It is a universal concept, the epic struggle between good and evil. It is a battle that has allegedly waged since the beginning of time. And has served as the backdrop for countless myths, legends, and fictional stories. Even World War II served as the battlefield for what was supposed to be the great and final war between these forces.
But just what is it to be good or evil? By Sartre’s reckoning, no human being can choose evil. His reasoning being that any being that values freedom of person would not willingly put themselves into a position where they’d loose that freedom–consequently, they would have no choice but to value the freedom of others.
Yet, there are those who would argue that World War II proved that people do choose evil. How else to explain the atrocities committed by the Axis powers of Italy, Germany and Japan during that "Great War"?
Of course, reasonably speaking, it could be that these nations didn’t choose evil. Really, the case could be made that what had occured was a severe outbreak of nationalism.
Germany had suffered greatly as a result of World War I, leaving strict sanctions in place over the nation. As a result, the economic desperation led people to support a man who was quite literally mad. It has been said that Hitler was an evil man, and whereas whimsy would likely allow me to concur, it cannot easily dismiss potent facts indicating that Hitler may have suffered from several diseases both physical and mental. Not the least of which being schizophrenia and possibly a case of parkinson’s.
So, as a result, a society supports a man of questionable morals and mental state. But does that suggest that the fact millions of innocents were murdered that evil was choosen?
Certainly the masses were unaware of what was occurring during the holocaust and no fault can be attributed to them save for their dubious taste of leadership. Yet to fully understand why this happened, one would have to study millennias’ worth of history involving the jewish peoples. And that is a subject much more vast than a quick little paper such as this.
When one considers Japan, an almost religious consideration was at play. Not unlike Nazi Germany’s assuages of the "master race," Japan’s militarist elites believed that it was their nation’s destiny to bring together the greater asian countries and unite them into one empire. (An interesting parrellel to American history on the issue of Manifest Destiny that was so ardently supported by Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers.) As many lives were lost during this invasion as in the European front. And the atrocities of the Japanese were well documented. Activities such as decapitations and other gruesome methods of torture were commonplace, which very well would lead one to believe evil had been unleashed.
Having lived through World War II, Sartre would have been more than well aware of the complexities of a warring environment. Things that people of common mind wouldn’t think to do happen quite readily in such an environment.
Is war therefore an agent of evil?
If so, then the United States is no more immune to it than any other society. At the foundation of our nation’s birth, are the remnants of an even older society of the native peoples. They numbered in the tens of millions upon European arrival, and by the time of the twentieth century were less than a million. This near genocide is often ignored in ideologies concerning what good is. Nationalism can surface and suggest that America would never engage in such atrocities, but is unfortunately at the root of our development. Few tribes don’t recall the trail of tears, and many who are descended from those people would likely consider the U.S. government, and even those who live in the land, as evil.
Yet, are we evil? Even if our choices have led to bad things? Did we choose this evil?
Not to mention there is the whole issue of slavery. Does that add to advent of evil? Does that imply the United States is evil as certain extremist groups currently proclaim?
And of course there is always the criminal element where murder, rape, and theft are commonplace. Any number of which would be considered evil by their victims; that they choose the course of evil.
For centuries, the church has propagated the undying battle between good and evil and the thought that the final battle will soon take place. Even current figures on the world stage believe this end is near. A certain mid-eastern figure has even stated in recent years that he would be the herald for the thirteenth or whatever number imam who will be the last and then the end of times would begin.
I’m sure Sartre would agree with me that this is merely self-fulfilling prophesy. Because this figure isn’t choosing evil, but believing in his indoctrination to its most extreme conclusion. However, to those who would be on the receiving end of this figure’s chaotic revelry, would not he appear evil?
In fact, it seems painfully obvious that Sartre is right in that we do not choose evil. What is at play is the ever rolling human drama of self-preservation. Whether that preservation is by means of a nation’s defense or a criminal’s selfish desire, it all boils down to the age old belief in survival of the fittest.
However, Sartre is also wrong in his assertion that people don’t choose evil. Whereas I don’t believe in good and evil in the natural world–those thoughts have nothing to do with survival–there is still the fact that the very notion of good and evil is a human construct.
A lion doesn’t slaughter a gazelle for mere pleasure (though it has been suggested sport plays a role with animals), but rather for the basic need of survival. The malicious thoughts associated with aggression are not there because the lion doesn’t reason about the kill. It simply kills.
It’s very difficult to say people don’t choose evil, when humanity itself created the definition of evil and will readily utilize it if it serves their purposes. People can be evilly malicious and callous in their interactions. So one can "choose" to be evil, even if they are not actually being "evil."
Again, though, I reiterate my stance that good and evil don’t exist. Though I’m more than certain many would argue against me. Concepts of good and evil are too rooted into human existence, drilled into them by teaching through moral behavior and religious doctrine. If you believe in good and evil, you most likely will keep believing in it. If you don’t, you most likely will never change your mind. That is irrelevant to what I am seeing.
People may choose to be one or the other based on human perceptions, but the rule of the day will always be self-preservation and survival of the fittest. This plays out not just in preserving one’s own life, but also in defending those we perceive as weak. In example, if a strong proponent for the weak intervenes on the weak’s behalf (say in issues of genocide), it becomes a conflict between the defenders and the aggressors. Which means a battle between those fit–those defenders that have chosen to be "good" and protect the weak–and the aggressors who’ve chosen to be "evil" and eliminate the weak. Thusly still being a conflict of the survival of the fittest and the determination of whose belief is more correct.
It’s always amazing to see the complexities of human society in motion. Particularly when it comes to simple endeavors. Sartre had some interesting ideas about good and evil and was right that no one can choose evil, since self-preservation overrules the concept of evil in fending for itself via interest of self, interest of nation, defense of the weak (i.e. the strengthening of beliefs against others), or even in basic survival without interest. Evil doesn’t exist.
But Sartre failed to see that good and evil are human elements that, as such, can be freely chosen between. Maybe that’s the most "evil" thing of all–the fact that it isn’t real yet we think we’re given the choice anyway. Welcome to Earth, third rock from the sun.