Aether Song

Our time is not in the grey falling rain nor in the boundless blue-green sea. Our time is in the river that lies between them, flowing smooth and quiet over the sand or angry and roiling over the unyielding stones. Joining and dividing. Choosing our own way for good or ill.

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Good and Evil

A quick glance at the news will soon reveal that there is no shortage of moral absolutist language in today’s political discourse. The problem is that the politicos and the theological moralists use these words without ever providing a definition for them. I thought I’d take a stab at correcting that. The logical place to begin is at the beginning: What is Good? What is Evil? Since I am an atheist I am not going to begin with the beliefs of any particular ethos or orthodoxy, sacred book or scripture. I think the proper place to begin would be to examine the common elements of human life itself something we all share.

At the very beginning we are conceived. For approximately nine months we gestate inside our mothers and then we are born. We live out the span of our lives until they come to an end by accident, intent, disease or age, then we die. So the question: Is there Good in there somewhere? Is there Evil? Well nothing obvious stands out from this far vantage unless you wish to define life itself as Good, in which case there is Good in each human life, monsters, saints and everypersons. If you prefer to think that human life is morally neutral then we will need to move the camera in a bit and take a closer look to find The Good, or the Evil. Let’s look at each part of life in turn.

Is there Good or Evil in conception? Here a sperm joins and fertilizes an egg. It’s an automatic biological process. I don’t think there is Good or Evil in it so let’s move on to Birth. Is there Good or Evil in simply being born? That would depend on how much weight you give to biological determinism. The baby thus born may have inherent violent tendencies with a high potential for bringing harm to others. It might be argued that that would be accounted as a potential Evil if not an actual Evil. Conversely the child may have strong altruistic tendencies which might be accounted as a potential Good. Since a baby is incapable of acting on these inherent impulses and environmental conditions may enhance or preclude their exercise the jury would have to be out.

Once it leaves the womb but before it begins to move freely or speak a baby will have certain requirements to grow and to maintain life. These requirements will persist throughout life so we might as well cover them here. The baby will require food, water, air, and sleep. Is there an inherent Good or Evil in breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, defecating, urinating or dreaming? Again these are things required by biology. No Good or Evil to see here. The baby grows into a child. The child is taught what is acceptible and what is not acceptible both by its caretakers and by the society in which it grows up. Most importantly of all at some time during this period of growth the child begins to think for itself. It is there, there in those thoughts that the seeds of Evil and Good are sewn. Thoughts lead to decisions. Decisions lead to actions. Actions lead to consequences. Those consequence may be good, Evil Neutral or a combination of these.

Let’s take three examples of behavior generally accounted to be Evil.

Murder: If someone is murdered all of their various metabolic processes stop. So where is the evil? Is cooling something from body temperature to room temperature Evil? No. Is ceasing production of carbon-dioxide, urine and feces Evil? No. So what else is lost? Thoughts and memories? But what good are either of those if they are uncommunicated? Words and sounds? What value are those if they remain unheard? No, the Evil lies in the destruction of the relationships that person had.

[An aside about relationships here. Each of us has three kinds. Our relationship with ourselves (self-self), our relationship with our environment (self-other), and our environment’s relationship with us (other-self), and here I am referring to environmental factors, including the actions of others, which are beyond our control.]

The murder victim has all their relationships truncated at a stroke. Those who remember them will of course maintain their relationship with them through their memories of the deceased, but nothing new will ever be added to them. The relationship will neither grow nor change with time save only that the memories will gradually fade.

Assault: If someone is assaulted the forms of damage may differ. If there is physical damage then their ability to relate to their environment may very well be impaired. Having broken limbs for instance limits the interactions you may have with the environment. There may also be psychological damage making you mistrustful or angry at your fellow human beings imparing your ability to have a relationship with them.

Rape: Aside from the physical damage as outlined in assault, this act also carries a definite probability of psychological damage.

This leaves us with a working definition of Evil.

Evil is -

Any thought which conceives of impairing or destroying the body or psyche of another human being without their consent.

Any decision on a course of action arrived at by those thoughts that would result in the impairment or destruction of the body or psyche of another without their consent.

Any consequence resulting from that conscious decision that would result in the impairment or destruction of the body or psyche of another without their consent.

