02 July 2009

The existence of good and evil

One of the commonplace arguments in Philosophy of Religion is the existence of good and evil. Cicero once wrote that "The function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil." The Marquis De Sade urged people to explore their darkest nature to truly understand it. This seems a groundwork for Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil". In a nutshell, Nietzsche wondered what good and evil would be if we dropped those words, and also all religious connotations to actions. What really is evil? What is good?

Now the PoMo philosophers have warped this argument to their idea of public and private language. I am fairly confident that Wittgenstein would be appalled by what Rorty and his group have done to his original ideas.

In the classic sense, good is something that does not harm and is approved by the current social mores. To quote Blaise Pascal "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." But even the definition of evil is obscured in religious context. In the bible, god slays entire villages, has named Gabriel as the angel of death, and has vast armies. Many people are damned to eternal torment simply because they are not specified on a list of names. Are these good things? Is it even possible?

There is an argument that evil must exist in heaven if heaven allows for free will. But it goes well beyond that. In the Hindu religion there are numerous deities (almost all I think) that are dualistic in their ability to preserve/destroy. It is this nature that blurs the definition of good and evil. The instance of Kali comes to mind. She is the great earth mother and eats her children to maintain the world. Is it evil that she eats her children, or is it evil that she maintains the world? Is it good she eats her children or good that she maintains the world? Is it both? Or is it neither?

To me, good and evil do not exist. Actions exist. We act as we do, and the repercussions of our actions reflect upon us. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote "No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks." I state that she was wrong. I could quote the Existentialists in my argument, but it is not necessary. A person who does a thing, for whatever reason does so for a need. That thing is an action and that action produces a result. When a person adds 1 and 1 together, the addition is an action and that action ends in a result (2). Stripping morality and religion from action, we are left with result. Hegel understood this better than most.

To use an existential argument, you are starving and your family is starving. You walk by a window where there is food. You take the food to feed your family. Where then is the evil? Is it in your action? Is it in your result? Is it applied to the person who put the food in the window knowing that hungry people could walk by? Or is it just food in a window that you took to feed your family?

Good and evil do not exist when morality, which is bourne of religion, is tossed on the garbage heap. All that remains is actions and results.


  1. the evil is in not considering that the window you took it from could also be hungry. alas, it has no arms to steal it back.

  2. good and evil are perspectives of the same thing. Nietzsche speaks, in the will to power, of how the good man has simply taken one half of life and said 'this is good', and claimed that the other half is bad. Interestingly, he thus must have known the bad to distinguish from the good. and also, his claiming this is good is simply his own will to power. Christian distinctions of good/bad have been particularly oppresive in creating a distinction between good/bad. you are all will to power - and nothing besides!