|Temptation of Christ - Ary Scheffer (Source)|
First off, my buddy Shaun has some interesting thoughts on the topic. Before continuing further, you should go read this post of his. 'Twas that post which got me to cogitating. Which isn't always a good thing. As I have mentioned in these spaces in the past, sometimes I think too much. (The converse of that statement has some validity as well.)
Now when Shaun writes of the First Principle, I do believe he means this -
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - Declaration of Independence, PreambleWhile I wholeheartedly support the sentiment expressed in those powerful words (with the caveat that "men" here means all of humanity) I do have a couple of bones to pick with the Founders.
First off, what they really meant to say (and as an historian, amateur or not, there are facts to back me up on this) is that the men of the Thirteen Colonies were equal to the men of the home country, that is to say, Great Britain.
They did not mean to include women (who could not vote at that time), they did not mean to include slaves and indentured servants (the former having little hope of freedom, ever, and the latter's hope of freedom subject to the scruples, or lack thereof, of the man who "owned" their service), and they certainly did not include the native peoples of the North American continent.
The Declaration of Independence was a start towards what we have today. We're not there yet, as now, legally, all American citizens are born with a clean slate, so to speak, as in they are theoretically able to take themselves as far as their hard work and natural talents can take them. Which is all well and good until you look at reality.
I might note that those born with a disability are not by any means created equal in comparison with those born without a disability. But the point is, the law does not allow anyone to place any obstacles in a person's way based on their gender, "color," religion, sexual orientation, or other distinguishing characteristics (real or imagined).
While that's what the law is, in practice, if you grow up in a poor neighborhood with really bad schools, you need to work many times harder than, let's say, a middle class kid from Vermont. (Even if we were what you might call, lower middle class. Not sure exactly where we fell on the scale of wealth, but it wasn't down near the bottom, nor anywhere near the top. Somewhere just below the middle, I'd guess.)
Now what does all that have to do with the concepts of good and evil?
Now Shaun made the argument in his post -
...that there are no good people and there are no bad people. There are just people. People who take actions which are both good and bad.The statement taken at face value, seems to make perfect sense. People are not bad, nor are they good, the things they do in life, the actions they take may be construed as good, or bad. So the person who stole my card number and used it to make some purchase at Walmart out in Oklahoma over the weekend, isn't a bad person, they just chose to do a bad thing. Which while it did not cost me any money, did cause me a great deal of inconvenience. And really, really, pissed me off.
Now how about the fellow in 1930s Germany who joined the Nazi Party because all the "cool kids" were doing it? Say he later joined the SS-Totenkopfverbände*, because that way he didn't have to go to Russia and fight in combat. Were that man's actions bad? I mean, if he didn't do it someone else would. After all, the State ordered this done, how could he be considered bad? If the murder of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and others was countenanced by, in fact dictated by, the State, how could an individual be held accountable?
Well, the Nuremberg Tribunal did hold the individuals accountable. Whether they felt guilty, or bad, or evil, or not. They were held accountable for their actions. They were judged to be, if not evil, at the very least, criminals. Bad people.
Am I equating the person out in Oklahoma with a concentration camp guard? Well, yes I am, just a little. If one chooses to do a small bad thing, where does that lead? If you feel justified in taking that which is not yours, where does it stop? From theft to genocide is a large leap, I know, but both are, to some extent, bad. I would go so far as to say evil.
One definition of evil, as a noun, is:
profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, especially when regarded as a supernatural force
Synonyms: wickedness, bad, badness, wrongdoing, sin, ill, immorality, vice, iniquity, degeneracy, corruption, depravity, villainy, nefariousness, malevolenceI think we can see already that there are degrees of evil. A concentration camp guard could no doubt be judged as being profoundly immoral and depraved. The card number thief charging a purchase to someone else's account might just be bad, or nefarious. If one has a strict interpretation of the Scriptures, both are doomed to eternal damnation. Or maybe not.
Admission of sin and the act of repentance can cleanse one of their sin (well, there's more to it than that, but I'm not here to debate religion, at least not today), forgiveness is there for those who seek it. Even the SS guy? Yes, even him.
Do I think mankind is inherently wicked? No.
Do I think good people can choose to do bad, even evil things? That depends.
Consistent bad behavior, doing bad things, even evil things lie outside of what defines a "good" person. Just what is good anyway? Let's hit the dictionary again -
that which is morally right; righteousness.Can a human be "good" according to that definition? Yes, but it takes effort. It's a lot harder than being bad, or evil. At least I think so.
Synonyms: virtue, righteousness, goodness, morality, integrity, rectitude, honesty, truth, honor, probity, propriety, worthiness, merit, blamelessness, purity
I think that once one chooses to do bad things, to be evil if you will, then one will continue to do so unless some external force makes one stop. Especially if it's profitable.
Do evil often enough, then I believe you are evil. Your actions define who you are and what you are, like it or not.
The same holds true for those who go out of their way to be good. Does this mean more than just doing one's job in life? Go to work, pay your bills, love your spouse, your kids, your neighbor, try to obey the law. Or does one have to do charity work, donate money to orphanages and the like? Who decides?
I don't know.
They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, I think the road to Hell is paved, brick by brick, mile by mile, with evil deeds and treating one's fellows badly. It's also paved by the inaction of those who might have changed things but stood by and did nothing.
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. - Edmund BurkeIf you stand by and do nothing in the face of evil, how can you be called "good"?
I really don't know. All I know is that there is great evil in the world. It's up to those of us who can, to stand up to it.
My thoughts. What are yours?
* Death's Head Units, these provided the guard force for the concentration camps.