To understand the concept of good and evil, one must consider the definition of “evil”. The Apple Dictionary defines it as “profoundly immoral and malevolent.” To clarify, “immoral” is defined as “not conforming to accepted standards of morality”. By this mark, yes, humans in their natural state are evil. However, one must also delve deeper and consider that “accepted standards of morality” have changed continually throughout the ages. It is then that one must ask oneself, “How can one be sure they are not being evil?”
To understand morality, a baseline must be established. Humans in their natural state are neither good nor evil, but that doesn’t mean that “regular humans” wouldn’t perceive some of those neutral actions as ‘evil’. For example, a toddler in kindergarten who has not been taught manners will take toys from another child without asking, as this is the way of the wild. People would interpret the action of “stealing” the toy as evil, but that is just because they have already been conditioned by society. The alpha-wolf gets to eat first because it is stronger. It is capable of taking the food from the weaker wolves. Toddlers are, in a way, animals. If left to their own devices without intervention from authority figures, toddlers will eventually form a hierarchy of sorts, the strongest child having all the toys and food it wants. On another hand, primates kept in captivity have shown signs of humanity after being surrounded by “properly conditioned”, normal humans. Wolves are not evil for asserting dominance based on strength, nor can unconditioned humans be considered so. Upbringing is the conditioning humans go through. During the upbringing, basic moral grounds are set. The conscience is brought about, and children are taught fundamental differences between right and wrong. Studies have shown that the conscience and all moral thought is cemented before the age of five. If a child is not taught the fundamental differences between right and wrong during that time, they will be generally considered evil by society.
Society perceives the unconditioned human as evil. However, society itself is an unreliable measuring device. Merely more than a century ago, it was considered commonplace to own and trade slaves, discriminating one human from another based merely on race or socioeconomic status. Today, it is obviously considered profoundly immoral and therefore evil. There is no reason to believe that something else we consider commonplace today will be considered profoundly immoral 100 years from now.
How, then, can one truly tell what is good and just? Steve Taylor, Ph.D. defines it as “‘a lack of self-centeredness. It means the ability to empathize with other people, to feel compassion for them, and to put their needs before your own. It means, if necessary, sacrificing your own wellbeing for the sake of others’. It means benevolence, altruism and selflessness, and self-sacrifice towards a greater cause – all qualities which stem from a sense of empathy. It means being able to see beyond the superficial difference of race, gender, or nationality and relate to a common human essence beneath them.” (Taylor) Continuing on Dr. Taylor’s train of thought, the character known as the Doctor from the TV series Doctor Who recently said, “hate is always foolish, and love is always wise.” (Moffat)
These quotes all portray a concept that is beyond ordinary definitions of morality or standards of society. A concept that separates humans from other animals: humanity. Should one ever feel like their moral compass could use a recalibration, they need only remember that the definitions of good and evil aren’t necessarily important or even accurate; but humanity is something that is innate to every person, should they delve deep enough. As the Doctor said, “always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind.” (Moffat)
Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time. By Steven Moffat. Perf. Peter Capaldi. BBC. BBC, 2017.
Griffeth, Jeremy. The Book of Real Answers to Everything. Sydney: WTM Publishing and Comunication, 2011.
Griffith, Jeremy. “Good vs Evil.” 2011. The Human Condition. <https://www.humancondition.com/good-vs-evil/>.
Taylor, Steve. “The Real Meaning of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’.” 2013. Psychology Today. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the- darkness/201308/the-real-meaning-good-and-evil>.