There is No Good and Evil, Just Smart and Dumb (Part 1 of 2)

Tower of London

This is part 1 of a 2-part post. The second half is here.

Disclaimer: Controversy rating: 8/10.  This post contains unconventional views.  Some readers may be upset.  Some may unsubscribe.  Que sera sera.

There is a famous quotation that most people seem to love, which I dislike.  In fact, I find it quite worrisome, because of how quickly even reasonable people seem to jump behind it.

I am a staunch defender of ideas, and people’s rights to express them, even if I disagree.  I don’t think ideas themselves can be harmful; any harm comes only from the actions they inspire.  For example, I do not believe in laws against ‘hate’ speech; but I do support laws against deliberately inciting violence.  It isn’t the speech that’s dangerous, it’s the actions.  As far as I’m concerned, when a hateful person is allowed to speak his mind, he only reveals himself as petty and foolish.  I think that’s a good thing.  Let idiocy shine a light on itself, that’s what I say.  If you tape its mouth shut, we might not recognize it.

But there is one idea, encapsulated in a well-loved quotation, that I think is at the root of every institution of war and genocide.  Of course it does not always lead to those dark places, but it contains a fallacy that can delude even a good-hearted person into committing atrocities.  And I want to expose its insanity.  

The quote is:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Supposedly it was Irish statesman Edmund Burke who said it first, but it’s been championed ever since by all sorts of characters, from famous civil rights figures, to so-called ‘pro-life’ terrorists.  The troublesome idea within is the modern conception of good and evil.

The assumption, of course, is that whoever is saying it is one of the fabled ‘good guys.’  But anyone can assume that about themselves.  And if they do, they can rationalize anything. In any war, everyone thinks they’re the good guys.  Terrorists think they’re fighting evil.

“Oh, but they’re wrong!  They think they’re good, but they’re mistaken.”

That’s probably what they say about you, too.

What I’m getting at is that it always comes down to a difference in opinion.  Some opinions may seem way out to lunch to you, but it’s all relative.  Your view is just as ‘out-to-lunch’ as someone else’s is to you.

To some people, it is unequivocally wrong to eat meat.  It’s murder.  To others, it is certainly not.  In my culture, people are divided, but most are probably reasonable enough to accommodate the differing values of other people.  Even a vehement vegetarian will still sit down graciously with her friends and family while they devour animal carcasses.  She understands that not everyone is on the same page, belief-wise, but that doesn’t make them any less human.  It doesn’t make them troubled, lost souls.  It just makes them different.

When reasonable, receptive people discuss a moral issue, they soon realize there will be no resolution.  You can dissect it with logic, quote great philosophers, bicker to the death, but no clear, objective answer will emerge.  It always boils down to a question of personal values, and values differ from person to person.

Often we feel comfortable that we’re on the ‘good’ side because almost everyone around us will back us up.  But so what?  The percentage of the populace that agrees with you can change as quickly as the crowd changes.  In a different neighborhood, a different country, suddenly you’re the bad apple!  Let’s all confront an inconvenient fact: morality is indeed 100% subjective.  Right and wrong are just what’s popular.

Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. – Oscar Wilde

But surely some acts are immoral, without question!

I say no, there are no objectively immoral acts.  Emotions and personal values are always the determinants of our moral assessments, and those two factors are never exactly the same between two people — or even between two different times in the same person’s life.  Beliefs are always personal, and differ even amongst members of the same flock.  Perhaps there are some things almost all humans value (such as the sanctity of life, or the safety of children,) and we’ll find our beliefs match those of the vast majority, but that is still only a function of popularity.  It still does not create a sturdy moral ‘base line’ from which we all make the same measurements.

Right here is where we reach an impasse, for many.  Buckle up, this is where gets rocky.

Why do we think in terms of good and evil?

Some say there is indeed a sturdy moral baseline: their religion.

For a very significant percentage of the population, good and evil are defined in scripture.  And that’s the bottom line.  Anyone so unlucky as to be a deviant in this regard, is simply in the wrong, and hopefully they will change their mind and thus, be saved.  There are a lot of different faiths, so choose wisely.

