No one wants to be the asshole. No one wants to be the bad guy. No one wants to view themselves as evil.
Without a relatively positive self-image, you wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Our human propensity to want to be good supports the hypothesis that people are inherently good. Intention is what gives character to action, so behind good intentions are good people.
However, this propensity toward wanting to be good is a double-edged sword, as it also represents a powerful catalyst for self-delusion and rationalization. It permits us to write ourselves a pass, thinking that we’re doing good, even when we’re not – even when we’re acting like crazy psychopaths who support troops bombing the shit out of peaceful refugee camps in the name of “security”. It allows us to look the other way. As long as we tell ourselves that we’re acting in the interest of the greater good, we give ourselves license to suspend our empathy.
The fact is that intention isn’t everything; Action does matter. You can have the best intentions in the world and still commit horrible acts. You won’t want to admit it, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Self-delusion does not absolve you from responsibility.
Sometimes evil is branded as good. Al Qaeda uses a language of “religious nationalism” to justify mass murder. Hamas blows up innocent civilians out of desperation but re-brands it as fighting for freedom. Do you hear any apology from Al Qaeda leaders for murdering thousands of people 9/11? Or from the Israeli military for carpet bombing residential areas in Gaza?
We idealize things like liberty, justice, happiness, the pursuit of dreams, and love. We demonize evil, crime, murder, tyranny, and cruelty. This rule is universal and does not apply any more or less to any region. This rule applies generally to all of humanity.
If people weren’t naturally inclined to want to do good, there would be no use for propaganda. Governments would not have to trick people into supporting genocide.
Can you think of any government that openly rallies its people toward murdering babies with drones (*ahem* “War is necessary to protect our way of life!”), limiting personal freedom (“Banning Facebook is in the interest of national security and/or greater morality!”), or imprisoning opposition (“These people represent a danger to society!”)? Of course not! No one would support such actions if they were not framed in the language of the greater good.
We are good but we are self-deluding creatures, and as such we are capable of evil. Under the right circumstances, we are all susceptible to deceiving ourselves into committing or supporting atrocities.
The best thing we can do to prevent self-delusion is to run our actions through a filter of a greater system of morality built on empathy (will this action hurt anyone? does it cause destruction or pain?). The first step, of course, is to build that filter. You need to have a clear idea in your mind of what is right and what is wrong.
If our intended actions do not pass through the filter, they are not moral, and by going through with these actions we forfeit our claim to goodness. And that ultimate sacrifice is one that no sane human would make.