Choosing Between Good and Evil *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

From the viewpoint of themselves and their group, many people see "good" and "evil" as absolutes. However, "good" is a label identifying what helps us and those close to us, and "evil" is a name for things that harm us. For example, terrorists are seen as evil by those who are terrorized, but as heroes by those who share their cause.

Psychological qualities we all have are neutral. Still we can make the most of them – for good or for evil. Let’s look at some of our human attributes and how they can be used for good or evil.

We all have memory. With memory, we can relate the present to the past and profit from our mistakes. We can be aware of novel events, because they differ from ones we remember. It allows us to develop and use increasingly complex concepts.

On the other hand, memory can be used to carry grudges – to continually suffer from past traumatic events. Rather than enjoying what we have now, we can feel excessive remorse or sense of loss for things that no longer exist. We can become less spontaneous, because of commitments and obligations that burden us.

We have a time sense. It allows us to develop history and a continuous sense of self. We can relate our present behavior to what might happen in the future. We can tell the difference between fleeting events and those that are more lasting.

In contrast, we can choose to live in the past – to feel guilty and to fear change. We can become anxious, dreading an unknown future. We can be gloomy when our expectations are not fulfilled. We can concentrate on the past or the future, ignoring what we have now.

With our ability to think, we can connect aspects of our environment with each other and infer unseen events. This allows us to be creative – to imagine events that we have not experienced. We can come to conclusions, even when all the data is not available. We can make tentative assumptions about the world in which we live.

Yet we can also form negative and crippling thinking patterns. We can misperceive ourselves or others. We can stereotype others, rather than seeing them as unique individuals. We can become delusional –– perceiving threats where none exist.

We are all capable of loving. This can lead use to experience tender emotions. In turn, it can lead us to nurture growth and independence in those we love. We can support, encourage and comfort our loved ones. It will make all those involved feel wanted and special.

On the contrary, love can become jealous and vengeful. We can possessively limit another person’s freedom. When a love relationship ends, we can become depressed and suicidal.

We are able to communicate through language and other symbols. It helps us to relate to others, whether they are present or absent. We can gain information, comfort and pleasure. We can plan and exercise social control.

In contrast, we circulate and believe rumors and lies, concealing our true feelings. We can use "word magic" – cursing and name-calling – to harm others. We can mistake the symbol for the reality, viewing discussion – or thinking – of an act as deserving of blame as the act itself.

We have the ability to evaluate ourselves and be responsible. This can lead us to take pride in what we achieve. We are able to delay gratification. We can undertake tasks, even though they may be difficult or unpopular. We are concerned about how our actions affect others.

On the other hand, we can feel inadequate. Ignoring that nobody can succeed in everything they do, we can feel guilty for not living up to standards or for letting someone down. We can tie ourselves down with obligations, never realizing our own goals.

We are motivated to be competent. This can lead us to work well and set high standards. We can use our resources to meet our needs – gaining benefits of our hard work.

In contrast, you can suffer feelings of inadequacy – fearful of trying because you might fail. This leads to anxiety about anything that might test your ability. Others work solely to be "number one" – for self-importance. To make themselves feel more important, they ruin others.

What you have is not as important
as what you do with what you have.

We perceive that we can make a choice. This allows us to be more independent – to view ourselves as responsible agents. In this way, we can hope and build for the future.

However, even when we see choices, we can experience conflicts and indecision. We can be unable to act, even when we know that action is needed.

Although we have different capabilities, each of us can make the most of the capabilities we have. Our capabilities can be used for "good" or "evil" – to help or to hurt ourselves and others. Sometimes the decisions are not easy, but you typically have a choice. What is your choice?

* Adapted from Philip G. Zimbardo’s Psychology & Life, Scott Foresman, 1975, page 610.

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