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It was Robert McKee who said in his book STORY.

“Human nature dictates that each of us will always choose “good” or “right” as we perceive the “good” or the “right” it is impossible to do otherwise… The choice between good and evil or between right and wrong is not choice at all.”

His theory is as simple as this. Until you believe what you are doing is right you are incapable of acting upon it. So the murderer must convince himself it’s the right thing to do to pull the trigger. Perhaps he/she rationalizes the world will be better without you in it and therefore pulling the trigger is the right thing to do.

I don’t fully agree with this premise.

I agree it makes for good movies. We love the villains who have a moral agenda. Even when the agenda is twisted and in many ways evil these are the best villains. Those like Bain in the latest batman twisted by love of a girl. The girl? Why the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul bent on destroying Gotham the city she sees as corrupt, oppressive and evil.

Both these villains believed their work just and needed and they were committed to seeing it through even at the cost of their own lives. But what of the simple real life criminal. Are they driven by some higher purpose believing the crimes they commit to be for some “right” or just purpose?

Does the person robbing a bank know it’s wrong? Of course and that’s why they hide their faces. Does the rapist know it’s wrong? Of course that is why they prey upon the vulnerable. They don’t need to feel they are right or justified in committing the crime. All that is needed is human desire to have something they don’t have.

Why rob the bank? It’s because they need/desire money and somewhere in their mind it seems an easy way to get it. They know it’s wrong to steal and threaten people at the point of a gun. All they require is the desire to do it not the belief it’s right, good or just.

Real life villains can believe in the greater good. Look no further than Hitler who believed the final solution was doing the world a favor. He convinced many of his belief and as you see history is fascinated with the man as well. A villain who believed his evil was good and just. History is littered with them.

It’s also true right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust are perspective. They are shaped by our moral upbringing. They are shaped by our faith, our culture, our community and our family. Some cultures it’s acceptable “arrange” your children’s weddings where others this would be appalling.

So there is some variance on right and wrong but certain things are held as universal truths. There isn’t a culture in the world that believes murder of the innocent is acceptable. Now define the innocent varies greatly. Some would say you don’t belong to x faith or y group of people therefore you are not nor could ever be innocent. But they still believe the murder of innocents is wrong.

I’m not advocating nor deranging any person, faith or culture. I’m pointing out different perspectives on right and wrong. Yet even within any group are those who would commit evil. By varying degrees we can be pushed toward poor choices and not doing the right thing. But deep down we still know it’s wrong. At the moment we just may not care.

Take the drug addict who needs the fix. They know stealing is wrong but at the moment they need that fix. Driven by a force able to override the basic senses of right and wrong in the moment they just don’t care. In that moment all they want is money for that next fix. They only want to stop the pain of the addiction.

I firmly believe the addict still knows it’s wrong. They just don’t have the faculties to continue to make the right choices. They instead make the easy choice to get through the current need.

When I was cutting I knew it was wrong. I knew hurting myself was wrong. I knew it hurt those who loved me. Why else would I hide it? Simple because I knew it was wrong. But at that time in my life I couldn’t express what I felt and I needed to feel something real. I cut despite knowing what I was doing was wrong. It was that overriding force, the addiction, the need to feel.

I believe it’s true much of the time that we humans must rationalize our decisions in order to live with ourselves. To reconcile our choices we may after the fact rationalize our choices are right or just. Every human likes to see themselves as right and moral person. The bank robber might justify his actions with the crime doesn’t hurt anyone and I need the money. But they still start from a place knowing it’s wrong.

This is why they must justify the choice. They knew it was wrong when they decided to do it. Some bad choices are driven by exterior forces like addiction or desperation. Even in that state a moral person knows it’s wrong. They just aren’t in a mind frame to do the right thing because the right thing is overridden by the need.

Another example Demjanjuk a nazi prison guard said “I knew it was murder but if I didn’t follow orders I’d be joining them in death.” Hmmm he KNEW he was wrong and murder was wrong but an overriding force of self-preservation was at work.

Another said “I was told volunteer to be a guard at the camp or join the camp as a prisoner”. More self-preservation overriding good and moral choices.

I know some rationalize the great evil of their choices before and after the fact. But not all wrong choices are made by convincing one’s self what they are doing is right, just or good. Some choices are simply overridden by another need.

A need that’s so strong as to move our minds past what is moral, right or just and into sheer survival. Not because it’s right nor do we imagine or justify it as right but because a need in the moment overrides all reason and moral judgment. We don’t have to believe it right, just, moral or good just necessary at the moment in order to make our bodies do as we wish.

Many criminals might indeed rationalize and reconcile their desire to convince themselves they aren’t hurting anyone. Or perhaps they should have this or that. But I don’t believe all criminals believed what they were doing was right at the time they did it. Many even serial killers have said thinks like “I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t stop myself”.

Thank you to Robert McKee and a really good read named STORY. I agree in movies that a villain who believes themselves morally right and justified makes for the best stories. I agree man has the ability to justify the unjustifiable as both moral and right. I agree many from history have taken the moral high ground to justify atrocities and we remember those in the pages of history the most.

But I respectfully disagree that all action is driven by the belief of absolute right at the time. Other factors can drive our decisions. Factors like self-preservation, pride, love, addiction can all influence our choices and even knowing they are wrong allow humans to act upon them.

~Michelle Styles – March 11, 2014