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The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: Assumptions in Our Moral Culture


Word Count: 4,900

Credit to Isaac Vivian for his helpful proofreading and feedback during drafting.

The following is a discussion of my observations about certain moral assumptions contained in British/Western culture regarding good and evil. As such, when I use the term ‘we’, ‘our’, or ‘us’, I am referring to contemporary British/Western culture and people. Furthermore, although written from my perspective as a Christian, the essay is intended to be accessible to theists, agnostics and atheists alike.

Fundamentally, I argue three things: 1. When we talk about being a ‘good’ person, we more often than not mean being a ‘normal’ person. This results in a general neglect towards developing moral character. 2. We don’t like to think of evil as something right here, right now, within me, and instead only talk of it back then, over there, in them. I argue this results in a culture with limited capacity for redemption. 3. Finally, a good example of how we think we’re largely good and don’t associate evil with ourselves is shown by how our response to wrongdoing is generally limited to ‘sorry’ and lacks a sense of personal responsibility indicated by other apologetic words like ‘repent’ which involve admitting there is something bad in ourselves that we need to change.

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Why would a good God send people to Hell? This was a question posed to me by Sam* (not real name) around the end of last year. Now as a Christian, I’m not unused to such questions, but I generally find it much more fun and illuminating to question questions rather than to answer them. So, what this question ended up doing was sparking a train of thought in my mind that I’ve arguably taken much further than it merits. Nevertheless, I hope you find my musings and general argument in this blog post interesting because I do think it highlights something about contemporary moral attitudes and assumptions in British/Western culture. I might be wrong, but I hope you choose to read on and decide for yourself!

What sparked my train of thought was this: what assumption would be revealed in the question Sam had just asked me if I flipped it around? The flip question in my view was this: “why would a good God send bad people to Heaven?” After all, Christian theology raises both questions as legitimate moral conundrums. However, to get into a bit of grammar, while Sam’s question modifies its subject (God), there is no modifier before its direct object (people). My flip question, however, modifies both its subject (God) and its direct object (people). Essentially, what I’m getting at is Sam didn’t have to make it clear that the people he was talking about were ‘good’, while I had to make it clear that the people in my flip question were ‘bad’. I try and visualise this below:

Sam’s Question: Why would a good God send __ people to Hell?

Flip Question: Why would a good God send bad people to Heaven?

Therefore, I believe the assumption revealed by Sam’s question is this: he assumes most people to be good. Moreover, I doubt Sam is alone in his assumption. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that most in British/Western society believe people—and certainly themselves—are basically good. Sure, we can agree there are undoubtedly bad and even evil people out there—the discussion is briefly interrupted now by exclamations of conventionally accepted ‘evil people’ like ‘Hitler!’, ‘ISIS!’, ‘Stalin!’ before resuming—but most of us are good…or at least…I’m a good person!

Now in fairness, most of us if given time would probably say something more nuanced than just “I’m a good person.” However, I’d be surprised if most of us, when giving nuance to our answer, didn’t begin by just stating a bunch of negatives—statements of what we’re not. “I’m not a murderer; I haven’t cheated on anyone; I’m not a thief; I’m not a racist; I’m not a homophobe”. This I think reveals a further moral assumption: we believe goodness is basically a given that is only lost through committing a sufficiently heinous act. However, if you avoid doing this, then, yeah, you’re a good person (or rather, more accurately, you remain a good person).

This has three important ramifications that I will explore throughout the rest of this post.

1. A problematic assumption that being normal is the same as being good

Firstly, it appears to me that to be considered ‘good’ in British/Western culture you need only be ‘normal’. Be nice; get a job; give money to charity at the office whip-round; always be polite (an essential!); hold the door open for people; over-apologise for everything; the list could go on. Now, not to brag, but I think that when it comes to this sense of ‘goodness’, I’m very accomplished at it. Furthermore, I am exceedingly glad that I am surrounded by so many like-minded human beings just trying to be normal, good people. I do not see the problem being that there is no element of goodness in just being a normal, nice person. The problem is that when the buck stops there, what we’re left with is less ‘goodness’, more good enough. And when we’re already good enough, two things happen: A. I don’t need to take time to reflect on what is not good, or dare I say evil, in my normality, and B. my goodness doesn’t require growth in my character or virtue.

