Why Good (and bad) People Do Wrong to Others: From Aristotle to 2010

I've composed the following essay about something from Aristotle for my philosophy class and would love to share it with my readers.


What can drive people to harm others in a society where most people are generally well-meaning and moral individuals? Why would someone intentionally break the rules, cheat, and act with malice? How can upstanding individuals who have never committed a crime break the public trust? Chapter twelve in book one of Aristotle's Rhetoric addresses the motives that drive people to wrong others. Although it might be impossible in practice to address the motives for every instance of wrongdoing, Aristotle was well ahead of his time and provided reasons explaining why people would behave poorly. Contemporary understanding, in addition to Aristotle's arguments, can provide many explanations as to why people misbehave, harm others, and commit crimes.

What Aristotle had to say applied to modern times

Two of Aristotle's first reasons explaining why people misbehave boil down to people thinking that they won't have to pay the consequences of their actions; “they can do it without being found out, or if they are found out they can escape without being punished” (Aristotle 1). Committing a crime and thinking that a person won't be caught is self-explanatory. An accountant, for example, may decide to embezzle money from a business and “cook the books” to make it appear like no money was stolen so that he/she would not get caught. The same accountant may think that even if he/she would be caught, he/she would not have to pay the consequences. Foe example, the owner of the business might never question the bookkeeping because he would be afraid of possible retaliation, more embezzlement, poor job performance from the accountant, or the accountant quitting the job.

Another one of Aristotle's reasons for a person to do wrong to others is “that if they are punished the disadvantage will be less than the gain for themselves or those they care for” (Aristotle 1). A politician may decide to bribe another politician to vote a certain way to ensure that a motion is passed. The politician offering the bribe may feel that the punishment for bribery is far less than the gain; the passing of the motion is far more important than a small fine that the politician might have to pay. A person might also judge the reward and potential benefit from crime to be worth taking the risk of being caught or punished. The homeless man might have little to lose if he is punished for robbing a liquor store and might even be content with going to jail. The money is enough incentive to commit the crime and would be a huge benefit in comparison to the punishment of going to jail.

People might also commit crimes with the mindset that they are great rhetoricians, have great lawyers, are famous and would not be convicted, and have a great deal of money to avoid punishment if brought to court. Celebrities and politicians in this category might decide to break the rules because they feel that they can get out of any possible situation if charged with a crime. A police officer may act in an unjust and illegal fashion toward a downtrodden individual who – in the eyes of the officer -- has no money, lawyers, or intelligence to appeal in court. Aristotle mentions that the confidence of evading punishment is greatest when an individual has the qualities as opposed to that person's friends.

Criminals might feel safe when committing a crime, Aristotle says, when they are on good terms with their victims or the judges. Child rapists in this category might feel immune from prosecution because they often know their victims and feel that they would never be punished because of that close relationship. Abusive men might also batter their wives or girlfriends with the idea that they would never be prosecuted because the female would never confess, press charges, or jeopardize their well-being by turning in their significant other. The wronged persons might also make arrangements with the criminals outside of the legal system. Criminals, as Aristotle mentions, might also know the judges who prosecute criminals. Although judges are supposed to be neutral toward the person who they are trying in court, some criminals might feel that they will get some sort of special treatment from familiar judges.

People might commit crimes because they feel that their appearances contradict the punishments that they might face and not fit the stereotypical viewpoint of the particular criminal. People might not suspect a twenty-six year old nurse, for example, to molest a senior citizen in a nursing home. People might not expect respected priests to rape and torture children. Defying expectations of individuals in society might lead a person to be more likely to commit a crime. People don't expect females to partake in armed robbery nor do they expect females to rape.

Aristotle notes that people might do wrong because they expect to “stave off a trial, or have it postponed, or corrupt your [their] judges: or if you [they] are sentenced you can avoid paying damages, or can at least postpone doing so for a long time” (Aristotle 1). Local county commissioner Greg Skrepenak and his lawyer attempted to delay and reduce sentencing because they felt that Skrepenak's obligations toward his children would allow for some sympathy. Eventually, his sentencing was reduced because of medical problems, cooperation with officials, previous charitable works, and obligations toward his children (Skrepenak 1). People with power, prestige, and money can easily postpone trials and sentencing while destitute and common people are disadvantaged.

