An Article of the Modern Survival Guide
If I had to pick a disputed concept that has an enormous bearing on your life, the way you live your life, and the way you treat others, this one would be right at the top of the list: do you believe that people are good or evil? Which is to say — do you believe that a person has the quality of being good or being evil?
It’s a serious question, even if on the face of it a lot of us have a knee-jerk answer: yes. In fact, about half of the US population thinks that society can be divided into “good” and “evil.” This is important — really important — because whether you think a person is “good” or “evil” will reliably determine how you treat them. Of course, their perception of you will likewise determine their views and treatment of you.¹
It is easy to impose a huge prison sentence, or the death penalty, on an “evil” person. It feels right to think that our personal circumstances are the way they are because we are “good” and therefore deserve to prosper. It makes things simple to curate our social circle based on whether we judge a person to be “good” or “bad.” And, based on those statements, if you’ve read any of my other articles you probably know that right now I’m about to turn all that on its head.
Let’s get this out of the way: life is not that easy, and it is a hideous mistake to pretend otherwise. People are not good, nor are they evil, and the moment we start thinking of people like that is the moment when we ourselves fall into risk of crossing all sorts of moral lines. People are complicated, and we live in a moral landscape that is, at best, shades of grey.
But Allen, I hear you say, you believe in and have defended the concepts of good and evil. Why, oh why, would you say that people aren’t good or evil?
Well, that’s a very good question, and my answer is as follows: People are not good or evil. Their actions are. I’ve written before about the idea of interpreting ethics, and the basic premise boils down to this: some actions are moral actions, in the sense that they carry ethical weight. Such actions are composed of three parts — intention,² action,³ and consequence⁴ — and it is the sum of those parts that determines whether the action is good, neutral, or evil. Interestingly, this is very close to the way that lawyers tend to think about our actions in a court of law, so this has some practical implications.
To put that another way, it’s very hard to make an argument that someone is a good person if they sit on their couch and think about helping refugees in Syria, but don’t actually do anything about it. This is what people mean when they say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. You can’t be a good person if you don’t act, and if action is required, then there is no such thing as an inherently good person. There are simply people who act to support good deeds, and people who do not. Most of us are both of those people, at different points during the day.
Likewise for actions that we might consider evil, show me a person who’s never contemplated murder, and I’ll show you a liar. We all have thoughts that we know better than to act out, and consequently most of us get through our lives without committing acts of unspeakable villainy. But we all have had at least one thought that is, in no uncertain terms, evil. Most of us just didn’t act on it.
So, what does this mean for modern survival? Well, interpreting good and evil in terms of actions, rather than in terms of implicit characteristics of human beings, opens up a lot of conceptual space and a lot of options for dealing with problems. This is the difference between America’s incarceration-based prison system and a system like Norway’s, for example; the first is focused on reducing crime by getting bad people off the streets, the second is focused on reducing crime by reforming bad behavior. One of these systems is proven not to work, and it’s the first one.
Again, this is fairly simple reasoning. If we think of someone as an evil person, we consider them to be permanently or irrevocably corrupted, and therefore any action taken against them can be justified. If someone has committed an evil action, that implies that they are just as capable of good action, under the correct circumstances. The focus then shifts to ensuring that (a) the evil action is less likely and (b) the good action is incentivized. Most of the truly successful social programs of the last hundred years have had this focus, and it’s very important to keep this thought process alive.
This raises the question, why do people keep insisting on a black-and-white view of human nature? Why, if we have ample evidence, particularly when it comes to crime, that treating people as “evil” has a poor rate of success, do we keep doing it?
The answer, of course, is: it’s complicated. There is an element of racism (as exemplified in the “War of Drugs”), there’s a decent pinch of puritanism, there’s a solid heap of pure vindictive viciousness, there’s a refrain of “we’ve always done it this way,” and there’s a large dose of politicians who don’t want to appear “weak” on crime. To put that another way: increasing prison sentences is always good for votes, dog whistles are often good for votes, religious overtones are reliable vote-drivers, and therefore many incentives exist that prompt our leaders to push the message that we have to protect the “good” people from the “evil” people.
