To understand evil, we must set aside the comfortable belief that we would never do anything wrong. Instead, we must begin to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to do such things? Assume that it would be possible. — Roy Baumeister
Many people consider monsters like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin somehow uniquely evil. They imagine them as malevolent, abominable, nearly inhuman entities who spent their days scheming to inflict misery on other humans for the sheer sadistic pleasure of it.
The truth is much more terrifying: human beings as evil and ruthless as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are so common that we pass them on the street daily, see them on TV, and may even have the misfortune of knowing them personally. The real difference between these notorious butchers and the guy in a federal prison is not so much the degree of depravity, but the unchecked power needed to make his darkest desires reality.
Once you set aside Hollywood’s caricatured portrait of evil and accept the normalcy of villainy, you see how a “normal person” just like you or me could embrace evil. Moreover, sometimes the shift from human to fiend can have murky beginnings. Some people step over a line and come back. Others follow that tragic path described by C.S. Lewis,
The safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
Here, at least, are a few signposts that will alert you to stop, pause, and take stock to make sure you’re not on that gentle slope.
1) I/You vs. I/It.
We’re all sometimes guilty of treating others like objects instead of human beings with families, feelings, and dreams, just like us. Without that ability to objectify other human beings, pornography couldn’t exist. It’s also one of the reasons for Internet rudeness. When we type something cruel to janeeschmoe8765, we don’t see the crushed look on her face, watch the tears roll down her face, or know that her brother died last week so she’s feeling particularly vulnerable.
Oftentimes, the “morally challenged” among us tend to see themselves as real people, but they look at most others as “things” to be manipulated in any way that benefits them. The thief views a house the way you’d view a gold nugget you found underfoot in a stream instead of thinking about how he’s taking things that another human being may have worked for months or years to pay for. A man who tells a woman he loves her just to seduce her and then never call again only thinks of her as an object for his gratification as opposed to a person. A professional hit man looks at the targets he kills as a pay day. Ultimately, the perpetrator looks at himself as an “I” and his victim as an “it,” like a coffee maker. Few people have moral qualms about what they do to a coffee maker.
2) An Ends -Justifies-the-Means Mentality.
Utopianism and a willingness to use any means to achieve a predetermined “good” end can devastate the lives of other human beings — and even that assumes the “good” outcome is really good. Jim Jones, Pol Pot, and the KKK all probably believed what they were doing was right and good. Yet in the end they turned out to be doing evil in pursuit of an evil end. This is the norm of human history since the beginning of time.
Of course, theoretically, one might create a good outcome by using evil means, but it’s very difficult in the real world because evil tends to spawn more evil and provoke retribution. Tactics adopted by one side inspire the other. Crossing one moral line usually leads to crossing another and taking things to further extremes. Some of the worst devils you’ll ever run across are people who believe themselves to be working for the best ends.
3) A Feeling of Victimization.
Certainly people who’ve been genuinely victimized aren’t evil. However, many folks walk around nursing grievances the size of asteroids when their legitimate complaints amount to a pebble. These tend to be some of the nastiest, vilest, most despicable people you’ll ever run across because they feel justified in “fighting back” after having their “victimization.” A man’s wife says something he doesn’t like so he thinks it’s okay to smack her in the mouth. Others think their company treated them unfairly so they feel justified in stealing from the cash register. They don’t feel like it’s fair that they’re poor, so they feel entitled to sell drugs to kids. Some of the most malicious people you’ll ever run across never blame themselves for anything and perpetually feel as if they’re being victimized by invisible, malevolent forces beyond their control.
4) Escalation and Line Crossing.
There’s a Peruvian proverb that goes, “Little by little one walks far.” Whether you’re talking about business, love, or evil, that’s very true. Evil begins with fantasies, poor choices, and small steps and ends in sin, degeneracy and cruelty. Do you think when Nikki Sixx started doing drugs that he believed he’d end up on his own couch freebasing instead of going to the funeral of the grandmother who raised him? Do you think when the guards at Auschwitz first started going to work they had any idea they’d help to send a million human beings to the gas chamber? It all started with a step and then another step and then another step…
5) Refusal to Accept Moral Absolutes.
Is it always wrong to torture an animal for pleasure? What about gang rape? How about a 30-year-old man having a “romantic relationship” with a 10-year-old boy? Considering the fact that torturing and killing animals acts as an early warning sign for serial killers, rape remains a “tactic” of warfare in parts of the world, and groups like NAMBLA actively defend adults who commit statutory rape, more than a few people would say “no” to all three questions. Without any real moral lines in the sand, where everything floats in a grey area justifiable under the right circumstances, then we can very easily slide into levels of depravity most people haven’t even imagined possible.
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