War, opined German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse in his novel Demian in the aftermath of World War I, was a fortuitous opportunity to shatter old conventions and let humanity be born anew. This declaration certainly disturbed some critics who otherwise admired the soulful tale about a youth’s quest for spiritual fulfillment. Its somberness was also a jarring contrast to the lighthearted tone of workplace comedy The Producers, which younger leads bonded over the book as they struggled to find their place in the demanding entertainment industry. A commonality, though, lay in how, just as the drama tacitly accepted both the rewarding and the unreasonable sides of show business—as long as they did not escalate into physical deprivation and career downfalls—as everyone’s lot in life, Demian insisted on worshiping the good and the bad alike in human nature. Can we not rise higher than that?
To be fair, Hesse was actually a pacifist. In fact, at the beginning of Demian, he lamented how human lives, each of unique worth, were being senselessly killed at that time. His ideas about war in the rest of the book were more of an attempt to make sense of the cataclysm that had already befallen Europe then. Neither did he endorse all other forms of evil. Rather, his view was that good and evil should be decided by the individual himself. Conventional notions of evil were possibly misguided, and sinful thoughts, when examined closely, might reveal further meanings. Murderous feelings towards a person, he suggested as an example, actually stemmed from an identification of some despised trait shared by both parties. The wish to eradicate him was really a wish to remove that part of oneself.
That last point was contentious on several counts. First, it assumed, without empirical evidence, that the causes of such inclinations were the same in everyone. Second, murderous desires are impersonal and almost irrelevant to hatred at times. Some psychopathic killers, for instance, merely felt so isolated, unloved and oppressed because of their socially rejected characteristics or family backgrounds that they yearned for some secure form of human company, which their tragically warped minds imagined would be corpses. Third, even if it can be accepted that normal people, at least, fervently wish someone dead only when they share some non-arbitrary connection with him, this connection may be found in their interests, rather than their characters. Indeed, Aaron T Beck, the father of cognitive theory, believed that most individuals inflict violence because they perceive threats or humiliation from their victims.
Those misgivings from Hesse’s example of murder, nonetheless, do not detract from his arguments that it is artificial to separate away the darker but natural sides of the self, that established moral doctrines are not infallible and that there may be more to evil than meets the eye. Yet these larger points are arguably flawed in their own ways. While we ought to acknowledge them, there are probably limits to the extent they should govern our lives.
For a start, why should we be slaves to our biological natures? If we have to pay attention to them, it should be because they are obstacles or aids to higher goals worth aspiring to. In our non-ideal world, malicious impulses do not go away in people just because we will or legislate them to. An understanding of their psychological and social underpinnings may be necessary to help those going astray tamp down such desires, a point illustrated by the cases of the wrongdoers mentioned above. Nature itself, however, is value-neutral. Its only concern—and even this is really an anthropomorphic figure of speech—is the propagation of genes.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), whose philosophical work Beyond Good and Evil influenced Hesse’s writing, would counter that morality is also borne out of Nature. In his opinion, concepts of good and evil are merely crutches humanity has conjured up and found impossible to survive without. To this, game theorists would add that moral rules are really society-wide contracts which the human race has discovered optimized living conditions for people. Evolutionary psychologists would also claim that our sense of right and wrong has been limited by primeval instincts, with the need to avoid wasting energy on people unwilling or unable to reciprocate prosocial acts, for instance, causing us to shun the powerless and the cheaters. If an anti-social strategy, such as collusion with the cheaters, can better enhance our chances of survival, morality may be redefined someday. It appears unfair to stifle the ambitions and self-expression of individuals on the basis of such arbitrary ideals, the way women and slaves have been subjugated in the past.
Nevertheless, even the staunchest moral skeptic and most liberal thinker would probably flinch at the thought of sustaining unwanted harm themselves under normal conditions. Refuting even the wrongness of such harm would make their behaviors inconsistent, thereby undermining their ethical positions. It seems then that, at minimum, a general prohibition on deliberate hurt to unconsenting parties must be granted. British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), who otherwise was a passionate advocate for individual freedom, similarly conceded that such freedom can be curtailed when it adversely affects the welfare of others.
The dubiousness of our moral predispositions may also cast a shadow over Hesse’s romantic belief that profound meanings always lie behind evil inclinations. Still, introspection can be a very worthwhile attempt, since the chances of discovering positive significance are not entirely ruled out. However, it may be necessary to guard against the risk of rationalization, through which the mind sugarcoats anti-social motives. Hesse’s glorification of war in his desperate attempt to reconcile with the state of Europe is perhaps a prime example of this, albeit on a continental scale. Sometimes, when all that one unearths from his dark side are dark and darker truths, it is probably more fruitful to flood out the nefarious creations of the mind by spawning more of their tender and loving cousins. Possibly, excessive preoccupation with negative thoughts will only intensify destructive tendencies.
Where one pair of otherwise insightful stories leaves us in doubt, another pair offers a wiser perspective. Crime drama Hello Monster shared with its viewers the following Native American Cherokee legend:
A old man told his grandson that two wolves reside within everyone. One is evil, marked by rage, envy, arrogance, etc. The other is good, in possession of peace, love, hope and more. The grandson then asked which wolf wins. The old man answered,
“The one you feed.”