I think that many westerners think that there are a group of actions and behaviors to which morality is relevant, and that actions that fall out of those categories are morally irrelevant. I think that this is a very Christian-esk mindset – good people do good, and bad people do bad. Evil actions, in this framework, are a set of taboos such as stealing, infidelity, cruelty, etc. This set up implies that both good and bad people are responsible for their status. A morale dilemma is also often framed as something encountered. You’re just walking down the street and bam, someone’s about to run over a busload of children unless you pull a switch so that they run over a busload of nuns instead.
I think that there is more depth to morality. First, I am disinclined to think that there are a particular set of actions that are related to morality. I would instead say that morality is universally present in our actions. I would tend toward the Greek outlook that morality is really about making your life the good life. Morality, I would say, is not just reactive but also proactive.
When we talk of evil men, we usually point to people like Hitler. Hitler was pretty awful, but I think that he is a poor example for actually talking about what we mostly mean when we talk about ‘evil’ that we encounter in the world. I think that ‘evil’ in the world is much more often things like domestic violence, emotional abuse, greed, etc, and these I think are less examples of choice then they are examples of weakness. Living the good life is hard. We let the world control our actions, though we want to do otherwise. We allow ourselves to become enraged, to be greedy, to be terrified. I don’t here want to degrade this struggle – the world is powerful. Some of us are born into more difficult worlds then others. Let may be too gentle a term to describe what the world sometimes does to us – sometimes the world breaks us, or destroysus. Either way, though, there seems to be much more evil of this sort then there is deliberate evil (if such a thing can be even said to exist).
Another kind of evil, a much more politically challenging kind, is the evil brought about by dogmatism. The difficulty with dogmatic evil is that the actor usually thinks they are doing the greatest good. Others though disagree and think they are causing great harm. I am inclined to think that this is an evil of epistemology – it is people being unwarrantedly certain about the world.
I’ve mostly talked about the evils here, but each has its opposed good. The opposite of weakness is strength – those who stand up to the world to do what they think is right. The opposite of epistemological evil is epistemological virtue.
There are some theorists I’ve left out of this discussion, most primarily Nietzsche’s idea that we shouldn’t care about good so much as we should care about greatness. Maybe I’ll talk about that some other day.
Let me know what you think,