Between Good and Evil

How important is the imperative ‘know thyself’?

Can we know how far we would go under other circumstances? No. But we can know the equation and many of the variables that steer us. And the better we know these, the easier we can improve on ourselves and be assured that we would know where to draw the line, where to halt steps down an avenue of human wrongs. The only obstacle is self-deception.

When in 1993-94 I worked in Mozambique for the United Nations peace process, I was involved in daily negotiations with leaders of both the government and the rebel movement RENAMO, most of whom we knew had ordered or personally committed horrendous atrocities during the civil war. It had been a seventeen-year long destabilization war mostly targeting the civilian population rather than being a confrontation of armies. The rebels had terrorized by the power of the gun in guerrilla style ambushes. The government soldiers had looted their own population with the indemnity of state power; chopping off breasts, noses or ears, mass rapes and killings, burying people alive, and even forcing children to shoot their own parents as preparation for becoming child soldiers, had been the order of the day. One would have expected that the perpetrators look like monsters. But they didn’t. You couldn’t even easily tell the worst culprits from the lesser ones. As with all other groups of human beings, some were friendly, some not, some forthcoming, fun, intelligent, even considerate, some not; their level of evil doing seemed to carry no immediate bearing as to behaviour or appearance. I’ve heard the same said about perpetrators of other war crimes. From the loving – and beloved – fathers amongst the most ruthless of Nazis to the (mainly Serb, but also other) generals responsible for the barbaric ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. Many were great company, entertaining, protective, even warm and welcoming – for anyone not at the receiving end of the cruelties.

I’m convinced that this can only be possible because each one of them - those murderous, loving fathers, husbands and brothers (and, in a few cases, mothers, wives and sisters) - thought they were doing ‘the right thing’ when committing their horrendous crimes against humanity.

In their own eyes, they were the ‘good people’

Given their situation, time and affiliation - ethnicity, religion, ideology, region, nationality or whatever may be the fault line - they were doing what was required, however harsh, to safeguard their community, their family, themselves. Or so they believed. Must have believed. Because those who didn’t, those who questioned the rightfulness of their raping, torturing, killing, those who may even have questioned if the enemy was truly an enemy, they were the ones turning misfits: loners, drunkards, drug addicts, brawlers, abusers, maybe wife beaters, suicidal or simply insane. They became the outcasts, unable to live in harmony with themselves and thus with their surroundings. Unable to fit into a society that condoned actions they themselves couldn’t embrace.

Were they deceiving themselves, these righteous murderers?

No, they would say. They weren’t even deceived by others. At the time of their actions (and most often years afterwards), they were convinced of doing, if not good, at least the imperative, the unavoidable, and therefore the fully justified and justifiable.

Here I’m not talking about socio- and psychopaths, those who either have no feelings at all for other beings or those who take a particular pleasure in harming another (those you can generally identify with just a bit of experience). Nor am I talking about actions rightfully committed as self-defence, as soldiers in combat or civilians truly forced to defend their country or community under attack.

I’m talking about normal people in certain situations feeling entitled to committing acts of abnormal cruelty.

But how is it possible? Could they be you or I?

Biologically programmed for survival, humanity exists in ripples: ourselves, offspring and family first, then those belonging to near then wider and wider groups - and only lastly larger humanity. Whenever there’s a discrepancy between the survival interests of the self, and that of the group or extended humanity, what I call the hierarchal order of empathy automatically sets in. No surprise, nor any ethical quarrels with this: we save our own children before the neighbours’. It’s perfectly within normality and sound reasoning that when you, your family or your group are threatened, – or are believed to be threatened – there’s little you won’t do to protect them; if considered necessary, there’s in fact little you won’t feel entitled to do.

Believe is the key. As long as they believe the threat is real, most people will feel fully entitled to doing whatever they believe it may take to counter the perceived peril.

Almost any gruesome act towards another being can be justified thus.  

Another biological feature steering human behaviour is our need to be acknowledged and respected within our community. Belonging and success within our group improves the chances of long-term survival for ourselves as well as our children – a kind of positive reinforcement of the empathy hierarchy. This means that unless they have developed a very strong individual Human Compass, most people automatically seek to act in accordance with the success criteria of their surroundings; or join or create subgroups amenable to their ways.

