Questions on good and evil

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Sometimes I wonder if four people who have so little in common in how they have lived their lives can all be said to be of the same species. And yet, that is what we have here. Four examples of human beings. My question is this…how does that happen? Perhaps for some of you, this is not an important question. But to me, it might be the biggest of them all. I obviously want to understand how someone becomes like Archbishop Tutu as opposed to Dick Cheney because I want more Tutus and less Cheneys. If we can begin to understand how that happens, maybe we can start to fix things, at least for the future.

Of course, some would call it fate or the will of God. I don’t buy that. The other way of looking at it involves the nature vs nurture debate. As is our normal habit, we tend to see these things as polarities, ie, its either genetics or environment. If it’s all genetics, we’re back to fate and the whole question is a moot point. But if environment plays a role, then we have something to work with.

I remember when this question hit me full force. I was working part-time in a children’s home in Los Angeles. It was a place where they “housed” children who had been abandoned or terribly abused by their parents and then failed in foster placements. There were cottages filled with 4-12 year old children in that situation. It was the toughest work I’ve ever done. These kids were a mess and it didn’t take much to see where many of them were headed. As I looked at them I knew that some of them would be our “evil ones” of the future. And yet, they were in that position through no fault of their own. They were there because all of the adults in their lives had failed them. I was in seminary at the time and wrestling with this was part of what caused me to question my whole understanding of good and evil in the world.

One of the reasons I think this issue is important is because, at times, I fear that we can buy into the meme that those like Cheney and Rice are just evil and therefore dismiss their humanity. I think this is dangerous ground to be walking on. I know its a challenge to find the humanity in people like them, but I have to believe its there. And I agree with Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he says:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

I doubt there has ever been a more powerful portrayal of the meeting of good and evil than the book and movie “Dead Man Walking” based on the relationships of Sister Helen Prejean with men on death row.

Sister Helen Prejean is trying to tell us that even in the most vile and evil people exists a human being – and she works relentlessly to find it. To me, her story is one of the most profound statements on the human condition that has ever been told.

I don’t have the answers to my questions. But I do think that what we consider humane is developed through a process that includes both how we are treated and how we choose to react to that treatment. It involves a calling out of the humane through the process of an interconnecting weave of “meetings” between ourselves and the world around us. I sometimes fear that the whole fabric of that weave is breaking down for far too many. But there is a healing that is available in the reconnecting of that weave. Maybe someday we’ll understand more about that process.


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  1. Not all evil people come from backgrounds such as you cite.

    “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents,”  John Steinbeck in “East of Eden”

    I believe that, too.  There is no other way to account for some of the people I have known.

  2. I have met and made it a point to talk to a lot of ‘bad’ people for precisely this reason, to find out why people act like they do, why the do ‘bad’ things and hurt others.

    I am sure there are people with malfunctioning brain chemistry or other imbalances.

    But with everyone I can think of that I have been able to engage on a level deep enough to really delve into their past, they have had something ‘bad’ happen to them that ha influenced their behavior. Then of course you get into a cycle. Somebody did something ‘bad’ to them, so they reacted by doing something bad. Then the person they did something bad to reacts back…and reinforces all of the bad feeling. And….bad feelings are an addiction for a lot of folks.

    Of course all of that is with just everyday folks….ot people like Cheney. The only thing I can say fairly confidently about ‘bad’ people on that scale is that I am pretty sure that same addiction to ‘bad’ feelings exists. That they seem themselves as essentially victims and that they are merely reacting to the badness of others…. they are convinced that others are ‘bad’, and will hurt them (or their country or cause) and so THEY must become bad enough to respond ‘properly.’

    Obviously Cheney is convinced…has convinced himself….that the world is out to destroy America, so anything he does in defense of it is necessary, and even valiant.

    Note: using bad as a generic term for negative behaviors, lol

    Note 2: This comment written without benefit of caffeine!

  3. I favor is that people have both a higher and lower nature. We all express both daily. I worked with Teenage sex offenders for many years some of whom destined to be life long abusers and would spend the majority of their lives behind bars. Even these kids however, showed empathy, compassion and selflessness on occasions. On the other hand saints get angry, lose faith and sometimes exploit others in moments of weakness. History bears this out.

    One part of my belief system is that evil or love, malice or compassion are a living energetic bodies that we all contribute to in one way or another. When evil builds up like it has in our society over decades it needs some sort of expression, it needs to be released like steam building up in a pressure cooker. When this happens you get an entity like our current neo-con movement and people who have tendencies and personalities that fit this negative need are drawn to this movement to express the evil. Unfortunately, as the evil is expressed it gives rise to a great many more negative feelings among many people. people become more polarized, angry and hateful and feed the evil beast which continue to grow and find more avenues of expression.

    After sometime the negative effects of the evil dominates everyones lives to such an extent that the people say “enough” go inside themselves and throwout the evil. They then embrace their higher selves and love and light begin a counter movement. Eventually society will based in these higher principles again. Unfortunately, it appears we are only now in the begining stages of this process.  