Aristotle mentions despots who may commit crimes because “their punishment is nothing more than being called bad names” (Aristotle 2). Leaders like Lenin, Mao, and Pol Pot, for example, had very little to lose when they committed atrocities. Who could find corrupt despots guilty of crimes and prosecute them? People who make the laws can violate the laws or change the laws to suit their agendas if no system of checks and balances is in place. Laypeople may revolt, but when a leader has a tremendous amount of power, protection, and a secret police force, revolt is almost impossible. The government in 1984 is a great example of an unassailable power that was free to do whatever it wished because punishment would never be levied.

People may continue to commit crimes because they have “escaped detection or punishment already; or by having often tried and failed; for in crime, as in war, there are men who will always refuse to give up the struggle” (Aristotle 2). Drug dealers hiding from police may feel motivated to continue selling crystal meth because they feel that they won't get caught. Drug dealers might also appear in court and found not guilty, leading them to think that they can never face punishment for their crimes. Some chronic criminals may also continue to commit crimes regardless of being punished in the past because, as Aristotle says, they refuse to give up the struggle. Some people who grew up in oppressive environments might enjoy committing crimes or feel that crime is the only option to get ahead.

Weakness of will is another reason that Aristotle gave for why people commit crimes. Some people might not be content with what they have and wish to act in unethical manners to get ahead. Greedy politicians might decide to lie and accept money from special interest groups in order to move to a higher office. Athletes may take illegal performance-enhancing drugs in order to compete with their peers and vanquish their opponents. Students might cheat on tests because they feel that they should not have to study because others cheat, because they are on sports teams, or because cheating is far too easy.

Aristotle notes that people whose “victims may be far off or near at hand” can be motivated to commit crimes (Aristotle 2). “If they are near, he gets his profit quickly; if they are far off, vengeance is slow, as those think who plunder the Carthaginians.” (Aristotle 2) Charles Keating, the man behind one of the largest loan scandals in the United States, defrauded many senior citizens in order to attempt to make a huge profit. Many of his victims were very near to him, so he was able to quickly amass wealth (Keating 1).

“A man may wrong his enemies, because that is pleasant : he may equally wrong his friends, because that is easy.” (Aristotle 2) When people are charged with violent crimes or possession of child pornography, people are often very quick to want to exact vengeance or call for violence against the person who is charged. Although the “eye for an eye” mentality makes the whole world blind and might be cruel and unusual punishment (should we rape rapists?), people are quick to endorse it and feel no sympathy if a person who is charged and not even convicted is beaten in a prison. In more general terms, people want to wrong their enemies because of jealousy, spite, or even a good reason by taking the law into their own hands and attempting to punish others. Some people may find it easy to wrong friends because friends don't expect to be wronged and because it's much easier to wrong friends than strangers because friends often let their guard down.

Aristotle mentions that “there is something fine and pleasant in wrong such persons [who do violence to others], it seems as though no wrong were done (Aristotle 3). This “eye for an eye” mentality might lead a female's father, for example, to harm an abusive boyfriend and feel that nothing was wrong when this happened because the victim was previously doing the harm. This might even prevent future harm and serve a greater good in the eyes of the father. People who lost friends as the result of violence might also go after the criminals because they feel that avenging their dead friends is morally justified.

Beyond Aristotle

Physicist Steven Weinberg once said, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Many of our beliefs inform our actions. People often shape a great portion of their lives with religious beliefs and accept what holy books say and what parties of gods say simply because they were told to do so or feel that doing so is moral. While religious beliefs can cause some people to do good, religious beliefs can often cause people to perform atrocious acts. The suicide bombing community, for example, is almost entirely religious. Children, from an early age, are filled with propaganda and hate from extremist religious groups and are led to believe that suicide bombing is a perfectly moral action. Because of religious beliefs, some people are also led to murder abortion doctors because they feel that their actions are morally justified.

