Thursday, February 01, 2007

"Good and evil." Discuss.

just to y'know lighten up a tad.

What does it all mean, dear? to you, i mean.

a metaphysical slant is welcome but not obligatory.

39 comments:

belledame222 said...

someone go out for some booze and spliff, p.s., will you?

nezua limón xolagrafik-jonez said...

it means everything to me.

JackGoff said...

well...good and evil. Righto. I'll hop on that on after a few vodka tonics then...

sly civilian said...

i suspect you don't really want my answer.

it's kind of long.

belledame222 said...

no, i do, honest.

little light said...

My long version is long; I do study theology.
My short version: enjoyment of wanton cruelty or the deliberate action of profiting from the suffering of others, with gradations of degree, are essentially evil. Doing harm without any other goal than doing harm, except perhaps the enjoyment of knowing harm is done or the benefit to oneself from the act of harm: essentially evil.
It has to do with intent, and with acts that increase the gulf between people or make more distant the possibility of a world where people take better care of each other, and with whether or not hurting others is something the actor likes doing.

Sort of. Honestly, I'm not even comfortable saying that, and the "I know it when I see it" definition is hard to hold up.
Honestly, maybe I'm just nervous about the word because I was raised by someone who sees most of the world in the vein of "good" and "evil," and I disagreed with a lot of what was called "evil," and I don't like the notion of calling a person, by nature, evil--not just evil acts, or evil intentions.

I don't know.

Rootietoot said...

Good:that which strengthens the soul, increases knowledge, benefits humanity in a way that has eternal consequences. By this definition, something aweful can become good because one learns and grows from the experience. Ok that's vague and subject to ridiculous amounts of parsing.

Evil: that which tears down humanity, destroys the soul, seeks to satisfy it's own desires to the exclusion of beneficial for everyone else. Such as: child molesters, Hitler, anyone who puts their own self before others to a pathological degree.

It's easier to see good and evil and know it, than it is to define it.

Rootietoot said...

yeah- what little light said.

meva said...

It's all a bit comparative, isn't it? I only know I'm good by the actions of others that I define as bad. Likewise, I see myself as comparitively bad by the virtuous acts of others. But not so much bad, I guess. I do try.

Evil is such an emotive word, and seems to me to assume an acceptance of a universal ethical code. And I think we all know that this isn't the case.

Your shout.

prosphoros said...

I don't really buy into "good" or "evil" as moral absolutes, certainly not to the level of ontological certainties. I'll sometimes use the terms metaphorically, or as contingent place markers, but I tend to be leery of it, because those words are so heavily coded into a sort of assumptive process where the listener assumes the terms mean not only absolute things, but *their* defintions in absolute terms.

It's not the "gray morass of moral relativism", but more a question of overlapping subjectivities, if that makes any sense? Because personal subjectivity seems to be endemic to the human condition, but the trick seems to be to find that overlap, rather than assuming my frame fits for everyone, or subsuming my own view into someone else's.

(I'm a total sucker for topics like this)

lilcollegegirl said...

Very tricky. I think that for the most part I think of things in terms of "good" or "evil" acts, and that when I do refer to a person as "evil" it usually means that they committed some kind of "evil" act, and I either can't or won't be able to understand their motivations. Kind of like varelse (sp?) in Orson Scott Card's speaker for the dead. At least in some cases, they might not be "evil", but I can't understand why they did the "bad" things they did. Example from personal life: I have a friend who was repeatedly raped by his twin brother when they were teenagers. I knew both brothers, was friends with both of them until the victim told me what happened, (at which point the rapist had moved out to Utah anyway.) So to me, the victim's brother is evil, because, well, how the fuck do you get to a place where you rape your twin brother? I don't really wanna know.

Holly said...

