“When I tried day after day to do good and to relieve the suffering of my patients, I was myself. And when I let myself go and plunged into shameful activities, I was also myself. My scientific studies forced me to the following truth–man is not truly one person, but actually two.” –Dr. Henry Jekyll, in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson (various publishers).

Thinking about human cruelty these past few weeks, I found myself reading Stevenson’s classic allegory of good and evil, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Like many, I suspect, I knew something of the story but had never actually read it. Doing so after the last two posts was discomfiting.

“Jekyll and Hyde” is an allusion to the very things we’ve been considering. In a sense it’s a parable, because of its implicit warning. Jekyll is a respected, upper class physician with a bent towards tinkering. He’d always lived within cultural norms. But, having long sensed his personal darkness, he wondered how it would feel to indulge it. So he developed a potion to allow himself to do that. The heart of the story is that his dark side proved stronger than his good. Eventually it began to take him over without the potion. The more it indulged itself, the greater became it’s greed and disregard for others, Finally, one evening as Hyde, he became angry with a passerby and beat him to death. That was Jekyll alias Hyde’s undoing.

I think Hyde characterizes the potential for gross selfishness that exists in each of us. Maybe it’s instinctual, born out of an evolutionary drive for individual survival. He emerges as a disregard for others in favor of fulfilling our own desires. How well we each suppress him depends on a complex mix of factors: personality, socialization, genetics, opportunity and, perhaps need. The role of any society is to see to it that we keep him in lockdown, favoring the group over the individual. And the parable within the story is cautionary: Beware, because fully unleashed, Hyde is the stronger of the two sides. Further, the more he is indulged, the stronger he becomes. Dr. Jekyll longs curiously, perhaps even innocently, for a walk on the wild side. But Hyde has no regard whatever for Jekyll, no longing to be good. He seeks satiation, and history shows us over and over the dangers of unleashing him.

We think immediately of individual criminality–lies and deceit, fraud and theft, kidnap, torture, rape, murder. But our individual capacity for evil really emerges in groups, notably when greed and selfish desire are sanctioned, more so when they engender a sense of power. It emerges in companies like Enron, in Wall Street financial firms, in exploitive industries like pharmaceuticals, in high pressure boiler rooms selling fraudulent products by phone. We see it in corporate politics that rationalize CEO salaries and shareholder return over worker pay and benefits. It surfaces in cult religions and gangs. But it emerges at its worst in armies and mobs. Sanctioned violence, coupled with numbers and power and weapons, is truly fearful. Examples throughout history are too many to name.

I agree with Dr. Jekyll. We each have a capacity for evil, and civilization covers it with but the thinnest of veneers. Our strongest defenses against it are societal norms, civility, and the social compact. We should protect them for all we’re worth.