Good, Evil and Us

Since childhood we've been witness to the struggle between good and evil. From fantastical princes battling monsters and beasts, to superheroes saving the world from nefarious villains, to video games that let us live all such fantasies. And as we grow a little older, we're told about angels and demons, heaven and hell, right and wrong. Its all very black and white. (Interestingly, this trend is changing. The movie Dark Knight is a good example of how popular culture is trying to examine the idea of good and evil being inextricably interlinked.)

Gradually, however, we begin to recognize shades of gray. Complex situations arise where one cannot clearly locate the line separating good from evil or who's right and who's wrong. But even this is a workable, analyzable situation.

Whats really complex is the realization that good, evil and all the shades of gray in between, actually reside within every individual. Pure good and pure evil are almost non-existent in the human world. Even Hitler loved his family and even Gandhi had his flaws.

Individually optimistic, Collectively pessimistic
This is how I would describe my opinion of people. I'm optimistic towards individuals and pessimistic towards groups. I believe in the best in whoever I meet and befriend. I trust everyone and am genuinely shocked if that trust is ever betrayed. This has happened to me before, but I'm sure that thats not going to change the way I look at people. Because doing so would mean being guarded and suspicious, which in my opinion, is no way to lead a life.

Having said that, I am also convinced that human history is a long sordid tale of vast injustices. People, in large numbers, in mobs, in armies, in society, in civilizations have an enormous capacity for evil that I find extremely hard to reconcile with my individual optimism. Which leads me to question how to actually judge anyone.

How do we judge someone?
An interesting concept I've learned in a course is the Critical Incident Method. As the name suggests, it uses non-routine events and behaviors (critical incidents) for appraising an employee's performance. It leaves out all that the person does in the ordinary course of his life and focuses exclusively on such extraordinary occurrences to arrive at judgments. Consider the example of a friend you've trusted, who you've cared about and who's helped you as well, but who suddenly betrays that trust in an inexplicable and unjustifiable manner. Do you forgive them based on your past friendship or is this one 'critical incident' enough to make the relationship irreparable? I'm afraid I don't really know.

Judging oneself
And are we to be judged by how we behave in extreme situations? In moments of great temptation, burning rage, consuming passion, unbearable pressure or crippling fear? A print ad of Bajaj I saw long ago, carried the tagline 'Character is what you are in the dark'. I've often thought about that. One of my deepest worries (fears?) is being in a situation where I have to make a choice between my life, or my career, or something that I hold dear, to save or help a stranger in need. I would be being dishonest if I said I could give a definite answer to that. Recognizing the shades of gray within me, my best guess would be that I would weigh the pros and cons (for everyone, not just myself) of the situation before deciding what to do. I know that doesn't sound much like what a 'hero' would do, but I don't really subscribe to such myths.

Ordinary people, Extraordinary evil
To gain a perspective on how ordinary people are capable of harming others, a famous study called the 'Milgram Experiment' (read the very interesting wiki article on it here) was carried out in the early 60s. It involved getting people to give increasingly painful electric shocks (upto 450V, enough to be fatal) to a stranger (an actor) in another room (but whose screams and appeals to stop were audible to them) under the guise of the experiment and see how many people would willingly inflict such torture. The results were more shocking than the actual electric shocks administered. Over 60% of the volunteers continued to increase the voltage upto the maximum possible voltage even when they heard chilling screams from the other room, and even when the screams suddenly stopped. Shocking, to say the least. There are several other such experiments, and actual crimes, that all lead to the realization that ordinary everyday humans too have an extraordinary capacity for evil. I'll not provide additional links because it makes for very disturbing reading, and because you'll find them if you really want to.

Another point that many have wondered was how, during the WWII, was an entire country (Nazi Germany) able to perpetrate such upspeakable atrocities on such a large scale. Are so many of us capable of such evil? Are we able to absolve ourselves of the responsibility of our actions because we were ordered by those in authority to commit such acts? And to what extent? (As an aside, I just watched the Tom Cruise starrer 'Valkyrie' which depicts the attempts of senior Nazi officials who were repulsed with Hitler's ideology and actions to unsuccessfully assasinate him. So, not all Nazis were pure evil, thankfully).