1a. ‘I don’t need to take time to reflect on what is evil in my normality’

Normality develops because people are mirroring and social creatures i.e. we like to be in groups and we learn how to behave by copying those we see around us in our groups. However, because of this, normality is very changeable. Once you leave the group, suddenly what appeared just yesterday to be normal is suddenly up for question and analysis. As a British citizen who grew up in China, has attended both Christian and secular schools, has worked in East Asia, the Middle East and Britain, and is marrying into a Chinese Singaporean family, I am painfully aware of this. Indeed, particularly so as a child living between China and the UK. In Britain, I was gawked at for my shocking ‘lack of table manners’ when I picked up my cereal to drink it straight from the bowl. In China, my brother and I were gawked at for our shocking lack of studiousness when neighbours would see us playing football in the garden of an afternoon when we ‘should’ve’ been inside doing homework. The older I got, the more I learned to adjust my ‘normal’ behaviour depending on where I happened to be at the time.

What I hope my personal anecdote shows is something I think we all largely realise but don’t think about seriously. That is, just because we are behaving in ways that are normal and acceptable to us does not mean we would agree if placed in a different context. It reminds me of a point made by N.T. Wright in a discussion with popular historian, Tom Holland, (you can find the whole discussion here). As a New Testament scholar specialising in St. Paul, N.T. Wright said, “When people ask me, ‘Why didn’t St. Paul condemn slavery?’ I say, ‘When did you last go into a pulpit on a Sunday morning and say “By the way, it’s quite clear that motorcars are polluting our planet and destroying our world, so I want you to leave your cars in the parking lot and take them to the dump later on because we’re all going to be walking or travelling by horseback from now on”’”[1] Could it be that normality, even when you’re not totally comfortable with it, is much easier to just go along with? It’s why, as a former history student, I get frustrated when people make remarks about how evil the Nazis were or those evil Americans living in the South during slavery. This isn’t because I don’t think their actions were wrong. On the contrary, it makes me uncomfortable to condemn people who I think I’d probably have been like if history had placed me in their ‘normal’. The Sinologist, A.C. Graham, summed up the famous Chinese philosopher, Confucius’s, belief on human goodness as this: “He believed, not in humanity’s goodness…but in its malleability.”[2] We are less often good people and more often people acting out normalised forms of behaviour which, if we’re lucky, are good. In British/Western culture, these norms are greatly influenced by Judaeo-Christian ethics (the main point emphasised in the earlier referenced discussion between Tom Holland and N.T. Wright) but most people within the culture don’t realise the degree of this for the precise reason that we’re very bad at analysing and reflecting in depth on our ‘normal’.

If adhering to normalised social behaviour is enough to be ‘good’ now, then it is also enough to be condemned as evil by those later on. I think the prediction that we’re only a hundred years away from considering the killing of animals for food to be a gross evil is probably not an overstatement (we are after all less than 150 years on from the ending of African slavery in the USA). Should knowing all this be enough to cause me to change my eating habits? Well, somewhat as I do now eat much less meat, but not totally. And why haven’t I totally changed? Well, if I’m honest with you my reader, partly, I just can’t be bothered. And this leads me onto the next reason why good enough is not goodness enough: it breeds moral laziness, stifling our growth of moral character and virtue.

1b. ‘My goodness doesn’t require growth in my character or virtue’

I would define character as your disposition to consistently discern and behave morally. Thus, a person with good character is both more likely to discern what is a good moral action in a situation and more likely to then behave morally in a situation regardless of intervening variables like awkwardness or the bystander effect. This being the case, social norms of goodness will not cut it when it comes to developing good character. Opening doors and giving your excess change to charity is not much different to your grandad deciding he will help you lose weight by cutting the fat off your bacon every morning while still continuing to daily cook you a whole English breakfast (spoken from personal experience). Developing character requires us to not just think beyond the normalised goodness that is expected, but also then to exercise it. As with all exercise then, it requires discipline; you must do it and repeat it regardless of how you’re feeling. It means being uncomfortable. Particularly pertinent for British society, it often means risking a little awkwardness! But with time, character grows and goodness is more frequently discerned and then still more frequently acted upon. Eventually, the goodness acted upon is repeated so much it becomes normal! And now we’ve come full circle. Your character has grown and you can start the process all over again!

