On Good and Evil
The Modern Survival Guide #32
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. Bear that in mind, because I wouldn’t want to lead you down the wrong path, and in this article we’re talking about good, evil, and their nature in the world… so there are a number of paths to choose from.
Let’s start with some headline statements:
Good and evil exist.
Good and evil are situational.
Good and evil are imaginary.
All of these statements are true, to the best of my knowledge. It’s a paradox, and I think it’s important to understand why — because these concepts definitely affect our lives.
Let’s look at the easy one first, and we’ll work our way down from there.
Good and Evil Exist
There is moral good and there is moral evil in the world. We see this all the time, every day; trying to deny that we perceive good and evil is akin to denying the sunrise. It is built into humanity. It’s part of our culture, part of our understanding of the world.
That which is good is that which builds us up, comforts us, grows our capabilities, makes our lives worth living, makes love worth having, and makes a community worth living in. Goodness in the world is a force; it is a ground state that exists in some places and not in others. It is the soul of our laws, the aim of our ideals, the goal of our best and brightest.
That which is evil is that which is wantonly destructive, ignorant of consequences, cruel for the sake of pleasure, mean for the sake of misery, covetous beyond need, excessive past all reason, and willfully stupid. Evil is a force. It is a ground state in the world, like good, that can exist more strongly in some places than in others. It touches the bullies of the world, the strongmen, the con men, those who prey on the weak. It is a blight on society, a constant cancer, an omnipresent threat that we all must monitor and oppose in ourselves and others.
As much as these concepts have been devalued in recent years, they are still palpable and still applicable. But ideas of good and evil have been massively abused by the cynicism of the modern world, and they often seem like little more than rhetorical flourishes (or incitements). Nonetheless good exists, and evil too, and they can and will affect your life.
Now for the hard part.
Good and Evil are Situational
“But wait,” you say, “didn’t you just right there get done saying that good and evil exist? If they exist, how can they be situational?”
Well, how can you be thirsty at some times and not at others? A glass of water looks pretty good in a desert, and not so much when you’re drowning, right? Same thing with good and evil.
It’s important to realize at this juncture how good and evil exist. Forget the all those poetic flourishes I just used about forces in the world; that was just there to get your attention. Good and evil exist because of actions and consequences.
All actions have consequences; sometimes, admittedly, unforeseen ones. And through their consequences, any action that we can perceive can be judged as positive or negative, helping or hindering. That’s how we decide whether something was good, or evil, or in between. An action without a consequence is just an intention — and you know what they say about intentions — or a flight of fancy. These things don’t matter so much; if we judged everyone by the contents of their heads, we’d all be in prison. It’s the things we do in the world that define us. But the consequences of our actions are usually open to interpretation.
Good and evil are therefore all about telling a story of events. They are about describing actions in life in a way that promotes a vision of reality to help us interpret what is going on. They help us describe and narrate events to determine whether things will positively or negatively affect us and those we care about. They are incredibly useful in this regard; without good and evil, which are simple concepts most of the time, a great many people would have a great deal of difficulty deciding upon a course of action.
Think about how you normally talk about a “good” person. You likely say something like, “Oh, Jim is just great! He always carries his landlady’s groceries in for her. She’s old, it’s so much work for her, and he is so sweet to do it.” See what happened there? Jim is good because his actions have consequences and context — just carrying groceries around doesn’t mean a lot. It’s only “good” because we know that he’s doing it for someone else, and moreover someone who can’t do a lot for themselves.
Good and evil are based on narratives. But this means that good and evil do not — or should not — lend themselves easily to absolutes, and it means that good and evil can change definitions over time. Let’s look at a couple of scenarios.
Murder is wrong, right? Almost everyone is in agreement that most of the time, you shouldn’t kill people. On the other hand, there are times when killing a person is a damn good idea — such as, for instance, when they are threatening you or your family with lethal force. In this instance the injunction against killing must necessarily bend, if survival is a trait you value.
And stealing is wrong, right? Well, sure, almost everyone is in agreement that most of the time, you shouldn’t steal things. But you should absolutely steal the nerve gas away from a terrorist cell before they zombify downtown Santa Fe. Stealing is wrong when it is an impediment to otherwise innocent lives, not because people deserve to have any given thing they might possess.
This is where things get muddy, because there is good, and there is evil, but there is also greater good and greater evil. If you believe in good and evil at all, you can’t escape these concepts. Sometimes an act that might be evil in any other circumstance is necessary to do good. And sometimes an act that seems good on its face can lead to a great deal of evil.
And this is where the grey areas crop up, the moral choices which sit right on the edge… which means these are the choices to watch.
Naturally, politicians exist in these spaces. But so do counselors and doctors, social workers and child advocates, CEOs and union organizers. All kinds of events live in this situational space, and if you expect life to throw you easy binary good/evil choices all (or even most) of the time, you are going to wind up severely frustrated.
