I went back and forth for a long time whether people are black and white or many shades of grey; whether morality is relative or absolute. To make sense of a worldview based on a framework of moral relativism I had to do all sorts of mental gymnastics and the end result was that I couldn’t see people with harmful intent staring me in the face. When it came to this area of life, I was dumb. I experienced what it was like to have a bad person win to re-examine my views. At first, I fretted that maybe this person just didn’t understand my culture (mistakenly thinking perhaps it was a question of relative morals). I questioned that maybe we had a miscommunication. I thought maybe I just didn’t understand them. I finally distanced myself and had time to reflect and see that no, the person just had harmful intentions towards me. I realized I was confused not because they are actually good and I just didn’t understand them, but a framework based on moral relativity allowed me to be stupidly blindsided.

So how did I get to a place where my worldview was so confused? My uncertainty stemmed from the fact that I conflated cause and effect. I saw governments, systems, and cultures which incentivized bad behavior and thought Maybe it’s the systems that cause evil, and humans are just machines that respond to incentives and deterrents? I victimized bad people because of bad systems.

But who creates the systems? Humans. The system does not create the humans, the humans create the systems. If you don’t read the rest of this, at least think on that. Sure, a bad system can make a good person engage in darker gray behavior temporarily as a means of survival, and a good system can make a bad person engage in lighter gray behavior temporarily, but that doesn’t change the bottom line that the system doesn’t create the evil, the evil creates the system. The humans are in the drivers’ seats. And in no time in history is this more clear than now, when we are not pawns of nature’s whims, but have the tools to manipulate the world around us for our own ends, so can only turn the lens on the humans themselves.

I concluded strongly that there are people whose primary purpose in life is to harm others — and not just the obvious people such as serial murderers and genocidal maniacs —but people who exist in day-to-day life and work in subtle ways. From this foundation, I have a set of principles to understand and identify these people, some adapted from others’ ideas and all based on my own past experiences. The world started to make a lot more sense and the confusion lifted:

  • Fundamentally, these people live in fear. Because they live in fear of others having power, being successful, smart, and happy, they need to control and minimize others to feel powerful. Oftentimes, they argue that it’s because resources are scarce. When it is being argued that it’s necessary to minimize and control others for whatever reason, look at the situation for which control is being called for more closely. You’ll most often see that the threat is a making of that person’s own mind. This is not to say those who seek power and success are evil — it is good to work towards something and a trait of a good person to have a cause and want self improvement — it is the methods used for obtaining success and power that are very different.
  • Bad people support systems, org structures, governments, and cultures which consolidate power and money, often with the argument that there is chaos and disorder that they must have the power to protect you from. Irrationality breeds chaos which excuses consolidation of power. They pass on messages that imply that resources are scarce and that the world is chaotic, because it makes for needy people.
  • They support systems, org structures, governments, and cultures that subdue, discourage, or outright punish free thought, self expression, self improvement, individuality, creativity, entrepreneurship and ownership. They create and uphold bureaucratic systems to stifle creativity and innovation. Right to ownership needs to be curtailed because that ownership gives someone else power. Free societies make for strong, smart, successful and happy people which, to someone seeking to control others, would be a terrible thing. Happy, smart, successful and free people are not pliable victims.
  • They support systems, org structures, governments, and cultures that breed apathy, nihilism and conformity, and discourage strong beliefs and conviction. They support group think and mob mentality. They tend to ridicule those who strike out and try to do something different, often indirectly. For example, by telling you John Smith’s business is failing (to them, probably everyone’s business but their own is failing). By associating John’s entrepreneurship with failure, the implication is that John’s conviction to start a business was a bad idea.
  • They pass on negative information in order to stir up uncertainty in those around them, especially uncertainty as to your character judgment. Chaos and confusion allow for consolidation of power. They want to put as much distance as possible between you and the good people around you, so alter information about good people around in order to have it reflect negatively on them. They withhold information and resources from those who need it in an attempt to confuse the issue of “what actually happened.” If you find yourself feeling like you can’t know who the good people are around you, or not understanding “what’s actually going on,” there is someone around purposefully stirring up doubt and confusion.
  • They are lifetime opportunists even if that opportunism is disguised as a deeper purpose or friendship. Look for the guy who rebrands himself as whatever he needs to be in a given time and place. Whose “strongly held views” or “skillset” agree with yours or make you think you need them. They will never stand up for their principles and bite the hand that feeds them [unless they have another hand to jump to and looking like they have principles serves a purpose] because they don’t have any strongly held views that don’t serve a purpose, even if they appear to as a means of gaining power or social acceptance.

