Forms of Good and Evil

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,

Ryan Workman

via Blogger


4 thoughts on “Forms of Good and Evil

  1. You raise some interesting ideas, Creato! In that everyday moral wrongs are instances of weakness, and morality is just a part of living a good life, doesn’t it seem true that insofar as it is rational to want a good life, acting immorally is acting irrationally?

    • I love it when people comment! Thank you ausomeawestin.

      I’m inclined to say that as far as we act immorally we are a-rational. When we act in a way that appears immoral to ourselves, I think we are not actually acting as agents but instead are acting as merely expressions of our environment.

      • Interesting, some might suggest that according to that model you are not responsible for your immoral actions (if you are not an agent, but rather a focal point of your environment). I know from your other posts that you would reject this idea and maintain that persons who take responsibility for their environment act autonomously. But if it is rational to live a good life, and to do so by acting morally, and it is arational to act immorally, where immoral actions are expressions of your environment, then is it rational to accept responsibility for your environment? Those actions that are expressions of your environment, would they be rational, or arational still? I’m hesitant to say that acting immorally can be rational. Do you think this consequence follows?

      • Insofar as you choose an action I don’t think you can choose actions that you consider immoral at the moment. You can act and then decide later that you acted immorally. I’m taking a very Kantian slant – to be an agent means to act as you think you should. As much as you act as you think you shouldn’t in the moment, you are not really controlling yourself (which could be called weakness or failing to overcome your environment, depending on how charitable you are). This is what I meant when I said that we take responsibility for our environment.

        As to whether it is rational to accept responsibility, I’m not really sure. It seems to me that no one given the choice would turn away from responsibility if they really understand the choice. Taking responsibility, to me, is at the same time seizing control of one’s own life (as much as that is possible). It is our work to make our world the way that we want it to be, which we cannot do without taking responsibility for our world.

        Actions, to the degree that they are not our choice, run counter to the world as we would like it to be (if our environmental pressures are in line with our desires, then the world simply gives us that which we desire – no initiative taken). Acting immorally is therefore not something that can be rationally chosen because by my definition one is only an agent when they act in ways that they perceive as moral.

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