The Subjectivity of Good and Evil

INTRODUCTION

Most people grow up having this hero and villain complex. This is a complex that has been prevalent throughout literature and has even been further fueled by the media. Thus, it is common place for people to perceive some persons as evil and some persons as good. However, this stereotyping is usually arbitrary and subjective. People act in their interest or for what they believe in. Those who benefit from the action often see that action as good. On the other hand, those it affects adversely see that action as evil. Thus, when a person’s actions benefit a particular set of people continuously, such persons will be seen as good by those who like his actions. On the other hand, those it adversely affects will end up seeing the person as evil.

In order to make this clearer, I shall examine the actions of two people generally considered as good people. I shall also consider two people who are generally considered as evil. The two “good” people to be considered will be Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela. The “bad” people to be considered will be Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

JESUS CHRIST

Jesus Christ is one of the most popular persons in the world. He is the central point of Christianity. He is viewed as a personification of the love of the God towards human beings. He is also viewed as the perfect example of love. He even preached for a person to love one’s enemy and to turn the other cheek when slapped. The life of Jesus Christ is very alluring and the perfect example. However, there are situations in which he had to take a strong stand and make tough decisions which could be seen as bad.

An example is when Jesus came to Jerusalem and saw people trading in the temple. He drove them out and overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. This was a very tough action coming from Jesus. The action would have adversely affected the means of livelihood of those chased away. In that context, those people would see him as a bad man who has come to take away their means of livelihood. On the other hand, Jesus was just acting in the interest of protecting the sanctity of the temple.

Another situation in which Jesus had to commit harm is found in the the book of Revelation 19:11-21 where Jesus is represented an heavenly warrior who throws the beast and the false prophet into hell and he slays the kings of the earth, leaving birds to gorge on their flesh. This scenario doesn’t fit with the perfect goodness we have been inundated with. Doing away with the beast and his cohorts was in the interest of Jesus. To the beast and his cohorts, Jesus has come to kill and torment them. To those who benefit(Christians), it is the right thing to do.

NELSON MANDELA

A lot of people know about Nelson Mandela. To most Africans he is seen as a good man who is worthy of emulation. He was locked up in prison for 27 years by strangers who came to his own land because he was fighting for his right. On coming out of prison, he became president and he didn’t have his revenge on them. It isn’t far fetched to think that if everyone behaved like this, the world will be a paradise for all. However, there were times he also took actions that could be interpreted as bad.

In 1961 Nelson Mandela and some other members of the African National Congress(ANC) founded the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”, abbreviated MK). This became the armed group of the ANC and Mandela was the chairman. The group carried out acts of sabotage against government installations and a series of bombings¹. In 1962, Mandela secretly travelled to Ethiopia and other countries to seek help for purchase of ammunitions. He also took a six month course in guerrilla warfare although he was unable to complete it. On his return to South Africa he was arrested on 5 August 1962. He and others were tried for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government violently. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment which ended up as 27 years as he was released due to international pressure.

From the preceeding, it can be seen that Mandela had to do some “bad” things in order to achieve what he believed was in his best interest. To the government, his actions were evil and harmful. On the other hand, the indigenous Africans would see him as a freedom fighter and a hero worthy of emulation.

ADOLF HITLER

Adolf Hitler was Fuhrer(Leader/Dictator) of Germany from 2 August 1934 – 30 April 1945. He is one of the most popular persons in world history. He kick started to second world war by the invasion of Poland. He is also said to be responsible for the deaths of millions, including 6 million Jews. His impact on the shape of the modern world cannot be over emphasised. However, he is seen as an evil man. This is due to the previously stated fact that he is responsible for million deaths of Jews, Slavs, Poles, etc. Although his actions are arguably evil, there were some actions of his that can be considered good.

After the end of the First World war, Germany was signatory to the treaty of Versailles which blamed Germany for the war and levied heavy reparatory fines on them. The treaty specifically blamed Germany for the war in Article 231². All their colonies were taken over and they were forced to demilitarise the Rhineland. In sum total the treaty was an injustice and humiliation to the Germans. This was further made worse by the economic breakdown after the Great Depression.

When Hitler came into power, he revitalised the German Economy. The rate of unemployment reduced from 6 million in 1932 to one million in 1936³. The world war was started in order to reclaim territory that was lost due to the treaty of Versailles. Also, his act of expansionism cannot be seen as an evil act in itself. His actions to expand the German empire is no different from Alexander the Great’s conquest of most of the world.

Once again, his actions favoured the Germans but didn’t favour those who were at the receiving end of it. Thus, the people it favoured (Germans) would see him as a hero while those at the receiving end (Jews, Allied Powers, Poles…) would see him as a villain.

JOSEPH STALIN

Joseph Stalin was the leader of the defunct Soviet Union (USSR) from the mid 1920s till his death in 1953. He is regarded by many as a ruthless dictator. One of the reasons is that he is responsible for the great purge which took place between 1934 to 1939 in which millions of people who he considered as threats to him were killed. Also he is responsible for the imprisonment of millions in Gulag labour camps where they were forced into hard labour.

Vadim Erlikman, a Russian writer estimates the following deaths for which the Stalin government was directly responsible for: Executions – 1.5 million, Gulag Prison camps – 5 million; Deportations – 1.7 million; POWs and German civilians – 1 million. This is a total of approximately 9 million people. Wow!! This is such large sum for an administration. However gory a picture this might create, there are some achievements of his administration which are noteworthy.

The Stalin administration developed the soviet economy from the backward post World war I economy to one that could fight and win the second world war. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union became one of the two world superpowers during the cold war. Soviet citizens also enjoyed series of social amenities. There was equal education and employment rights for girls. The Stalin government improved the healthcare and literacy of Soviets. All this is coupled with the feeling of euphoria of being a world power at the end of World War II.

From the preceeding it can be seen that although Stalin’s government was horror to some, others enjoyed it. To those who were on the good side of his government, he would be seen as an hero, while those on the other side of the divide would see him as a villainous dictator.

CONCLUSION

From the preceeding, there has been one recurring theme; the notion of good and evil is subjective. It depends on the side you view it from. Thus, it follows that a person would be adjudged good if his actions favour more people than those that it disfavours. Hence we shouldn’t be quick to judge people for their actions.

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