Problem Management — principles

The world is an evil place not because of the evil people, but because of the people that allow the evil to happen.
— Albert Einstein

Many people talk about good and evil as if they are opposites. But good and evil do not have opposite meanings; good and bad do.

When one thinks of evil as the opposite of good, one misses its real significance, making any discussion or argument related to it very difficult to resolve. An understanding of the real meaning of evil can simplify many seemingly complicated situations.

Evil means something completely different from bad, and it is something that one can define and use without resorting to religious absolutes.


Any group of people can determine a set of things, ideas, concepts, etc. that they all consider good, and a similar set that they all consider bad. Different groups of people will almost certainly produce different sets, and many things will not receive agreement as to their classification, but any individual group can achieve consensus on reasonably large sets.

One can then define Evil as something that presents itself as good, but which in the long run does more bad than good. The idea, that if a little of something does good then a lot of it must do better, often makes this process even worse.

Sugar provides a trivial example. Almost anyone encountering sugar for the first time would call it good, and more of it even better. But one can easily misuse sugar, leading to malnutrition, tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, etc. Of course the evil doesn't come from the sugar itself, but from the mistaken belief in sugar's intrinsic goodness.

Though some people might disagree, one can find other common examples in PDF files, white flour, Kwanzaa, and the fluoridation of drinking water.

A More Serious Example

I don't remember where I first heard or read of this example; I certainly don't claim to have originated it. But given how my memory works, I haven't plagiarized the wording.

People Are Basically Good

I know of no religion that teaches that people are basically good, yet over the last century or two this evil concept has infiltrated much of western society. Yes, on the surface it seems true, hearing it makes people feel better about themselves, those that believe it might behave better towards others, and initially the world might end up a nicer place in which to live. This of course makes it an ideal candidate for propagating evil, and (at least) four bad things that it conceals confirm this.

1. It's Not My Fault

If people are basically good, why do people do bad things? Obviously because something external to them has interfered with their basic goodness. People steal because of poverty, they abuse children because of the abuse they themselves suffered as children, they habitually drink because they inherited alcoholism genes, they do all kinds of bad things because of society and their environment, not because they have any personal choice in the matter.

With this point of view, the concept of individual responsibility for one's actions goes out the window.

External forces, not individual choices, cause bad behaviour.

2. I Don't Need To Change

If people are basically good, they won't improve themselves. Yes, they can check for and eliminate bad external influences, but the good side of their personalities themselves needs no work. No one needs to, and perhaps no one can, develop and improve their character.

Even worse, while parents and educators will teach children to recognize the signs of external badness and how to combat them (e.g. pollution and racism), they will fail to teach the children to develop good character, assuming they inherently have it already. This relates closely to another evil, the practice of perfectionism, in which one concentrates on removing negatives without ever considering positives.

Individuals must learn to struggle against society and other external forces, not against their own feelings or tendencies, which are basically good already.

3. I Know What Is Right

If people are basically good, then humanity can eventually remove the external factors that cause bad behaviour, creating a eutopian society. For instance, if we could end poverty, most crime and violence would cease to exist. This view even eliminates the need for moral standards (in a religious context, it almost eliminates the need for God, as humanity can provide its own salvation).

In an immoral society, those people that violate the existing moral standard at least know that they have chosen to do so. But in an amoral society, one has no choice to make; one can have any behaviour or belief other than that of expressing a moral position.

No one needs to develop moral judgement since they are basically good already.

4. They Are Wrong

If people are basically good, then certainly you yourself are basically good. You might occasionally display bad attitudes because of outside influences, but generally you have only good thoughts and correct ideas. So when someone else's beliefs or actions don't match yours you will know for sure that they must have the wrong beliefs, and that their bad behaviour and attitude needs correcting. Similarly, all other people with beliefs like yours must also have achieved the one true view of the world. You must therefore support each other and enlarge the size and power of your group in order to defeat the external influences that still corrupt the less fortunate people.

With such a belief, there is no need to consider other people's views of the world or to reconsider one's own position.

There is one right way to live, and anyone that lives differently is wrong.

But People Really Aren't Basically Good (or Bad) On the surface, people are basically good presents a good message. But beneath this evil concept lie messages promoting irresponsibility, selfish and lazy character, amorality, and intolerance.

In reality people can increase or decrease the good and bad attributes of their characters, they can make moral judgements and choose to do the right thing (or not). Developing one's character within a moral standard forms a significant part of most religions. One society's moral standards might differ from another's, and from a religious view one might consider all but one of them wrong, but to survive, any society requires a moral standard.

When a society turns into something amoral and self-righteous that denigrates personal responsibility and character, it can't survive long. And today's Americans wonder why, after receiving nearly two centuries of admiration, so much of the rest of the world now has so little respect for them.