The Connection Between Evil & Self-reflection

I can’t actually remember what prompted me to re-acquaint myself with a handful of the books which influenced me emotionally or mentally during my hardcore woo years (1993-99). Back then, I had a chronic reluctance to think critically and wasn’t keen on reading anything that didn’t offer the promise of a life filled with unicorns and rainbows. I re-read the hugely successful The Road Less Traveled, (Peck, 1978) and followed it up with The People of the Lie (Peck, 1983). It is the latter which provided the fuel for this post.

Excerpt from The People of the Lie (Peck, 1983).

“The words ‘image’, ‘appearance’, and ‘outwardly’ are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their ‘goodness’ is all on a level of pretence. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are ‘the people of the lie’.

Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self-reproach. The decorum with which they lead their lives is maintained as a mirror in which they can see themselves reflected righteously. Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right or wrong. We lie only when we are attempting to cover up something we know to be illicit. Some rudimentary form of conscience must precede the act of lying. There is no need to hide unless we first feel that something needs to be hidden.”

People of the Lie concerns itself with the nature of human evil. Peck feels that evil should be classified as a psychiatric disorder, and from his understanding and classification of it, I’d have to agree. But I’m sure there are ways of describing and looking at the concept of evil which could lead to a different conclusion.

Back in my woo days, I found it easy to attach Peck’s version of the evil label to the vast majority of those who took up a regular role within society. From the ivory tower I lived in, I saw most people as fake. Although, the ‘evil ones’ were certainly not the minority that Peck claimed they were. I saw evil in almost everyone. When using Peck’s definition of evil, it’s easy to see how just about anyone living a regular life with a lack of attention to emotional honesty would be prone to crossing the line. Sadly, these days, the desire to appear good without being good is now particularly endemic among those championing whichever bandwagon is currently leading in the victimhood olympics.

Self-reproach is impossible without self-reflection. Some people practice self-reflection and do so regularly, whereas others do not. Apart from being able to get along with other people enough to work productively and be a law-abiding citizen, there appears to be little incentive to develop self-awareness to any great extent. I’m actually more inclined to say the message implicit from others appears to be that if you’re not genuinely decent, then you must be at least able to fake it and make sure no one finds out.

There are depths to self-reflection; some are puddle deep, others oceanic. If we’re pulled up on something which is deemed to be bad behaviour most of us can offer a relatively superficial answer without thinking too much. Those who are actively self-reflective may see something much deeper at work – the stuff that is usually only suggested by a third-party such as a therapist or psychiatrist or an insightful friend or relative. But, the ability to self-reflect is something which we learn over time, it’s not like flipping a switch. Sometimes it can take years to look at a situation through a clear pair of eyes. It irks me when it is assumed or stated that everyone should be able to reflect on their behaviour and change it – like it’s possible to achieve self-growth within the blink of an eye.

It is more likely true that a person can see certain aspects of themselves and not others. Those metaphorical blind spots can only be worked with after acknowledging where they are, and it needs to be said that pointing out a blind spot in another doesn’t automatically place us higher on the ladder of self-awareness. There ain’t a man alive on the planet who can see the back of his head unless he’s looking in a mirror…

For me, the words of ‘image’, ‘appearance’, and ‘outwardly’ suggest a further connection to words like ‘social’ and ‘perspective’. A problem I see creeping in here is shown by the overt obsession with identity politics. Evidence enough we’re concerned more than ever with appearance to the detriment of facts, and best not to mention the abuse hurled towards those who kindly point out the emperor ain’t wearing any clothes. There’s also the matter of a distinct lack of accountability with regards to people in positions of authority. It may be an uncomfortable truth that ‘society’ has no place for self-reflection because people are encouraged to put the ‘self’ to one side when performing whatever role they signed up to play. How does a person give weight to the inner voice when we’re told (implicitly) to deny the personal self when performing a public role?

There is a link to authenticity here; the ability to listen to and act on what the conscience demands is likely to correlate with the level of authenticity a person is experiencing in life. Less authenticity is likely to lead to a greater need to lie, or at least hide the personal self – which may be in conflict with the role a person is playing within society, or more accurately, conflict with the expectations and ideas society has of a person who is playing a particular role.

I remember Chris Eddy, a retired lecturer active within the Swindon Philosophical Society group asking me the question; “Is it possible to be a good member of society without being a good person?”

It seemed obvious to me that it was indeed possible although the question I would rather ask is; Why are people so quick to assume that a person holding a high-value role in society is a good person?

Maybe evil does walk hand in hand with an inability to reflect on the self, but it seems that the problem could be one of perspective and judgement. If we, collectively as a society, are insistent on holding the public role itself in higher esteem than the actual flesh and blood person playing the role, there is unlikely to be any great need placed on the individual to be a good person. And, if lying and evil are buddies and people are prone to living inauthentically to maintain their chosen face, maybe we need to start thinking about how we can push up the value of virtue.

Revised and updated. Original post 29/03/2015

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