Consider: were the actions of the United States “good” in World War II? Yes, we were the bastion of democracy and all that. We defeated the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese, neither of whom were at all “good” nations in their treatment of their own people and conquered territories. We also deliberately firebombed civilians, created concentration camps for undesirables (from whom we stole property), destroyed cultural landmarks of no military value, routinely executed prisoners, and nuked a couple of major population centers.
What were we? You tell me.
Life is not simple. Therefore, good and evil, as guiding principles of our choices in life, cannot be simple. There will be an endless array of choices in your life which are neither apparently good nor apparently evil, but which will nonetheless have good or evil outcomes. And there will be frequent times when you may have to harm to help, or withhold aid to prevent a greater catastrophe. The best you can usually do is to stick to your principles as best you can, and make the choice that seems the best at the time.¹
I’m sorry if that’s not particularly comforting; it’s just how it is. We judge good and evil by consequences… and we often don’t get to see consequences until long after our actions are over and done.
Now for the really hard part:
Good and Evil are Imaginary
“Ok, wow,” I hear you say, “now you’re just screwing with us. You went to all that effort to talk about this stuff, and now you’re telling us it isn’t real after all?”
Well, if you take a person and grind them into dust, and grind that dust into its smallest molecules, and take those molecules apart atom by atom, proton by neutron, quark by lepton, you will never find a single speck of an elementary particle that causes good or evil. So no, these things do not exist in the physical sense.
And yet good and evil do exist — as concepts. It’s all in our heads. That doesn’t make it less real, it just makes it metaphysical. But it does mean that we have to be careful how we think about moral concepts because, again, these things are based on stories. We can’t bust out a cosmic ruler and measure the evil quotient in an act; we have to tell a story to describe it.
Moral stories both cause and interpret good and evil actions. These things exist as narratives in our minds, our conversations, our literature, and our culture. They transcend base reality. That’s what makes these concepts special, in some cases universal… and also very, very vulnerable.
Some of the most evil actions in history have been committed by people who genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. The inquisitions, the jihads, the atrocities in war, the genocides, and the persecutions that dot our history were all, almost without exception, committed by people who got up in the morning and had what they believed to be a really good reason to do a really awful thing.
Sometimes people who were otherwise very smart, kind, compassionate folks did this. It’s important to remember, when you’re thinking about events like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, that these things were done by men and women with families, with children… hell, they were probably even nice to dogs. Some of them no doubt carried their landlady’s groceries. But they were overcome by a delusion of good in at least one instance, and as a result performed acts of the most heinous evil.²
That’s the threat of an imaginary concept — if you can’t see it, if you can’t fit it in your hand and measure it, you have to be convinced of it. And there are some very convincing people out there. Religious leaders, politicians, parents, bosses, philosophers… all of these people try to create a vision of the good and proper path, and get people to buy into it.
This can create a trap of certainty. It isn’t that hard to convince someone that a particular path is in line with the greater good. Certainty is a motivational force; moral certainty even more so. But moral certainty is terrifying: once you are convinced of the correctness of your path, the goodness of your cause, you’re free to do anything. This is how people who were probably otherwise quite pleasant manned the gas chambers.
We’re seeing this right now in the US as part of the immigration debate: dozens of politicians are making the argument that the greater good of the country requires that we do some absolutely horrendous things to people who, aside from their country of origin, are otherwise unobjectionable. Many of the politicians’ followers are absolutely certain they are correct, which is frustrating. No one should ever be absolutely certain that a “greater good” choice is correct.
So, my question to you is:
If countless other people in history have fallen from good… what chance do you think you have?³
That question should terrify you. You should wake up from a sound sleep, every once in a while, thinking about this. It should occur to you in the shower, or while you’re at work, or when kissing your spouse, or when talking to friends. It should haunt you. Because if it doesn’t, you’re not thinking. And if you’re not thinking, it’s pretty easy for a delusion of good to take over.
The Reality of Morality
The reality of morality is that it’s all in flux, it changes over the centuries, and if you’re not really careful you can find yourself doing spectacularly heinous things for all the right reasons. This is not a situation in which you want to find yourself; people who do awful things rarely lead happy, productive lives, and are even more rarely fondly remembered.
So remember — good and evil exist. Good and evil are situational. Good and evil are imaginary. Don’t fall for the trap of certainty; certainty does not work well in morality. Instead, keep to your principles and look for guidance, not direction. Stay frosty, and keep your guard up; there’s always going to be someone out there who wants to convince you that their path is best.
And keep thinking, my friends — morality is not a field that rewards ignorance or lazy minds.
¹I think this is how a lot of people get seriously into religion and politics. These two arenas offer the promise of moral certainty. But it’s important to realize that this is just a promise. Both religion and politics are administered by people, which means they are both subject to the fallibility of humanity, which in turn implies that blindly following a religious or political cause is a good way to accidentally do an awful lot of evil.
²A delusion of good is a situation in which a person has been convinced that an evil act is necessary for the greater good when it is not. Delusions of good are usually judged by the survivors or the resulting conflicts. Think Thanos.
³Before you get smug and self-righteous, go look up the Milgram experiments.