I think a lot of what we call evil is a form of madness. Obviously this has played out in the last century in debates like how "the insanity defense" should work. The worse forms of evil are not the ones that result from thoughts or feelings becoming obviously broken, warped, and harmful -- they're the things that are all too understandable: selfishness. greed. apathy towards the suffering of others. The "banality of evil" is all about how evil lurks in the grey areas, not like clouds of dark smoke, but like air pollution we can't see. There's somethign to be said for evil as "the absence of good" too. And what's good? Compassion (universally) and the integrity it takes to extend compassion without falling apart, I guess.

Andrea said...

Oh you don't want me stoned, all I do is laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh etc.

Ravenmn said...

Since I believe we all have the capacity to do good or evil in most circumstances, I've come to the conclusion that creating conditions in which people are most likely to choose the good alternative is "good". Creating space that makes it easy to take the "evil" choice is the overall "evil."

Why is Andrea getting stoned?

belledame222 said...

'cuz i said someone should get out the spliff.

andrea: i think that sounds fab, myself.

JackGoff said...

For real. I believe the point of the stone to laugh. Wacky tobacky and all that.

Demon weed...mmmmmm

Roy said...

I agree with the notion that "good" and "evil" are best attached to actions, not people. It's not that I'm incapable of understanding what people mean when they say "So and so is an evil, evil person," but I think it conflates the person's actions with the person. Not that they're always easy to seperate.

I think part of it is that I feel like calling a person evil makes it easy to dismiss that person's actions. If you've got a person who has done termendously evil deeds, and you start saying that the person is "evil" or a "monster" it makes it easy to forget that you're talking about a person, and that people are capable of really fucked up things.

Anyway...

It's definitely hard to define, though. Sometimes I think that the intent behind an action matters more than anything else. If someone is doing something that seems nice, but is doing it for horrible, cruel reasons, is that a "good" action? If someone does something that turns out terribly, but did so with the best of intentions, is that a "bad" action?

On the other hand, I don't know that you can really rely *just* on intent. If I kill a dozen people because I honestly believe that doing so will make the world a better place, is that still "good" even though my motives are pure?

I suspect not.

Emily said...

I have no problem with the word "good," (clearly, communication in this language would be hard if I did,) but I almost never use the word "evil." Lately, whenever I think of the word "evil," I think of Bush standing up and spouting all of his ideological bullshit about the war on terror and I think, "when I start accusing people of evil, that's what I'll turn into."

Or, before I go any further, what prosphoros said.

belledame222 said...

On the other hand, I don't know that you can really rely *just* on intent. If I kill a dozen people because I honestly believe that doing so will make the world a better place, is that still "good" even though my motives are pure?



well, thing is, -you- might think it's For Their Own Good, but if -they- don't think so, it--ain't.

therein lieth the rub.

Unsane said...

http://home.iprimus.com.au/scratchy888/AFRICA.htm

JackGoff said...

-you- might think it's For Their Own Good, but if -they- don't think so, it--ain't.

In the scheme of the world, with multiple people and multiple motives, yes. In the confined system where we are only talking about a person and the way they view the world, no. That's one reason ethics is so damn hard to create a coherent natural law under. All people deserve to have their life, but what actions forfeit that right? Do any? If I kill thirteen suspected terrorists, whom I believed were terrorists, is there any way to prosecute me when it might turn out that a few of the suspected terrorists were completely innocent of any charge?

That's why I'm a pacifist, but pacifism doesn't work against true evil that exists to promote itself. So...wherer are we at? Square one? Gah...

Ravenmn said...

"spliff"?

I'm boggled.

JackGoff said...

spliff = joint = cigarette rolled of marijuana

ballgame said...

well, thing is, -you- might think it's For Their Own Good, but if -they- don't think so, it--ain't.

Is it really that simple? What of a deluded person — a child, or an adult whose perceptions have been altered by drugs or illness — who believes they can fly? Would it be evil to restrain them from leaping off a tall building for their own good?

As to the larger question, is it really that hard? I mean, Golden Rule and all that … descending hierarchy of guiding principles — i.e. "Don't kill someone," "Don't hurt someone (unless failure to do causes death)", "Don't interfere with someone else's pleasure (unless failure to do so causes hurt or death)" etc. etc. — with evil being the violation of these principles.