Religion is tricky to talk about because it is so dear to people, and I understand that.  Because of the emotional investment people have in their beliefs, it is often very difficult to discuss it effectively; nobody wants to listen because their very basis for life and existence is being examined, so little communication actually occurs.  I don’t ask anyone to agree with me, just to keep an open heart and be honest with yourself about what makes sense to you.

When we talk about morality, what we’re really talking about is judging other people. Right?

It appears to me that morality, as we know it today, was not supposed to be a part of the teachings of the great religions.  When I read the Bible (for example) the principles I encounter over and over again are non-judgment, love, respect for others, forgiveness, charity, and tolerance. These teachings are common to virtually every religion.

So how did judging others get all tied up into religious teachings whose pillar principles are non-judgment and unconditional love?   It seems to me that all these religions began as just very wise instructions for life, yet now they’ve become some bizarre, quasi-political, pseudo-magical set of rules. I don’t think it was meant to be that way, and I’ll explain what I think happened.  The reasons for it get a bit ugly.

How spirituality got hijacked

Morality, as we know it, is a political invention.  And politics has mangled religion into something it was never supposed to be.

Historically, churches always have had lot of political influence.  Particularly in the middle ages, western societies were ruled by religious institutions.  They had financial and cultural control over nations.  We know that wherever there exists concentrated political power, corruption is inevitable; this is just an unfortunate (but undeniable) characteristic of human nature.  Even men of the cloth (women weren’t allowed for some reason) were subject to the temptation of power and riches.  Inevitably, senior church leaders began to abuse their influence in order to control populations, accumulate wealth, and enforce their own personal beliefs, without regard to the spirit of their teachings.

Surely not everyone was behind this abuse, but when it comes to medieval politics, those who were willing to cut throats and crush resistance found it easier to come out on top that those who were unwilling to be forceful.  Any conscientious or unsupportive people were silenced, either by exile, threat of torture or execution.

In order to leverage this political influence, the spiritual message these institutions preached had to be altered.  The message of forgiveness and love could not be taken seriously while the populace watched them torture and murder their enemies.  They needed to conceal the disparity between their practice and their preachings, so rather than change what they did, they changed the message.  Sermons began to characterize God as judgmental, vengeful, even hateful.  The message changed from “follow the scriptures, and you will learn a better and more loving way to live” to “do what we say, or we’ll hurt you.”

It sounds far-fetched, that such a complete and audacious turnaround could be effected by a handful of corrupt officials, but I believe this is what happened.  It is necessary to understand the far-reaching power these medieval bureaucracies were able to exert.  There was no democracy, no recourse for the public; the Church was the accountability.  Keep in mind that all the commoners knew about the teachings was what the Church told them.  Most were illiterate, and any scripture they did get their hands on was supplied by theocratic institutions, edited as they saw fit.  There was no media, no internet, no freedom of speech.  It was forbidden to discuss other interpretations of scripture or to disparage the church.  They covered all their bases.  They chose vengeful, controlling words to reproduce in scriptures, so that they could back up their cruelty with what was presented as divine law.

The irony is that the original teachings were obviously meant to prevent people from becoming driven by lust for power, yet the political structures of the time allowed for thorough corruption.  The Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades are the two most atrocious examples of the profuse, large-scale madness caused by the abuse of religious teachings.

The most insidious misrepresentation of the spiritual tradition is still evident today.  The word ‘sin’ appears frequently in the Bible, and centuries ago, its meaning was deliberately warped.

Today ‘sin’ is interpreted as ‘the violation of a moral rule.’  But that is not what it used to mean.

From Wikipedia:

“…in the biblical Hebrew, the generic word for sin is het.  It means to err, to miss the mark.  It does not mean to do evil.”

Sin just meant to make a mistake.  To do something dumb, or counterproductive.  Not ‘to be bad.’

The word sin soon came to be cast around like a dagger.  Even today, ‘sins’ are abhorrent, their performers despicable, unworthy, loathsome.  Somewhere along the line, some not-so-nice people introduced hatred into religious doctrine, and this is how they did it.  This new definition of sin became their weapon of choice, and moral judgments were the ammunition.