But there is another side to developing character—we must not hide from what is not good; we cannot hide from the evil within. The flip side to recognising our character can indeed develop and improve is understanding that we cannot therefore simply be good. We must face what many thinkers have called our shadow side. Regarding this, I find helpful Saint Augustine of Hippo’s idea that evil fundamentally is a corruption of goodness. “Evil...is not a substance, because if it were a substance, it would be good. For either it would be an incorruptible substance of the supreme order of goodness, or it would be a corruptible substance which would not be corruptible unless it were good.”[3] This idea has been an influential one. Indeed, a thoughtful reader of J.R.Tolkien’s Middle Earth myths (From The Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings) will note how Tolkien conceptualises evil in a similar way. The One Ring, an object of pure evil, is fundamentally an object which corrupts. Very rightly does Gandalf say when Frodo offers him the ring: “Understand Frodo, I would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”[4] Evil is so often malevolent because in its corruption it believes itself good. Instigators of horrendous evils—from Hitler to Stalin to ISIS—have all been united in their unswerving belief in the fundamental ‘goodness’ of their actions.

This is why it is no trifling matter that we actively reflect on what in us is not good. We must ask ourselves: what is the evil within us and our normal that masks as acceptable or even goodness? Almost no one sets out to do what they regard as evil. We agree that evil exists and is done, yet too often we think of it as done in other places, in other times, by other people. But what if it is done in my place, in my time, by me? What then?

Only by reflecting on our intentions, the why of our good actions, will we stand a chance of noticing when what is normal is no longer good. I personally have found the Enneagram, a model of the human psyche and personality (more here), a very helpful tool for reflecting on my personality motivations and whether my motives are truly good or not. It is fundamentally through self-reflection, sometimes with tools like the Enneagram, that we notice when friendship turns to peer pressure; humility to vanity; generosity to superiority; wisdom to arrogance. Consequences do matter in morality, but if we only care about the consequences, we risk losing the ability to notice when the consequences have turned evil—when the normal we are striving for is no longer good. The 20th century is littered with the Gulags and concentration camps of Utopian visionaries who lost their way. If we stop exercising our moral muscle, we soon become blind as the evil in and around us comes forth.

By ignoring the importance of character through equating what is normal with what is good, our moral culture leaves us with an insubstantial idea of goodness. This leaves us poorly equipped to recognise and then act when goodness requires us to transcend normal, expected behaviour. This fundamentally leaves us vulnerable to the evil in our normal.

2. A moral culture with insufficient capacity for redemption.

When you have a culture that sees the majority of us as ‘good’, it means you’re left with a minority of ‘evil’ people. These are those who are beyond the pale. These people haven’t just done evil things in the past; the evil they had done has irreconcilably blended with their very identity. They haven’t just thieved; they are a thief. They haven’t just racially discriminated; they are a racist. There is a tenacity and perseverance to the infamy of evil that seems to outlast any of the glory of the good. Once an individual, community or nation is marked with that black brush, it doesn’t wash easily. You only need to look at the long list of celebrities who have fallen from glory for the wrong they have done to know that our society does not take kindly to evil.

And with good reason! Evil is…well evil! Why should we tolerate what is cruel, vile and darkest in humanity? The suffering caused can never be un-caused. The trauma. The pain. And yet...

If the above section was about how our idea of goodness is too diluted, this section is about how we have made evil the distant exception. We have made it so evil is always over there, in them, or back then. It is never right here, in us, right now. We do stupid things. Sometimes we do bad things. But we don’t want to think that anything we ever do might be evil. Now this isn’t to say that we don’t think we sometimes do wrong. After all, it is not uncommon for us to describe ourselves as a ‘bad person’ as much as we might describe ourselves as a ‘good person’. We do seem to agree that there is ‘bad-ness’ within us; we tell the odd lie, we mock someone behind their back, we don’t bother to wait for our friend before starting Netflix. Yet, we seem unwilling to admit that there’s anything darker than this within us. We don’t want to admit that there is a capacity for evil within us which might actually scare us, the truly evil thoughts that might pass through our heads before we catch ourselves. Certainly, we don’t want to admit the things we’ve actually done which are bad (or dare I say evil) enough to cause us shame.


I think there is a simple reason we dilute goodness and exceptionalise evil: our moral self-worth comes mostly from comparison. The easier it is for people to be good, the easier it is that we will be ‘more good’ than other ‘good’ people. The more we emphasise how evil some people are, the easier it is to comfort ourselves with the notion that we’re not so bad after all. Thus, on the one hand we have two descriptive words for the wrong-doers amongst us—the bad majority and the evil minority—so we can kid ourselves that the bad within us isn’t a serious moral problem. On the other hand, we’re perfectly happy to keep one catch-all word for the righteous amongst us—the good near-totality—and keep patting ourselves on the back even if our goodness rarely if ever takes us beyond what is socially expected of a nice person.