Bringing the discussion to a perhaps more mundane but infinitely more relatable level would be considering our role in the corporate world. It is no secret that many companies are less than ethical in their dealings with customers, employees, the environment, the society etc. Would we be able to work in such a company, enabling their injustice, by absolving ourselves of the responsibility for the consequences of our actions?

To resolve all the questions I've raised about judging oneself or others, I take the point of view that what matters is what the person does 'mostly'. I'm sorry if that sounds too vague, but it is the closest I can come to a conclusion on this topic. And if you really think about it, it is not as vague as it sounds.


  1. Again a great masterpiece stuff A square.I am in love with following lines of urs which will change my life and how i judge people from now onwards.You truly have a heart of gold.

    "I'm optimistic towards individuals and pessimistic towards groups. I believe in the best in whoever I meet and befriend. I trust everyone and am genuinely shocked if that trust is ever betrayed. This has happened to me before, but I'm sure that thats not going to change the way I look at people. Because doing so would mean being guarded and suspicious, which in my opinion, is no way to lead a life."

  2. good stuff. BTW, did you have to skip over 400 years and shakespeare's heroes to find shades of dark in the knight?!

  3. @Anon1: Glad it made some sense. Appreciate the kind words.. :)

    @Anon2: Ahh.. Shakespeare! But I mentioned only the Dark Knight as an example because I was talking about themes we are exposed to during childhood, and Batman, being a superhero, used to stand exclusively for good back then.
    We read, and come to love, Shakespeare only much later in life.

  4. No hurt, no judgment
    No deeds that make me cry;
    No evil ever will raise its head
    Only if you try.

    No thoughtless blow, no harsh words
    No promise that you broke;
    There is much good still in the world
    At your command, at your stroke.

  5. I finally mustered the courage and read the whole post :) .. totally worth it..

  6. @Aziz

    When will you stop posting messages as Anon. :P

  7. Maybe I missed the point, but I think its too longwinding and meandering for what it's trying to say :) The point of course makes sense and is appreciated.

  8. one of ur best:) .. totally worth reading!


  9. @Divinite: Thanks for sharing that lovely poem.. Beautifully written (by you?)..
    But evil does raise its ugly head, often catching us unaware. Hurt, judgment, harsh words & broken promises are all inescapable occurrences in life, and realizing that one cannot always prevent them is both essential and liberating (of guilt and regret). And even after facing all that, believing that "there's much good still in this world" and that we're capable of adding to it, is truly uplifting.

    @Abhishek: If reading the post required courage, then commenting on it should win you a bravery award! :P

    @Anfield: Till I make another account and post comments through that! :P

  10. Really a very deep and thoughful work from your side. I have literally fallen in love with the way you potray things and touch the different subjects!!!
    very deep to think and question oneself!!!

  11. @eternalmonotony: I know its meandering. It turned out to be a loose collection of thoughts on a common theme than a tightly structure piece. It was hard to structure because there are too many open ends.

    @Safoora: Thanks a lot! :)

    @Sonali: Glad you liked it! :)

  12. totally exceptional post! These are things which you think and think but can never write them down on a piece of paper.. Congrats for doing that! As far as the Milgram Experiment was concerned I was unaware of that. However I knew of another similar experiment known as Stanford Prison Experiment. Read the Wiki Article about that.. It is also very interesting....Judging people has been a deceptive subject throughout the years and you have jotted down some points eloquently. I hope to see similar posts in your blog..

  13. @Nirjhar: Thanks a lot! :) You're right that these are all issues that each one of us grapples with at some time or the other. I've put them down well aware that the last word on this topic can never be said.
    And yes, I'm aware of the Stanford Prison experiment. In fact I was referring exactly to it when I wrote in the post 'there are several other experiments...'.


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