We have all grown up surrounded by the parable of the hero triumphing over the villain. The good guys always win and the bad guys always get their due. It is a staple feature in the stories, myths, and legends of every recorded society so we have come by our assumption that bad guys will inevitably get their comeuppance honestly. Trouble is that comeuppance doesn’t always manifest in the hero-triumphant Hollywood manner we envision which involves the bad guy getting caught, being suitably punished, and being fully defeated.
There are results and consequences to every choice or action we take in our lives. Some are more predictable than others but there are always reactions to our actions. If we look strictly at singular results there is pretty much a straight line between the preceding actions and the results they produce. When it comes to humans, however, no action ever exists in a vacuum. In human behavior there are always other considerations in the mix.
At the societal level we give a great deal of weight to people’s motivations when evaluating their actions. And rightly so, as that is a vital factor of our participation, or non-participation, in our social contracts with one another. A person’s intentions may not have a direct practical impact on a singular outcome but they act as predictors of future behaviors and of whether or not those behaviors will be congruent or destructive to our social contracts.
We can get a bit glib at times about the notion of social contracts, making snide or cynical remarks about naivety, but the truth is they are crucial to the functioning of any society. We close our eyes and sleep at night assuming that the others in our immediate vicinity will not take advantage of our vulnerable state to do us harm. We pull forward on a green light because we assume the other drivers facing a red light will remain where they are. We give elected officials the power to make decisions which can greatly impact our lives because we assume they will make those decisions with more direct expertise or knowledge than we possess and with their constituents, us, in mind.
The core essence of a social contract is communal agreement about which behaviors and actions are acceptable and which are not, complete with the potential of rewards for compliance and punishment for violation. Transgressions will occur so it is vital there be an understanding of the consequences which will result, both as deterrent and as reassurance there will be consequences for wrongdoing.
Contraventions are only permitted in the most extreme circumstances and the onus is on the plaintiff to prove the circumstance is severe enough to warrant exemption from the standard social contracts. In these instances evidence of the situation alone is not enough. The person’s motivations are viewed as a crucial consideration. Even if it is in reaction to the actions of others we want to feel certain permission to violate social contracts is not being sought purely for personal benefit.
Motives can be tricky things to clearly examine and understand beforehand as this can depend heavily on people’s skills of communication as well they clear and comprehensive understanding of themselves. There is also, sadly, all too much room for misrepresentation or deliberate falsehood and, unfortunately, quality of intentions holds no guarantee for quality of outcome. The greatest and noblest of intentions, even if they are more likely to earn permission or forgiveness, can still lead to absolutely disastrous results. The best evidence of motives and intentions lies in themes and patterns of behavior or sought after results which can only be assessed after the fact but choice of methods can offer us some reliable insight beforehand.
Methodology is not a guaranteed indicator of intentions or motives but it is typically a fairly revelatory metric. Choosing methods which seem the most likely to produce the greatest beneficial results for the most amount of people, regardless of their difficulty, offers a fairly clear indication of strong ethical and moral motivations. Whereas choosing methods solely because they are the easiest, regardless of the impact, or methods which will only benefit themselves regardless of whatever harm may be caused to others offers a fairly clear indication of lacking or absent morals and ethics.
The theory underpinning the idea of heroes and villains is that heroes are those who choose moral and ethical actions aimed at seeking beneficial results for the common good whereas villains are those willing to take any action, even malicious and unethical ones, without any concern or regard for any potential resulting harm and suffering for others so long as they gain personal benefit.
Because the hero’s motives are ‘pure’ even terrible results can be forgiven as an accident or mistake and if they simply persevere those intentions will eventually lead to the greater good being sought. Because the villain’s motives are selfish and corrupt they are doomed to failure because their malicious self-interest renders successful results unsustainable and only possible for a limited amount of time until they inevitably get caught.
The climax of the hero-villain arc is the triumph of good over evil. The hero is victorious because their dedication to pure and noble ideals endows them with insurmountable strength and determination, most often demonstrated through enduring and persisting beyond the point where lesser motivations would fail. The villain is defeated, undone by their own corrupt behaviors and satisfyingly punished in a way symbolically congruent with the amount of harm they have caused.
The parable is appealing because it simplifies the world by portraying it as dividable into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and reassures us that the good guys always win even if they have to suffer through in order to achieve it. It would be lovely if the world worked that way but the fact that it doesn’t is not evidence that evil is winning.
The core problem with trying to apply the hero-villain paradigm to the real world is that status as a hero or villain is completely dependent on subjective perception. We view someone as a hero if they champion ideas and attitudes which agree with our own and we view those who oppose us as villains. The trouble is the people who oppose us are doing the exact same thing making us the villains in comparison to their heroes.
