Threshold of Goodness


Wanted poster for the International Criminal T...

Wanted poster for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

Nobody is born evil.

Nowadays we tend to connect evil with suffering insofar as we explain away acts of evil by describing the suffering of the perpetrators.  But is this really sound logic?

Some people experience great suffering, but not everyone who suffers passes on the pain.  On the contrary, many people who have suffered choose to dedicate their lives to alleviating, rather than causing, pain.

Which means that it isn’t a simple equation – suffering does not necessarily mean that the victim automatically becomes a perpetrator. This fact suggests that, regardless of how we are treated, and the fact that this is often outside our control, how we act is always inside our control.

So then, given that most of us are just regular people, why do some of us end up choosing to act in ways that can only be described as evil?

In 1994, over a period of 100 days, approximately 800,000 people were killed in the small East African nation of Rwanda.  It’s hard work killing 800,000 people in a hundred days and it took thousands of murderers.

It’s extremely unlikely that such a large number of irredeemably psychopathic killers lived in Rwanda in 1994.  Which is a scary thought as it means that these murderers weren’t a different creation – they were just regular people – like us.

No matter who we are, or what we think about ourselves, potentially we are all capable of evil because, as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn says –

…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (1)

So.  How does a human being take that step too far and move from being merely flawed to being evil?

In the Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn presents a very interesting hypothesis about this transition from imperfect to evil –

Physics is aware of phenomena which occur only at threshold magnitudes, which do not exist until a certain threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed… You can cool oxygen to 100 degrees below zero centigrade and exert as much pressure as you want; it does not yield but remains a gas.  But as soon as minus 183 degrees is reached, it liquefies and begins to flow.

Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude.  Yes a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life…But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope.  But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return. (2)

This is such an interesting hypothesis, especially if you add it to the idea that there is real choice involved.

However, once we accept the possibility of each and every one of us being capable of evil, we also need to accept the possibility that we are also, each and every one of us, potentially capable of extraordinary goodness.

It’s vital to see our potential for goodness just as much as our potential for evil, as otherwise we will tend to become paranoid – terrified that any minute we are all about to cross over a threshold into being evil.

Rather than worrying about how we may be bad, perhaps instead we could concentrate – and teach our children to concentrate – on aiming for the threshold of goodness at all times?

Evil is the absence of good, just like darkness is the absence of light.  We ‘defeat’ darkness by turning on the light, in the same way we can ‘defeat’ evil by ‘turning on’ goodness.

Simple really, don’t you think?

__________________________________________________________________

(1) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, p.168.

(2) ibid,  pp 174-175

6 comments on “Threshold of Goodness

  1. enermazing says:

    Already from a very low level of consciousness – as soon as a distinction between good and evil appears – there’s always a choice.

    Toddlers know what they shouldn’t do and occasionally choose to do it, despite…, why, even our dog knows cats’ food is a no-no and chooses not to show the slightest interest as long as somebody is looking.

    I think one of the main problems with choosing between good and evil has to do with the direct social environment or culture: 1. Sticking one’s head out (in either direction) can be or is perceived as dangerous; the more heads, the safer and easier it gets. 2. Between black and white there’s a lot of grey fog, and the threshold is often not clearly visible – especially when “everybody else does it”. Whatever is accepted (or even encouraged) by the respective society defines the general boundaries for the individual.

    Excellent article, thank you!

    Let’s switch on the light! 🙂

    • It’s like the Nuremberg defense – there’s a way in which doing what everyone else is doing is sort of like ‘just following (implicit) orders.’ But it’s hard going sometimes isn’t it – none of us sees through the fog all the time. I guess if it was easy then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion! Thanks for your comment.

  2. nrhatch says:

    Always be a little kinder than necessary.

  3. jjhiii24 says:

    You wrote:

    “It’s vital to see our potential for goodness just as much as our potential for evil, as otherwise we will tend to become paranoid – terrified that any minute we are all about to cross over a threshold into being evil.

    Rather than worrying about how we may be bad, perhaps instead we could concentrate – and teach our children to concentrate – on aiming for the threshold of goodness at all times?

    Evil is the absence of good, just like darkness is the absence of light. We ‘defeat’ darkness by turning on the light, in the same way we can ‘defeat’ evil by ‘turning on’ goodness.”

    It seems to me that whether or not a presence of good or evil exists within each of us, what ultimately ends up becoming a part of our reality is not simply a matter of choosing or concentrating on the achievement of a threshold exactly, but much more a way of defining who we are at a fundamental level. While it is entirely possible to choose a particular behavior which produces either good or evil results no matter how we construct our reality, if our actions spring from our fundamental nature, which we have shaped throughout our lives to reflect our vision of who we truly want to be, then our actions generally will reflect that nature.

    Of course, even though we see ourselves as being “good,” the world may view us differently, depending on how our vision of ourselves matches up against the way the world runs, but our intention to be a good person is probably the most important aspect in achieving a good outcome.

    It has also been my own feeling that many of the “bad” things that happen in this world have been a direct result of “not connecting to our higher nature via our consciousness” rather than of “any focused desire to cause pain,” as you pointed out recently in your response to my views. Once we achieve a certain level of understanding about our own nature, we begin to see how important it is that as many people as possible arrive at the source of their own nature as well.

    I look forward very much to sharing more of your insightful writing on all the subjects related to consciousness, and to gaining the benefit of your keen sensibilities as to how creating reciprocity leads to an enhanced ability to survive and thrive in our modern world.

    John H.

  4. I actually couldn’t really agree more, John, though I don’t so much see our potential for good or evil as a presence as such – just a potential – but even so I do agree that we construct our own reality with our actions which then does become our ‘nature’ and that it is vital for all of us to realise our own power in this.

    On the issue of reciprocity – I don’t really know what will happen when we begin to function as a system of oneness but I feel strongly that the ‘engine’ of this functioning is reciprocity.

    I also believe that a properly functioning humanity, operating reciprocal systems will produce emergent outcomes far beyond what we can imagine – who knows what we really are? Or what we can really achieve?

    It’s pretty much (to me) like your description of how we develop our own natures. Reciprocity creates an environment of it’s own (lichen and trees, hermit crabs and anemones etc) and then these environments both support the constituent parts and other things as well. At least that’s what I think! I may well be wrong but for the moment that’s my hypothesis and I’m trying to explore all the territory within it.

    Thank you for your comment and your kind words – mind you, I’m not so sure about the keen sensibilities – but thanks anyway!!!

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