Thursday, May 15, 2014

Good versus evil

Image courtest Nicu's Photoblog.
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
It’s the basis of just about every story: right versus wrong, good guys against bad guys, the appeal of the bad boy …

Something I’ve been wondering about for a long time is that, outside of literature, evil-doers don’t seem to consider themselves as committing evil acts. In fact, most seem to think they’re taking an extreme step in defence of goodness.

Everybody thinks of himself or herself as a good guy. The Boko Haram group kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. The group released a video showing the girls dressed in grey hijabs. It claims to have liberated them and to have converted some to Islam.

Boko Haram’s name reportedly translates as “Western education is a sin.” Its stated goals are to impose Islamic law, so clearly its members see themselves—or at least, pretend to—as having a moral objective.

It uses bombs, murder and kidnapping to achieve that moral goal.

Following what can be described as a coup in Kyiv that deposed an elected government, several cities in eastern Ukraine held referenda last weekend on joining Russia—referenda without clear questions, voting lists or secret ballots. In supporting the results of those referenda, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to support the civil and human rights of Russian speaking people in eastern Ukraine. On Tuesday, militants ambushed a Ukrainian army convoy and killed six soldiers.

Who’s on the side of good?

I just finished writing a book about the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, Army of Worn Soles. In that conflict, both sides claimed to be on the side of good, as they defined it. The Germans claimed to be seeking living space; the Soviets were defending themselves. In the West of 70 years after the fact, we tend to believe the Soviets were more in the right, but even a little research shows there was plenty of evil to go around. Nazi Germany and the USSR partitioned Poland between them. A few months after that, the USSR invaded Finland in the Winter War to “protect Leningrad.”

I don’t think anyone decides “I’m going to do evil.” 

In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik bombed and shot 77 young people at a camp in Norway. He was sentenced to 21 years in jail. I’m sure all my readers recognize his acts as evil, but Breivik claimed he did it to defend Norway from a Muslim invasion.

So we come back to religion, which defines good and evil. Good will get you into heaven, evil will send you to hell. But Islam, Judaism and Christianity all follow texts that prescribe stoning to death for having sex outside marriage. Christians fought bloody wars for centuries over (supposedly) differences in interpretations of religious tenets. The Church burned hundreds of Cathars to death for believing slightly differently than officially sanctioned Catholicism.

From a secular perspective, we could define “good” as improving people’s lives. The oil industry provides good jobs, and has enabled us to heat our homes and travel, while providing well-paying jobs to some and huge profits to a very few.

Syncrude's base mine. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur - it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left. Source: Wikipedia
On the other hand, the oil industry has spoiled the natural environment for over a century, choking cities’ air (Mexico City, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing), poisoning rivers (Kalamazoo, Michigan) and devastating whole ecosystems (Athabaska River). The oil lobby has prevented meaningful development of alternative energy forms until very recently, and continues to resist measures to mitigate climate change.

Is “good” what’s good for me?

The challenge in fiction is to make characters and their actions believable. Even when we’re writing about vampires, aliens or witches, we—or at least, I—try to create an emotional connection that the reader can identify with.

It’s always fun (strangely) to create a purely evil villain. Dr. Evil. Hannibal Lecter. Sauron. But what makes that person evil? The pursuit of goals, no matter the cost to others? Doesn’t that make 24’s hero Jack Bauer evil?

Good or evil? Source: Wikipedia
Fiction often presents villains as sympathetic characters, drawn into breaking the law or other evil acts to defend themselves or their families: think Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Walter White in Breaking Bad or Jaime Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones). They’re naturally good people forced to do terrible things.

Hamlet poisoned his mother. Brutus stabbed Caesar to protect the Roman republic.

What’s good? What’s evil? Can we ever really say, or does it depend what end of the gun you’re on?


  1. I believe you're good when people around you are happy with your presence -- not that you can keep everyone happy, but for me--definition of good is--your presence doesn't bother anyone. If a man is Rabbi, Pope or Muslim cleric, it doesn't make him a saint. It's very sad that people in this bigoted society use religion as a weapon and not a meditation to heal yours or others' souls. Evil is nothing but the lack of tolerance for one another. If we learn to tolerate and accept each other--regardless of any caste, color or creed, I believe there would be no evil in this world.

