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Admitting we can do wrong; understanding how admitting our capacity for evil helps us to avoid it

Updated on November 30, 2012

Thinking I'm basically good is bad?

Most of us believe we're basically good people trying to do good things. We've all made mistakes, we all know we've made mistakes, and that doesn't really mean we're bad at all. There's seems to be nothing harmful in seeing oneself as a basically good person that tries to do the right thing. For the purposes of this article, we'll put aside the questions raised by people thinking they're doing good things when they're actually bringing harm to the world for now (though we'll hit on that a little bit later), and assume that when we say we try to be good people, it's because we're actually doing the right thing from an objective standpoint.

None of us is perfect, that's for sure, and I know I can name plenty of situations where I did something wrong or unethical when I knew at the time exactly what I was doing. We all have our reasons for doing things that violate our own ethical code when we do them, but most of us don't make a habit of it. That's why we think of ourselves as basically good. We don't go out and murder random people, we don't make a living off stealing the property of others, and we don't hurt anyone and everyone who crosses our paths. But here's a truth that none of us really want to face. We're all capable of doing great evil, and and if we don't admit that to ourselves, then it's so much easier to do it. In fact, if we don't believe we're capable of great evil, then if we were to do great evil we wouldn't even know it. Our rationalization would run along the lines of, "I'm incapable of being truly evil, and I'm basically a good person, so what I'm doing, it can't be that bad, right?" Sadly, no, that's not right. The justification to do evil because we're basically good is a very dangerous (and all too common) thing indeed.

But I don't do really awful things!

It's true, most of us don't do really horrible things. All of us do our fair share of the unethical, and we all know what it's like to do something regardless of knowing perfectly well that it's wrong. It's important to understand that every single person is capable of doing great things, and while that can mean great good, it can also mean great evil. We all have the capacity for violence, for unjust rage, and for hurting people whether we know them or not. The flip side is that we all have the capacity to forgive, to love, and to show compassion under the most difficult of circumstances. What's important to recognize though, is that we all possess the capacity. Everything single one of us, without exception, has the capacity to do fantastically horrible things, and not admitting that makes us so much more vulnerable to actually doing them.

Think of it this way. Has there ever been in a time in your life where you've done something wrong and justified it by saying, "This is wrong, but I'm really a good person, so, I won't make a habit of it, and I'm not really unethical." This is an example of how not admitting your capacity for evil makes it easier to do unethical things. If you recognize yourself as a good person trying to do good things, then you're all too likely to let your ethics slide because, after all, you're basically good.

We all have a tendency to forget that some of the most definitively evil people in our history didn't think they were evil. The idea of doing evil for the sake of evil is a fiction. We all have our motivations, and whether they be compassion, greed, ambition, or the desire to do good, the result can be either good or evil. It's perhaps cliche, but in recent history Adolf Hitler represents a very clear definition of what it means to be evil. What we forget is that Hitler thought he was a good person.

You might think that's absurd or ridiculous. Sadly, you'd be wrong. We realize today that everything he thought about the inferiority of certain types of people, the Jews in particular, is absolutely unjustifiable and in every possible way wrong. But Hitler thought he was right, and when he proceeded to murder 12 million people in concentration camps, he thought he was helping the world. Hitler did not think he was capable of great evil, only of great good. His intentions were to do what it took to make the world a better a place. Hitler did not recognize his own capacity for evil, and thinking himself incapable of doing horrible things, he then went on to do some of the most horrible things in all the history of man.

That's an extreme case, but it illustrates the point. We all think we're trying to do good. Truth be told, we're all really are trying to do what's right, and we feel guilty when we do things we know are wrong. Most people don't do acts of great evil on a regular basis (thankfully), but it's important to remember that each and everyone one of us could.

So the final point here is not to say that we're all basically evil, because that's not true. Nor is it true to say we're all basically good. That's just as much of a fallacy. The truth is that we're all capable of doing both good and evil. Every one of us is capable of reaching the heights of human ethical achievement, and every one us of us is capable of diving into depths of human depravity. How we act is important, but it's equally important to recognize what we're capable of doing. As long as we know we can do great good, we can strive to be shining examples of humanity, and as long as we know we can do great evil, we can be vigilant against our own capacity to inflict pain and suffering. Only when we admit how bad we can truly be do we have the ability to honestly look at the morality of our actions. Only when we learn "I'm basically a good person," should be replaced by, "I'm a person, and as such, I have the capacity to do good or evil," will we really and truly be ready elevate ourselves to a higher level of morality. The ability to admit I can do great evil helps me to evaluate my actions in a way that is honest and just, whereas telling myself I'm basically a good person incapable of doing things that are really wrong is the fastest and easiest way to assure that things that things which are really wrong are exactly what I do.


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