Unfortunately, contemporary incarnations of major religions have inherited their structure and methodology from their corrupt historical counterparts, including the new, bastardized definition of sin, and the judgment and spite that comes with it.  This does not mean love and compassion are absent from modern religious teaching, I’m not saying that at all.  But the surviving trend of disdain as a part of religion certainly confuses things at best, and takes everything over at worst (see Westboro Baptist Church.)

Morality is the erroneous belief that there is some objective basis for assessing an action’s (and its actor’s) intrinsic worth, beyond shared values, and that looking down on people for their mistakes or transgressions is the right thing to do.  Its purpose has always been to devalue other people. To estrange, to divide, to dehumanize.  Moral judgment is only a way of putting other people unquestionably beneath you, with a sense of justification afforded by the state, the church, or society at large.  Once we’ve passed a moral judgment on a person, any manner of disdain, or even cruelty, can be rationalized.

Whenever someone speaks up about the rights of prisoners, for example, the majority rolls their eyes and questions why they have any rights at all.  The implicit presumption is that anyone in jail is worth less than anyone out of jail, if not completely disposable.  Whether they’re in there for armed robbery, or for smoking a joint, most people will look at someone in that telltale orange jumpsuit and size them up as scum, without a second thought.

Sadly, this presumption of high ground is normal.  Most people probably put others beneath them in this way all the time.  Despite their good intentions, most of today’s religions teach this habit.  And that’s unfortunate (not to say religion is the only source of moral haughtiness, only that its atrocious past is likely the primary reason for its commonality today.)  There are some brilliant and wonderful messages in Christianity, for example, but its track record of judgment and condescension has driven many people away from the church, and consequently away from the wisdom and power of the central message.  And that’s a real shame.

This is part 1 of a 2-part post. The second half is here.

Tower of London photo by AberCJ

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{ 29 Comments }

Jay Schryer April 18, 2009 at 8:16 pm

This is an awesome post! You really blew my mind away! I’ve thought about these things forever, it seems, but never quite like this before. I’m looking forward to part 2!

rosa April 18, 2009 at 8:46 pm

wow, amazing way of thinking…cant wait for next part

Brandon April 18, 2009 at 9:05 pm

This is exactly how I think of morality. There are things that are generally beneficial, and tends to work, but nothing is etched in stone.

Wonderful post. I can’t wait for the second part.

Roger - A Content Life April 18, 2009 at 9:33 pm

David,

Your post is insightful, as always.

Eastern Buddhists have difficulty understanding the western concept of sin as “bad”. They view it as a mistake from which you can learn. Buddhism generally views acts as skillful or unskillful as opposed to good and bad. A skillful act ultimately leads to long term happiness while an unskillful act leads to unhappiness. An act may be skillful in one circumstance but unskillful in another circumstance. So there’s a significant amount of personal judgment involved.

So I guess your chasing a moral relativism that is warped to a moral absolutism by politics and religion. I have to chew on that for awhile. I look forward to seeing where you go with part 2.

Henway November 6, 2010 at 8:55 pm

I’ve talked to several Buddhists about this topic and I get the sense that Buddhism is less about wanting to make ppl feel guilty (there’s no doctrine, per se), but rather want to present an intelligent view of the universe that will enable you live more positively. Religion, however just focuses too much on making you have guilt if you don’t do X, Y, and Z

carter April 19, 2009 at 12:21 am

I don’t see morality’s purpose as having always been to devalue other people; in fact, I see it as just the opposite. Morality puts value on people and says what is an acceptable way to treat a person. Calling child pornography immoral labels it as a practice that is an unacceptable way to treat a child. As far as labeling people scum and treating them disdainfully, I think the person who considers themselves taking the moral high ground is just fooling themselves and denying the truth that their attitude is simply pride. Jesus said that it’s the sick who need a doctor; those who think that they are above anyone else and do not think they are in need of improvement/ a doctor are in for a huge let down some day.

Those are some of my initial thoughts. I plan on rereading this article and letting it sink in some more – there’s so much to learn from and take in! Thank you for posting it, I cannot wait to read Part 2.

David April 19, 2009 at 1:43 am

@ carter — Thank you for an alternate viewpoint. I was hoping not everyone would agree with me. As a society, we do have to come to a consensus as to what is acceptable, and child pornography is certainly unacceptable. We have to create adequate consequences via criminal charges for this so that further potential victims are protected; the cost is just too great.