    1. It's interesting that you equate evil with intolerance. It's interesting, because that brings us back to relativism. Today, in our society, most of us see tolerance of religious differences as good. Go back 100 years in Canada, and religious missionaries were vigorously working to suppress and eliminate Aboriginal spiritual practices and beliefs and impose Christianity in Canada's North, and they saw themselves as doing good.

  2. I've always been intrigued by the concept of the "evil" person. Which person thinks of his/her self as truly evil? Yes, the cartoons depict the villain, laughing evilly, rolling his/her hands and giving a devilish look. Even in "Ella Enchanted" - Gary Elwes character "Edgar" speaks of his evil ways and plots. That is NOT reality. So, perspective is the answer. Genghis Khan, Conquistador Cortez, builders of the transcontinental railway, and the Crusades. All of those people considered their actions as right. For the people falling under Khan's attacks, the Aztecs who were killed by Cortez, the Native Americans killed and relocated and all those who died when the Crusaders attacked - they only saw the invaders as evil. Even today, a man who robs another at gunpoint is considered evil even though the man being robbed could have just taken the robber's life savings through unscrupulous means like Bernie Madoff. The line of evil is a fine line that threads its way through every aspect of life including even the simplest concepts. A white man who won't let his son date a black girl is considered a racist yet a black man who won't let his daughter date a white boy is considered keeping heritage. Perspective. In my eyes they are both racist and it is evil, no matter which way you look at it. A man who kills in the name of Jesus is no better or less than the man who kills in the name of Islam. Perspective. It is all perspective or as you stated - which end of the gun or point of view you're on!

  3. Great post, and the comments are also thought provoking. This is something I've given a lot of thought too. When I'm having judgmental thought towards someone, or some group of people, I try to remember they are they way they are because of choices they've made, beliefs they hold, or circumstances they are caught up in.

    The thing I really enjoyed was your thoughts on making our antagonists, believable. It's easy to write someone evil, or just bad. But making one who characters can relate to by believing in the reason they are the way they are, maybe even sympathize with them, that is difficult. But those who write characters, good, or bad, who characters care about write engaging stories.

    I'm glad I read this.


  4. Good article, Scott. Asking the big questions to which there are no easy answers.

    My view is that people can believe anything. It's something to do with how we emerged from prehistory, terrified by the world around us but making it because we believed in the kind if myths and supernatural entities that told us this was possible. But we paid a price and that price is the almost limitless capacity we have for arrogance and self deception. It's a kind of fatal flaw.

    I hope you can see where this is leading. It matters less what people think they are doing than what they are actually doing. They can believe that what they are doing is good when in fact it is real evil because of the fatal flaw that allows them to believe just what they like.

    The evidence is all around us. But to choose one obvious example, look no further than Nazi Germany. Fifty million dead and counting in the name of an ideology that was so bogus you have the right to question how anyone could ever have believed it and yet was, to cut a long story short, pure evil.

    So, yes, it's necessary for writers to keep trying to set the record straight by reminding people about the dangers of such a fatal flaw in what we are. Good versus evil is embedded in the substance of our lives.

  5. Solid points.

    I'd have to say that "evil" has to be something you work out in terms of who (for WHATEVER reason) is breaking guidelines such as "the overall benefit" and "my right to swing my fist ends at your nose." --Of course historically, and all too often today, those tend to be read as "--benefit TO ME" and "ends at MY TRIBE'S noses," so strangers and foreigners are fair game.

    Worse yet, there's the rule of thumb that evil usually happens as a response to other evil, or at least suffering. Monsters or sheer bad luck make more monsters; even Bin Laden honed his rage fighting Russians invaders in Afganistan.

    And it's most definitely a writer's job to keep exposing these. Who else can really put us in the head of someone who's being tempted toward what the rest of us will just wall off as "evil"-- before they try to know the enemy?