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I finished an interesting book today about some characters and a discussion ensued. I won't name the book but the scenario has been seen before.

There is a character, supposed evil villain, let's say his name is Bobo. We don't know his past. The group of protagonists have an argument. One called Bobo evil and says it's the inside that counts. Another person said it's not our words or thoughts in the end but our actions that determine our character.

Not sure how to word this so question is:

  • Is a person evil who is evil on the inside but makes the right choices?
  • Is a person who is "good" on the inside but doesn't make right choices, makes no choice, or makes mistakes evil?

If you watch Dr Who you will know somewhat what I'm talking about but I've seen same question in other stories, Naruto, for example etc.

My real question is based in politics. Let's say the process, as it is, of becoming a politician or it could be any position, results in someone being corrupted or turning evil, but a strange thing happens in one person where in the end that person makes the right choices, how do you describe that person's character?

I'm not talking about anything recent, but something recent reminded me of this question that I've had for a while I'm sure everyone has had this question. If I become "this" [insert position] will it corrupt me? If I do [insert thing] will it change me? Etc

Note: I say "evil" but maybe it's corruption.

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People can ultimately only be judged by the things they actually do, not the things they think. It's completely possible for a person to believe themselves to be good and think good thoughts, but in practice carry out selfish acts regularly. It's also possible for someone to think evil thoughts regularly, but to have a moral conscience which filters them out and promotes only good action.

At the end of the day our relationship with other human beings and living things can only be subjectively judged by how we treat them in practice, not in theory

So with that said I would argue that the only way you can label someone as 'good' or 'evil' is based on what they actually do, and nothing else. This means that 'good people that do bad things' and 'evil people that do good things' don't exist, rather there are only 'evil people who do evil things' and 'good people who do good things'.

The reality of it, however, is not that cut and dry as everyone has capacity for good and evil, but my main point is that you can only judge a person by the output, and nothing else.

  • I agree to the extent that people shouldn't be punished for "thought crimes." However, I personally would judge people to some extent by their inner thoughts. Imagine a person who's disposed to doing "bad" things, but usually doesn't because he's afraid of being caught. I wouldn't want that person for a friend or babysitter - assuming I had some way of knowing what goes on inside his head, of course. – David Blomstrom Jul 30 '17 at 4:03
  • I mostly agree, but I would say you judge people based on what they've actually done and what you expect them to do in the future. If you know the only thing stopping a person from acting horribly is just happenstance, and it may change at any time, you're justified in treating them with suspicion. – kbelder Jul 31 '17 at 16:08
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There are so many variables to consider.

I think it would be good to start with TWO words...

1) Let's define an evil person as one who has evil in his or her heart or mind.

2) Let's define a person who does "bad" things as flawed. (There are many other words that could work here.)

An evil person (one who's evil on the inside) might be expected to do evil deeds. However, such a person could do good things for ulterior motives. Consider all the corporate gangsters who steal from society, then donate money to some cause and call themselves "philanthropists."

A good person would similarly be expected to do good, but there are so many things that could cause them to do "bad" things. For example, a leader or politician might simply be unqualified for his or her position. They may perform a certain action based on faulty intelligence.

In summary, I make a distinction between thoughts or intentions and actions, bearing in mind that people can be classified good or evil not just on what they do but what they don't do. (When's the last time you heard St. Bill Gates condemn war, for example?)

However, I got a little confused by what you wrote in the last couple paragraphs.

The word corruption can be confusing. In the broad sense of the term, a rusty pipe or worn gasket can be said to be corrupted.

In that sense, incompetence can be conflated with corruption, which may in turn be interpreted as evil.

However, I usually equate corruption with wrongdoing, which is clearly "evil." If a person is profiting from their wrongdoing or corruption, then they're presumably motivated by greed, and we might also assume they're aware that they're exploiting people.

The title of your post is a little confusing, by the way (to me, at least). How about "Can an evil person do the right thing?" or "Can one do the right thing and still be evil?"

Or did I misinterpret what you're asking?

EDIT: A couple important questions to ask are 1) what was the person's motive, and 2) how did the person benefit from his or her decision or action?

  • 1) In the political scenario, let's say the politician starts out "good" thinking good thoughts and then is corrupted along the way thinks bad thoughts not the same person, but in the end they vote for the right things, can still tell right from wrong, his only motive is that he wants to do the right thing and 2) may or may not benefit. Probably will not benefit. To your other question, I would say the title, "Can one do the right thing and still be evil?" is a closer match. – 1.21 gigawatts Jul 30 '17 at 18:47
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Let's take politics out of this, as that tends to bring a lot of alternate agendas into the discussion, and consider a parallel situation - drug use in professional sports. And let's look at this as ethical or unethical - good and evil tend to invite judgment calls more.

In the 1990's, the new biotech drugs, specifically the blood boosters and rapid recovery drugs like artificial testosterone, came on the scene. The aerobic sports that stress endurance: tennis, football (soccer), and especially cycling, benefit from those drugs. There is a downside as well... young cyclists were dying from heart attacks in their sleep when their hearts at rest couldn't push the over thickened blood that raised their endurance substantially. Young cyclists were becoming modern day gladiators, much as the F1 drivers of the 1960's and 1970's were, when that was truly a dangerous activity.

And so the drugs were banned, but the detection methods weren't all that effective, so it became a matter of having to dope just to remain competitive, because everyone else was doing it.

In the late 1990's, the now disgraced Lance Armstrong rose up, bringing an American market with him. Scads of new money into the sport: television revenues, merchandising revenues. The doping methods became more refined, and the governing body of cycling, the UCI, was, shall we say, a bit less than diligent about pursuing performance enhancing drug use, despite the risks to the athletes. As long as the money continued to flow, the UCI didn't look that closely, especially at their new star bringing in all that fresh money from the US.

So, were the cyclists unethical in cheating? On the surface, yes.

However, if faced with the choice between using performance enhancing drugs and living a rock star life with the multimillion dollar/euro salary that a top cyclist makes, or not using drugs and going back to a minimum wage job, what would you do? It is a test of character that a lot of us might not pass.

Or, is the real ethical problem, the organizing body that turned a blind eye to the widespread doping, and set the conditions to offer young men a temptation that most young men couldn't turn down?

Today, everyone hates Armstrong for being a fraud among frauds. No one remembers Hein Verbruggen, the chair of the UCI at that time. He walked away pretty much unscathed, and kept all of his earnings.

So, much would depend upon the motivations of your evil protagonist doing good... why did they do good? Was it pure character, did they have an alternate agenda, or were they originally offered a temptation that most of us couldn't turn down?

  • Actually, your answer is very political, even if the actors aren't politicos. Sports are heavily politicized, and major events are often very nationalistic. Personally, I don't judge athletes as harshly as I do politicians because their actions typically don't have as much impact on other people. Still, if you win a race by cheating, then you're hurting the other contestants. To me, that demands a judgment call, wether you want to call Armstrong "corrupt" or "unethical." And does an unethical choice really become OK if "most of us couldn't turn it down"? – David Blomstrom Jul 29 '17 at 8:13
  • In the story I'm referencing the evil protagonist does his "good" deed and then dies. So we don't know his motivation but he saved peoples lives in the end. He was a traitor but changed his mind when then didn't want to see anyone die so possible motivation from that. In the political example, the person wants to be a politician to save the world, but gets corrupted by the process but wants to do right when it counts (when he votes). – 1.21 gigawatts Jul 30 '17 at 18:56

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