Are you a good person? Or a bad person? Are you capable of theft? Deception? Murder? Is it a black-and-white question? Or is the answer a lot more gray — for all of us?
One of my favorite podcasts of 2014 was a spinoff of This American Life called Serial. In 12 episodes, the show explored a 15-year-old murder case, seeking to answer the question of whether the right man is in prison for the crime. (If you haven’t heard the show, I recommend it.)
In one of the final episodes of the season, the reporter spent a tremendous amount of time going over and over the question of whether the guy in prison seems like a killer or not. She seemed tormented by the need to know whether the man she had been interviewing could possibly have committed the murder.
She seemed obsessed with answering that question. Was this guy capable of murder?
I think she was asking the wrong question, so let me set it up in a different way. Let’s talk about you instead of the man sitting in prison for a murder which I suspect he didn’t commit.
Let’s say there’s something you want badly. I don’t just mean a new television or a boat or even a fancy house. I’m talking about something you’re emotionally committed to. Maybe it’s a woman who you’re in love with. (Or a man.) Maybe it’s some money that you think is rightfully yours. Maybe it’s some position of prestige or power that you believe should be yours.
With all of those things, let’s say that you want the person or thing, but there’s one other person standing in your way. Would you kill that person to get what you desperately want?
Now, let’s further refine the question. Let’s say that some omnipotent power gives you a big red button. You have been given a magical power. You can kill someone of your choice just by pressing this button. Nobody will ever know. The death will be immediate and painless. The other person will simply cease to exist. But with that person out of the way, you can have the thing or person that you desperately want.
Would you press that big red button?
Most of the people I know would like to say they wouldn’t do it. We want to believe we are “good people” — whatever that means. But I think a lot more of us would do it than would be willing to admit it, even to ourselves. Since we know that isn’t possible, it’s easy for us to feel good about ourselves by saying we wouldn’t do something so evil.
I started thinking about this a few years ago, because there was something I wanted badly at the time which I could have had if one person had simply ceased to exist. As I examined my thoughts and passions, I started to ask myself whether I would kill this person if I had the chance and if I knew I couldn’t possibly get caught. It was easy to wish somebody would die — and then feel the horrible guilt of the wrongness of it — but it’s another thing to ask whether you’re capable of killing.
I never could answer the question, but the very fact that I couldn’t say for sure told me something about dark corners of my own soul that I prefer not to explore.
As far as most others are concerned, I’m a “good person.” I try to help others when I reasonably can. I try to follow a strict moral and ethical code for myself. But the more I explore this question, the more I’m aware that every “good person” has evil that he keeps hidden — and every “bad person” has good that others probably prefer not to see.
When I was a child, a friend and I had access to a locker room where athletes’ clothes were stored while their team practiced, but nobody knew we had access. While nobody was in there, we went through the pockets of some of the players and stole money from them. It wasn’t a lot of money, probably enough to buy candy or drinks for ourselves. It probably wasn’t even enough for the victims to be certain that money was missing.
But we were thieves. We still saw ourselves as “good boys.” Nobody around us would have suspected that we were capable of such things. Even to this day, I suspect this is the only time I’ve ever mentioned it to anyone, because it was one of my shameful secrets.
There have been a few other times in life when I did things that I knew were wrong, despite the fact that I’m a “good person” with good morals and a Christian faith that many people would assume would stop me from doing wrong. But I’ve had the ability at times to justify what I wanted to do — despite clearly knowing it was wrong.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot again lately. The question on Serial frustrated me and I found myself wanting to yell back at the reporter. I wanted to say, “Of course Adnan is capable of having killed Hae. We’re all capable of doing dark deeds, even if we don’t think so.”
There’s something else I’ve wanted lately — needed very badly, in fact — that I think I could have if one person were dead. I certainly haven’t been plotting a murder, but I’ve wished this person might die. I always feel terrible when I think that — even for a moment — and I’m left wondering just what I might be capable of.
I’m not sure I want to know.
Despite all our progress, humans are still essentially savages who are driven by passions. We don’t like to see this, especially about our own sinful selves. Underneath the thin veneer of civilization, there’s tremendous potential for evil, even though we prefer to present another image to the world — even if we act as though it’s “those other people” who are capable of evil things, not us.
What is it that keeps me on the straight and narrow path of morality? Is it my own moral and ethical code? Is it my belief in a God who I don’t want to disappoint? Is it our strong cultural and religious training about right and wrong? Or is it simply the fear of being caught and punished?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I truly want to believe that I’m good. I want to believe I’m moral and ethical. I want to believe that I wouldn’t hurt other people. I look around me at people like you and I want to believe the people I love are also “good people” who wouldn’t do anything wrong.
But I have to question everything — about you and about myself and about everyone else — because in a dark corner of my soul, there lives a cold, calculating part of me that would be willing to press that red button.