Now elaborating on the definitions of certain kinds of evil — "exploitation" "corruption" "oppression" — can get tricky at times. And "sexual betrayal" might be a bit difficult to categorize. But the basics? Most of us would be in pretty substantive agreement, wouldn't we?

cicely said...

It's not the "gray morass of moral relativism", but more a question of overlapping subjectivities...

What prosphoros said - and wrt this, for example, I don't think of pedophiles as evil. I think for some, attraction to children is a kind of sexual orientation albeit one that cannot be socially sanctioned. If we think the desire itself is evil, or makes a person evil, I think we're being unjust (particularly in our youth/beauty obessed culture), and are also less likely to reach people at risk of acting on those desires to provide strategies they can use to avoid doing so. Controversial subject, I know, and I'm not meaning to take us off track, but since rootietoot mentioned child molesters as evil, I felt the urge to say this.

Roy said...

As to the larger question, is it really that hard? I mean, Golden Rule and all that … descending hierarchy of guiding principles — i.e. "Don't kill someone," "Don't hurt someone (unless failure to do causes death)", "Don't interfere with someone else's pleasure (unless failure to do so causes hurt or death)" etc. etc. — with evil being the violation of these principles.

The Golden Rule isn't a terrible basis for trying to determine how we'd treat other people, but it's not perfect. It requires that we put ourselves into the shoes of someone whom we may not have anywhere enough information about to really do so.

The commandments don't, either. They give us a reasonable starting place, but they're not universal.
1. Don't Kill... unless it's in self defense, right? Except... what if I'm terminally ill and want to end my life, and I'm pleading with you to pull the plug on my life support? What about in cases where a dictator is attempting to conquer a peaceful people, and we've been historic allies?
2. Don't hurt someone (unless failure to do causes death)...except, are we just talking physical pain? What if someone punches me first? What if I see someone beating someone else up, but it doesn't look like he's going to kill that person? What if that person likes to be hurt? What if I don't realize that my action is going to cause pain?
3. Don't interfere with someone else's pleasure (unless failure to do so causes hurt or death)... except, again, we're stuck with having to discuss what counts as "hurt." What if my pleasure is coming onto other people's blogs and leaving racist, homophobic insults? Does my desire to be a moron trump the blog owners desire to have a site free from such insults? After all, neither of us is physically hurt or in danger of death (assuming that they don't track me down and kick my stupid ass).

See, the problem with defining "good and evil" in regards to a set of, in theory, universal rules is that there don't really seem to be many universal rules. Sometimes the exceptions are pretty unlikely or unusual, but they're still exceptions, or, at least, they still potentially confuse things.

ballgame said...

roy: I have to say that I fundamentally disagree. I didn't fully spell out all the principles and common sense caveats to the principles like self-defense etc. (I was recalling a college class in philosophy where we discussed these things.)

And sure, there are some difficult-to-parse situations. But, for the most part, I remember that class because we came to a consensus on a set of basic moral principles without having to reference a deity, and it was surprisingly easy to do (given what I expected). And I think that's important, because it's hard for me to see how a society can avoid conflict — even violent conflict — without some broad agreement about morality and meta-morality.

Roy said...

My point is that they're neither easy, nor common sense, unless you're part of a society/culture that already deams them so.

Sure, to you and me, "self defense" seems like a pretty common sense exception to the "Don't kill" rule, is it really?

There are some people who argue that it's not even okay, even in self defense, to kill.

The golden rule gives us a standard for behavior, but it doesn't tell us whether things are good or bad. It's an attempt to make a general standard for behavior that will let us get along. Which is great, as long as we don't run across exceptions. The problem, of course, is that we *always* run across exceptions. The more general and universal you try to make a rule, the more and more exceptions you're going ot run into, and the more debates you're going to find coming up over it, until it gets to the point where you realize that your once universal rule is hardly universal at all.
And I'd, personally, argue that society doesn't avoid conflict. At least, our society doesn't. We try to, by passing laws, but we're hardly in moral agreement. Abortion, suicide, homosexual marriage, genetic tampering of food, drug use... there are conflicts about things that may or may not be moral issues all the time. And I don't know that one should confuse "legal" with "moral" anyway.

