Over at Critique Circle, I've come to realize through my critiques that I have a great interest in why good, or even mediocre, people do bad things. It's so easy to shrug and go, "They allow / do this because they're sadistic / sociopathic. They know precisely what they're doing and what the consequences are for other people. They're just insert-vice-here." I think that does a great mis-service to those crimes, the victims, and even the victimizers. We won't learn anything by tarring our villains with black paint. We won't be able to teach ourselves and our future generations to avoid pitfalls of thinking that led to such horrible events as the Holocaust, human slavery, and the small-scale acts of horror like rape and murder.
After all, if we say that villains do what they do because they're cold-hearted and evil, or raving sadists, then all we need to do to check our own morality and beliefs is to go 'Does my conscience hurt me at times?' If I tick yes, then I can't be a sociopath or a sadist. I have a conscience, after all. The problem comes because a conscience isn't enough.
One psychological experiment (Milgram's experiment) had an actor convince an unwary volunteer (we'll call her Amy) that they were going to be involved in a memory test. The scientist would ask another 'volunteer' (who was actually an actor, let's call him Stuart) to submit to being strapped in a chair and electrodes were placed on him. Amy was then told to apply the punishment, an electric shock, when commanded. The scientist then asked Stuart questions and every time he got it wrong, Amy was told to shock him. Not only that, Amy was told to increase the voltage. After awhile, Stuart began to beg for freedom, scream in pain and, finally, he stopped responding at all and feigned unconsciousness.
So, in this scenario, would a right-minded person with a conscience stop?
The majority of volunteers brought into this experiment generally didn't.
It wasn't that they didn't care. Sometimes they would plead with the scientist to stop the experiment or even cry as they turned up the dial. They showed distress or reported it later. Yet many of them continued to follow orders. They weren't being paid to do it. The scientist didn't have a gun to their head. They could have left at any time.
There are many reasons why many of the participants continued with the shocks. Here are some interpretations:
Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. They thus justify their actions.
People who lack either ability or expertise to make decisions often leave decision making to the group and its heirarchy, especially in a crisis.
Once a person views himself as simply an instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, they can dissolve responsibility for their actions, and this helps enforce their obedience.
Perhaps it is due to cumulative experiences where people learn that when an expert says something is right, it probably is, even if it doesn't feel right. i.e. medicine that tastes like poison but helps you.
Then there's learned helplessness. They might feel powerless to control the outcome and thus abdicate their responsibility.
And these are just possibilities for the obedient 'bad guys'.
Of course, not all justifications have to be good excuses for our ears and some might even be subconscious.
A rapist could justify his actions by legitimately thinking women aren't human, women don't have souls, women have an unlimited amount of 'sex' and thus it can't be stolen (Robin Hobb has a villain who thinks that), it's no worse than getting in a fight, it's not worse than scraping your knee, it doesn't hurt anyone, a man can't control his urges (abdicating responsibility), she provoked me out of cruelty so I showed her she can't just do that to me, I deserve to have sex with her, she owes me for all that she's done, or even, she desired it but she just couldn't admit it to herself.
Slavery might be justified by thinking the race will die out anyway now its met a superior race, the race can't take care of itself and we're just providing structure, the race isn't human, it's God's will that some people should take care of other people, the race would do the same to us if the situation was reversed, everyone else is doing it so we'll go bankrupt if we don't join in, or they prefer to be slaves, really.
People might do something without realizing the consequences (i.e. sending a boy up a chimney to sweep it) and then continue doing it. Once those consequences reveal themselves (i.e. sickness, boy dies in your chimney), a person might seek to avoid responsibility and therefore guilt by refusing to acknowledge they did anything wrong. After all, to stop doing something for moral reasons, you have to realize that your prior actions are immoral. That would require facing up to a lot of guilt! And what if your parents used to do it? If you acknowledge that it's a terrible thing, then you have to acknowledge that your parents have done terrible things. Then you have to feel ashamed of both yourself and your family! That's a whole lot of negative feeling and for what 'reward'?
I think the easiest way to take a look at how the bad guys might rationalize something is to take a look at how you or your friends rationalize things. Think of the times you've shop lifted, cheated on someone, hurt someone's feelings for no reason, were negligent, thoughtless, allowed a loved one to struggle rather than help out (even if just with the chores while they were sick) or were hypocritical. Double points if you pick a recent act.
How do you justify that? Is it justified? If it's not, how painful is it to acknowledge that fact?
So my pledge to you, as a writer, is this. I will not shy away from the bad people and diminish the cruelty in this world by presuming that only evil people do evil things. I will be brave enough to think 'but for the grace of God, there goes I' and imagine how I (or someone else) might come to be in their shoes.
Who will pledge with me?
P.S. Robin Hobb is really, really good at giving no-barred accounts of how mean people might actually see the world. It's painful...