  4. And I’d like to share one facet of that question myself, one that perplexes me.

    I’ve written about this before, this example.  Oskar Schindler.  He was not a morally savory person.  Yet he saved thousands of lives and, more, was able to give some dignity and hope to folks who were in the worst kind of inhumane situation.

    But there were many folks, “good” Germans, folks who went to church every Sunday, who were good neighbors, who obeyed the rules, who loved their children … and who not only sat by and allowed genocide to take place but often cheered it on and believed it was a good thing.

    If we are indeed interconnected, I think we have to take a look at the notion of good and evil differently.  There’s so much we simply do not know about the human condition.

    I think the examples you cite, of the children from abusive situations, is something we indeed can do something about — your own essays have shown that in the folks you have helped.

    But in the larger sense, why some folks make the choices they do, I think that is a more complicated story.

  5. We’re all fascinated and baffled by the same mysteries of life.  Maybe that’s the “image of God” we humans were created in.

    I think most of us find our answers in the arts.  I was satisfied when Albus Dumbledore explained to me that the choices I made had largely determined my fate.

    Here’s Gibran’s Prophet on good and evil:

    Of the good in you I can speak, but not

    of the evil.

    For what is evil but good tortured by its

    own hunger and thirst?

    Verily when good is hungry it seeks food

    even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it

    drinks even of dead waters.

    You are good when you are one with


    Yet when you are not one with yourself

    you are not evil.

    For a divided house is not a den of thieves;

    it is only a divided house.

    And a ship without rudder may wander

    aimlessly among perilous isles yet sink not

    to the bottom.

    You are good when you strive to give of


    Yet you are not evil when you seek gain

    for yourself.

    For when you strive for gain you are but

    a root that clings to the earth and sucks at

    her breast.

    Surely the fruit cannot say to the root,

    “Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving

    of your abundance.”

    For to the fruit giving is a need, as re-

    ceiving is a need to the root.

    You are good when you are fully awake

    in your speech,

    Yet you are not evil when you sleep while

    your tongue staggers without purpose.

    And even stumbling speech may strengthen

    a weak tongue.

    You are good when you walk to your

    goal firmly and with bold steps.

    Yet you are not evil when you go thither


    Even those who limp go not backward.

    But you who are strong and swift, see that

    you do not limp before the lame, deeming

    it kindness.

    You are good in countless ways, and you

    are not evil when you are not good,

    You are only loitering and sluggard.

    Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness

    to the turtles.

    In your longing for your giant self lies

    your goodness: and that longing is in all of


    But in some of you that longing is a

    torrent rushing with might to the sea, carr-

    ying the secrets of the hillsides and the songs

    of the forest.

    And in others it is a flat stream that loses

    itself in angles and bends and lingers before

    it reaches the shore.

    But let not him who longs much say to

    him who longs little, “Wherefore are you

    slow and halting?”

    For the truly good ask not the naked,

    “Where is your garment?” nor the house-

    less, “What has befallen your house?”

  6. Most of my personal and profession experience with manifestations of every day evil (abuse, destruction, and violence ) has foundations in the nurture argument. I do not believe in the devil or evil forces that walk among us.

    I think we like to believe that because it raises the issue of societal obligations toward others that directly antagonize our belief in individual autonomy. If we really believe it takes a village to raise a child then it means we are responsible to extend a hand to others. It opposes American myths about who is responsible for success and failure. It also makes us defensive. We think, “Well I was able to overcome XYZ, why can’t he or she?” We all like to think we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And certainly change does require individual effort. We then get into the trap of who “deserves” our assistance, who is worthy and who is not. I believe we also stigmatize others especially when they commit unthinkable acts as possessing some inherent evil, in order to push away those darker parts of ourselves that we may or may not have met.

    So. I don’t have answers either.

  7. is the Lucifer Effect

    Rather than providing a religious analysis, however, I offer a psychological account of how ordinary people sometimes turn evil and commit unspeakable acts. As part of this account, The Lucifer Effect tells, for the first time, the full story behind the Stanford Prison Experiment, a now-classic study I conducted in 1971. In that study, normal college students were randomly assigned to play the role of guard or inmate for two weeks in a simulated prison, yet the guards quickly became so brutal that the experiment had to be shut down after only six days.

    Combining that with history is baffeling, but it seems the cultures that have a “Devil” are the most violent and the most either – or thinking, which makes for the dehumanization of people and preceeds and empowers atrocities.

    Problem is we’re all connected (in my view) and one disturbance or tug on the web affects everyone sooner or later, removing free choice of what people want their lives to be. Evil is live spelled backwards.

    That’s at least part of why life isn’t fair to me, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

  8. I just deleted it -but that is another story.

    Anyway the diary was about circumstances that can turn an otherwise kind person into a monster.That is my point.Circumstances can overwhelm a person either temporarily or permanetly. Circumstances,if harsh enough, can change one’s perception of reality to such an extent that they don’t see that their behavior has changed. In their altered reality they     can become someone they do not recognize and only in hindsight   when normality returns can they see the damage done.At least that has been my experience.


