourselves in the place of others. That knowledge separates us from most if not all animal species, and has led to the development of philosophy, religion, and the capacity to leave our world of instinct and nature and construct social realities designed from our imagination and creativity.
As we build words and act, two things happen: a) we see the consequences of our actions, and b) we empathize and emote as we contemplate our acts and the acts of others. Here is where the concept of evil takes root. We see consequences that we know harm others, and that gets magnified by our empathy. We are then are able to imagine what it would be like to be ‘in the other person’s shoes.’ Crudely, we tend to define as evil those acts that lead to consequences that would be distasteful if they were to happen to us, and we see as good those acts which have an impact we would enjoy if done for us.
This seems simple, yet social reality is not simple. Move away from acts where the consequences are clear and direct (murder, rape, theft) and layers of cultural rationalizations and abstractions cloud our vision. All religions and moral codes have clear rules against murder, rape, theft, and physical assault. Yet they also punish, engage in war (though less frequently than people imagine), tax property, and value physical prowess. A soldier can go to war and get a medal for killing people he doesn’t know, even as his society condemns murder.
These rationalizations permeate every layer of our psyches and cultures. Thus we end up constantly engaging in actions which, if done to us, would cause pain. We recognize that at some level, but rationalize an excuse not to label that evil. Here is where we start to lose ourselves. Internal pain, self-loathing, and repression inflict inner wounds that lead people to shut down empathy and fall deeper in a pit of sociopathic behavior. The knowledge of good and evil is inside us, but we harm ourselves when we block it out in order to justify actions we know deep down to be unjustifiable. This can come out in many forms, of course, and people are capable of self-critical reflection to work through their actions and learn not to hate themselves for acts that they know were wrong. Self-forgiveness is a key to mental stability, and probably necessary before other-forgiveness can take place.
So we’re good because we are in nature, but due to our knowledge of the consequences of our acts, plus our ability to empathize, we are able to create the concepts of good and evil, and apply them to ourselves and others. Being imperfect (we make errors in judgment, are prone to emotionally over-react, probably a remnant from our need to flee or fight in nature), we torture ourselves over our mistakes, often without consciously realizing it. (Freud would attribute that our superego, created as a response to our upbringing, what we are taught is good or evil). To stay Freudian, the id is our instinctive playful self, acting in the world to fulfill desires and drives.
In a state of hunter-gatherer or early tribal nature, we are likely to find it easy to build customs and core rules to work through all this. As society becomes complex, the abstractions and rationalizations for acts which create pain in others become harder to deconstruct and combat. Nationalism, ideology, religious extremism, and many other ways of thinking and living obscure our capacity for calm, rational self-reflection and self-critical thought.
So we’re good, but we’ve constructed worlds that make it easy for good people to get sucked into a web of self-delusion and abstract rationalization. One life goal has to be to work through that and examine our own lives and actions self-critically with self-forgiveness, not self-loathing. Then as co-constructors of our social reality, we should act to fight against the abstractions and rationalizations that hide the reality of our actions and choices. Like cats, we are playful rather than evil. It’s just that our play has consequences, and we have the capacity to understand them.