META: The problem of "Good vs. Evil"

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Mon Feb 18 09:38:03 PST 2008

Lalo's use of characters from his Evilverse got me thinking.  But
rather than hypocritically attack Lalo over the concept, I thought I
would consider the different ways that "Good vs. Evil" is represented
in fiction.  There would appear to be three main schools of thought:
1) We are all essentially evil and those of whom we consider "evil"
are just more evil than usual and need to be destroyed, 2) We are all
essentially good and those who we consider "good" are better than the
rest of us and should be our role models and 3) We are all essentially
either good or evil and good must triumph over evil.

1) and 3) appeal to advocates of Western religions.  1) appeals to
those who see us all as sinners who need to be saved, the problem
being that once you have enough people who have been "saved" then
these become the "good" people and the "evil" people are the people
who don't follow said religion; hence the result is 3) where "good"
and "evil" are defined by the presence or lack of faith in the
respective religion.  To say that I have a problem with this way of
thinking would be an understatement.

In fiction, people who portray mankind as essentially evil take a dim,
pessimistic view.  Because nobody is really good, everybody is evil to
varying degrees and the heroes are merely those who are able to
identify and eradicate the greater evils.  The truly evil people then
end up being cartoonishly evil: they have no reason to do the things
they do other than the fact that they are evil.  Evil people are,
quite literally, being daemonized.

On the other hand, people who portray mankind as essentially good feel
a need to explore why seemingly "evil" people turn to evil.  (See Tom
Russell's Speak for a good example of an author trying to explore why
someone would do evil things if people are essentially good.)  The
mistake that such an author can make is to then make heroic people
better than normal people, ie if everybody is essentially good then
the heroes would be even better.  I don't agree with this point of
view either: I see it more as us all trying to be good and that,
unless one has really bad self-esteem, we all consider ourselves to
have essentially succeeded.  If you look at your heroes and consider
themselves morally better than yourself in terms of honesty and
sincerity then what-the-Hell is stopping you from being honest and
sincere?  I realize that our heroes need to be more than just powered
people in tights but you don't need powers or tights to have honesty
or sincerity.  And everybody is allowed to swear in private, even
costumed heroes. :)

It should be noted that the idea that people are essentially good is
supported by scientific research.  John Paul Scott, way back in the
fifties, did experiments with mice and found that mice will not attack
other mice unless provoked.  He found that mice really will get along
under normal circumstances and that truly violent behavior has to be
taught.  He described violent behavior as "maladaptive" in that it
often arises from an animal feeling frustrated and then attacking the
source of its frustration.  He later described the source of the
frustration as a "disturbance" (which ironically fits well with the
colloquial notion that violent people are "disturbed") and then, based
on analysis of animal behavior in the wild, went on to describe all
violent behavior as the result of a "disturbance" at some level.  In
short, he concluded that people were basically good and that violent
behavior would be curtailed as long as people could get along.

Having people be essentially good makes good theoretical sense too.
Natural selection encourages nondestructive behviour: indeed, there
would appear to be nothing in our genes that encourages "evil"
behaviour and, indeed, a gene that would cause one to become evil
enough to kill his own children would be selected against.
Psychologically, our needs include the needs for affection, belonging
and security.  Our genetic makeup appears to have us programmed to be
social animals.  People define "good" in terms of what benefits
themselves and their friends and relatives and "evil" in terms of what
doesn't.  It's subjective.  Following John Paul Scott's analogy, a
society is disturbed when conflicting needs cause one group to become
in conflict with another.  Each group may label the other group as
"evil" and yet each group sees themselves as "good".  This is
immediately clear from any study of war propaganda.

So I have a problem with writing that portrays the conflict between
"good" and "evil" as an actual conflict between "good people" and
"evil people".  As I pointed out previously, the LNHers from the
Evilverse refering to themselves as "evil" could only be possible if
they mean it as either a warning, a boast or an expression of
extremely low self-esteem.  Their comment that they didn't "even know
what it means to be good" suggests bad parenting.  Yes, I realize that
having good heroes and evil villains is the basis of the superhero
genre, and yet I don't see it as having been taken literally in comics
themselves since the 60s, at least not by the big two companies.
(Darkseid may be a prime counterexample as an example of a DC villain
who is still evil for the sake of being evil; Dr. Doom meanwhile is
more arrogant than evil while Magneto is probably the best example of
a bad guy who is always convinced he's the good guy.)

Classic Star Trek has tended to play up the good vs. evil trope.
There was the Mirror Mirror episode in which Kirk et al switched
places with their "evil" counterparts and there was The Enemy Within
which had Kirk divided into his "good" and "evil" halves.  I don't
know which episode came first and it doesn't matter: the implication
of these two episodes taken together is that even the "evil" Kirk must
have had a "good" side if the "good" Kirk himself had an "evil" side.
The difference between "good" Kirk and "evil" Kirk would appear then
to have been a question of which side was more dominent.  In theory,
most of us would reamin unchanged in a "mirror" universe and it would
only be our heroes and villains who changed places.  A "mirror"
universe need not then be any more evil than our own.  This would make
sense from the point of view of natural selection: a truly evil
species would obliterate itself before it was capable of venturing out
into space.

One strong point that needs to be made them is that creating a
universe with an evil LNH does not do away with the need to explore
why the evil LNHers behave in an evil manner.  It's almost scary, in
fact, how much the "good" Ultimate Ninja and the "good" Irony Man act
like their evil counterparts, the only differences being that the
"good" guys usually act in the best interests of mankind as a whole
whereas their "evil" counterparts merely act in their own best
interests.  The difference should be subtle and if the "evil"
counterparts are wildly different characters than the ones we are
familiar with then there is something seriously wrong with the concept
(in my opinion, of course).


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