Humans are dangerous creatures capable of great evil. This inescapable truth bombards us every time we turn on the news. The weight of this knowledge bears down on every human soul, and with every tragedy, we are starkly reminded of it. We cry out for someone to save us from our inherent capacity for evil. Or perhaps we say to ourselves, “I could never do that.”
But you’re wrong, you could do that.
Humans can kill. We can harm, we can steal, we can commit grave atrocities. Why? Because we are free.
Being free means that your choices are your own. There is no government agency capable of monitoring our every action, our every violent thought, our every evil instinct. No government organization can prevent every act of violence because every act of violence is an expression of human power. There is no bureaucracy that is more powerful than the actions of individual humans who are free to choose to be evil.
With every tragedy—every school shooting, every act of terrorism, every high profile murder—we as a species ask why this is happening. How could any human choose to do harm? Yet perhaps the question isn’t why it happened. Perhaps the question is why more of us don’t commit atrocities.
We Cannot Be Good if We Cannot Do Wrong
Psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson says that we can have no insight whatsoever into our capacity for good until we understand our capacity for evil. I think he’s right. Until we acknowledge that humans can be evil, we cannot choose to be good. If we did not possess the ability to do great harm, there would be nothing commendable about not doing so. If we could not sin, there would be no virtue in not sinning because it would not be a choice. We can only choose not to do things that are within our power to do. Otherwise, it’s a default, not a choice.
It’s necessary for us as individuals of strong character to face our capacity for evil.
If people are free to determine the courses of our own lives, free to make our own choices, that inherently means that we are free to choose to do terrible things. The dark side of being free to be good people is that we are also free to be bad people. That scares a lot of people, both personally and societally. The darkness within our species is only a fraction as terrifying as the darkness within ourselves. Nothing is more terrifying than when we feel the darkness rising within our own hearts and we face the choice: do I give into evil, or do I rise to good?
It’s frightening, but it’s necessary for us as individuals of strong character to face our capacity for evil. Otherwise, we could not choose goodness. And if we can’t choose goodness, we float powerlessly in a vacuum of moral impotence, unable to hone the swords of our character on the whetstone of difficult choices. We have to be able to choose goodness to be good. Because you could do that, but you don’t. You have chosen not to.
In the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, much of our national zeitgeist has been the consideration of restricting gun access as a means to restrict man’s capacity for evil. Yet, we see in other nations that have taken this course of action that violence is not eliminated by gun restriction, it simply becomes more creative. Those who have chosen to commit evil find other ways—nail bombs, knifings, vehicular mass murder. The weapon isn’t the problem, the choice to commit violence is.
Oppression and Character
There are only two ways we can prevent violence: oppression and character. We can empower the government to oppress us beyond the means of choosing violence, or we as individuals can choose to be nonviolent. Many cry out for the former, but should we choose that path, we are robbing ourselves and others of the ability to be good people. If we cannot choose evil, we cannot choose good. If good is a default derived from powerlessness, there’s nothing truly good about it.
So that leaves the other option: character. Character is something that starts in the heart of an individual. It is the state of facing one’s infinite options for action and choosing only those actions which do not deprive others of their lives, property, or dignity. Character is, above all, choosing to be vessels of benevolence rather than servants of evil.
Because we are free to commit violence, we are responsible for eliminating it.
Strong character is contagious. When we meet individuals who are good and kind and honest, we want to be like them. A person of strong character inspires and uplifts everyone they meet to be like them. We want to be the kinds of people who inspire courage in the face of adversity. We want to be heroes. But every individual with the capacity for heroism is a potential villain who chose differently.
I’m not saying we should accept violence as something so inherent to human nature that we can never escape it. To state that would be to spit in the face of everyone who has mourned a victim of violence and terrorism. Rather, we cannot create a just and moral society without allowing people to choose evil. We cannot hand over the choosing to someone with the power to coerce and oppress us without sacrificing everything good about humanity.
In order for us to be good people, we ourselves have to choose it. We as a society have to prioritize nonviolence and teach others the means to combat the darkness inside of ourselves.
Because we are free to commit violence, we are responsible for eliminating it. We the people, not we the nation.