Recently I have been studying the First World War and along with this, I have also spent time reading about the atrocities committed in the Second World War, specifically the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust. These conscious human actions have made me think about good or evil and whether or not humans are good. I’ve come to lean away from believing that most humans are fundamentally good and neither do I think they are evil. Rather, they have the capacity to do both, which is in some ways a sad truth but in another, it is a gift because when you do meet a genuinely good human being, it means that person has molded and made themselves good.
We all have the ability to commit horrible evil and to do wonderful good. Believing this is unsettling as well because to me this means that a person foundation can be determined by others. It can be swayed to one side or other by how the group is feeling because many people never create their own good or evil, their own limits and restrictions, instead they borrow that from the group they belong to.
What I mean by this is that it was ordinary men, truck drivers, waiters, business owners who participated in the Holocaust. The Japanese soldiers in Nanjing were regular working civilians as well but they still committed those acts. They knowingly committed these acts. These people were not born like this. I am sure they told jokes and laughed, shared food, acted selflessly towards one another, told each other about their loved ones and about their hopes and dreams and then they committed rape and mass murder and then, those who survived the war, went back to their civilian lives.
It’s almost like this moment of madness in the otherwise neutral way of life. This plain existence on a chart that is disrupted by a sudden uptick and then back to the horizontal line as if the madness that is in us is able to breathe life for a moment. But this moment of madness existed and has always existed in humans. Almost everyone would have been a Nazi and they would have done those acts and the same goes with Japan and Nanjing.
This is no excuse but rather something that is evident of humans. Humans are adaptive. At the end of the day, humans will do whatever it takes to survive and to keep going and if this means to allow the madness inside of them to come out and rage, then so be it and if it means to keep the madness caged and lead a civilian life, then it shall remain caged, for the most part. You see it, madness, peak its head out in civilian life as well but not as much because there are laws to stop that and there is a certain way of life that everyone has agreed upon to live that stops this madness from raging.
But at war, when there is disorder, when it is not reason that leads but rather your appetite, your emotions and feelings that lead you and control you, it is difficult to keep the madness caged and it comes out and when it is unfiltered, you see the evil in man and the evil that has always been in man be unleashed and the consequences of this evil are hard to comprehend. This is compounded when the leader of the group allows the madness to go and even encourages it. Perhaps this is why it is easier for most people to cage off the group and say that something was wrong with that group. Something was wrong with the Nazi’s or the Japanese men at Nanjing but I don’t think they were any different from most people on the planet.
The reason for this is that there is only a small minority of individuals who lead their lives based on their own principles and rules. Most people live life according to the principles and rules set by group so, when those rules change, the individual follows and lives by the new rules but if one sets his or her own rules or principles then the outside does not affect it and by doing so, that individual can be the one to not only say no to killing an innocent child but try to save that child and even give his or her own life to do so.
However, most people don’t have to come to terms with such a thing. Most people live quiet lives where there is no need for the madness that is inside of them and whatever little madness does leak out every so often, it is easy to cage again. Most people then believe themselves to be good or at least lean closer to good rather than evil. They put up these false thoughts that they could never commit horrible evil.
But how do you know this to be true? If you have never faced a circumstance that tests your goodness and presents evilness as a viable choice and a choice that is being made by those around you, how do you know how you will act?
I doubt very much that the ordinary German or Japanese citizen ever thought that in a year or two they would be killing innocent women and children. Yet they did.
So, I think of the good and evil question and I cannot say the human being is either. It is good when it needs to be and it is evil when it needs to be.
Such are we.