I know you realize I am not trying to justify that behavior, just to question the casual disdain with which we often treat people who behave in destructive ways. If we let the emotional reaction take over, we lose the ability to learn why this happened, and we may miss a chance to prevent it in the future.

You are absolutely right to say that the person taking the moral high ground is just fooling themselves. Nobody is perfect, and I think it is much more important to understand why somebody would do something destructive, so that we can remedy it, rather than treat them like hopeless and helpless scum.

Thanks so much for your comment, and welcome to Raptitude. The next part will be posted tomorrow.

@ Roger — I think you are right; sin has value, if only insofar as it can teach us where we went wrong.

@ Brandon — It was a major revelation to me, to realize that right and wrong really only have to do with what is beneficial to an individual and what is not. Anything an individual does to serve himself that damages humanity, is not really serving himself very well.

@ Rosa — Hey, welcome to Raptitude. Part 2 is coming right up, make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss it.

@ Jay — Hi Jay. You will definitely like part 2.

Nadia - Happy Lotus April 19, 2009 at 6:52 am

Hi David,

Good for you for tackling this issue. Not many would do so. I learned a long time ago that the original definition for sin means miss the mark.

As someone who has studied every possible religion, I have come to see that politics inevitably play a role and the original intention of the religion gets watered down due to politics. That has especially been the case with the three major monotheistic religions. The problem is that most of these three religions teaches that their method is THE method and that creates a sense of arrogance which fuels the morality. For example, adultery is wrong. However, let us say a woman is abused by her husband and she meets someone who is not an abuser and she falls in love with him. Is that bad? In my mind, no. It is understandable why it happened and I would not call her a sinner. Actually, I would never call anyone a sinner but many would. So it is all relative.

I look forward to part 2! :)

Positively Present April 19, 2009 at 10:43 am

Very, very interesting post. Whether or not readers agree with you, I think you definitely got your readers (and me!) thinking.

Schreiber April 19, 2009 at 3:59 pm

A little bit of thinking goes along way. You could draw our more threads of how history effects our current world situation. E.g. Where are religous people willing to commit mass murder and suicide in the same breath in which they ascribe greatness to divinity? As a former catholic, since and now former fundamentalist still seeking perhaps some stone is still unturned. Wherease years ago, though I don’t know how I would dismiss out of hand your train of thought I find quite winsome and compelling. Some exercise left to the reader still, as they say and just a sketch you make with not all the lines complete. I look forward to the rest tomorrow.

David April 19, 2009 at 4:20 pm

@ Schreiber — Hi Schreiber. Yes, there are definitely always unturned stones, that’s a good thing to remember. Thanks for your input, and welcome to Raptitude. Stick around.

@ Positively Present — Great, that’s all I’m trying to do here.

@ Nadia — You’re right; politics can’t help but affect everything involving groups of people. Many of these spiritual teachings arose during periods of conquest and imperialism, and I think that really did a lot to obscure the messages. Bad timing, I guess. I hope that the free idea-sharing dynamic of the information age can help unravel much of the distortion that has happened. Part 2, coming right up!

JBPM April 20, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Hi David,

Nicely written post. The idea that morality boils down to personal preference and social opinion is pretty compelling (Hume and Nietzsche thought so too), and yet it seems that there are problems with it. Some off-the-cuff thoughts…

1. How do we know the “original” meaning of a particular religion, as opposed to the “judgmental” variety we currently encounter?

2. When a religion values being non-judgmental, isn’t this in itself a judgment call? This is a paradox faced by many who seek to include a larger number of voices in a dialogue and are called out as “censors” by those who seek to remove voices from the dialogue.

3. Not sure I agree that morality means “telling others what to do,” although it certainly becomes that, since we humans have a propensity for hypocrisy and self-serving behaviors. I think morality first and foremost means “telling myself what to do.” Perhaps this is what you mean when you distinguish between “wise instructions” (i.e., for how one should behave) and “rules” (i.e., for how others should behave)?

