Are you a good person? If you ask most people this question, they’ll answer, “Yes.” Of course they are. They might think to themselves, “I’m not a monster. I’m not like X.” Pick your monster, let X equal Hitler for illustration purposes here.
But, what’s the threshold for good? Does the same thinking apply in the opposite direction? Do we think to ourselves, “I’m not a saint. I’m not like X.” Pick your saint, let X equal the Buddha for illustration purposes here.
If we draw a line, with the most evil person that ever lived, assuming talking about “the most evil” could be quantified in some way based on objective analysis of the horror that was a direct result of their existence, and drawing it to “the most good” quantified in a similar way, where do we sit? Are we on trajectories over the course of our lives, moving in more evil or more good directions? Does it vary based on specific features that are dominant at a particular historical moment?
Is it easier to be good, or evil, in a particular time and place? Was it easier to be good when humanity was living in pre-history, in small bands before the dawn of the agricultural revolution? Are there some eras where evil and good don’t even apply, e.g., if you worked 18 hour days in one of the early factories after the Industrial Revolution? Or, perhaps being literate and being exposed to new ideas makes us more inclined to be evil, or good.
When I think on these things, I come to one conclusion. We aren’t good. We aren’t bad. We are people in a particular situation, and we all think that what we are doing is good, in some sense of that word.
Hitler, for instance, believed that some people were sub-human, and if you got rid of these lesser humans, humanity as a whole would be better off. Even saying it in that way implies a value judgment because if some “people” are sub-human, they are still human. Hitler’s argument seems to be that they aren’t really people at all, so it should be said differently under that assumption. If you accept the perspective that people are people, then Hitler’s line of thinking is evil.
But, Hitler’s line of thinking is the norm. Humans are tribal, and outsiders are always not quite as human as insiders. If you think that some people are better in some fundamental way – whether that is because they subscribe to a particular idea/dogma, such as a religion or they belong to a particularly ethnic group – whether that is a Han Chinese in modern China, white Englishman in Colonial America, or any colonizing civilization’s view of aboriginal hunter/gatherer groups, or simply because you know them – how much different are you from Hitler? What differentiates Hitler’s view from the tribal view?
Beyond views, there are actions. Does the ability to act in the world make us capable or greater evil or good? If someone has the same views as Hitler but is unable to act on them as he did, are they also evil? Is it the idea that some people aren’t people the evil part? Or, is it the causing, in one way or another, the deaths of millions the evil part? Well, it seems they both are evil, right? It’s just more evil if you act on and the scale of your actions amplifies the evil in some way.
The same idea applies the other direction. We all want to be good. But, is it enough to have good ideas? Or, does the good need to impact the world in some significant way? If we do smaller acts of kindness, are we less good than a Bill Gates who can do something like eradicate a disease? Is Bill Gates good? Is he more good than the Dalai Lama or the historical Buddha? Why or why not?
When we look into our hearts, we know that the desire to be and do good competes with other desires. We also want to be comfortable and materially well-off. We want to be important, respected, possibly famous. We want to be accepted by the communities in which we are part, some of which may not be good communities. We may want power or control over our environment. And on and on. All of these desires compete, and while everyone wants to be good, we very often want these other things more.
I think it helps to understand that none of us are inherently good or bad. None of us are “good people”. Luck and circumstance plays a very important role in who we are. We are the sum total of a vast network of influences: genetic, environmental, psychological and so many others. But, perhaps, the important thing is that we always have a choice in what we think and do, and perhaps it is helpful to realize that we may be rationalizing some evil, and that we are in fact being and acting evil. That the good we believe we are or doing might be evil and perhaps, it is time to stop.