Good and Evil

In order to come up with any opinion on any serious issue, it is necessary to have an idea of what is good, and what is evil. Whereas a person may simply define these as That which makes me feel pleasure and That which makes me feel pain, these definitions are of no use when suggesting behaviours which other people should adopt. They are instead entirely selfish hedonistic definitions. If I am to come up with a satisfactory definition of good, then this must be one which will affect the members of the society which I address as a whole, not just one individual. Therefore, that which is good must serve the interests of most people in my society, in the long-run.

Every man in every society considers that his own values are correct, and everyone bases his opinions on those values. Similarly, everyone has his own idea on what the noise represented by the four letters "evil" means. Here I am defining what I mean by "evil", and nothing I say will be contradicted by anyone who says "No that's not what 'evil' means. I think that it means..."

When I was a youth, I said that I did not believe in good or evil, and that these were simply words, and that they were of no use, since everyone had an individual idea of what they meant. No act was inherently good or evil; it was just an act. Others suggested that certain acts (an example given was: going around stabbing cats) were "evil" because they would be considered undesirable by most people. This still was an unsatisfactory definition so far as I was concerned, since in certain places and at certain times, the same act might be considered desirable by the locals. Therefore, stabbing cats was not inherently evil, since in a land where cats were considered unlucky, and where the people lived by farming mice, a skilled cat-stabber might be considered the local hero of the day.

I value thinking. Consequently, I have little love for the opinion that "good" is defined by what a god tells you is good, as written down in a book or related by the clergy. This definition is an excuse for some people to gain influence over others, and for those others not to think for themselves. I also note that in all religions of which I am aware, the definitions of good and evil, of virtue and sin, are generally ignored by people, who consider them irrelevant in a modern society, or who consider them to be a model of unattainable perfection. If a man who has been separated from his wife for seven years, makes another woman feel special and loved, by sleeping with her, is he evil for committing adultery? If sloth is a sin, can we never have a lazy relaxing day? If I steal the gun of a man who intended to shoot my wife, am I evil for committing theft? None of these definitions by commandment works. I need a conceptual definition of evil which can apply to any situation.

We should act to make the world more pleasant for others. If everyone behaves this way, then the world will be pleasant for everybody, including me. Therefore, the laws, and advice, punishments, policing, and other such things which affect other people, which we create, should be geared to this end. Many people take "moral" stands on certain issues. When argued against, these people try to bolster themselves by claiming the moral high-ground, and they criticise the arguments used against their stance, by saying that the people putting them forward are bad. This, they do despite the fact that the arguments used are ones which urge a course of action which will actually work in practice to make the world better. The so-called "moral high ground", on analysis, often turns out to be an opinion which is that we should take a course of action which will make the world worse in practice, but will in theory make the world better. For some reason, people often prefer the theoretical to the actual.

My definition of evil is this:

Morality and practicality are one, and "evil" is the attempt to separate the two.

I'll need to give an example to explain what I mean. Imagine that someone has trespassed in some way on another person, and that a complaint about this has been made. Two opposing views on what to do next might be as follows: 1. The "moral" argument, which is that the transgressor should be punished, because this seems morally right, and something that we can all feel good and pious about, when we show how outraged we all are. 2. The "practical" argument which is that the transgression was only a minor one, and that trying to punish the trouble maker will only risk his getting even more awkward, and lead to a lot of shouting and fuss, which is avoidable. The pain caused to everyone will out-weigh the good, so for practical reasons, it is better to let things drop. You might be thinking now that I am arguing that the second solution is the better one, and that the first is "evil" since it will bring more pain to the world. Actually, I have picked a bad example on purpose, because it emphasises something I said above: "in the long-run".

Neither solution is necessarily "evil" by my definition, although in many circumstances, where we are dealing with people who will have to live together in the future, I would say that the first of the two is probably the more practical, and therefore the better one. I say this because the total amount of pain caused to the world by the second decision (to let the offender go unpunished) will probably be greater, since it will send a message to the offender, and everyone else, that transgressions are acceptable, and that these will probably not lead to punishment, which in turn will probably lead to a greater future number of transgressions.

