PHILOMADRID

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Good and Evil?

Good and Evil?


Good and evil are an old story in philosophy. Many a candle
has been burnt in the dead of night trying to make sense of
these concepts. And many a tree has been pulped to print the
results of these late nights. Now, at this stage of the
proceedings one is usually expected to ask the questions,
what is good? And, what is evil? My hesitation, if not
apprehension, at asking such questions might be justified
this time.


If I put the words, Winston Churchill, in my favourite image
search engine I expect to find a series of pictures,
cartoons or caricature of a male person of a certain stature
or looks. Most of these images would look quite similar to
the eye, even when they are line drawings or brush strokes
of painting. If, on the other hand, I were to enter the
words, David old testament, I except to get a equally long
series of pictures, but as you know non of them would be of
the person the old testament or other holy books speak
about. This is not surprising, since no one has actually
done a painting of the real David. In reality, we don't know
what David looked like, period. So the question, what did
David look like? Does not make sense. Of course, we assume
he must have had looks of some sort.


But there is a second important point to make about
searching for David. You would have noticed that I included
old testament in my search for David, whereas I only entered
Winston Churchill for my first search. David did not have a
surname in the way we name people these days so we need to
limit our search otherwise we'd end up with a lot of Davids
in our results. So, the question, who is Winston Churchill?
is not the same as, who is David? I suggest that we end up
with a similar problem when we ask questions like, what is
evil? and what is good? We would be starting from the false
assumption that good and evil are somehow similar or
complementary opposites and that they have the same meaning
structure.


By virtue of discussing good with evil we are limiting
ourselves to a certain type of good. We are limiting good to
mean moral approval; a moral type of good. For example, we
are not talking about the same good when we say something
like, "...this piece of cake is very good." Because it just
does not make sense to say, ".this piece of cake is very
evil." However, this trick does not work with 'evil'. We
cannot just associate some other word with the word 'evil'
and we determine the meaning of the word 'evil'. For
example, we cannot join "agreeable" with evil and thereby
determine the meaning of evil. Quite ironic really, because
we would like to think that good is not determined, but a
expression of freedom.


Why should there be this specificity with the word evil? Why
should it be so specific in meaning and in a way
deterministic to the word good? For our purpose, we are
interested in the use and meaning of words even though
meaning does change over time. I will come back to this
theme later on. It should not be a surprise that the word
evil is such a specific word. If we use the word evil to
refer to something, one thing we would be saying is that the
thing in question is very serious and requires our immediate
attention. It's a sort of, drop everything and listen to
what I have to say, kind of word. Whereas good is a come and
share the fun sort of word. The point is that there is no
ambiguity with the word evil; the meaning is clear and a
course of action may even be prescribed. Think of the fire
brigade when they receive an emergency call; they know
exactly what to do. They don't sit around asking for second
confirmation, the nature of the fire, whether to take a fire
hose or an extinguisher.you get the idea. The word evil has
the same effect on us.


To confirm that this is more or less the case, people, as
individuals or as a society, demand or take immediate action
if something is considered evil. Think of the reaction we
have when a serial killer is on the lose. It is such a
serious event that in some cases the highest authorities
have to be employed to reassure the population that
everything is being done to catch the criminal. On the other
hand, we don't get this sort of short notice mobilisation
when something good happens. We don't get the frenzied press
conferences every time somebody gets a decent job, for
example. Or, not unless there are some public relations
points to be had by the powers that be.


The reason why people would be distressed if there is a
serial killer on the lose is, of course, fear. Which
probably explains the urgency and the focus of the word
evil. We can assume from this point onwards that the fear we
are talking about is the one associated with self
preservation. This might also explain why the word evil
tends to have a single meaning. Since the word has a fixed
and determined meaning when we use it, no additional
information is usually added to its meaning (see information
theory, Shannon). This is efficient because we are left with
no doubt about the meaning, but it does not give us new
information. If we said of a person that they were evil, we
know what to do and certainly how to feel, but necessarily
why. On the negative side of the equation, the fact that the
word evil does not come with added information it becomes
very easy to manipulate. Since we tend to take the meaning
of evil at face value, it is very vulnerable to abuse.


Comparing this with good, good gives us more information
about the situation we are considering; or rather good needs
to come with a context. If I say, "she is a good person,"
this means nothing to us, so we need to be more specific.
Let's say we make this more specific, "she's a good wife to
her husband and a good mother to her children." Now we know
what good means here and what kind of person we are talking
about. But, she is evil, is enough for our emotions to go on
full alert. As I mentioned above, nobody kicks up a fuss
when something good happens.


How do we apply or use the words, good and evil? As already
mentioned, we use these words within the province of
morality and then to describe the most serious or the most
important events within the ambit of that moral system. This
also suggests that the use of these words is relative to the
moral system we happen to operate in. Whilst we may accept
the a priori features of these words, as described above for
example, we cannot say the same about use. One of the
reasons is of course that, hard as we try, moral systems do
not seem to be universal.


The strongest evidence we have that shows that ethical
systems are not universal is the structure of religions and
legal systems throughout the world. These two systems are
supposed to be the ultimate in ethical systems. What
interest us is that religions profess to be concerned with
the good and legal systems with justice. What is regarded as
good or just by one system can be in direct conflict with
what an other system holds to be good or evil. For example,
some legal jurisdictions allow the death penalty while
others do not. How do we account for this discrepancy? Some
religions are tolerant of certain behaviours while others
are not. For example, some religions allow a man to be
married to two women at the same time, whereas others do not
approve of this practice. How can the same thing mean one
way under one system and other way under another system?


