[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in late July, 2023.]
Of the many ways of talking about the difference between Human Evil and Human Good, none are more central than the difference between people giving the well-being of others due weight and, at the other end of the spectrum, people utterly willing to sacrifice others to fulfill their own desires.
The centrality of that dimension is revealed by the centrality in Jesus’s teachings of the idea “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Or at least, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”)
Such Unselfishness especially matters to the Human Good when a person wields power. It is when an utterly selfish person is in a position to have a major impact on the wider world that history descends into nightmares.
One of the great tragedies of human civilization has been that — over the millennia — the kind of people who are so selfish that they’ll inflict great damage on the world to get what they want for themselves have so often wielded great power. Much of the ugliness in human history can be traced to how a lack of good control over power has given “the Spirit of the Gangster” a disproportionate role in the human world.
We see that illustrated vividly – and disturbingly – with several figures on the present world stage.
Putin, Russia’s Fascist Monster
It was to satisfy his own lust for power that the current Russian dictator launched an unprovoked invasion of another nation. It took only one man, animated by that “Spirit of the Gangster,” to inflict destruction on a huge scale:
- Leveling cities filled with innocent people;
- Committing war crimes;
- Undoing the peaceful order Europe had labored so hard for so long to construct, greatly increasing the world’s tensions;
- Inflicting long-term multidimensional damage on the Russia he rules.
If that were not selfishness enough, it has been clear since early in his Ukraine war that he had made a huge blunder, had misjudged everything, and was almost certainly doomed to failure. But, as observers have agreed: Putin’s character dictated that he could never admit his failure and cut his losses. So this profoundly selfish man continues the war at the cost of tens of thousands of lives (on both sides) to spare himself the humiliation of admitting defeat.
Netanyahu, Willing to Ruin His Country to Protect Himself
Nor is there any apparent limit to the selfishness of the present Prime Minister of Israel, as he has shown by the manner in which he has engineered his return to power.
If Netanyahu stepped aside, it would be easy for some other political leader of his party and his general ideology to form a governing coalition in the Israeli mainstream. But Netanyahu has alienated so many conservative Israeli political leaders that getting a parliamentary majority required — only for Netanyahu — bringing into his government people whose destructive extremism had long banished them to the sidelines.
Netanyahu’s bargain with the most fascist elements in Israel’s politics has already inflicted major economic costs and weakened Israel’s national security. But most seriously, Netanyahu’s making himself hostage to fascistic allies threatens to dismantle Israel’s democracy. [NOTE: this was written prior to the Hamas Atrocities, and the subsequent Israeli/Hamas war in Gaza.]
This has so divided the nation’s citizens against each other that Israeli newspapers worry about possible Civil War.
All because of the utter selfishness of one man, willing to do anything to get power for himself (partly, it seems clear, to keep himself out of jail for crimes for which he has been on trial).
Donald Trump, Utter Selfishness from Pandemic to Attempted Coup
America has now proven that our nation is not immune to the dark things that can happen when someone with that kind of selfishness wields the considerable – but, thank God, not unchecked – powers of the American presidency.
Among the abundant illustrations of the damage done to the United States by the selfishness of Donald Trump are these:
- Reliable testimony tells us that, when the nation was struck by a deadly pandemic, Trump cared only about his own political fortunes, not about protecting the American people. The result of Trump’s caring only for how to make sure he came out on top in the upcoming election, rather than for fulling his responsibilities, was the death of nearly 200,000 more Americans than would have died with a President focused on serving the people.
- Then, from well before the 2020 Election, Trump’s conduct showed he had no compunction about inflicting great damage on American democracy and the constitutional order by refusing to accept his defeat in a perfectly legitimate election.
Good v. Evil and Human Destiny
The Good is best defined as what enhances the human world (or the world of sentient life), and the Evil is best defined as what works in the human world to damage it.
In that regard, we can see the conflict between Utter Selfishness versus Love and Compassion as one major dimension of the Battle Between Good and Evil.
In terms of winning that battle, Humankind would do well to be asking itself: how would things need to be different in the human world to keep people like these three from occupying such positions of power?
How can we organize a world in which “the Spirit of the Gangster” – who always takes more than he’s entitled to — does not have such a disproportionate say on how human civilization evolves?