It’s hard to argue that a child abuser, rapist, or murder is worthy of the freedoms necessary for having a good life. Once a person has been proven to have done evils such as those, they have earned our distrust. So, in the argument to follow I am not saying those who commit crimes should be set free to commit more crimes. Even if those people seem to have changed, the rest of us can be forgiven for not trusting them. Once a person commits a crime, they cannot expect the rest of us to trust them because they say they have changed, even if they really have changed.
It is hard, maybe impossible, to defend the human worth of someone like Hitler or Stalin or the killers who walk our streets. I do not deny they did evil deeds. But it also cannot be denied, regardless of the depravity of their crimes, that they are still humans just like the rest of us. They reflect what any of us, under different circumstances, could become.
Perhaps you remember the quaint saying “you should hate the deed, not the person.” That is exactly what I am arguing for. The person and the evil they might do are not the same. Granted, they form a close bond, but they are different. Conversely, I will also argue that the goodness a person does is not the same as the person.
I recognize this is a difficult argument to make or to accept. When a person commits evil, it is that person’s brain which drove them to it. But I want to argue that it is best for us, for human society, to approach the problem of evil by understanding that the person and what they do are separate, although related things. The shell that is the person is capable of good or evil. This is true for any of us, you or me. The evil that the person does is something the person had to learned. A person is not born evil. Are babies evil? No. A person learns and evolves into an evil person, or in most cases, into a good person. A person who becomes evil is a failure for that person themselves, and that person’s family, but also for the whole of society. Also, the person who becomes good is a success for that person, that person’s family, and for a society.
With this approach all people, regardless of their behavior, have equal internal or intrinsic worth. Good, bad, young or old, we all possess the same intrinsic worth. Let make one distinction though, this intrinsic worth is not the same thing as our social worth. Social worth is how much people like you or don’t like you; it is a popularity contest. But intrinsic worth is based only on being a human being. So not liking someone because they are not nice, difficult to be around, selfish, or evil is understandable and is not the same as saying they have no intrinsic human worth. You can accept someone’s worth and still not like them at a personal level.
But can an evil person have intrinsic worth after doing terrible things? I know this can be a difficult way of thinking about other people. It’s a way of thinking about people, society, and how we think about good and evil. But be before rejecting the idea outright, let’s explore it a bit.
Imagine a baby. Most of us will acknowledge that any baby, no matter where it was born or to who it was born, is worthy of a happy and fulfilling life. But now imagine in twenty years that same baby, now grown, does horrible, evil, things to many other people. Does that person still have the same worthiness they had when first born? Now imagine many years later, after doing many evil things, this same person has an epiphany and sees clearly the evil of their former behavior. That person surrenders themselves to the police, apologizes, makes it clear they understand the wrongs they committed, and does everything possible to make up for it. Does that person now have the same worth they did at the age of twenty? How about when first born? Is that person still an evil person?
In other words, does the intrinsic worth of that evil person change as they change?
Now imagine something similar but instead of doing evil the person does good. The baby is born, at the age of twenty the person starts a life of doing great good, way above normal, towards others. Then later in life the person grows tired of being so good and stops it. Instead of doing great good that person becomes like the rest of us and only becomes normally good. Does the worth of this good person go up at the age of twenty and then go down later in life?
Now let’s imagine three people. The evil person in the first example above, the good person in the second example, and a normal person. Is the normal person more worthy than the evil person? And is the good person more worthy than the normal person?
It is possible to rate people by how likeable we find them, by how much good they have done for society, or how much evil they have done. Is that the same as saying some people are intrinsically better than others? Is the guy who donates money every month to “Doctors without Borders” a better person than you who donates nothing to anything? Or do people have something called social worth, which is a kind of popularity that goes up and down and is not the same as their intrinsic worth?
One possibility is that an individual’s intrinsic worth can change with as they age depending on what that person becomes and does. In that case a person’s intrinsic worth becomes basically the same as their social worth. That would mean Albert Einstein, who did much for our society, is more worthy than say your grandmother, who was just a grandmother. Or someone’s daughter who can sing and dance and tell jokes and everyone loves and wants to be friends with is more worthy than your daughter who wants so badly to be friends with that other girl. No, I do not think the first girl was more worthy than your daughter, or Einstein, great as he was, was more worthy than your grandmother. They may have more social worth, but not more intrinsic worth.
Let’s get back to evil people. Evil people are easy to dislike and hate. We want to push them into a prison and forget about them. Because we dislike them, does that mean they lack intrinsic human worth? Going back to my first example of the evil person who did terrible evil, but then changed and became a very good person. I think once they become good it is easy to see that they, at minimum, regain some worthiness. But I am arguing they never lost any of their human worthiness. Just like Einstein did not become more worthy than your grandmother when he came up with all those theories, the evil person did not become less worthy because of all the bad they did. Yes, they became less popular, but not less intrinsically worthy.
This, I will admit, is a difficult exercise in how we perceive and how we should perceive other people. But how we perceive them has a lot to do with how we treat them. Perception is very important.
People like to say that the conflict is between good and evil. The real conflict is between truth and lies. Don Miguel Ruiz