A few weeks ago my 8-year old daughter asked me a very profound question: “Daddy, do bad people know they are doing bad or do they actually think they are doing good?” “That is a really good question” I said, “why do you ask?” She told me that she’s been thinking about it ever since she started reading Harry Potter. She continued, “I just can’t understand why Lord Voldemort would do the things he does. Does he really want to be mean or does he actually think he’s being nice?”
That is a surprisingly deep thought for an 8-year old but if you met my daughter, you’d know it’s not out of the ordinary. She’s a deep thinker and like her father, is looking for some real answers. So, I thought it’d be worth posting here.
I also have struggled with this question over the years. Some of the things that have been done or said to me have been very painful and on occasion have been meant to hurt me. But why would people choose to be so mean to me. Do they want to do wrong and just don’t care about others? Or do they actually think they are doing what is right when they are inconsiderate and rude?
To find an answer to this question we needn’t go very far. Each of us knows the depths of our own soul and the things we have done in some of our darkest moments in life. I know I can recount some pretty cruel, mean or spiteful things I have said or done to others over the years. Why have I and why do I continue to hurt people? Do I think I’m bad or do I think what I’m doing is actually good?
I think for me the answer is neither. If I really thought what I was doing was morally wrong, it would take a lot more courage for me to pursue my evil intentions. So, I’m not convinced (in the moment anyway) that I am doing harm. However, I also wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am doing good when I can see how my actions or words are hurting others. If I start to believe that my wrongful actions are good, I am on a downward spiral towards Narcissism.
So, as it turns out neither of the paradigms my daughter was asking about are true. We don’t think we’re evil and do it anyway, nor do we think we’re doing good when we can see the result of our wrongful actions. I think what happens to most of us is that we forget morality, wrong and right, good and evil. We suspend this question temporarily while we justify our actions as being necessary, protective, well-intended, fair or inescapable.
When I feel the desire to do wrong, it doesn’t strike me as such. I don’t ask myself if it’s morally good or evil. I don’t ask myself anything in that moment. I think instead I convince myself I have no choice. I tell myself I’m justified in my actions and thus proceed to hurt others. The real reason I go south at times is because I feel shame, loss, anger, bored, irritated or out of control. And the only way I think I can get some sense of normalcy back is to bully, yell, strike, belittle, degrade, gang-up on, treat with contempt, give someone the silent treatment, plot revenge, gossip, steal, even murder–all things that are morally wrong. But because I’m more concerned about gaining control of the situation, I suspend the question of whether it’s good or bad.
Just a few days ago my daughter and I finished reading the first Harry Potter book and found that J.K. Rowling knows the answer to my daughter’s question and puts words to it in the last chapter. Harry is confronted by his arch-nemesis Voldemort who tries to entice him to use magic for evil. Harry refuses and stands by his conviction that there is good and evil. Voldemort is not phased by this, for he has justified his behavior for a long time and truly believes what he says next: “Harry, there is no good and evil. There is only power and those too weak to seek it!”
To be honest, that’s the same reasoning that goes on in my head when I want something and I can’t have it, or someone makes fun of me and I feel embarrassed, or I’m insecure, or scared or vulnerable. Whatever the reason, I will go to great lengths to justify my behavior, while avoiding the harder/deeper question of morality and getting away with murder!