Thanos. Agent Smith. The Joker. We look at the villains in movies and think this is what villains look like. We simply attach a face to evil.
Life doesn’t make it so easy.
Who’s the Good Guy?
We like to think of life in terms of good and evil, heroes and villains, angels and demons. The world is much clearer when we know who’s “us” and who’s “them”.
Unfortunately, the “us vs. them” approach to morality is a path to moral relativism. It turns the view from good actions to good people. Instead of asking “am I doing the right thing?” It simply asks “am I adequately opposing the other guy?” When we think of good guys and bad guys we simply think “I’m the good guy, right? This must be okay.”
Actions not People
That’s the pitfall of making people into villains. It puts everyone in sorting buckets. You’re a good guy or a bad guy. You’re with us or against us. You’re in or you’re out.
The truth is much more nuanced. We all do good things and we all do bad things. We all try. We all fail, but hopefully we keep trying to improve ourselves until we succeed.
When we put people into buckets, we either give them passes for bad behavior because they are “one of the good ones” or we ignore their positive contributions because they’re a “bad person”. Instead, we need to separate people, who are simply people, from actions. People do bad things; people do good things.
The people who often do the worst things are the people who think they are “the good guy”.
A Bad Compass
Thanos was trying to rid the world of overpopulation. Agent Smith was trying to remove a virus. Even some infamous dictators that committed some of histories greatest atrocities believed their actions to be benevolent or “for the greater good”. They saw themselves as good and therefore the end justified the means.
The difference between those who do good and those who do evil in the name of good is self awareness. It’s realizing that we all have the capacity to do bad things. It’s realizing just as much that we all have the capacity to do good things. It’s realizing that it’s not about good guys and bad guys, but about people who make good or bad decisions.
Doing good means taking the hard road to do the right thing even when it’s a slower path to justice – or even when it seems like it won’t lead to the ends we believe we should be attaining. It’s doing what’s right even when it seems like it won’t matter, it seems like it’s distracting us from our goal, or it seems like it will require us to miss our goal entirely. Even more importantly, it’s about knowing what right is, and that requires true self awareness and self reflection.
Just Plain Arrogance
The other option is arrogance: believing that we know better. We often get into the belief that we are good and therefore the actions we choose are good even when they have bad consequences.
We get locked into our confirmation bias, operate like an ostrich avoiding anything that would contradict us, and employ a little selective perception to notice only those things that back us up. We’re right! We’re on the side of good! Obviously this is how things should be!
We find ourselves fighting so hard for our position, we often don’t really contemplate whether our position is worth fighting for. Sure we want safer schools, but is our approach to safer schools really the best?
We come up with a solution that supports our biases and forget that our goal is safer schools and instead arrogantly look at our solution as our goal. Like Thanos and Agent Smith we begin to think the end justifies the means and we lose track of where we wanted to be in the first place.
The Road to Self Awareness
If we want to do good in this world, we have to remove the “I’m good, so this is good” thinking in our head. Most people believe they are on the side of good.
Instead, ask yourself these simple questions:
- What is my goal? For instance is it to make schools safer, or is it to put bars on the windows, arm teachers, lock the doors, or whatever method I’m considering to meet the goal. The goal is safer schools. Keep your mind open to think of all the possibilities to achieve that goal.
- Why Am I Right? The arrogant always assume they’re right. They don’t ask why they are right. This is the road to self awareness. Don’t give yourself easy answers either. “Because God is on my side” is the mantra the vast majority uses. Why is God on your side? Dig deep. You may find that, like we all do at times, you are using that mantra to avoid considering that your expectations of God are off the mark.
Most everyone thinks they’re right. The difference between those that would head us down a bad path and those who don’t is often simply self awareness and a willingness to ask the tough questions.
It just takes two simple questions to move toward the right track. Put them in your back pocket, and the next time you find yourself at a crossroad of conflict, try them out. You may find a whole new world in front of you.