Depending on the perspective, these righteously murderous (mostly) men, were either heroes standing up for the safety of their communities, or inhumane mass murderers. From our outsider point of view, they were wholeheartedly deluding themselves as well as their loved ones. In our eyes, they are devious torturers and killers, and so much worse because they could continue to be jovial and loving to their own families more or less parallel to ordering or having personally raped, tormented, gassed or slaughtered other human beings. Within their own groups, as in their own minds and hearts, they are celebrated as the only bulwark between their society and annihilation.

This is naturally in the extreme. But also in our more mundane, everyday lives, the mechanism of hierarchal empathy can bring us off course. Centuries after Machiavelli, divide and rule is still a sure tool of any would-be autocrat: few things are easier for demagogues to do than manipulate people into fearing a different, most often artificially created, group of people. Through fear you split people off from trusting their own sense of humanity, and thus from allying themselves with one another. Make people believe they have reasons to be afraid of ‘the other’, or that their comfort and prosperity is threatened - or even just the potential additional prosperity that they for some reason consider their nations, family or selves entitled to – that’s when many will be susceptible to scapegoating ‘the other’, to follow, to fight. That’s when the broader social empathy that is otherwise prided, sets out. That’s when ethics no longer applies to humanity, but to ‘one’s own’.

The one who presides over your beliefs presides over the length to which you will go towards inhumanity; The one who defines your own defines those towards whom you’ll act inhumanely.

Inhumane are words of bigotry, xenophobia, exclusion and hatred thrown around in most of Europe, Australia and the US these days. Inhumane are the acts that ensue from these beliefs. Inhumane are many of the policies adopted against refugees, immigrants and even against the poorer parts of our own once so safe welfare-societies. Inhumane are of course the acts of terror by ISIS, Al-Qaeda as well as other religious or right-wing extremists. No wonder that the psychopaths enjoy these routes, a freeway to inflict hurt. No wonder that the resentful may find extremism a tree-lined boulevard to vengeance. But is everyone else who votes for extreme measures and inhumane policies, those who implement them, even those who follow promises of martyrdom or maybe a sense of belonging and purpose into hate and/or terror groups – are they inhumane individuals from the outset?

I don’t think so. I believe that they believe.

I believe that most people who vote for exclusion in one form or another (BREXIT, Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, Marine le Pen) and most of those in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe who voted for yet more restrictive policies to keep out desperate refugees from seeking safe haven in Europe, are convinced that they are rescuing their community from catastrophe, maybe even annihilation. They are not simply acting out of malice, crassness or loathing. They are acting out of love for their family, community, country - and first and foremost out of fear. A misplaced, yet well-founded fear, as the world is changing at a breath-taking pace leaving many people day-by-day relatively worse off in their own communities. The world as we know it is threatened. The thing is that the threat comes not from the refugees, whose own lives have been catapulted beyond recognition for often exactly the same reasons that so many in the richer countries are voting against them: greed in the form of condoned systemic economic and political power opportunism that benefits the few. That’s what is estranging and impoverishing the many, that’s what is destroying our natural habitat, that’s what creates war, resource shortages, climate change, that’s what makes for refugees.

No one is born a terrorist. No one is born an extremist. These are roads that people take when the roads of humanity seem to have become blind alleys for their hopes and dreams. When someone manipulates their survival mechanism, their empathy hierarchy, to steer them into dark tunnels of hatred, without telling them that the shine of promised light is in truth the destruction of their own humanity.

This is what we must fight: the thwarted desire for power and riches by the few that leads the many astray. Not each other!

Don’t let the manipulating princes of today lead you down a path where only the estrangement of your human brother will allow you to undertake exploits that are by nature – ethics and all religions – by your own heart, crimes against humanity.

Don’t let anyone shroud you in deceptive demonizing of another that in turn will become your veil of self-deception for spewing hate and committing atrocious acts, that you would never condone if we were speaking about your child, your sister, your brother.

Know how far you yourself will walk down the road to inhumanity, where exactly you will halt, by knowing that when anyone mention the other we are always, always, talking about you, your child, your sister, your brother. 


Debate the biggest ideas of our times at the Institute of Art and Ideas' annual philosophy and music festival HowTheLightGetsIn. For more information and tickets, click here.
Latest Releases
Join the conversation