How do humanists explain evil?

This may seem odd, but I’m not sure that Humanists have a concept of evil. Instead, we view behavior as self-motivated and either adaptive or maladaptive. That doesn’t mean we are moral relativists, it’s more that we view bad behavior through a more compassionate or understanding lens. Let me explain.

I don’t think of people as being evil. But I do judge behavior as good or bad.  I don’t think people wake up and think – today I’m going to do evil, though they may indeed act in a way that harms others.

So let’s start with morality. Good vs bad is a moral judgement. As a Humanist, I judge something as good if it helps people and bad if it hurts people. If it hurts a LOT of people, it’s REALLY bad.  The impact can be so bad that it is easy to view the behavior or action as evil.

But does that mean the person who took that action is evil?  That’s harder for me to accept. Most people don’t chose to do bad. They do bad things because they are trying to do good things. That isn’t an excuse obviously, but it is a way to understand human behavior.

I also think it isn’t helpful to view people as “evil.”  Labeling people as evil is a way to dehumanize them. This may help us in the moment emotionally distance ourselves from behavior we find abhorrent, but I think dehumanizing people does way more harm than good.

When we understand people’s choices as being rational to whatever ideas they hold, we then admit that we could be them.  That’s scary for a lot of people. But for me, recognizing that I too could have gone down that path – there but for fortune – helps me to recommit to not going down that path, whatever that path was/is.

The point is – as a Humanist, I don’t have a conception of evil even though I can look at certain actions as being evil.  How do people do things that are horrendously bad? Because they convinced themselves it was the right thing to do.  Even Hitler thought he was doing something good.
The onus is on us as individuals to make sure we don’t fall prey to bad thinking which results in bad actions which cause harm.  It is our responsibility to make sure we actually do good things and don’t accidently do bad things while thinking we are doing good.

Is this easy to do? No. But it’s our responsibility and we have no one else to blame. And that’s – a good thing.

To learn more - get a free copy of my book: Jen Hancock's Handy Humanism Handbook

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