    It should be evident commercial media is not out to save humanity.  Our enviornment has been influenced by evil men since before we were all born.  The power of deception I think is evil’s greatest acheivement.

  10. profound movie….

    profound women…..

    and nature and nurture are inseperable…..

    the true journey of healimg is a spiritual one…..

  11. I find the distinction good/evil to be unuseful……

    rather life affirming/life disaffirming is a little more helpful perhaps……..

    • Edger on March 16, 2008 at 18:39

    Unfortunately I don’t have the time to delve into it to the depth that I’d like to, but I’d like to make one quick note here on my own thinking about good versus evil, and particularly  with respect to creeper’s question “Are there people who are inherently evil?”

    We live in a world of opposites. I’ve discussed this idea in other essays, and it is a worldview that developed over millenia in eastern philopsophies such as Vedanta, Tao, Zen, Buddhism and others.

    We cannot have a day without a night, dark without light, up without down, in without out,  black without white, life without death … or good without evil. Like the north and south poles of a magnet without both of which the magnet does not exist, the opposites are illusory and arise as a result of our way of thinking that attempts to break the world up into to small parts in an effort at understanding.

    The illusion is Maya:

    Maya (Sanskrit ???? m?y?[1] ), in Indian religions, is a polyvalent term. Maya, is the principal deity who creates, perpetuates and governs the phantasmagoria, illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal Universe. For some mystics[citation needed] this manifestation is real, but it is a fleeting reality; it is a mistake, although a natural one, to believe that Maya represents a fundamental reality or Truth. Each person, each physical object, from the perspective of eternity is like a brief, disturbed drop of water from an unbounded ocean. The goal of enlightenment is to understand this – more precisely, to experience this: to see intuitively that the distinction between the self and the Universe is a false dichotomy. The distinction between consciousness and physical matter, between mind and body (refer bodymind), is the result of an unenlightened perspective.

    So yes, I think there are people who inherently evil.

    Who are they? They are all of us, each of us. As each of us is also inherently good.

    The distinction, the judgment of of something as “good” or as “evil” is a human value judgment. In that sense, and only  in that sense, someone like Cheney is “evil”.

    But the universe, the “uni-verse” in it’s fundamental oneness and connectedness contains all things, and does not I think make “value” judgments that parts of itself (including Cheney’s) are “good” or “evil”.

    They just are.  

  12. Tippity tapped away by my clumsy fingers, into nothingness, into the ether so to speak. It was way too wordy anyway, it was up to small book stature when it went away. Oh well.

    At any rate, as to the topic, if one broadens the viewpoint the question pretty much disappears, IMHO. NL your premise is that there is but a single lifetime involved. If one looks at the subject with-in the context of re-incarnation and the Oneness of All That Is, the issue resolves itself nicely. Each lifetime is a lesson in the soul’s journey back to whence it came, the Awareness of the One, Nirvana, God, or whatever you want to call it.

    When we choose the parents and the social and physical situation we are born to, call it nature. When we grow up in that environment with the personality determining factors of that environment involved, call it nurture. It is a free will reality, if one choose “good” lessons, and learns them well, there is no need to walk the darkened road. Light dispels dark, period. With in the context of Gibran’s “Prophet” that Atticus quoted, it is the same. Good and Evil do not stand as equals; there is Light and the absence of Light, but there is no Evil.. If one chooses to interpret a lesson incorrectly, and continues to follow that thought line, soon we find a cheney. But we really are all one and eventually the pendulum swings for us all and the seemingly pure dark is shown the light, repents and the curtains drop, and the Star Wars theme plays one last time.

    That is the Big Picture. The smaller version? cheney is a scumbag son of a bitch who needs to experience his own living hell sooner than later.

    Prerequisites to my thought processes today (or any day for that matter), “Nature of Personal Reality” by Jane Roberts. “Conversations With Myself” by Alan Watts (h/t to Edgar)

  13. …and I haven’t much or anything to add to npk’s and ucc’s comments.  I do think we ignore nature at our peril; that nurture which ignores our hardwired selves creates people ill-equipped to handle their own impulses.  

    i cannot remember who said of the bataan death march, that the best of them died first; it feels increasingly that we live in such a time, and that the greatest enemy may not be evil, but expediency, and those who abet it.  For every outright sociopath there are a thousand or a million good people who abet the most terrible of acts; and when the chips are down, the sociopath may (consciously, with pain and struggle) make the right moral choice, for having thought about it, where the million do not.  

    Still reeling today from the headlines that read “Chinese troops maintain order in Lhasa”.  If that is how the MSM handles a brutal suppression by one of the world’s most vicious occupying powers…I just don’t feel, today, that the problem is the Cheneys.  It’s my fuckin’ neighbors, who have learned in their cubicles that the heart is for fools and naifs.

    • pico on March 17, 2008 at 00:13

    my mom grew up in the St. Thomas housing projects, where Sister Prejean lived and worked during the events fictionalized in Dead Man Walking.  My mom went with me to see the movie and had a hard time getting past the opening scenes (she doesn’t have fond memories of having grown up there).  

    Anyway.  That’s hardly a response to your excellent essay, but I’m still digesting.

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