4. Keep in mind that the transition from “wise instructions” to “rules” isn’t necessarily a deliberate process overseen by political elites, although that is sometimes certainly the case. There is also the fact that the people who follow a charismatic teacher (like Jesus or Guru Nanak) because of that teacher’s radical, back-to-the-source teachings will have children and grandchildren who didn’t know that teacher and who didn’t “convert” to follow that teacher’s “wise instructions.” Instead, they’ve grown up with these “wise instructions” (that their parents turned to voluntarily) in the form of “rules” for how to behave. Simply establishing a multigenerational community will change a radical teaching into a religion, with or without insidious political interventions.

5. As the adult discussion leader at the local UU church would point out, there is also the relationship of structure in upbringing to preference for “rule styles.” If we had a secure, structured upbringing, then we may prefer the “wise instructions” sort of rules, since deep down we assume a safe world within which to practice those instructions. If we had a chaotic, insecure upbringing, then we might prefer the authoritarian (or at the very least, crystal clear) rule-based mentality, to ensure stability and security in our daily lives.

Glad I subscribed to your RSS feed! I haven’t had a chance to think sustained thoughts about good and evil for a while. Thanks!

David April 20, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Hey JBPM, thanks for your great questions.

1. I think it’s fairly obvious, but of course, all we can do is infer. There is a consistent message of forgiveness and nonjudgment in almost all spiritual traditions, that conflict so completely with the contempt exemplified by some practitioners.

2. The word judgment is troublesome. Of course we have to exercise judgment; we need to have the faculty of discernment, but it was moral judgments — branding a person as morally inferior — I was referring to.

3. Yes, that is more what I mean. When you ask yourself what you should do, where does the answer come from? Is it from what you were taught to do, or from an internal sense of compassion and honesty? I realize ‘morals’ is what some people call that; I meant it in terms of what we’re taught about ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

4. Yes, good point. Much of it is honest misunderstanding, particularly since these lessons are intuitive and not very easy to communicate, especially to children. In an earlier draft I started to cover that point and ended up cutting out a lot of points (I split it into two posts because it was over 5000 words.) I should not have left that out.

5. Very good point! I’m just sorry it became such a threat-and-punishment-focused dynamic for many people.

Very good comment, thank you so much. Hope to be hearing more from you.

David April 20, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Just wanted to recommend to my readers this latest post on JBPM’s blog. Great list of simple insights on openmindedness from Deepak Chopra:

http://fellowpassengers.blogspot.com/2009/04/what-closed-mind-always-wants-to.html

Meg Rivers April 21, 2009 at 10:23 am

Just wanted to expound a little, I have an anecdote I like to use about good and evil.

One guy only has $1000, for the rest of his life. He loses that money in the street, it kicks off a series of unfortunate events that culminate in him dying of starvation. Evil.

Another guy finds that $1000, he didn’t have any money at all. It kicks of a series of fortunate events that culminate in him being a lothario millionaire. Good.

I believe that good and evil are only different sides of a struggle over resources. Reduce that struggle, reduce them both.

Great thoughts Mr. Cain. I really enjoy your blog. I hope you don’t mind my site hopping. ;)

David April 21, 2009 at 11:54 am

Hey, it’s Meg from Evolver.net! Good to hear from you.

That’s a great anecdote. I think you’re right. Nothing really has a beginning and and end, there is always a larger context. So it doesn’t really make sense to label one individual actor in that process as the root cause of a problem.

I’m glad you’re enjoying Raptitude. Site hopping is encouraged :)

Dan Adrian April 21, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Looking from the point of view of “the greater good”, I agree that being evil is mostly being ineffective in your actions. What you gain by harming others is rarely worth the harm done. But for your own personal well-being, I think being evil could be just as effective as being “good”. It’s just that, usually, you will cause others to loose much so that you can gain very little.

David April 21, 2009 at 4:26 pm

I agree. It’s hard to tell what outcomes are decidedly positive or negative for a given individual, because there are often unseen repercussions that may not manifest themselves until years down the road. I guess from my perspective, putting other people out as habit just can’t lead to a genuine sense of well-being, as in a complete ‘okayness’ with who you are. I suppose if somebody has never known anything better than momentary gratification, they may think it doesn’t get any better, but I doubt they’d be able to reach the state of grace that comes with the acceptance of life as it is. But my perspective is limited to my own experience…

Thanks for your feedback, Dan. Hope to hear more from you.

