Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beyond Good and Evil

What would we do if we were suddenly to discover, hidden in a cellar somewhere, a collection of brilliant and inspiring paintings, paintings with the unmistakable sign of creative genius (whatever these things might be, both the genius and the sign indicating its presence). And what would we then do if, hidden among the paintings, was undeniable evidence that these were painted by one Adolf Hitler?

On the other hand, what would we do if irrefutable evidence were to emerge indicating that a great, revered man – let’s not name him, lest this somehow suddenly become “true” – had, in fact, sexually abused several children over his lifetime. Let us suppose that this man was a great spiritual leader, or a great humanitarian.

What I have written, and how I have written it, already indicates something about what our (that is, society’s) response would be. How? Well, I have no trouble naming Hitler, because few among us could seriously envisage such a possibility: that beauty could emerge from such a soul. And, if it did, I imagine that the works would quickly be dismissed as rubbish; or claims would be made that they were painted by someone else, and that Hitler had “stolen” them. Besides, how dare we suggest that such an evil person might also have done some good! We prefer to see our evil nicely packaged and segregated from goodness and beauty. Even if those works of art were indeed magnificent, and undeniably attributable to Hitler, this would do nothing to change our and history’s opinion of the man.

On the other hand, I could not bring myself to name a “good” man as the perpetrator of evil. Why? For several reasons. First, because even a completely unsubstantiated claim that a “good” man has committed an evil act can quickly acquire the patina of “fact”. Suspicion alone is often enough to tarnish a reputation. Secondly, we are, in fact, very quick to condemn “good” people who commit acts that are perceived as evil. Is this because we feel particularly let down by them? Is it because good people shame us, and to see them fail makes us feel better about ourselves and, above all, better than them? Thirdly, while no amount of beauty that Hitler was seen to create would do anything to change our opinion of him, even a tiny amount of evil suspected in the life of a “good” person will tarnish and undo all the good they have achieved during their lifetime.

Can “evil” people do good? Most certainly, because they are not, in fact, evil, although some or many of their acts might be. In our eyes, though, they will remain evil. Can “good” people commit evil. Most certainly, because they are not, in fact, good, although some or many of their acts might be. However, in our eyes they will almost certainly be good no longer.


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