Religious organizations such as the Knights of Columbus have contributed over one million dollars to fund proposition eight (the initiative to stop gay marriage) in California (Knights of Columbus Contribute 1). The Knights of Columbus also recently produced a DVD that was sent to Catholic households in Minnesota in addition to donating 1.4 million dollars to the National Organization for marriage, a group that wants marriage to remain as “one man, one woman” (Birkey 1). In addition to all of this, Knights of Columbus members also marched in the Philippines in attempt to cease governmental distribution of contraceptives (Knights of Columbus Rallying 1).

Another example of misplaced moral concerns is Mother Teresa's campaign against abortion and contraceptives. One of Mother Teresa's main moral concerns was preventing abortion, what she called the “greatest destroyer of peace” and a “direct murder” in her Nobel Peace Prize speech (Mother 1). Mother Teresa also gave speeches in Ireland encouraging the ban of abortions and contraceptives: “Let us promise our lady who loves Ireland so much that we will never allow in this county a single abortion [pause] and no contraceptives” (Hell's).

It's very easy for our moral priorities to be confused because of religious belief. Absolutist beliefs are very difficult to hold when faced with complex situations and conflicting moral priorities. Recently, a woman was excommunicated from the Catholic Church because she performed an abortion on a woman who wanted the abortion and would have died if she did not have the abortion (Nun). This situation seems quite simple. Many Catholics believe that abortion is wrong and would not want to perform or endorse an abortion, but in this case, if there were no abortion, the mother and potential child would have died. If the abortion were performed (and it was), the mother would not die. Should you save one life or lose two? Clearly, the good action was to perform the abortion and save the life of the mother, but some thought that the mother should have died. After this incident, the nun was excommunicated for saving her life.

Returning to humans in disadvantaged situations, some may choose to commit crimes because they calculate risks, determine that since they are living in a situation with a low life expectancy, and realize that there is no or little chance for financial improvement. People may choose to commit crimes when there are huge discrepancies between the rich and the poor because there is a big payoff that is worth taking the risk. Although it may certainly be immoral to murder, steal, and harm others, crime can be an adaptive rational response to high-risk situations and a vision of low life expectancy.

The Twenty-Sided Die Thought Experiment

Consider the following thought experiment: Someone presents a twenty-sided die, verifies that the die is fair, and says, “I have one million dollars in a bank account and would like to present a wager to you. If I roll a one or a two on this die, I will give you one million dollars. If the die result is three to twenty, you allow me to kill you instantly.” People may decide to think about this risk and determine that a 10% chance to win one million dollars is worth wagering their own lives while some people might think that a 90% chance to die is not worth one million dollars. Imagine that the chances are changed to 50% of winning the one million dollars? Would many people then choose to roll the die and determine that a 50% chance of winning one million dollars is worth gambling their lives?

Criminals may consciously or subconsciously weigh the risks of being caught when considering to commit crimes just like people who are presented with the twenty-sided die. Crime is certainly more advantageous when there is little risk of being caught because the criminal would not have to pay the consequences and might be able to commit more crimes. This is similar to how it is more advantageous to roll the die when there is a greater chance of winning the one million dollars. Criminals may not choose to commit crimes when they are more likely to be punished while they may be more likely to commit a crime when punishment is unlikely.


Aristotle provided many reasons explaining why people do wrong to others. Despite the fact that most of us generally behave well, have respect for others, obey the laws, are not psychopaths, and have very good reasons to behave well, people do wrong to others for various reasons. The temptation to do wrong is ever-present and always possible, but many of us choose to refrain from doing wrong because we don't want to be incarcerated, we care about our reputations, and we don't want to harm others. If we identify and reflect upon Aristotle's reasons for why people do wrong, we can be more aware of ourselves and maximize our potential to do good.