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Ethics and Morality

Discover Your Evil Side

Both good and evil reside in all of us.

Key points

  • Many ordinary people would behave cruelly in exceptional circumstances.
  • We all have dark traits in our personalities.
  • Dividing people into pure good and bad is a fallacy.

It is comfortable to think of "evil" as a separate entity, unconnected to us. We tend to place ourselves on the 'good' side of the Manichaean and simplistic moral division between 'good' and 'evil' and see evil as an external force, perhaps personified in the Devil. Externalizing unpleasantness (such as cruel impulses or even unhappiness) is tempting, but it is inconsistent with the realities of the human mind.

We don't need to go far to find evil. We all have a dark side inside our very selves.

Sadism and Selfishness

To the Dark Triad personality traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism, some have added sadism, although 'evil' can also be conceptualized along two simpler dimensions: selfishness and sadism. Sadism is (luckily) rare: it has been estimated that only about 6 percent of us have sadistic traits, but most of us are selfish, particularly when our interests come into conflict with the interests of others. In fact, one could safely say that selfish traits have a prevalence of 100 percent. It is undoubtedly our most frequent moral shortcoming.

Sadistic individuals and those with violent impulses thrive in wars and places ruled by warlords and dictators that encourage violence. They seem to come out from the woodwork, emerging from their previous unremarkable positions in society. Zygmunt Bauman said that "Nazism was cruel because Nazis were cruel; and the Nazis were cruel because cruel people tended to become Nazis." These situationally bad people have been termed "sleepers" because their cruelty remains dormant during peaceful times.

Ordinary Men

In his fascinating book Ordinary Men, Christopher R. Browning explores the composition of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, which committed horrendous atrocities in Poland during World War II, killing vast numbers of innocent Jewish civilians. The author considers the possibility that the men in Battalion 101 might have been selected for their violent ruthlessness. He also considers whether the men of the 101 were "sleepers," apparently ordinary men with dormant psychopathic traits awakened by the chance to exercise their cruel impulses.

Browning concludes, however, that the men of the 101 were largely ordinary. They were neither selected, nor had had the chance to select themselves for these horrible tasks. Instead, they ended up in this battalion more or less by chance, and once there, a minority refused to kill innocents, but most obeyed the orders, albeit reluctantly, while some others did so enthusiastically. This reminds me of something my father once told me about his time in the Spanish Civil War, in which he reluctantly fought. He remembered how certain men were always ready to volunteer to join a firing squad. They relished the opportunity to kill, face to face.

In other situations, there is a distance between perpetrator and victim. When this happens, the victim is dehumanized and reduced to a mere abstract number. This can make even the most horrid crime seem mundane. Hannah Arendt, who reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust, coined the phrase "the banality of evil," referring to the fact that Eichmann saw his role in the killings as simply administrative, a cog in the machinery of the state.

At a much smaller scale, we may also behave cruelly as part of a bigger machine, or as a result of peer pressure. I'll leave it to you to imagine the possible scenarios.

In fact, it could be argued that a certain degree of psychopathic detachment may even be necessary for certain occupations. It would be impossible to lead an army or a large financial entity if one had to consider the well-being of every single person who could be affected by an order to attack or to liquidate a company.

Good and Evil

And yet, dividing people into pure good and bad is a fallacy, as Miriam Frankel and Matt Warren reflect in their book, Are You Thinking Clearly? All of us carry both good and evil inside us, and manifest different moral qualities depending on the circumstances. Surprisingly, perhaps, we tend to be quite good most of the time. Even Adolf Hitler was generally quite pleasant. They say, for instance, that he was particularly kind and considerate to animals, which seems counterintuitive. On the other hand, as we have seen, ordinary people can become moral monsters in certain extreme circumstances. Overall, however, it seems clear that while we are all both good and evil, some individuals display darker personality traits than others.

So it is statistically likely that you have some dark traits in your personality (see Dark Triad above), but probably not very marked. Personality traits, like so many other psychological phenomena, are dimensional, rather than categorical, so one can be a little psychopathic, or somewhat narcissistic. And it is virtually guaranteed that you behave selfishly in some situations. But you are most probably not a monster.


Miriam Frankel and Matt Warren. Are You Thinking Clearly? Hodder Studio, London, 2022.

Christopher R. Browning. Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. HarperCollins 1992.

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