META: The problem of "Good vs. Evil"

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Mon Feb 18 13:29:49 PST 2008

On Feb 18, 12:38 pm, Martin Phipps <martinphip... at> wrote:

>  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.

There's a fourth view you're neglecting, and that it that we are
neither good nor evil in any abstract way, but that we are all capable
of good and evil acts.  In this view, _actions_ are good or evil and
people are not.

As to what constitutes a good act or a bad one, or a bad one for the
sake of good, etc., that is a matter of some debate, with some actions
generally being considered absolutely evil (for example, rape) and
some being considered morally relative.

> 1) and 3) appeal to advocates of Western religions.  1) appeals to

I disagree with you very strongly here re: viewpoint # 1.  I am not
aware of any major Western religion that says that people are
basically evil, and I am also not aware of any modern mainstream
religion that says

> 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.

I'm a little confused as to where you're getting this from.  The
Catholic Church, for example, while it believes that it's right and
that others are wrong, it does _not_, to the best of my knowledge,
currently believe that those who are not Catholics are in some way
"evil".  John Paul II in particular reached out to Jewish and, to some
degree, Muslim leaders.

Judaism itself talks about those who are Righteous Among the Nations--
gentiles who they consider to be "good" people.  And so, relative
"goodness" is not a matter of whether or not one shares another's

You might be thinking of wacko fundamentalist groups-- the Creation
"science" crowd-- who are as about as representative of actual
Christianity as al Qaeda is of actual Islam.

> To say that I have a problem with this way of
> thinking would be an understatement.

I also have a problem with that, but again it's not a part of
mainstream Western religions as I understand them.

> In fiction, people who portray mankind as essentially evil take a dim,
> pessimistic view.

Which is one I strongly disagree with. :-)

> 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.)

Thank you, Martin.  You could sum up Speak! as "why do good people do
bad things", though I think it's less about evil abstractly and, at
least in Gregory's case, more about weakness.

>  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.

You make a good point here, but I'd like to offer up a fine
distinction between this point of view and my own personal point of
view that colours my own writing in the superhero genre.

I don't personally think that "heroes" are better than us.  What makes
them heroes (and thus inspiring) isn't some abstract, inate goodness
but rather the fact that they do things that are good.

Ordinary people are capable of bravery, and they're capable of doing
great things given the right circumstances.  That is what's
inspirational about the best superheroes-- they're ordinary people who
rise to the challenge.

Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.  Sometimes they're
brave and sometimes they back down instead of taking a stand.

What superheroes celebrate, for me, is _not_ some morally absolute
always-right uber-god fantasy.  What the genre separates is the
capacity we have within us to do good and to make a difference.  We're
not all inherently good nor inherently bad-- but we are capable of
doing good.

I personally don't need my heroes defined as such; I _like_ the gray
area inbetween, where it's up for debate but in the end unanswerable.
What I have a problem with is when people tip too far into the other
end of the scale-- when the message is, everyone sucks and life sucks
and it's all a sham.  Because that's not celebrating anything.  That's
wallowing and, really, who needs that juvenile nihilistic shit?

> 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.

Unfortunately, he then tried to repeat the experiment with a pack of
wolverines.  It didn't turn out nearly so well. :-)

Aggressive or violent behaviour is ingrained deeply in certain
territorial animals, such as housecats and wolverines, just as some
animals are programmed with a desire to eat their young or their
mates.  It's not a "taught" behaviour but rather genetics.

Anyone who's ever raised a clowder of newborn kittens can testify to

Maybe mice are closer to humans than kittens or apes.  I dunno.

> 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.

Yep, that really worked out well with hamsters, didn't it? :-)

There's some talk about a sociopathic gene, though I'm not really sure
if that holds water so much.

> 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.

Or they're sociopaths-- they might understand the abstract concept of
good but either don't believe in it or have never practiced it.

 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.

This is generally true-- we've progressed from the days of The
Brotherhood of EVIL Mutants.

> (Darkseid may be a prime counterexample as an example of a DC villain
> who is still evil for the sake of being evil;

Well, Darkseid's also not a human being, and so I think he's kind of
exempted from a discussion of good-vs.-evil morality in human nature.

 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.)

I think most villains in the mid-level range know what they're doing
is wrong, but they do it anyway because of selfishness, desire, or
weakness.  In many ways they're more compelling to me than the "I'm
right but I get bad press" crowd exemplified by Magneto.

> 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.

I think you're affirming the consequent there.

> 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

Yes and no; if Lalo was simply using the trope, such as the way he
uses the Living God trope, I'd expect there to be more exploration of
the concept and be disappointed by its absence.  But here he's clearly
making fun of the trope and so I think the use of parody exempts him
from this burden.  They're evil in a "campy" way, as it were.

> 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.

Or, to put it another way, the good guys do things that are good and
the bad guys things that are bad, and are defined by their actions
rather than their intentions or any abstract inner qualities.

>  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

That, however, is a _very_ strong point.  I think the argument here
though is that both versions of a character are equally capable of
good or evil, not that they are necessarily the "same" morally.  It's
a fine distinction but an important one.


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