Alex @ Happiness in this World April 23, 2009 at 8:41 pm

David,
Saw your comment on Steve Pavlina’s forum and as I commented there, and also wrote two posts regarding the topic of morality and even took the title of my first post from the quotation by Edmund Burke. My compliments on taking on the controversial topic of morality–I found myself on the receiving end of intense disagreement on my positions on my own blog, but I really think these conversations are important to have.

You seem to endorse moral relativism (“I say no, there are no objectively immoral acts”). I think there’s a more nuanced approach somewhere between moral relativism and moral absolutism, which I discuss in my second post “Become A Force For Good,” but I disagree that moral judgments must necessarily label PEOPLE as good or evil; why can’t we acknowledge everyone has the potential for both and instead judge their ACTIONS as either good or evil, when appropriate. Of course, just how much good or evil one must commit to be considered good or evil remains a difficult and open question. I’d be very curious about your take on my positions and invite you to read and comment on my two posts as well.

Best,
Alex

David April 24, 2009 at 6:35 am

Hi Alex, welcome to Raptitude. Well, I do think that ultimately, everything is neutral, it’s only our own emotional reactions or value judgments that color it good or bad.

But of course, we do often have to make a distinction as to whether an act is good or bad, though this is not always a clear cut determination. I think we are on the same page though. Even though we can label actions as good or bad, it usually isn’t necessary either, IMO. Just a habit.

Most of the time though, I think we let emotional reactions and cultural conditioning determine how we assess the worth of an action (or more often) a person. I don’t think either of those are reliable barometers for doing that.

Veda May 3, 2009 at 5:16 pm

Morality – if it is to be as ‘neutral’ or ‘relative’ as David ‘prefers’ the world should get all Passive. For – there cannot be any neutral act or action that does not contain an element of ‘good or bad’ both as regards the actor and the affected ones around !

Sin and crime are the same .. one is as – badly affecting oneself and the other is as badly affecting others. They are different from just erring out of a slip or ignorance. They are referred to the ‘wanton acts or speech’…

Strangely enough there are people whose ‘mindsets’ are quite negative and their ‘natural speech or action’ are invariably – egoistic self-serving to the most and even harmful towards others.

How do the realatively more positive – and good-waords and good deed oriented folks to ‘deal’ with virtual liers and bad-doers – who nonetheless have all the ‘knowhows’ to ‘pretend’ to be the ‘softest spoken and innocent and ready-to-learn’ kind … while the ‘adversely affected by them’ folk or folks have the greatest challenge to take care of themselves in common matter and person???!!!

— This poser to David as I am contending with such supposedly ‘worldly smarts’… My goodness or rather the initial interaction with them with ‘all care concern and concessions’ towards them soon gets needed to be reviewed and I find myself to be the dumbest idiot to have got into a relationsip which is just not even ‘caring concerned’ or even fair in dealing vis a vis me ?!
Every interaction – needs to be ‘legally stated and that with an impartial wtness around’ ?!

Of course I am staunch Believer in God Almighty… But He Besides … Life is really challenging… with day to day ‘fear and fright’ of lurching with constant lieing and stealing possibilities around.

Morality needs to be ‘the more commonly learnt and accepted idea’ as its alternative namely ‘legality’ is only a ‘after the incident’ redressal or remedy and not a ‘preventive’.

Happiness – one can acquire in solitude but it is justice that is needed in one and all of human encounters… and Morality – with a degree of non-negotiable human minimum is – I am afraid – an inevitability – and it is not any comfortable free personal opinions but a defined-rule … that which can ensure peace and its absence can only get the ‘silence of the victims’…. It is an experienced FACT.

vedapushpa

Tyler March 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I didn’t read all the comments (there are a lot of them), so I don’t know if this has been said already. I fundamentally agree with your point that there is no intrinsic good or evil, and that it’s subjective. What I hope to add with this comment is what I have gleaned from my readings of ayn Rand, which is a little more rigorous explanation of things than just ‘no objective morality.’ at the outset, all values are subjective. This parallels what you have said. The elaboration is that, once you have established a value, things stop being arbitrary. There is a best way to achieve your values, whatever they are, and probably a lot of ways of doing it that are just about as effective. I will say this two more ways. One, ‘why’ is subjective, ‘what’ and ‘how’ are objective. Two, morality is relative and personal, causality is absolute and impersonal. And, of course, the ‘best’ way of doing something is a personal matter, but no amount of opinion or feeling will change how things actually work.

