The Blurred Line Between Good and Evil

The question “are people essentially good or evil” has been one that has existed for ages, influencing religions, beliefs, and entire cultures. Yet, there seems to be no definitive answer. Religious text often grapple with concept of good versus evil. In the book of Isaiah, the Bible states “woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (The Holy Bible). Physiologists have also tried to explain “good” and “evil” in humans. On the website Psychology Today, Paul Zak tries to explain why humans act essentially good or evil. Zak explains that “when in a stable and safe environment with enough food in our bellies, having a biology of morality sustains our place in the community of humans who help ensure our biological imperatives. In highly stressful, resource poor environments, we’ll step on whoever is in front of us if it helps us survive” (Zak). But how do these ideas really represent themselves in real life situations? In situations of humanitarian aid, where victims basic needs are not being met, but western aid workers have access to luxuries even in areas of crisis, can we really judge who is “good” and who is “evil”? In the book Emergency Sex authors Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson discuss there personal experiences working in war zones that help to give insight as to the “good” and “evil” in situations of crisis.

In the beginning of the book, Andrew recalls an experience in Cambodia in which he has to amputate the leg off a landmine victim. Because infection has set in, Andrew is forced to take the victims entire leg below the knee. After the procedure, Andrew comments that he has “saved his life, but ruined his future” (7).  Later, Andrew remembers an experience in Haiti in which he is supposed to see a beating victim. After arriving at the hospital, the beating victim is no where to be found. Andrew demands to see the overseeing physician. The physician tells Andrew that once the men that beat the victim found out he was in the hospital, they “came in here last night and dragged him away again” (107). The physician goes on to say that “one of them stuck a gun in my face and told me he’d turn me into a patient if I didn’t back off” (107). At the end of the story, the physician comments that they “should have just finished him off the first time, it would have been more humane” (108).  Was the physician “evil” for letting the victim be killed? Was Andrew “good” for saving a man he knows will now live a life of extreme poverty and suffering? The complexity of these situations make it impossible to decide what is exactly good and what is exactly evil. Depending on the perspective, each action could be viewed as both good or evil. The other authors also struggle with this complicated situation.

A man needing his leg amputated like the man in Andrew’s story.

Ken deals with this personally when watching Dee Dee Myers on CNN. Myers is discussing the change in US foreign policy to longer try and capture, Aidid, but to negotiate with him. Ken is infuriated that this man, who was once considered a war criminal that cost many American lives, is now being treated like a “popular alderman from the south side of Chicago” (174). Ken wonders what the message of such action is. Where the lives of peacekeepers and soldiers wasted? Is it “evil” for America to make such a decision? Or Is it “good” that this decision will result in a ceasefire that might save many lives? Heidi also encounters the same moral struggle. During her time in Monbasa, Kenya Heidi develops a relationship with a native male. After staying with him for a couple of days, Heidi wonders if she had sex with a male prostitute. She wonders “a what point is one considered  a prostitute?” (100). It is clear when a women is a prostitute, but for men it is much more complicated. After debating, she gives the man $200. Later, he writes to her asking for $700. Is Heidi “evil” for assuming this man is a prostitute? Is it fair to believe that if people are essentially evil, this man was likely a prostitute? Or was Heidi essentially “good” for giving the man money? It seems that it is almost impossible to decide. There is no definitive line between “good” and “evil” in any of these situations. Not western culture or the cultures of developing nations seem more “good” or “evil”. If this is so, how should we deal with this situations of moral conflict?

I believe each individual situation will need different action. As Linda Polman points out in her book, War Games, as long as the need of victims are made the priority, humanitarian aid will be effective. After his situation in the Haiti hospital, Andrew states that “maybe there are no rules here” (108). I agree that there seem to be no definite rules in these situations. Instead, the safety, health, and needs of both victims and aid workers must be fulfilled. This takes precedent over the idea of “good” versus “evil”.


Cain, Kenneth, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson. Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone. London: Ebury, 2004. Print.

Polman, Linda. War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern times. London: Viking, 2010. Print.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments. New York: American Bible Society, 1962. Print.

Zak, Paul. “Are Humans Good or Evil.” Psychology Today. 10 Feb. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013. <>.

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