I concluded that the more powerful (powerful both in terms of influence, money, etc, and the inner power that comes from living a centered life and feeling confident in one’s purpose) one becomes, the warier s/he has to be. Someone can play the long game and be temporarily helpful to destructive ends. This is opportunism, not help. For instance, a salesman at your company who works on commission. He does his job. He wants to get paid. But if you look closely, he’ll be screwing the company in other ways. Perhaps his numbers are so good because he makes promises that the company can’t keep and customer service will have to deal with it later. Customer service only sees bad customers and a broken system, not the actual person who caused the issues. The salesman didn’t stop being a bad person because he exists in a system that forces a single constructive behavior (I define evil by intent, not action). Moral relativism allows us to be stupid and let bad people into our lives on the basis that they’ll respond to incentives or that they’re victims, but incentives don’t resolve a deeper intent to harm. The long-term cost is too high to keep these people around and they’ll screw you one way or another.

If you are on the fence about whether or not to distance yourself from someone, unsure if they are a genuinely bad person or the wrong target, and you find yourself failing and depressed, better to take swift and decisive action and reassess later, in my opinion. The distance will help you see clearly and negative people cost you too much mindshare, energy, and happiness to spend any more time than you need to around them. Sometimes the end justifies the means. And if you’re wrong and you pulled the trigger on the wrong person, hopefully the relationship can be repaired between two good people.

  • They are generally unreliable and generate little value for others. They don’t keep commitments and put their money where their mouth is. You have to look carefully to find the actual results, especially since they work hard to create confusion around them, breed distrust, and probably take credit for others work, and minimize others work if they can’t take credit for it.

These aren’t absolutes. The boogie monster isn’t everywhere. Sometimes society’s incentives structures discourage freedom of expression. I.E. if you want to get into investment banking and I discourage you from posting your amateur home video with your boyfriend, this is not me being an evil person and minimizing your self-expression, this is me giving you good advice given the social norms we live with, even if you felt minimized by it. You can think the social norm that home pornographers can’t be good investment bankers is evil, but I am not the right target here. Life is nuanced and judgments are circumstantial, so you need to have a brain and some life experience to get good at this identification.

Once I saw that humans create the systems, not the other way around, and started to build a framework on how to identify a bad person, it all seemed so obvious. It’s fascinating how something seems obvious once you really understand it but confusing and impossible to grasp until that point. I was hesitant to publish something that was obvious to everyone else, so I had lots of conversations over the past few months asking people how they define evil and if there are bad people in the world, and I found that this is not obvious to most people and hitting publish could be helpful.

I was also hesitant to write this at first, worrying What if someone reads this and thinks I’m a bit ‘out there’? Evil is a heavy topic, and strong viewpoints can come across kooky and hyper-aggressive. I considered softening the wording and making the article topical, like “Traits that make a good VC” or “good founder” and focusing on traits of good people in functional roles. But being able to identify what hidden evil looks like as it pertains to the subtleties of modern economic warfare, culture wars, and toxic relationships — being able to get at the essence of the thing — is so valuable and a proxy article wouldn’t have captured that essence.

And when did I internalize the message that I shouldn’t express strongly held beliefs that are too ‘out there’? It’s good to be out there. That means you think for yourself and live a life free of fear.

I welcome well-reasoned deductive and experiential beliefs that can help me build upon or expand my thinking. Reach out.