Part of what makes the image of bad guys getting their comeuppance so appealing is that it acts as confirmation of our hero and villain assignments. When the bad guy is defeated and punished for their transgressions it validates our commitment to the ideals and attitudes we have chosen and reassures us we are on the side of the heroes.
This is also partly why we are so viscerally wounded and angered if someone we have perceived to be a hero betrays that trust and investment. On many levels it is far worse than seeing a villain succeed because at least that we could view as merely something the hero will have to persevere until good eventually wins the day. Defeat of a hero can be a cause to rally and fight back. Invalidation of a hero calls into question whether or not we actually know the difference between good and evil as well as we thought we did.
The search for an objective reliable definition of good and evil, and thus heroes and villains, is one of the primary reasons people are drawn to religious doctrines. A divine set of definitions would be greatly clarifying except there are an estimated ten thousand distinct religions in the world. Some are certainly more prevalent than others but that offers up a lot of differing and often directly contradicting sets of definitions. And all too often using religious doctrine to assign hero and villain status doesn’t engage in comparisons of principles or even measure adherence to prescribed practices but rather gets reduced to simply a matter of declaring membership of one faith versus another.
If we go the more secular route and look towards rules of law we are confronted with the vulnerability of that system to those who are in positions of power and decision making. The rules can be very much at the mercy of those who set them or those with enough power or influence to circumvent them. And as even our most recent history clearly shows it is possible to achieve those levels of power through corrupt methods motivated by pernicious self-interest.
All of this is not to say there isn’t any truth or validity to the merit of communally beneficial motivations or the costs and consequences of harmful behaviors. The lives of all are bettered by the participation, support, and empowerment of our social contracts and they are diminished, harmed, and exacerbated by the erosion and circumventing of them.
Our greatest potential for power and beneficial impact on our own lives and others is to avoid getting swept up in the alluring image of heroes versus villains, good guys versus bad guys, and instead focus on whether actions are producing help or harm. Rather than attempting to debate definitions of good or evil examining whether something is genuinely beneficial or harmful keeps our thoughts and perceptions much more grounded, accessible to evidence, and less vulnerable to fear driven zealotry.
It is important to note that ‘beneficial’ does not necessarily mean pleasant or comfortable. Often things which are immensely beneficial are also extremely difficult and painful. As individuals, communities, societies, and cultures we will disagree about just what constitutes ‘beneficial’ or which are of greater importance and that is perfectly alright. Moving forward requires negotiation but that is why we refer to them as ‘social’ contracts.
Pursuing personal benefit is not automatically dangerous or harmful either. We simply need to maintain awareness of the society around us, our connection to it, and our impact on it. The more people involved in seeking the greatest amount of benefit and the least amount of harm the better the society functions.
And as for wanting those who act with malicious self-interest to ‘get what they deserve’, the impulse is natural but we have to be careful we don’t assign too much of our faith and resolve to being able to overtly see punishments fitting the crime. It can be corrosive on the spirit to see but wrongdoing can lead to successful results and sometimes without obvious punitive consequences.
Wrongdoing always comes with a cost, however. The amount of energy and anxiety required to act illicitly cannot be circumvented. Corrupt behavior can enable people to reach positions of immense power but the core quality of their lives is permanently and pervasively stained by the fear and distrust which accompanies it.
We would much rather see them convicted and marched through the streets with their head hung in shame but try to envision the strain and exhaustion of never being able to truly feel safe. To push through life forever in fear that the consequences you have been inciting and are now dragging along behind you like a collection of trip-wires and magnetic mines waiting for the day you finally misstep and they are all able to catch up with you and explode. Sitting on a gilded throne might seem a wonderful image but if you have to sit there alone because you can’t trust anyone around you haunted by the ghosts of all the harm you have caused to get there…
This does not mean wrongdoing does not need to be called out. Transgressions need to be addressed and at times that will mean speaking up, standing up, protesting, and can even rise to the level of rioting. They key is to do so in resistance to harm rather than to seek defeat of a ‘bad guy’. It is the harm being caused which needs to be stopped not their evil nature which needs to be thwarted or changed.
The dangerous aspect of the good guy versus bad guy paradigm is it twists our focus around to personal victories and defeats rather than on the impacts being caused. Defeating the bad guy is a bottomless trap not only because many ‘bad guys’ will never truly see and acknowledge their wrongdoing as being wrong but because it entices us into wanting to see the bad guy be punished. We want to see them be harmed in return for the harm they have caused and that is simply the pursuit of more harm.