This post heralds back to my previous examination on good in my post on politics: What does Ryan want in a politician?
I previously proposed that when we (North Americans) use words such as “good”, or “evil”, that we do so with a very Christian conception. That is, we think of it almost as a property – good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell. I do not mean that we think of it in those exact terms, but that we take it as kind of an infusion: do enough good and you’re a good person, do enough bad and you’re a bad person. Also, good and bad we treat as indelible properties – stealing is bad, charity is good, etc. I previously examined good, and explained that by “good” I really mean “should”. Now I am going to examine the question of whether individuals can be good or evil.
Let’s look at the possibility of an “evil” man, because that’s what I feel like exploring. To take what seems to me one of the most classic of examples, I would say that many people would say that Hitler was evil. Hitler was responsible for some of the worst acts in human history, so if there is a man worthy of being called “evil” he seems a good candidate. What exactly are we saying when we call Hitler evil? Given my previous definition of good, I would say what we’re doing is pointing out specific acts that he did which are incredibly far from what any person should ever do. We are saying that he did not do as he should have in his life. However, we’re not judging every action he ever took. I personally have no idea what Hitler did before he became dictator/mass murderer, but I’m guessing that he didn’t spend every waking moment plotting how to hurt small animals. I’m guessing he had people that he loved, people that he cared for. So when we call him evil, we’re not saying that he was evil in every action that he ever took. We are speaking about a very specific set of actions which almost completely define his place in history.
From this framework I would argue that people are not “good” or “evil” but that they do good or evil things. When we say “Hitler was evil” what we really mean is “Hitler did some terrible deeds.” Let me be clear, I still think that our deeds are our responsibility. I just would argue that “good” and “evil” are not properties of our being, only properties of our actions in relation to “should” and “should not.”
Thank you for reading,