Monday, June 8, 2009

The nature of Good and Evil

A few posts back I tried to coherently describe what I see as the nature of the division that cripples this country. I did not succeed. Instead of trying to 'tidy that up', I'm going to embark on writing what I feel are a couple of basic foundation principals upon which arguments should be based or built. The first is simply a question - what is good, and the inverse of course, what is evil?

Mortimer J. Adler (American philosopher c. 1920-1999ish) in his book "6 Great Ideas"described good as being of two elements, the first being something which we find appealing, or pleasing, such as a well baked cake, and the other as being something akin to compassion. I'm paraphrasing, and his writing is certainly MUCH more deep than that, but I don't desire to engage in parsing out Adler - he's profound enough to withstand my feeble barbs.

Yet, I don't agree with the first premise, and want to expand upon the second. "Good" may in a vernacular mean something like a pleasing taste, but in the philosphical sense, we aren't discussing a pleasant feeling we might get observing a masterpiece of art or theatre, we are instead (I think) talking about what is the basic nature of decency and proper conduct.

I believe there are two essential answers - both of which were penned by people other than me of course.

The first is this - good is doing the least harm possible given an open option of choice. I think, however, it must go a step further. Good is standing up for the principal behind what is in the end least harmful. Meaning, while I might save 1000 lives by taking one, the principal of ethical 'rightness' compels me to refuse to comply with the demand to take one life under duress or even of my own volition unless it is my life I am willingly giving as my choice. In essence, I must stand up for the RIGHT to life as much as life, they are in equal footing, and do not cancel each other. I can reasonably argue that by starting down the path of sacrificing rights, I eventually lead to sacrificing life, the 'slippery slope' of situational ethical decision-making becomes available, even unavoidable.

The second - and equally important is simply this - stated by a 15 year-old author by the way -

The difference between good and evil is the ends to which each will go to accomplish their goal, what 'means' will they use. While in many ways an echo, and restatement of the above, it has the quality of being concise and of conveying the idea of a good-evil continuum (correctly) rather than absolutism.

Armies, more importantly the soldiers within them, do not view themselves on the 'good' side and the 'evil' side, they ONLY view themselves on the 'good' side. However, it is in their restraint that they are defined and judged. Those who do ONLY the least harm, who adhere to the principals of law, of respecting life and human decency we rightly judge as good, and those which stray from that path we rightly judge as evil. The slogan/saying that "All is fair in love and war" was opined by someone 'pathological' to paraphrase Einstein. International law, philosophical history, and ethical and logical reasoning have shown that statement to be utterly flawed. It is a self-rationalizing fool's errand.


  1. Good Post..

    In simple terms Pen..
    my definition:

    Good is what you do to improve peoples lives.
    Evil is when you put your needs above others

  2. Gigi,

    I agree, I have often defined evil as choosing selfishness over harm, as ever decresing circles of interest which in the end, come down to self - first, last, and always.

    I believe strongly today's GOP is well-defined by the statement that it represents the rationalization and acceptance of selfishness as a course of policy.

  3. This goes all the way back to Plato's "Parable of the Cave."

    Those who understand what Plato was getting at disagree with the present GOP status quo.

    On the other hand, those who buy into the cave mentality (which Plato was clearly criticizing) tend to buy into the present GOP status quo.

    Fewer folks are buying into the cave mentality these days. Hence, the GOP must adapt or die.

    I hope it adapts, because I think we're stronger with two sensible parties, rather than one.

    As it stands now, it is my opinion that there is really only one choice, at least at the national level.