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Friday, October 29, 2004

Good and Evil

In the comments to this post Andrew accused me of believing that there is such a thing as good and evil. Guilty as charged. I believe that moral relativism is the great intellectual sin of our age. The idea that right and wrong are meaningless concepts can only lead to moral degradation and acquiescence to evil. Edmund Burke said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Moral Relativism is a philosophy that allows good men to do nothing, and pretend that not only is this not a moral failure, indeed that is a correct moral position. Now I freely admit there is a place for not judging others based on difference of culture. Neck stretching is not more inherently weird, or wrong, than breast enlargement. Numerous examples of a similar nature can be found. The fallacy occurs when one attempts to generalize an acceptance of tradition and custom into the belief that right and wrong do not, and cannot, exist as concepts. While I do not claim that our culture is the final say on what is right and wrong, or to be without sin, I strongly assert that some things are better than others. Slavery is wrong. Intentionally targeting innocents is wrong. Non-Democratic governments are wrong. Racial discrimination/tribalism is wrong. Rape is wrong. Child abuse is wrong. Genocide is wrong. People who do wrong are what we call evil. By this I do not mean that they have no redeeming characteristics. No one is wholly evil, but when people are evil enough they must be opposed, by force if necessary. Obviously we as a people or as individuals cannot right all wrongs. Nor is anyone free from fault. None the less where we can intervene we should, indeed we are obligated to do so. Let me conclude by quoting J.R.R. Tolkien:

Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.


Blogger Andrew said...

I didn't criticize you for believing in moral absolutism. In fact, I explicitly conceded that even if you stand by that position, you can't rest easy.

The problem is that if you assume moral absolutism, you need to get address problems of information, knowledge, and certainty.

For example, I imagine you'll admit that context plays a role in what you'd demarcate as good and evil. Not cultural context which we'll say leads to moral relativism, but the context of a specific instance.

So for the sake of argument, let's say that Biblical law--solely as codified in the Ten Commandments--is the "true" morality. Furthermore, let's say that we all agree to that, fully pushing moral relativity out of the picture.

Now, one of our moral precepts "thou shall not kill," meaning that we've all decided that killing is bad. But as a absolutely universal maxim, most reasonable people would think that it's not quite right. Is it evil to kill in self-defense? Is it evil to kill a killer? Is it evil to kill for food? Only a dead vegan would think that all those situations are evil.

You may be tempted to rebut "that's because we didn't articulate the moral code well enough." But that doesn't really hit the meat of the problem. Because we could add little exceptions for all these things and we'd still run into an informational problem. Namely:

"How do we decide if exception X applies to situation Y?"

For very simple situations that you personally witness, it's a bit of a problem, but not too much. Generally speaking, you and other witnesses to a simple situation can probably come up with a consensus as to whether a specific exception fits or not.

But what happens with more complex situations? Or with situations that you only learn about through unreliable means? What happens with situations that are so complex that one person physically can't comprehend, even with perfect infromation? What happens with simple situations that you've learned about through a source that you can only trust some of the time?

So even if moral absolutism is real, the enforcement of moral absolutes collapses to an information problem that can transcend individual knowledge. Metaphysical religions generally address this problem by leaving judgment in the hands of an omnipotent God. Mystical/Personal ones leave it in the conscience of the moral agent, and its ability to discern right from wrong. Civil law agrees to accept the occasional mis-enforcement and put trust in juries and trials. Democracy and capitalism also accepts the occasional mis-enforcement and puts judgment into the hands of the electorate and market, respectively.

The common thread you'll see in all of these lasting systems is that they don't give individuals the authority to judge other individuals. That kind of judgment is the least reliable, and the most prone to have someone commit an evil in the name of a committing a good.

[There's also a whole school of thought that rejects normative morality altogether--both absolute and relative--and leaves the resolution of conflict in the vagaries of human nature. The presumption in this model is that human nature is no more good or evil than that of a dog, cat, or rock. It sounds like a wierd thesis, but it's proponents (especially Nietzsche)identify it with pre-Platonic Greek ethics and argue that Platonic rationalism and Christian morality are the wierd ones that assumed that human nature is fundamentally errant or evil.]

10/29/2004 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger Cubicle said...

"No one is wholly evil, but when people are evil enough they must be opposed, by force if necessary."

I disagree. There are some people (not very many though) that are wholly evil, everything they touch goes bad, and everything they do has a bigger purpose which is morally curropt. These people may be 1 out of 100, 1 out of 100, or 1 out of 100,000,000, but they do exist.

10/31/2004 04:31:00 PM  

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