Several weeks ago my fifteen year old daughter, my mother and I were talking about good and evil. I have a tendency to be more conservative in my opinions than my mother. This topic was no exception. Mom’s take on good and evil is kind of predictable; no one is really evil except for horrible, mass-murdering, dictators like Hitler or maybe child-molesters. She sees most people as good and trying their best and feels there is no right or wrong on most things – nothing is black and white. I think I surprised her in the idea that I don’t think anyone is truly totally evil any more than one can be truly totally good. But many things have a right and a wrong.
For me principles are black or white; people are always a mix. It is almost alarming how often people miss something that seems rather obvious. Horrendous and unnatural acts such as abortion are excused and brought to the area of grey because some, otherwise good person, fell to that point in a moment of desperation. We want to excuse the failings of others and ourselves not by saying that we fail to hold to good principles (because that would make us evil) but that principles are more guidelines, and in no way really binding or even valid. The only way to make people, as a whole, good is to create a reality in which nothing is bad. No one can be judged on anything because there is no standard.
But there is something about that which doesn’t work, because we know that evil is real. Children are murdered, women are raped, and men have their lives and livelihoods ruined for petty and vindictive reasons. We agree that there are points of wrong that can never ever be looked at as anything other than wrong. But if people are really just good and nothing a person wants to do can be said to be really bad than there must be something intrinsically faulty in some people… they are just bad, evil people. Any good done by an “evil” person is discounted, forgotten. We want to cling to the idea that someone capable of some horrible act is by nature evil, a creature of darkness. It is comforting and reassuring.
I know there are some holes in the above and it probably dissevers a better treatment, but that was pretty much where we left it. It seems so much simpler to me to say that we humans are all pretty messed up in ways. That there are principals, virtues and ethical values that supersede our ability to always meet, but that doesn’t harm the value of the principles. Maybe it is just that we live in a world where it is fashionable to say “I’m ok, you’re ok” but I think it is a great deal more honest to say: “I’m screwed up, you’re screwed up, but that’s ok – we’re working on it”. And honesty is good, always, all the time, but I don’t always get there because I am not always that good.
At any rate it was an interesting conversation.