Good vs. evil: the most popular plot in any story. Whether it’s Star Wars, The Little Mermaid, or even The Legends of Zelda, there’s always a good guy fighting an evil villain. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s objective to say that Luke Skywalker, Ariel, and Link respectively are the good guys fighting to defeat Darth Vader, Ursula, and Ganon.
Over the years, however, we’ve tried to get the perspective of these “objective” villains — seeing where they’re coming from. Whether it be Maleficent, Wicked, or the classic Grendel, we want to know more about these antagonists. What was Maleficent’s relationship to Aurora’s family prior to Aurora’s birth? Why does the Wicked Witch of the West want those ruby red shoes so much? Is Grendel’s nihilism of the objective meaning of life the motive behind his hatred for Beowulf? All those questions and more give us reasons to find out and even sympathize with these “villains”.
Of course, those questions we ask about these fictional characters can also apply to real people as well. We often wonder about the exact motives of people like Hitler and Stalin. Why would they hurt and kill so many people? Did they know what they were doing was bad and didn’t care, or did they actually think they were the good guys? When I think about these people and their motives, it often makes me wonder if there’s such a thing as objective morality. Is there something all humans can universally accept as good or evil, or does it depend on what one person thinks?
What are the most evil things you can think of? War, tyranny, murder — we can safely say that every person find these things morally reprehensible. So, why do some people still do these evil actions? Why do all these evil actions still exist if we all agree that they’re…well, evil? Maybe these leaders like Hitler and Stalin along with their followers do these things because, in their eyes, they think they’re doing the right thing.
Let’s get into the psychology. In your own life, you are the main character of your story; you are the protagonist. Everyone else in your life is secondary to you because you’re the one who knows yourself more than anyone else. The people closest to you are supporting characters, while the people you don’t know and barely see are mainly background characters. Therefore, it’s natural for you to assume that your actions most likely won’t have much of an impact on those background characters because, well…they’re in the background. Why should you care? Meanwhile, you’re more likely to consider the feelings of not only yourself, but those closest to you. In a way, you’re your own version of God.
And God, as we all know, is a very powerful ruler, probably the most powerful of them all. We’ve all wished to be a powerful ruler at some point in our lives. You’ve probably have had many fantasies of ruling the entire world with your own rules and at your own whims. And let’s face it — none of those fantasies involved you being democratically elected, did they? More likely, you’re a powerful dictator or monarch ruling over the entire world, possibly even the entire universe. That’s because you’re a selfish person, and though that’s not entirely a bad thing, selfishness can get out of control without any restrictions on it.
That’s probably why most agree that selfishness is bad despite our own self-centered instincts. If we only care about ourselves, then the whole world would crumble. Though the world crumbling down would be a disaster, why would you think that is? Do you really care about the general good, or is it because the world ending would be bad for you personally? Deep down, you’re answering the latter, which would make you selfish. Even if you acknowledge that selfishness is a terrible thing, you’re still being selfish without even realizing it. You’re struggling with your own morality.
Others who have done far worse may have struggled with their own morality, too. All the things I’ve mentioned before (war, tyranny, murder) are commonly described as the most evil actions anyone could ever commit. And yet, those things still happen. People choose to commit these awful actions. Why is that? In most cases, I believe that many people choose to commit these evil deeds because, in their minds, they’re doing it for the greater good.
Just as we are inheritably selfish, we are also inheritably protective of those closest to us. Many animals, particularly carnivorous ones like coyotes and lions, kill smaller animals like rabbits and zebras to feed their offspring. Likewise, meat-eaters like me eat hamburgers and bacon, which come from cows and pigs respectively. It’s not out of malice. If it was, then why would I eat these delicious animals? I eat hamburgers and bacon to stop my hunger. Meat is food — an important food many animals rely on for survival. And while hamburgers and bacon do come from dead animals, killing cows and pigs for food is a necessary evil for a majority of people. Besides that, many of us do feel empathy when we hear about someone or another animals getting brutally killed or beaten senselessly. Most people in the world do, in fact, feel remorse for their awful actions. We use that remorse to learn from our mistakes and better ourselves as people.
There are exceptions, of course. This is where sociopathy comes in. Sociopathy, as you may know, is a pattern of antisocial behaviors and attitudes, which may include manipulation, deceit, aggression, and lack of empathy. This differs from psychopathy, which is also characterized by the lack of empathy and the blunting of other affective states. So, what’s the difference? It’s in attachment. Sociopathy is shaped by environmental factors like child abuse, while psychopathy is inborn and unchangeable. Knowing these differences, sociopaths are more likely to form attachments to a certain individual or group. Psychopaths, on the other hand, cannot form or maintain genuine bonds of attachment. Instead, psychopaths use superficial charm to manipulate their ways into “relationships” and other valuable statuses.
Why do I bring this up? For starters, many people (including me on occasions) often confuse the two terms with each other, but that’s besides the point. I bring this up because many world leaders who have committed terrible acts of atrocities (like Hitler and Stalin as mentioned before) could have shown signs of either sociopathy or psychopathy. To become a powerful ruler, you have to show some charm in one way or another; people have to understand and/or agree with your stances. How else would Hitler and Stalin become leaders? To use said charm, you’ll have to start slow.
If your end game is to kill the Jews or to starve the Ukrainians, you can’t just announce that out of the blue. You first have to start slow — campaign to improve something the general population is unsatisfied with (while blaming a certain group for it maybe). Then, you can slowly work your way up. Remember, all the atrocities surrounding World War II or communism didn’t start with extermination camps and mass starvations. You have to slowly manipulate people into accepting, normalizing, and promoting these horrific atrocities with your charm. To this day, many people still remember quotes from Hitler and Stalin, and it’s because they struck a massive chord with a vast amount of people.
This is how many of the world’s worst atrocities happen — those in charge used their “charm” to persuade others to accept these actions. War, tyranny, murder — so many people commit these heinous acts because they think they’re doing it for the greater good. In their minds, they’re the protagonists in their stories, and the people and/or ideologies they’re against are the antagonists that must be defeated. Meanwhile, in the eyes of another person, those same people are the antagonists of that person’s story. And that’s why, despite many people agreeing that some actions are inheritably evil, there may not be such a thing as objective morality.