When it debuted in 2016, the NBC sitcom “The Good Place” was lauded for bringing discussions about ethics and morality into pop culture and for demonstrating that, when it comes to right and wrong, there really is no black and white, only gray.
The show, about a group of flawed souls navigating an equally flawed afterlife, demonstrated that “nothing’s as simple as good versus evil. It’s perfect for 2016,” a headline in Vox approvingly said.
A week after the start of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, much of the world might say that sentiment didn’t age well.
Instead, we have seen, with shocking clarity, that there are indeed times when it’s appropriate to think in black and white, and to talk about good versus evil, which leaders the world over have been doing in recent days.
“This is one of the greatest demonstrations of good versus evil we’ve seen in our lifetime,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said Sunday on CNN. Australian diplomat Joe Hockey said Vladimir Putin has “evil in his heart.” Ireland’s 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 ticked up across the internet.
In short, the concept of evil as a real and malign entity has roared back into 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 put on a military uniform to join his troops in fighting to protect the Ukrainian homeland from the Evil Empire, Russia. This man's courage has not only inspired his countrymen but the world. He is extraordinary.#UkraineUnderAttack pic.twitter.com/q9R3LNQWMS— Michael Nöthem (@mikandynothem) February 26, 2022
The Vox essay about “The Good Place” suggested that objective morality is an odious byproduct of religious fundamentalism. We’ve all been warned about the dangers of “black-and-white thinking” which, to be fair, can be developed to extremes, such as in the condition of “splitting,” which psychiatrists define as a debilitating inability to hold opposing or nuanced beliefs. Much of America’s polarization is caused by black-and-white thinking on political issues.
But it didn’t take a bipartisan standing ovation at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address to realize that an otherwise splintered nation found something on which most Americans can agree — that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was morally wrong. That’s true even if there is difference of opinion on what our response should be, even when there is acknowledgment of Russia’s concern about NATO expansion to its borders, even if there are those who argue that Putin acts as he does because of adverse childhood experiences. (People who have been hurt go on to hurt other people, Jane Ellen Stevens wrote in an article about Putin’s upbringing.)
It’s true that not everyone is willing to describe Putin himself as evil. Megyn Kelly, who has interviewed the Russian president three times, declined to use the term when speaking 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 confronting Hollywood, which generally disdains the sort of black-and-white thinking on morality that derives from religious faith. A few years ago, a website for speculative fiction writers urged content creators to think beyond the tired old tale of good versus evil: “Let’s face it, fights between pure good and absolute evil are getting old. Black and white morality doesn’t lend itself to nuanced characters, and it rarely feels realistic anymore.” The writer suggested that other dualities, such as freedom vs. safety and progress vs. preservation, would be equally compelling to consumers. I wouldn’t bet the house payment on that.
Meanwhile, Michael Schur, the creator of “The Good Place,” is out with a new book on the ethical concepts that framed the sitcom. In “How to Be Perfect,” Schur doesn’t take a stand on moral relativism — in fact, the only two concepts that he seems to wholeheartedly endorse are “know thyself” and “nothing in excess” — but he does address a question that seems to apply to Russia: “Should I punch my friend in the face for no reason?”
No matter how many adverse experiences Putin had in childhood, the correct answer here is “no,” and Schur also concludes that needless cruelty is “a good thing to avoid.” More seriously, he quotes the late philosopher Judith Shklar, whose family fled from both Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Shklar wrote in in her book “Ordinary Vices” that cruelty is the worst sin because it is done, not to God, but “entirely to another creature.”
Think of that as news of Russian atrocities unfold in the days and possibly months and even years ahead. And watch for the number of people who consider Putin evil to go higher than 46%. Narcissism has its limits. Evil, tragically, does not.
I have no idea how long it will take. But I am confident in predicting that Putin's evil invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of the end of Putin's dictatorship and Putinism in Russia. No moral person can support this heinous war. There are millions of moral people in Russia.— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) February 26, 2022