Pandemonium — a painting by John Martin
Featured image: Pandemonium by John Martin

Evil does not take sides

The hardest, and the most significant choices we make are those that involve good and evil. Those are also the choices that signal the clearest who we really are.

Koen Smets
6 min readOct 13, 2023

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There is no getting away from moral considerations in our everyday interactions. Many of our choices have moral implications, from whether we purchase the fairtrade soap or coffee rather than the cheaper standard variant, to whether we tell our boss a little white lie to explain our tardy arrival rather than the truth (we hit the snooze button). Often, such moral choices escape the usual economic approach of trading off costs and benefits. Instead, they are reflected in a moral hierarchy of our values and corresponding rules, stacked in order of increasing importance on top of one another. This allows us to maintain a fundamental belief that we all have: we are morally good people. Not perfect, perhaps, but certainly good. We know that stealing is bad, but we also need to feed our family. If, one day, we face the choice between not stealing and pinching some food to keep our family alive as a last resort, we may find that the latter takes precedence over the former: “Thou shalt not steal” is trumped by “Thou shalt not let your family starve to death”, if we face a binary choice between the two.

When we consider someone else’s moral choices, there are a few different positions we can take.

We all believe that we are good people (image via Dall-E)

We can explain the choice — argue dispassionately that there is a certain logic that led to it, regardless whether we judge it to be right or wrong. We might, for example, explain why a boy in our daughter’s class chose to scratch the side of their teacher’s car: because he was angry about getting an F for being accused of cheating. We can go further, and understand how and why someone made a given moral choice, even though we consider it wrong. This is exhibiting empathy. We might understand that employees fearing for their job choose to blockade the company gates, or even deface the walls with graffiti, because we can imagine the distress that we would need to experience to compel us to act in a similar way…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius