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The Dichotomy of Good & Evil

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

On a recent flight that was delayed many hours, I sat staring out the window listening to a series of downloaded podcasts by Jordan Peterson. He manages to seem sure of himself while also contemplative; certainty mixed with a sense of possibly changing his mind. His is an appealing temperament, whether or not you agree with him.

Peterson, in a debate with Slavoj Zizek, said, "The light that you discover in your life is proportionate to the amount of darkness you are willing to forthrightly confront." As if light and darkness were on opposite sides of a double pan scale. Maybe they are. "Every horrible thing done by human beings was done by human beings," Peterson continues, "So it stands to reason that human beings are capable of horrible things, and you're one of them."

You are a human being capable of horrible things, and I am, and he is, too. We all have the capacity for evil only because we all have the capacity for good as well. It might be impossible to know one without the other, just as it is impossible to understand darkness without the day, or joy without sorrow, or sour without sweet.

Peterson's debate with Zizek reminded me of a field trip my third grade class took to a cave. A guide, our teachers, and a couple of chaperones shepherded 60 kids through the damp, dark cave, calmly explaining stalactites and stalagmites, warning us not to touch anything, and ordering us to hush up and listen, please. When we got as far into the cave as sixty third-graders could go, the guide told us that she was going to show us what real darkness looked like. Not the darkness that happens in our homes, when all the lights are off but streetlights glow outside, or the TV murmurs, or the moon casts shadows over walls and through doorways. No, the guide said, the darkness in a cave is so deep that we wouldn't be able to see our own hands in front of our faces. She turned the lights off and a hush fell over us. We couldn't see our hands. We couldn't see anything. This is what it must feel like to be blind, I thought.

When we emerged from the cave, I felt like a mole exiting the earth. It was discomfiting to transition from extreme darkness to the bright nakedness of a sunny spring day. In the darkness, we were each so alone, and in the light, we could see each other's flaws, read each other's faces. The darkness allows us to hide, while the light forces us to be seen. Or, the darkness keeps us hidden while the light reveals us. Either way, we can't know one until we know the other.

Peterson's conjecture that all humans are capable of monstrosities also reminded me of a research study I read about Nazi Germany, how the failure of the German government was used to persuade people to join the Nazi party and to eventually, do terrible things. It's easy to think you wouldn't have joined the Nazi Party, but plenty of well-meaning people were persuaded and many more didn't need much persuading.

Historian Peter Fritzche writes, "Scholars analyze political, social, and economic variables, but they also listen to how the Nazis made sense of themselves. In this way, there is no final resolution. What we can learn is the following: we need to be careful how we interpret human behavior. If it is extreme, is it because people are seduced or brainwashed? Or is it more complicated? Are people naturally decent, except in difficult situations? We wonder why we were not more astonished in the 1930's, as the Nazis came to power." Why is it that evil is more evil in hindsight?

Maybe you or I would have been Nazis, too. Maybe you or I would have owned slaves. Maybe you or I would have been one of the 38 people who listened or watched as Kitty Genovese was robbed, raped, and stabbed to death outside of her apartment building in Queens in 1964. We all want to think we would do the right thing by whatever modern-day standards we judge our pasts by. We all want to think we would revolt against slaveowners or confront the man who murdered Kitty or run into a burning building to save someone we don't even know. But the truth is more complicated. It's easy to take the moral high ground from the outside looking in.

Peterson's point in saying that all human beings are capable of monstrosities is not to condone the evils done by humans, but rather to articulate that if we're to have any sort of ideal to strive toward, we need to know what we're striving against. To have any moral high ground to stand upon necessitates the existence of a moral underground, so to speak. The brilliance of history does not come from judging our shared human past but by learning that we can do better.

We wonder why we were not more astonished in the 1930's when the Nazis came to power. We wonder why nobody helped Kitty Genovese. We wonder how anyone, anywhere could have owned another person and treated them as a slave. But maybe, we should be glad that at the very least, we are learning to be more sophisticated in our definitions of good and evil. Most of all, we can realize that we might be considered evil by our human predecessors someday too. The realization of evil is a precondition for the realization of good, and the definitions of both are sure to keep shifting.

I thought I might end this with some sort of optimistic statement about how, the more enlightened humans become, the less evil can exist, but I'm not so sure that's true. For starters, I'm not sure we are becoming more enlightened, but more importantly, I'm not so sure that darkness or evil can ever be diminished entirely. If good and evil are on opposite sides of a double pan scale, it might simply be easier to ensure that you are not tipping the scales any further toward the darkness.

P.S. Listen to Jordan Peterson's podcast here, read a recent L.A. Times article about Kitty Genovese here, or find a good historical read about the Holocaust here.


Sarah Rose

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