These things are Evil because they would either destroy the health of an existant relationship or damage the ability of the affected person to have relationships.

Using this definition we can divide evil into four grades from least to greatest.

Grade 1: Evil without decision or intent.

Grade 2: Evil as a result of decisions made from ignorance of the consequences, but without evil intent.

Grade 3: Evil as a result of decisions made from apathy of the consequences, but without evil intent.

Grade 4: Evil as a result of decisions made with full knowledge of the consequences and with evil intent.

Conversely Good would be -

Any thought which conceives of enhancing the body or psyche of another human being.

Any decision on a course of action arrived at by those thoughts that would result in the enhancement of the body or psyche of another.

Any consequence resulting from that conscious decision that would result in the enhancement of the body or psyche of another.

These things are Good because they would enhance the health of an existant relationship or improve the ability of the affected person to have relationships. This is not to imply that all relationships are inherently Good, because it is perfectly plausible that one relationship can be unhealthy and impair one’s ability to have others.

Under this definition technology which enhances or enables relationships impossible without it would also qualify as Good. Cell phones and the Internet are the most recent examples.

Using these definitions human life is inherently valuable only insofar as each human has at the very least a relationship with themselves and with the Earth. The more numerous and stronger your relationships are the more value your life has.

13 Comments:

Blogger jo(e) said...

HURRAY! YOU HAVE A BLOG!

(Okay, now I will go read the posts. I just had to be the first to comment.)

1:10 PM  
Blogger jo(e) said...

Your definitions seem to define good and evil in terms of human relationships and human bodies -- what about expanding it to include other creatures and the earth itself?

1:16 PM  
Blogger jo(e) said...

For instance, torturing and killing kittens would be evil and not good in my book.

A person who has the power to do something to stop global warming, but chooses short-term selfish goals instead -- that's evil too.

1:18 PM  
Blogger revabi said...

Pure Luck thanks for starting your blog. Sorry if I pressured you into doing it, but thanks.

Very thoughtful blog on good and evil.

You had to start with the hardest didn't you?

1:28 PM  
Blogger Pure Luck said...

Well Joe I define good and evil in that humanocentric way because I think of all creatures we are the only ones troubled by those concepts. If there were no sentient species then would good and evil exist? For instance there were massive extinctions long before we began assisting them. Were they evil because they killed or good because the disappearance of those creatures allowed our ascendence?

And don't worry about the kitten if a person is killing kittens then they are damaging other people's ability to have a relationship with the kitten and thus are doing evil.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Pure Luck said...

The same goes for the earth. What we need is to reach a healthy sustainable relationship with the earth so that those who come after can also have a good relationship with it, we are alas a long way from that and while we are ruled by the anthroviruses which insist on unchecked growth and replication we will not have it.

1:43 PM  
Blogger jo(e) said...

I suppose it all does come back to relationships ... I mean, as we damage the earth, we hurt ourselves and all other humans, since we depend on food and air and water to live.

I still somehow want to include other species though. I mean, sure there have been extinctions that were not human-caused, but always they were balanced by speciation. It's only thanks to humans that the rate of extinction now far exceeds the rate of speciation.

2:14 PM  
Blogger Songbird said...

And how about the dogs? I think one of the major aspects of your goodness is the abandon with which you love Sam. That thing is Good.

2:16 PM  
Blogger Girl said...

Hmmm...I'm not quite sure I am smart enough to be here...but I like your blog. Congrats on starting it.

--girl

4:05 PM  
Blogger St. Casserole said...

I read every word. I can see why SB loves you.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Pure Luck said...

Thank you for your support St.C. On the advice of my more experienced blogging mate I am going to dole out cups of wisdom from the great depths of my soul slowly so that the chances of reader addiction is higher.
I will probably not write much about current events, not that I don't think about them, but my day to day existence is fairly dull.

6:25 PM  
Blogger SingingOwl said...

Grinning at the idea of doleing out wisdom slowly so that we get addicted...

And, I confess, I am curious about the atheist married to the clergywoman. That has to be a fairly unusual situation, but a personal one. So I'm not asking.
;-)

7:39 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Welcome to the blogosphere, Pure Luck. I've blogrolled you at Birmingham Blues. I love reading Songbird, and I'm looking forward to your perspective.

8:16 PM  

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