But the point is that this leaves our society in a situation whereby we live under the façade that the capacity for evil is somehow exceptional. And so when someone is convicted of an evil act, we other-ise and dehumanise them. They become monsters and embodiments of evil. They have failed to remain good and there is often no way back. Conversely, we seem equally afraid to admit that many of the people today and in history who we greatly admire not only have this capacity for evil but have perpetrated it. We prefer to keep Martin Luther King’s serial affairs and Ghandi’s racist attitudes out of the storyline. More recently, Aung San Suu Kyi, a hero of democracy and freedom in Burma taking personal risks no less noble than King and Ghandi, has left many flabbergasted by her continual silence towards the persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim community (one of several ethnic minorities persecuted in the Myanmar). People cannot square how their once upright, moral hero can then go on to act in such a hypocritical and even evil way. Their only response is to vilify and decry the woman they once praised. Students at St. Hugh’s College Oxford, where Aung San studied as an undergraduate, have voted to remove her name from the title of their junior common room, while the college governing body removed a painting of her from their main entrance.[5] This in the same University that has continually refused to remove a statue of a truly villainous character, Sir Cecil Rhodes—I hope the irony isn’t lost on you either. A certain Obi Wan Kenobi once said, “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” Well apparently most in the contemporary West do too, as it seems to me we only know how to deal in heroes and villains.

This is part of the reason why we’re so anxious to keep our wrong-doing as simply ‘bad’ and not evil. Hollywood actor, Liam Neeson, recently hit the headlines for admitting to a moment forty years ago where he was so filled with rage at the rape of his friend by a black man that he combed the streets looking for a ‘black bastard’ to kill. In the media storm afterward, he went on Good Morning America to contextualise what he said a bit more, and also to plead and make clear, “I am not a racist.” Following this, South African comedian, Trevor Noah, I thought made a very perceptive analysis of the situation when he said in this video (2min45sec in), “I understand why you would say that, but it is racist. That is racism that you have…because you’re going ‘the whole race should be condemned’.” What this little case study I think helps show is that we are keenly aware that society ties evil to our identity in a way that simple mistakes and wrong actions aren’t. Indeed, Trevor just seconds later states: “a lot of the time I find people are afraid to admit that they ever had a racist thought because then society says you are racist forever and that’s it. So there’s no value in atoning I guess.” We realise that if the act is heinous enough, our evil action becomes fixed to our identity. Liam Neeson’s attitude forty years ago was most definitely racist even if emotionally understandable in the context. But Liam Neeson is rightly afraid that now society has found out, he won’t just be ‘Liam Neeson who did something racist forty years ago’, but rather he will be ‘Liam Neeson, the racist’.

While most of us recognise that treating morality as a good vs. evil blockbuster isn’t a very accurate depiction of our everyday moral human interactions, as soon as it’s a person or situation far removed from ourselves, we have no problem coming down hard on either side. We soon forget what JK Rowling’s character, Sirius Black, simply and profoundly says: “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on.”[6] To have capacity for evil is not to lack the capacity for good. The two are intertwined. We were never just good as we were never only evil. The capacity for both remains within each and every one of us for as long as we draw breath.

A real grasp of this makes redemption possible. Redemption is best characterised as having your story and identity re-written. It means allowing the murderer, thief, rapist, slanderer and racist to become something more than the evil they have done. But you cannot give someone another chance if you don’t believe that they have a capacity for good as well as evil. And this is why forgiveness is not the un-doing of the past; it is the re-making of the present. It is a decision made to no longer define your wrongdoer by the evil they’ve done. It does not erase the wrong or remove its consequences, but it sees beyond the past and believes for good. When we treat those who’ve done evil as if they’re so very different and other to ourselves, we find it even harder to forgive.

In making evil an exceptional trait and pretending what is good does not also contain a capacity for corruption, a capacity for evil, we make it easy to fix people into categories of good and evil and keep them there. We lose the capacity for grace that recognises what you did in the past does not have to define who you are and what you do today. Our response to evil must be serious and requires judgement, but it should also leave space for hope. It must also recognise that the capacity for the evil we see outside of ourselves is very much there inside each of us.