Personally, although I am fairly close to being a sociopath, a couple values that I accept as ‘good enough to work with,’ are personal and communal success and happiness, economy of effort and elegance of action, and personal strength and honesty.

Sheri Rink September 10, 2010 at 9:57 am

Hey David, This was my morning read today. I wrestled with the question of right/wrong, good/evil a number of years ago and this is what I found probably the same as you just different language. R/W, G/E in a moral context was not hard to see through and let go of. I lived in Germany for a number of years and watched my nephew at the age of 5 get drunk on beer (parents did not feed him it, they just did not intervene) and it was really quite funny (sorry, it was) and I realize what we label as R/W is culturally defined (mostly). I did not even have trouble with the more stark ideas such as that of the middle eastern men routinely engaging in homosexual relationships with their adolescent boys.
The one that caught me up and kept me stewing for months were the murderes and tortureres of kids (Bernardo/Holmoka type). I finally was able to withdraw my emotion enough to see what the universe had to say and it spun around R/W and G/E as set by the universe. So there is “flow” and “no flow” as the rules of the universe govern: ie the body needs food and water to flourish, lungs need O2, gravity, etc. So when the body dies is it wrong? No of course not. Are airplanes wrong because they defy gravity? No of course not.
So within the context of human behaviour is there flow/no flow. I think so. A very benign example is me yelling at my kids. Yelling is not wrong per say, what determines if my yelling has flow is the origin? Istthe origin one of fear, control…..then it would be a no flow yell (so to speak). Is it a yell because I am tired and my head is pounding and they did not listen the first 900 times to be quiet…..that would be a flow yell. Flow vs. no flow is also not dependent on the reaction of my kids.
So I sat for a long time and tried to be okay with the idea that someone could take my kid and hurt them is very ugly ways (a sick practise perhaps but necessary for me at the time)
What I found was that I would not be okay with it. I sat with it long enough to watch the emotion go and I was still not okay with it. It was/is a no flow behaviour. And I do think this is a universal “law” not a Sheri law because I did wrestle this for a long time and got to the point where I could “see”.
So two things I learned from this:
1. My only job is to get out of the way of the universe and to make my self open and avaiable to its’ laws…..to flow with what is presented me. This could never be, and never has been “wrong” or “evil”
2. If someone ever did touch my daughter in the above gruesome description, I am pretty sure it would be indicated that I use my registered hand gun to rectfy the situation to which I have no emotional attachment, just doing what is on my screen at the time.

JACK April 13, 2011 at 1:37 am

These are fun ideas to play with, I also appreciated the delivery very much. The arguments you present, however, seem to be more a matter of language than philosophy which surprised me but I found it intriguing nonetheless.

I once heard something along the lines of: when you ask yourself if something is right or wrong (good or bad) you must first ask yourself “would the world be a better place if everyone did this”?

It is a good measuring stick for right and wrong and although some might say that making a decision based on these two questions would be a product of intelligence as opposed to decency (or “good”ness) that is a linguistic debate…

Bob the Chef April 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Your ideas about the Middle Ages are a bit ill-informed and stereotypical, as is your disproportionate emphasis on the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. Your view of a lovey-dovey world is seriously at odds with reality and human nature, the latter of which you seem to emphasize. “Live in this world, but be not of this world” is a means of allowing a person to refer to his inner knowledge of what is best in a given situation, and acting it out in the external world. This means that we must refrain from taking part in the popular yet evil things people are doing, but it doesn’t mean we cannot take part at all. Society isn’t this monolith that we must subordinate ourselves to to engage in. That is a patent fiction. In reality, we live among other people like us, no more no less, and we can act rightly towards them in light of the greater situation they’re in (for this reason, compassion is not always the most charitable action, which is why we must approach each situation as particular instead of erroneously universalizing one thing as always good).

