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