This difference suggests that what passes as morality is
nothing more than personal opinions. In other words, it is
not that certain acts are evil or good, but that what is
good or evil is what we approve of. Some would see this
position as contrary to our held beliefs, if not subversive,
to the fact that morality is objective. If we deny
objectivity or universality how can we account for the
authority of say a deity or the concept of justice? If good
and evil are just things we approve of then there is no
scope for a deity or the blind application of the law. A lot
depends of course on what we mean by "we." Do we mean "we"
as individuals or "we" as a society?

Can we, somehow, account for the belief of objectivity and
universality of good and evil. The first test we can apply
is whether actions and facts are good or evil in and of
themselves. It has already been conclusively argued that
there isn't an ingredient which we add to something to make
it good or evil. Good and evil are not things that live in
actions or facts, so to speak. To use an analogy, a home
made pie does not have a piece of our home in it; a pork pie
should have pieces of pork in it, though. So, by just
looking at the facts themselves we will never find the good
or evil gene; good and evil do not make ideal laboratory
subjects.


But just because good and evil are not some ingredient we
add to actions or facts, it does not follow that certain
actions are not always good or evil. Lets take murder for
example. Few would argue that murder is not evil. But this
seems to suggest that we go around our lives having to
decide whether we should kill some of the people around us.
As if we are always having to restrain ourselves from
killing someone. This is ridiculous of course. So, if we
don't go around contemplating whether to kill someone or
not, why should we have to be told not to kill? Maybe it is
something we inherited from the past. Maybe it makes more
sense to say, do not put yourself in a position where you
might have to kill someone. Not exactly English prose, but
maybe clear instructions. Could it be that the way we
describe the world somehow determines how we use good and
evil? A classical example of how language can influence the
way we see the world is the terrorist/freedom fighter
distinction.


Of course, 'murder is evil' is a value judgement, whereas,
'putting one's self in certain situations that can lead to
killing someone,' is a matter of fact; a probability to be
precise. This seems to lead to the question, when is a fact
a fact and when is it a value judgment? Being able to
distinguish value judgements from facts is one thing we can
do to understand good and evil. It is not surprising that
people who want to manipulate our beliefs usually revert to
emotive language to blur the difference. As I have shown
above, evil and good are very emotive language. The
terrorist/freedom fighter distinctions is one case in point.
For example, we can describe a suicide bomber as an evil act
against innocent people or we can describe the same event as
the most sophisticated intelligent bomb ever created by
human beings.


It seems that, by rejecting both the objectivity option of
good and evil and the personal point of view option we are
left with nothing. By not accepting both options we seem to
have painted ourselves into a corner. Of course, if we are
able to use language in a more neutral way we might be able
to look at facts and actions as they are and not as we see
them from our point of view. Having a common language can
take us a long way to having a common morality. At the very
least, having a common language means that we all have
personal access to information, thus reducing the risk of
contamination (white noise) or abuse (slanted meaning).


One of the most serious challenges to good and evil, is of
course reality. Our ability to know what reality is and to
understand reality directly affects our value judgments.
Sometimes this is not easy at all, but can be done. Going
back to the David and Churchill search, there are limits to
what is physically possible to know. In this example, we are
limited by historical facts. Of course archaeology and
analysis of historical texts can fill some gaps, but not all
the gaps. We certainly don't know what Churchill would have
made of today's policies on terrorism. He is not alive to
ask him. Furthermore, the fact that value judgments cannot
be subjected to laboratory testing implies that we are very
limited to what can be regarded as reality. Incidentally,
this very same point is the biggest challenge to some of the
world religions today. People are constantly having to
imagine what the founding fathers of a religion might have
said about today's problems. Curiously, this reality about
reality issue is also found in science, but this has nothing
to do with value judgements!


Our ability to learn and discover new knowledge about the
world around us, is another source of changing the use and
abuse of good and evil. In fact, knowledge is the most
serious challenge for good and evil. Scientific knowledge
most often comes into direct conflict with long held
beliefs. For example, the use of contraceptives as an
effective means to control some diseases comes into direct
conflict with Christian dogma about procreation. Of course,
it is this ability to improve and ass to our knowledge that
changes the meaning and the use of good and evil over time.


Any discussion on good and evil must also address the two
most practical questions we can find in ethics. 1) If
something is good (or evil) does this mean that we always
have to do it (or not do it)? 2) If something is good (or
evil) does this mean that we can impose (or not impose) it
on others? Should we always tell the truth; should we always
keep a promise? This is the nature of the first question.
Although the first question is not easy to answer,
pragmatism can help solve a number of awkward situations
here.


The second question is more serious, and I don't think that
pragmatism can even help here. There are instances when not
telling the truth might be necessary. We are all familiar
with the dilemma of telling the secret police if someone was
hiding in the next door flat. But how can we justify telling
someone to do something we think is right? Of course, I am
not thinking here of telling one's children to eat their
greens or to finish their homework. I mean more like
imposing our political or religious values or even our
peculiar sense of justice. Even if somehow we can show that
our political system, or whatever system it might happen to
be, is the best there is, what right do we have to impose it
on others? Of course, the word, impose, is itself emotive;
would it make any difference if, for example, we used the
word, persuade? The difference if of course in meaning.
Impose, implies force and probably against the will of those
affected, whereas persuade implies argument and dialogues.


Usually, the most persuasive arguments are the ones
supported by objective verifiable facts. But there is hardly
anything objective about good and evil. And dialogue
requires the use of a language; preferably a universal
natural language which we don't have. If this is the
situation with good and evil, I wonder what the bees and the
squirrels think of all this.


Take care



Lawrence

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