Now consider a different argument. A man is suffering from a disease. His relatives and friends love him. He is the supporter of a large family, though he has no children yet of his own, and he is the life and soul of any party. It is not in dispute that he is a good man who does more to make the world happy than to make it sad. His disease will kill him if it is not treated. He can be treated with drugs created in a chemical laboratory, or with herbal medicines, or with gene therapy. The drugs will ease his pain and prolong his life by about two years during which he will deteriorate slowly. The herbal medicines will have little effect, if any. The gene therapy will cure him completely, as his body will be able to make the proteins it needs, and what is more, should he ever have children of his own, they will not inherit his condition.

Take all the above to be true for this example. Of course in reality there are some herbal medicines which do work, but in this hypothetical case, they are not very effective. There are people who will argue, and argue strongly, that the herbal medicines should be preferred to the other drugs. These people will set themselves up on a moral pedestal, and imply that anyone who would use "chemicals" to treat a condition, when "natural" remedies are available, is a bad person. They are arguing for a course of action which will make the world worse, and are saying that it should be taken for moral reasons, despite practical reasons for using the drugs. This makes them "evil" as I see it. You may say that they are not "evil", since their mistake is based on ignorance. However, I have met people like this, and even when one points out that all matter is made from chemicals, herbal remedies included, and that the chemicals in manufactured drugs can be dosed far more accurately, and have a demonstrably better performance, they will not change their argument. Even after being forced to admit these facts, they will still prefer the herbal remedies, and the greater amount of suffering that these will bring, because they have separated morality from practicality. "Yes," they will say. "I hear what you are saying, but you are taking a practical stance, and I think that one must argue for the morally right choice." These people have, in their minds, equated all that is natural with all that is good. Cuckoos, deathcap mushrooms, and earthquakes are natural. That doesn't mean that they are good. To say that they are good because they are natural, fits my definition of "evil".

Similarly, there are plenty of people who will prefer the "conventional drugs" to the gene therapy. Again, for the purpose of this illustration of what I mean, you must accept that in this hypothetical example that the gene therapy really does work perfectly (as sometimes it can), and that the drugs will only treat, alleviate, not cure, the man's condition. In my example, the gene therapy is the good course of action, and the others, while not evil in themselves, are less good, and the people arguing for the herbs or the drugs, when the gene therapy is available, are not perhaps themselves evil, but are using evil arguments.

If it could be shown that the use of gene therapy on one man might then lead to some other result which might in the long term make the world a worse place for everyone, then there would be a case for not using the gene therapy. However, in the real world, people, out of fear, which is usually spread by people using evil arguments, will often confuse the evil use of a thing with that thing's being evil. An axe used to cut away a branch which was pinning someone to the ground, in front of a herd of stampeding gnu, has been used for a good reason. The axe itself is just an axe, neither good nor evil. The same axe could be used to make the world worse by defacing a picture of Celia Johnson. There can be nothing evil about gene therapy itself, though it might be possible somehow to use it in such a way as to worsen the world.

The above goes some way towards explaining my dislike for journalists. These people have a strong vested interest in stirring up scandal, and in getting a large readership. Their investment in truth is piffling by comparison. It serves their ends to create controversy where none need exist. It serves the long-term sales of newspapers, and the interest in radio and television, to have a population which fears the possible uses of things such as gene therapy. "Man makes axe: plans to chop wood" is not a story that sells. "Man makes axe: could be used to deface Our Celia" might headline all around the world. These needless fears steer people away from truth, hinder the good intentions of many people, and create evil, since they encourage people to separate practicality from morality. Commonly we are required, for the purpose of a good story, to be outraged, and often to agree with one person or lobby which knows nothing about a given subject, arguing against a world expert. I am so often staggered by the mix of people brought together to argue something in the media. Against two professors, might be pitted an agony aunt and day-time television presenter who has "worries", and who takes a "moral" stance. For "moral", read "evil".

Next time, then, that someone implies that you are a bad person for suggesting some course of action, and says, or implies, that their stance has to be the one taken because it is the moral one, you can then be clear in your head that you are not evil, and that they are. Their deep underlying motive will almost always be the same: to create a reputation for themselves as a "good" person, and/or to damage the reputation of others, by making them appear "bad". Such a motive does not serve the common good. It only serves the person with that motive. It therefore does not qualify for my definition of "good":

A good act is one which will, in the long-run, cause the world as a whole to have in it a greater amount of happiness, pleasure, or contentment.

This definition is far from original. I am yet to encounter anyone with the same definition, or another workable definition, of "evil".


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