Are we all evil?
The great Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote in The Gulag Archipelago (1973)
“It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhlemed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.”
Sozhenitsyn had indeed viewed a great deal of human evil in the Soviet Union. But is he saying we are all evil?
I think he is saying we are potentially evil.
Here is a way of addressing the question:
How would you behave in the following situations?:
You are a NFL player. You have just been offered a contract of $3.6 million to play football for the next three years. But eight months ago, you witnessed on your TV set the airplane flying through the World Trade Center in New York. You read about the heroism of the passengers in the plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. You witness the destruction of thousands of lives in New York and D.C. on 9/11/2001.
a) play football for the next 3 years
b) Turn down the $3.6 million to enlist in the U.S. army.
Pat Tillman chose ‘b’.
The Nazis have occupied your country.
They want to kill all the Jews in your country.
a) smuggle all the Jews out of the country
b) don’t get involved
c) denounce all the Jews wherever they hide
d) Hide Jews in your house or farm
e) Start a nationwide underground network to hide, shelter, and feed Jews.
The Danes of Denmark chose ‘a’.
The Vichy regime of France’s southeast passed anti-Semitic laws and interned Jews before the Germans even demanded it. So they chose ‘c’.
“e)” happened in Holland. Unfortunately, Holland also had a large number of citizens who volunteered to join the Nazi SS. One of the bravest things the Dutch did was in February 1941. After a skirmish in Amsterdam between Jews and Dutch Nazis in which a Nazi was killed, 450 Jewish males were sent to Mauthausen concentration camp. In response, the underground Dutch Communist Party called a general strike in Amsterdam, on Tuesday the 25th, the first of its kind in Nazi-occupied Europe. Initially the strike was a success. Almost half of all municipal employees joined, as well as many white-collar workers and dockers. The streets were packed with defiant Dutch. Some lay down in front of the few trams that left their depots to stop them from running. One contemporary account quotes an elderly guard who lay across the tracks, shouting at the driver: “Ride if you dare, fascist! Traitor!”.
It could not last. Martial law was declared and SS troops and German police took control of the streets. Many of the strike organizers were sent to concentration camps.
Poland had a higher count of people who risked their lives to save Jews, but proportionate to population, Holland had the most. Poland had its share of Jew-haters, and after the war was over a mob of local townsfolk, in Kielce including police and soldiers murdered 42 jews and injured 40 others out of about 200 Holocaust survivors who after the war had returned to the town from German Nazi concentration camps and elsewhere. (As an ‘excuse’ this all happened following a false tale of child kidnapping, including allegations of blood libel)
Here is another choice. You have a choice to join the Mafia, like your father did, or to become an ordinary businessman. Which would you choose? Some people volunteer to join the Mafia, with no coercion of any sort.
A common choice facing some in Latin America (and elsewhere) is for a wretchedly poor person to lead a life which is morally blameless, but hopeless, or to join a drug cartel and be well off, or even incredibly rich.
So here you have quite a variety of behaviors.
By observing people in these various situations, you see that some were willing to take risks to save others, some went out of their way to hurt others, and some did nothing at all. So the question “are we all evil”, I would say that maybe its a continuum measured across a series of situations.
We might even use fuzzy logic here – you might have a 2% chance of behaving like Pat Tillman, and a 50% chance of behaving like the Dutch strikers. Of course its impossible to know what you would do until the situation actually happens.
We can think up some less stark and clear situations as well.
You are in college. You hear that a female student was secretly filmed having sex with a fraternity member. You don’t like this female student. You could go see the movie in a clandestine screening. Would you go?
Some people did go – I remember reading about something similar to this in an article on “Privacy” that appeared many years ago. (Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the magazine, and I can’t find the article.)
The victim of the movie did sue the fraternity responsible for the movie, when she found out. My point is though that some people would go to a movie like this, some would not. Those who went might even feel self-righteous, or that they were seeing the real truth. Or they just might be voyeurs.
When scandals break, I generally feel no guilt about finding about them. If President Bill Clinton had multiple extra-marital affairs, I’d like to know. If Tiger Woods (a famous golfer) has multiple extra-marital trysts, or the TV show host David Letterman has sex with his staffers, I’d like to know. Or at least, I feel no guilt about finding out.
However, do I really want to know if a popular teacher in school visited a prostitute when he was younger – especially if he has since reformed? Do I really want to know all the sleazy details of many people’s sex lives, especially if they have reformed?
Moral issues can take on a sort of fuzziness.
Or imagine a science fiction choice – you have access to a drug that can make a love-interest feel attracted to you. Would you use it? Or if by slander you could discredit someone who you thought was dangerous – perhaps taking your country in a dangerous political direction, or becoming a hero to many when you feel he should be despised, would you go ahead and slander that person? Or at least dig up dirt on that person?
People vary tremendously in how they choose in moral situations.
People vary tremendously in what they believe as well, and the kind of moral code they follow.
And therefore, I would say that while in certain situations, or with certain upbringing, good people might commit evil acts, people vary tremendously in their moral makeup.
Seduced By Hitler – a book by Adam LeBor and Roger Boyes”