Now, the idea of sin as having this doom and gloom and “you’re bad eggs, damaged goods” ring to it, I really have little idea where it comes from. I suspect sin was co-opted by the modern State to create a subservient and dependent mass. It wouldn’t surprise me if its origins rest in 18th/19th century Prussia, with Hegel playing some part in it, as that is also the origin of compulsory public education, the crown jewel in the inculcating machinery of the State and a major instrument of control and oppression (and usually the media which exercises significant control over the State, as opposed to the official press of explicitly totalitarian regimes). Whereas rulers in older societies might have used armies and noblesse oblige to maintain order, modern governments function through smoke and mirrors, through tricks and media voodoo, to subordinate men to the wills of the few. So it’s not inconceivable that sin was co-opted quite recently. Just consider that in the Middle Ages, prostitution was tolerated by the Church as a practical means of addressing the problem of lust and reducing the incidence of premarital sex with future partners. Prostitution wasn’t criminalized until the rise of the modern state, a state that was often at odds with the Roman Church, a Church which always understood that human err, that they sin, that it has always been this way and always will until the end of time, and that the proper approach for sin is to address it as it really does. Unfortunately, not all of the clergy is immune to the influence of the State, which is where we might encounter strange amalgamations of Church and State. I believe it was Fulton Sheen who said that many hate the Church for what they think she is, but few hate her for what she actually is.

I would also like to add that it is a very Platonic, even Buddhist notion, that sin-proper is merely the product of ignorance. True enough, ignorance is to a large degree the breeding ground of sin, but here is where the Catholic understanding (and possibly Aristotelean understanding) of sin differs, which is that even having the knowledge (I don’t discuss understanding here, which I see as paramount), we are bound to sin. The reason for this hinged on the problem of evil which is a mystery, to me at least.

John April 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Just found the website, I’m having a great time exploring it! My own thoughts on evil are that it doesn’t exist, per se, but is defined by the society labelling it. What we call evil is simply the flouting of the prevailing moral order to varying degrees. Outside observers of a particular society might consider certain actions evil, but most members of the society in question will consider them normal, for example slavery, or the Aztec practice of human sacrifice as viewed by our contemporary society.

Love the site
JM

TomM June 1, 2011 at 8:25 pm

For a systematic analysis of moral relativism go here: http://www.peterkreeft.com/audio/05_relativism.htm
There is both audio and a transcript that counters your assertions. As noted above your thoughts on the Inquisition and the Crusades appear to be stereotypical and not based on facts. The Inquisition was a corrective to the secular authorities who were using accusations of heresy to silence opponents or pacify supporters. The Church instituted the Inquisition to bring due process to accusations of heresy. There were abuses during the Inquisition but many innocents were spared unjust secular punishments. The Crusades, too had its atrocities, but it was primarily a defensive effort against Islam which had conquered nations surrounding the Mediterranean that had been Christian for centuries. When Constantinople was threatened the emperor of Byzantium called upon Christians in the West to come to their aid. They did.

john July 31, 2011 at 8:47 pm

so this is moral relativism expounded. Its very convenient to bring up the abuses of religion, but how do moral relativists explain Nazis? Nice to know they’re simply mistaken. Lets assume for the moment that those who commit obvious, universally immoral acts such as genocide, murder, robbery, etc are simply poor mistaken misled souls. Their unwillingness to seek the truth or examine their actions degrades their future attitudes and actions to what could be reasonably be termed ‘evil’. Should not such persons be held responsible for their actions? Could the Nazis have committed genocide if the “good men” at the time actively stopped it? To think that our moral judgement of the murder of 6 million Jews and others as wrong and evil is just an opinion that a few people have at a particular time is ridiculous. I cant imagine a history of the human race where genocide is not universally condemned. At least by real humans.

martin January 9, 2014 at 10:06 pm

rubbish. there is good and there is evil. we live in a universe filled with polarity – hot/cold, light/darkness, up/down, wet/dry, life/death, right/wrong, good/evil. moral relativism is evil. getting all that you want out of life while doing no harm is good. doing harm to others for personal gain is evil. it’s really quite simple.

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