Redefining Good and Evil

On September 11th, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation in regards to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers: “Today, our nation saw evil -- the very worst of human nature -- and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”

President Bush condemned the actions of the terrorists as evil. Most would extend the adjective of evil to Hitler, perhaps to Franco, Mussolini, Himmler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the list goes on. It is a word that denounces the very worst of society. But how far does evil extend? To one who just kills one? Are they just as evil as one who kills a million? Who is more evil, the one who orders a death or the one who decides to carry it out? The one who kills to save someone else, or to save themselves? The one who kills by force or kills by poison? Is it evil if your intentions are good? What is good?

The dichotomy between good and evil as a theme is abundant especially in Abrahamic (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), and Manichaean religons. In Buddhism, good and evil must be overcome. Religion has instituted these concepts into secular society. The term good can also be detrimental. What does it mean to be a good person? What does it say about humanity if we are inherently good? Does that lift responsibility off of parents to teach their children well? If we become, or learn how to be good, than the so called ‘good’ is not an external force pressing on us, but a skill we acquire.

It is a gradual societal shift as the study of human behavior and neuroscience progresses to understand the growth mindset. We are not condemned to a level of achievement, skill, or morality from birth. We can grow, we can develop skills, and we can become a better person. Human beings are capable of change.

In the Bible there is no mention of the birth of the forces of good and evil. It seems to imply that they were always, simply there. In the story of Adam and Eve, it is commonly interpreted to mean that humans, by default are evil, but steps can be made towards good i.e. following G-d. Good and evil are forces outside humans, that act upon us.

The use of good and evil excuses the person of their actions. It submerges the complexities of their intentions and the anguish of their decision-making process. It indicates a force beyond their control, a bad seed that has taken seat in their soul. This process of obscuring the intricacy of morality with the simplicity of good and evil, an unfair binary, detriments the development of a progressive society.

Philosophy has long dealt with the concepts of good and evil. Many perceive morality to be completely determined by good and evil. But several philosophers throughout history have attempted to define what is moral, and what is immoral outside of good and evil. For example, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill introduced utilitarianism: placing the emphasis of morality on the amount of pleasure, or conversely pain, each action will cause. If we were to define good and evil by this method, perhaps they could be reconfigured to be useful in society. Immanuel Kant freed morality from good and evil by declaring an action to be moral if it met a categorical imperative: a set of rules independent of circumstance. The key factor of Kant’s moral theory was universibility. If a rule applied to everything, or if you would be okay if someone committed the action against you, then it is moral. The issue is that religion has informed society for so long that our ideas about what is right and wrong are greatly influenced by the ideas of good and evil instituted in religion.

There is a realm of philosophy called evil-skepticism that introduces three motives for disregarding the concept of evil. The first, is that evil connotes a supernatural element, the devil perhaps, the second is that the concept of evil doesn’t actually explain anything, and third that it can be dangerous to use in moral environment.

Another concern with good and evil is that, once defined by a society, or a religion, they are often absolute. The enforcement of moral beliefs based on an unexplainable evil allows prejudice and discrimination to flourish. Many people throughout history have been subject to hate and killings due to an association with the ‘devil’ or with evil, an insurmountable. It demonstrates how the concept of evil itself can be deadly.

In addition to this absolutism inside a society, good and evil tend to be relative between societies. What is considered moral in the United States, may not be the same in countries under strict religious rule. Moral relativism, the idea that the morality of a society is informed by customs and history, not universal, makes an appealing case for deconstructing the vernacular of good and evil. And, as I mentioned before, people change. Gay marriage was once considered immoral, or perhaps evil. Now, it is widely accepted and commonplace. Left-handed people were once considered a sign of the devil and forced to write with the right hand. Now, we think no different of them. To move forward in a progressive society, we must relinquish the rigidity of good and evil. The supposed dichotomy between good and evil prohibits anything more than a binary, when in reality, situations fall onto a moral spectrum. There are not often a clear distinction between moral and immoral acts. If reality does not exist in a moral binary, why should we think and conceptualize it as one. While the constructions of good and evil can be useful to explain morality simply, they have proven to be the vehicles of prejudice.

This does not mean I believe we should forgo morality altogether. On the contrary, I believe the abandonment of the ideas of good and evil allows for better conversations, and more thorough introspection as individuals and a society.

There is this concept in Judaism that being agnostic is too easy. You cannot say ‘I don’t know’ and move on. The goal is to struggle. Struggle with the existence of God or struggle with morality. You must come to your own terms with why we do what we do, and what is beneficial to the most people, be it economically, socially, culturally. The absence of a preconceived good and evil allow us to dictate the priorities of the society from less prejudiced viewpoint, progressing towards Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and traveling towards a more just society.

The long term goal must be a complete redefinition of the terms good and evil. Only when good and evil are practicable, predictable and explanatory should we reintroduce them, thoroughly scrubbed of their religious tint. Until then, politicians, and other moral adjudicators, should refrain from the use of these words.

We must always be careful of the words we choose to use, for words have the ability to mold the lens in which we view the world. Good and evil in particular, have the ability to change out moral landscape, and I believe we need to examine their origins and reflect on their effect in the modern vernacular.


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