3. We no longer acknowledge the need for repentance

‘Repentance’ as both a moral concept and action has largely disappeared from contemporary British society. This is undoubtedly for a whole host of reasons. Firstly, ‘repentance’ is a very Christian word and with Britain’s secular, post-Christian culture, terms like this are increasingly seen as archaic, puritanical and old-fashioned. Moreover, most people when they hear the word ‘repent’ automatically imagine one of two images: either the slightly crazy street man with a sign saying “Repent! For the end of the world is at hand!” or the street preacher exclaiming, “Repent, you sinners!” as the crowds quickly shuffle by. Yet, besides its religious and ‘crazy guy’ undertones, I think another reason for the decline of ‘repentance’ is for all the reasons already discussed: we mostly think we’re good enough as we are and none of us like to think that there’s any evil in us for which we should repent. Sure, we do bad things which we need to say sorry for, but repent? Now that’s making things a bit too intense.

Fair enough that a word falls out of fashion. It happens all the time. Even more so, fair enough that a more religious word that probably was never even widely used in everyday speech falls out of fashion. But what really surprises me is that even within British Christian culture, a place I’d expect to hear the word, I rarely hear it used. Outside of traditional liturgy, rather than being told to repent to God for my sins, I much more frequently hear myself being told to say sorry to God for the things I’ve done. Now I admit, I am arguably being too pernickety about this. So, sorry about that (pun very much intended). But I do believe this matters.

It matters because ‘repentance’ indicates something that ‘sorry’ doesn’t. ‘Sorry’ is passive and is to be in a state of feeling bad for what you’ve done; to ‘repent’ is active and is to admit you need to take responsibility to change, to do better, to change direction. This is precisely why, as the cliché goes, ‘sorry is not always enough’. It lacks that sense of action; that sense that there is something within me that isn’t good and needs to change. And this is a major reason for why I think it has fallen out of common usage. We don’t need a moral language that emphasises our need to change and be better when we already see ourselves as good enough. Yeah, we need words like ‘sorry’ for our occasional blips so we can then dust ourselves off and exclaim “it’s all good!” again, but if I say ‘I repent’, not only am I saying I should change but that I consciously need to. I need to take action lest the corruption within me undermines the very good I wish to see in the world around me.

Now maybe you think I’m making a mound out of a molehill. It’s easy to get bogged down in language and read into it more and more. However, to be clear, I’m not making a case that we have a moral imperative to make sure we say “I repent” a lot more rather than “I’m sorry”. Subtle cultural norms can sometimes be the butterfly wings that start a hurricane, but often they’re just…well, butterfly wings. However, it is important to be aware of the cultural attitudes that shape the words we use. Just as if we truly believe in equality for all people, it’s good to be aware of phrases we might unthinkingly use that downplay other identities and groups at the expense of our own, we should be aware of what our language around the admission of moral fault reveals about how we culturally perceive our moral state. We should think, what world does the language I use portray? And is it a world I want to make a reality?

Conclusion

If you do think there is something in what I’m saying, then maybe it is worth thinking about how you can live and speak in such a way that truly seeks a goodness transcending just what is normal and recognising and confronting an evil that is all too close and normal.

Self-awareness is I believe one of the most important moral tools. In my own case, I have found the Enneagram and Christian contemplative practices to be immensely helpful with this. But however you acquire it, unless you become more self-aware, you will become blind to the ways in which your actions and intentions are perhaps not as virtuous as you think and where your actions do not line up with your words.

However, as well as self-awareness, cultural awareness is important. If we do not realise how our moral culture is shaping our moral norms, we become blind and unable to discern true narratives from those which are culturally familiar and convincing. History is full of examples of people we think of as evil, usually only because they behaved in ways their culture expected. But most of us do that; I certainly do.

I hope by mapping out certain key elements of British moral attitudes in 2019, I have helped you to reflect more deeply on what it means to act and live morally in our society today.

References

[1] Unbelievable Podcast, N.T. Wright & Tom Holland * How St. Paul Changed the World?, Premier Christian Radio, July 20, 2018, URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlf_ULB26cU

[2] A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, 1989, Open Court Publishing, Chicago and La Selle, Illinois, pg. 15

[3] St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Penguin Classics, pg. 148

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954

[5]Greenfield, Patrick,'Oxford College Drops Aung San Su Kyi as name of Common Room', The Guardian, Oct 19, 2017, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/19/oxford-college-drops-aung-san-suu-kyi-as-name-of-common-room

[6] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 1999

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