Generally, I agree- there are some things that seem like fairly obvious moral prohibitions:

Don't: Murder, rape, abuse, steal, cheat.

But they're not universal if we have to list myriad exceptions to them, or if we can't agree on what exactly constitutes "murder" or "rape" or "abuse" or "theft."

(For the record, I do agree that morality doesn't require a deity. I just don't think that defining what is "good" versus what is "evil" is more difficult, and certainly more complicated, than saying "just follow the golden rule")

R. Mildred said...

1. Don't Kill... unless it's in self defense, right? Except...
2. Don't hurt someone (unless failure to do causes death)...
3. Don't interfere with someone else's pleasure (unless failure to do so causes hurt or death)...


Why would you kill, interfere, hurt someone though? This always happens, everyone gets so stuck on the abrahamic obsession with "Thou Shalt Not..." that they forget the key question should always be "why the fuck would I in the first place?"

And the only truly universal moral maxim is nothing more complex than "The Zeroth Law of robotics does not apply, nor is it ever a valid justification for an action, any action, no matter how good."

Roy said...

Why would you kill, interfere, hurt someone though?

Which is a good question. Personally, I try not to, but we should talk to some of these people, or this group, or the people who beat their children/wives/husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends.

It's easy to get hung up on what people shouldn't do, because there are so many examples of people doing shitty things to each other.

Unsane said...

maybe this

a very public sociologist said...

Can anyone be ever said to be truly evil?

Nasty bastard though he was Hitler was apparently nice to his faithful hound.

Serial killer Dennis Nielsen used to give money and buy the Socialist Workers' Party paper.

The Kray Twins loved their mum.

Sage said...

I don't beleive any people are essentially good or evil. And most acts don't sit firmly on one side or the other. Intentions and effects (typically more than one of each) get muddled up creating a complex goo that can't easily be filtered into opposing principles. Acting with the intention to benefit from the harm causing another is close to evil. But even then there may be other factors to consider. If a mother acts with the intention to benefit financially from harming someone (i don't know - maybe insider trading), but it's for the benefit of her sick child who needs an expensive operating, then is it really so evil?

Perhaps it's evil if the sum of the evil inherent to an act is greater than the sum of the good. But who's to measure?

On another note, Ravenmn said, Since I believe we all have the capacity to do good or evil in most circumstances, I've come to the conclusion that creating conditions in which people are most likely to choose the good alternative is "good". Creating space that makes it easy to take the "evil" choice is the overall "evil."

I picture a society in which everyone's most likely to do good as somewhat totalitarian with harsh punishments for even the most minor crimes.

belledame222 said...

I would like to see a society organized around the principle that people are inherently decent, if not perfect, but worthy, not "born bums" (tm Jesse Helms).

as reflected in social policy at the macro level as well as individually.

but, at the same time, with a strong and clear "social contract;" sort of o i dunno, if there were some sort of wider-scale in which to conceive of "safe, sane, consensual"?

and a clear mechanism by which to--i am still learning this concept--"reintegrative shaming."

it would have to be a pretty egalitarian society, one where the "basics" of living were -somehow- (if not through State, then -somehow-) readily available to everyone; and a commitment toward oh let's say creativity? and generosity.

and even so, some few people, i think, might genuinely be what's now (not always correctly, i think) called "antisocial," i.e. actively destructive, incapable of reciprocity.

or, not. not would be nice.

but i think there would have to be an understanding that that is a possibility; and some sort of mechanism available to deal with such instances, hopefully only as a last resort. (I think such things as "shunning" could work but only in a context where there -was- any real sort of...society).

no, i don't have any good ideas as to how to make that happen on the macro level, i'm afraid.

oh, and i think it needs to be acknowledged that yep, we -do- all have aggressive and competitive drives, that those may in fact be natural or at least damn near inevitable; we are after all animals.

but, 1) those aren't the -only- drives

2) there are ways in which to integrate or at least honor that "dark side," and they should be done consciously. the goal is not to become "pure," but "whole."

per the last few comments:

remind me later to dig out my developmental psych book and find whoever it was that was talking about stages of moral development.

belledame222 said...

sly, i'd still like to hear your answer, for true.

R. Mildred said...

2) there are ways in which to integrate or at least honor that "dark side," and they should be done consciously. the goal is not to become "pure," but "whole."

It wouldn't be a "dark side" though, it'd be a readily accepted, deeply acceptable and healthily channelled aspect of your greater-whole-self.

To concieve of oneself as a duality, or a multiplicity rather than as a whole is folly, a self destructive thanatos ascendant and raady to rule you. You cna't after all ever win a fight against yourself, you can however lose, and lose hard.

it would have to be a pretty egalitarian society, one where the "basics" of living were -somehow- (if not through State, then -somehow-) readily available to everyone; and a commitment toward oh let's say creativity? and generosity.

This guy I met in London once tossed this idea at me (and of all the things to have tossed at one's self, an idea is routinely the scariest and most resultant in ick) that, in an economy where hardcopy currency, coins, notes the whole shebang, didn't exist so that all currency was electronic, it'd then be a very small step to change from the model of an economy made of lots of little individual and personally owned bank accounts, to a great merging of all the privatley owned money, including that of the government and businesses, into one single national super-bank-account which contained all of the money owned by everyone in that nation and to which everyone had access.

Of course neither he nor I could figure out a socio-economic model to handle or in any way actually model the result of doing that, due to lack of data and the basic fact that the whole thing seems to act like a giant socio-economic singularity - everyone would have access to trillions of dollars all at once, but it'd be the same trillions dollars... and it would all require everyone contributing to the GNP, which would in effect be their own gross and untaxable personal pay check and... and...

It gives me a headache.

cicely said...

it would have to be a pretty egalitarian society, one where the "basics" of living were -somehow- (if not through State, then -somehow-) readily available to everyone; and a commitment toward oh let's say creativity? and generosity.

Somewhere like Sweden, then. High taxes funding a generous social welfare system covering basic needs from free healthcare right up to free tertiary eduation for all citizens. The Swedish phrase to desribe their nation under this system is 'The Home of The People'. People are valued over money and yet the Swedes have a higher overall standard of living than Americans do. Even though the Social Democrats lost last years election (for only the second time in almost a century), the leader of the victorious moderate party grew up under the system, values it, and has vowed not to tamper too much with it. We'll see. My point is to agree that a genuine commitment to egalitarianism must reduce the motivation of most people except genuine sociopaths (whatever they are or how they come about), to do do harm to others. It's a prerequisite in my book.

ballgame said...

cicely: Excellent idea. We also need to stop incentivizing sociopathic behavior (i.e. profit maximization at the expense of human welfare).

namaroopa said...

yeah, I definitely resist calling people "good" or "evil." I'm all about specific behaviors, and specific contexts. there are some pretty consistently crappy people in the world, people I don't want a thing to do with, can emotionally not care a whit about, but - the more I learn about those fuckups, the more I'm sure they came from somewhere I can't fully understand.

it seems to me that people who go so far as to act "evil" most of the time need to first learn how to break their own narcissistic/binaristic thinking. thinking which makes them likely to think of themselves as entirely "good" or perfect. whatever they're doing evilly to someone else is probably in some way protecting whatever constructs the perfection. so a person seen as "evil" probably paradoxically has a way of thinking of hirself as the epitome of "good," unable to recognize that they're not perfect without thinking any such suggestion is meant to hurt them.

and besides, if good is the opposite of evil, then we might have to agree that all things not done with intent to harm are basically good. ick, I don't like that implication. there are lots of non-evil actions that might have been better otherwise from whatever vantage point, even if we don't judge them.