In a more broad sense, apart from crime, religious people in particular are more likely to see the world in good vs. evil terms, which of course bleeds over into their impressions of others. It is also incredibly useful from a government propaganda perspective to paint certain groups or ideologies as “evil” since that designation essentially gives policymakers a blank cheque for dealing with the so-labeled groups. That response normally consists of force, which is the easiest policy option in most cases. It is easy to hit someone, and if that person is evil, it’s justified.
When you look at world events through this lens, a lot of the actions that the US takes start to make sense. The War on Terror may have cost millions of civilian lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they were supporting evil regimes, so it’s ok. The War on Drugs may have cost millions of US citizens most of the years of their lives, but they were evil druggies, so it’s ok. Welfare is constantly under attack because of the image of lazy welfare queens (an inherently racist and sexist attack, by the way, which is effective precisely for those reasons), because it’s so seductive for successful people to think of poor people as deserving of their status.
This attitude is endemic, and it alternately results in either dangerous or sub-optimal outcomes.
The better way is to treat people as beings who are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but rather to be judged based on their actions (both in general and in particular). In other words, the good a person does is not wiped out by evil acts they commit, but by the same token evil acts cannot be left to continue unimpeded.
A person who is committing evil actions still needs to be stopped, but then the imperative shifts from punishment to rehabilitation. To put that another way, it is less useful to society to punish people than it is to correct their actions such that they become productive members of society. A prisoner is a drain on society’s resources. A rehabbed person is not.
Similarly, a person who has committed acts of evil or simply acts that had negative consequences in the past is not necessarily going to do so again. They should be judged according to their actions and intentions in the present. To put that in concrete terms, the fact that we treat ex-cons so poorly in our society is doing no one any good, and is likely creating circumstances for recidivism.⁵
There are still going to be people who are incorrigible and committed to bad actions. That’s not in debate. At that point the difference between an inherently evil person and a person who predominately commits evil actions tends to shrink to effectively nil. But that shouldn’t be our assumption about everyone, because that assumption is not evidence-based and has not resulted in good social outcomes. We need to change that assumption.
Is this going to be easy? Not on a societal scale, no. It’s going to take a lot of rework and rehashing of social views, and that isn’t something that happens overnight. But it does need to happen, and you can help, which is why this article is included in a series called “The Modern Survival Guide.” You can start by adjusting your own expectations. This is work. I don’t shy away from that, because adults do work. There’s a whole other point about what makes a person an adult, but adopting this type of responsibility is one of those things.
You can also advocate for this type of attitude shift, depending on your personal resources. It doesn’t have to be heavy-handed, this is simply the type of thing that will reliably come up in conversation at Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s worth your time to support a viewpoint that people can change. That’s really what this is all about, after all; people can change, and it’s a good idea to focus more on changing people than hurting them.
And, of course, some of you are going to end up in positions of authority. When you are in those positions, remembering that people can and do change their ways is vitally important — especially if you’re in a job where you routinely see the worst in people. There’s an argument to be made that America’s police culture is so incredibly screwed up principally because the officers see themselves as holding the line against evil people (and are therefore justified in their actions) because most of their interactions with the public consist of seeing people do bad things. Losing perspective in that kind of job can have immediate, and horrible, repercussions.
There is no such thing as an evil person. Nor is there such a thing as a good person. There are simply people who commit actions, each with their own moral interpretation. Some of those people can change; some are stuck in their ways. Until we start internalizing this point in our society, a lot of the really nasty bits of American culture are going to stick around.
¹Some other interesting articles highlighting this issue: https://philosophynow.org/issues/133/Is_Attributing_Evil_a_Cognitive_Bias
²Intention: What you meant to do. Intention is important because it reflects the start of a moral action, in the sense that anything you didn’t mean to do but turned out well is, at best, an accident.
³Action: What you actually did. Action is important because the road to hell is paved with good intentions; you can have all the good thoughts in the world, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t act.
⁴Consequence: What happened because you did what you did. Consequences are important because action isn’t enough. If your action didn’t turn out the way you intended, then the best that can be said for it was that you acted with good intentions. The worst that might be said would be that it was a tragedy.
⁵Recidivism: The tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend.