When it debuted in 2016, the NBC sitcom “The Good Place” was hailed for introducing discussions of ethics and morality into pop culture and for demonstrating that when it comes to right and wrong, there is no there really is no black and white, only grey.
The show, about a group of flawed souls navigating an equally flawed afterlife, demonstrated that “nothing is as simple as good versus evil. It’s perfect for 2016,” a Vox headline said approvingly.
A week into Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, much of the world could say the sentiment hasn’t aged well.
Instead, we have seen, with shocking clarity, that there are indeed times when it is appropriate to think in black and white and speak of good versus evil, which is what leaders around the world have been doing lately. days.
“This is one of the greatest displays of good versus evil we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney told CNN on Sunday. Australian diplomat Joe Hockey said Vladimir Putin had “evil in his heart”. Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin called Putin an “evil dictator”. At the same time, mentions of Russia as an “evil empire” – Ronald Reagan’s description of the Soviet Union – have been ticking the internet.
In short, the concept of evil as a real, malignant entity has returned to the mainstream. This is bad news for proponents of moral relativism, the idea that there is no right and wrong, only differences in how people see and experience the world.
President Zelensky of Ukraine has donned a military uniform to join his troops in the fight to protect the Ukrainian homeland from the evil empire, Russia. This man’s courage not only inspired his countrymen but the world. He is extraordinary.#UkraineUnderAttack pic.twitter.com/q9R3LNQWMS
—Michael Nothem (@mikandynothem) February 26, 2022
Vox’s essay on “The Good Place” suggested that objective morality is an odious byproduct of religious fundamentalism. We have all been warned of the dangers of “black and white thinking” which, to be fair, can be developed to extremes, such as in the state of “splitting”, which psychiatrists define as a debilitating inability to hold opposing positions. or nuanced beliefs. Much of America’s polarization is caused by black-and-white thinking about political issues.
But it didn’t take a bipartisan ovation during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address to realize that an otherwise fragmented nation has found something most Americans can agree on. – that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was morally wrong. This is true even if there is a difference of opinion on what our response should be, even when there is recognition of Russia’s concern about NATO expansion on its borders, even if There are those who argue that Putin acts the way he does because of adverse childhood experiences. (People who have been hurt continue to hurt other people, Jane Ellen Stevens wrote in an article on Putin’s upbringing.)
It is true that not everyone is ready to describe Putin himself as evil. Megyn Kelly, who has interviewed the Russian president three times, declined to use the term in a conversation with Glenn Beck recently, and in a recent YouGov poll, just 46% of Americans said they would call Putin evil , roughly the same number that called him. a narcissist (47%).
But, interestingly, according to YouGov, “Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to say Putin is evil.”
Which brings us to a problem facing Hollywood, which generally disdains the kind of black-and-white thinking about morality that comes from religious faith. A few years ago, a website of speculative fiction writers urged content creators to think beyond the tired old tale of good versus evil: “Let’s face it, the battles between pure good and evil absolute age. Black-and-white morality doesn’t lend itself to nuanced characters, and it rarely feels more realistic. The author suggested that other dualities, such as freedom versus security and progress versus preservation, would be equally compelling to consumers. I wouldn’t bet the house payout on that.
Meanwhile, Michael Schur, the creator of “The Good Place,” has come out with a new book about the ethical concepts that framed the sitcom. In “How to Be Perfect”, Schur does not take a position on moral relativism – in fact, the only two concepts he seems to wholeheartedly endorse are “know thyself” and “nothing too much” – but he addresses a question that seems to apply to Russia: “Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?”
No matter how many negative experiences Putin had as a child, the correct answer here is “no”, and Schur also concludes that unnecessary cruelty is “a good thing to avoid”. More seriously, he quotes the late philosopher Judith Shklar, whose family fled Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Shklar wrote in his book “Ordinary Vices” that cruelty is the worst sin because it is done, not to God, but “entirely to another creature.
Think about this as news of Russian atrocities unfolds in the days and perhaps months and even years to come. And watch how many people over 46% view Putin as evil. Narcissism has its limits. Evil, tragically, does not.
I have no idea how long this will take. But I’m sure to predict that Putin’s evil invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of the end for Putin’s dictatorship and Putinism in Russia. No moral person can support this heinous war. There are millions of legal persons in Russia.
—Michael McFaul (@McFaul) February 26, 2022