Oh You Can Get Good People To Do Bad Things Without Religion Alright…

There is a popular but rather false anti-religious remark from Steven Weinberg that one often hears anti-religious atheists cite. I admit that the first dozen or so times I came across it, its superficial charms and its appeal to my prejudices lulled me into a nodding attitude of approval. But a friend last week remarked that the meme was ridiculously false and, even though he didn’t explain why he thought so, I suddenly snapped out of it and agreed with him and started coming up with reasons it was wrong. Sometimes that’s all it takes to reconsider an unexamined belief inconsistent with dozens of other your beliefs, as I quickly realized this one was.

This is the flattering falsehood that takes in some of the irreligious:

With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

First, it’s difficult to define a “good” person from an “evil” person when we’re talking about two people who do evil. Apparently we are assuming that good is not just as good does, and evil is not just as evil does. I think that’s true. So, how can an otherwise good person do evil and how can we still consider them good even if they do some evil? What is making them still “good”?

Presumably we are talking about someone whose motives are not malignant. We are talking about someone who is generally conscientious about doing what they perceive to be good and/or someone who has a number of generally pro-social feelings and virtuous character traits that regularly contribute to moral behavior. So, someone who is generally compassionate, honest, fair-minded, courageous, sympathetic, empathetic, generous, dutiful, loving, self-disciplined, etc., etc.

What does it take for one of these people, motivated by a desire to do good and to be good, to wind up doing evil?

It’s simple. They need only misperceive the evil as the good. And you do not need religion for that.

For one thing, many people do genuinely evil (or at least bad or less desirable) things because they truly believe it is justified by a greater good. Moral people can disagree about which normally evil or bad behaviors or actions are justifiable by a greater good without any involvement from any religion.

Similarly, there can be cases in which two apparent moral duties conflict and we have to choose which one overrides the other. Sometimes this choice is made seriously wrongly, yielding a gross injustice or  unjustifiably negative consequences. Religion is not inherently required for such errors either.

Otherwise good people can also be weak and do evil things for reasons we can sympathize with, if not condone morally. Sometimes with their backs against the wall or with someone they care about in trouble, they may make bad choices without becoming on net a basically evil person. While a morally better person would prove their moral mettle in precisely those challenging moments, basically good people with a number of virtues can sometimes simply spit the bit. Eventually none of us is perfect and so all of us, no matter how good we normally are, will wind up in this boat at some point or another.

Good people can also do evil under the sway of factors for which they may not be morally blameworthy. Mental illness, brainwashing, basic confusions over facts, deceptions from apparently reliable authority figures, and many other influences beyond someone’s simple will to be good or to be evil can all explain a good person getting it wrong and doing evil. While sometimes religions confuse people in some of these ways, and while various religions routinely exacerbate people’s natural weaknesses in unique, upsetting, morally culpable ways that we must vigorously criticize, nonetheless they are hardly the only cause of such errors.

And pervasive cultural conditioning, that only may or may not involve religion at all (or only do so to one degree or another), can also make some systematically evil things seem good to an overwhelming number of people in a given society. In such cases we might hold the average person in that society somewhat culpable for not figuring the evil out and opposing it. But it is really hard to judge everyone in that society to be basically evil and not, in the main, as good as any other average people relative to their  culturally engrained moral consciousness. Any one of us may be systematically deceived and corrupted in some given area or areas by our culture’s abilities to overwhelming determine the contours of reality for us.

Don’t get me wrong, we can rationally and ethically criticize a morality that, on net, hinders rather than advances people’s well-being and thriving, regardless of whether the people adopting that morality, and even those affected by it, happen to think it’s a good morality. I’m not a relativist. (I’m a pluralist.) But even when a morality involves some things rightly worth calling evil, it is hard to call individuals basically evil when they are doing what is so universally seen as good to them, given their confused or corrupted culture’s conditioning.

And even should people have the best possible values and be the most morally conscientious, these people, of all people, might just be the most susceptible to the harmful vice of self-righteousness–precisely on account of their otherwise relatively scrupulous attention to goodness, itself. I don’t think this makes them basically evil or usually evil on net even though I think self-righteous is a particularly nasty and selfish flaw in someone’s moral character. In fact, we need to take seriously how much this bad thing can be correlated with a genuine love of the good and desire to be good and to advance the good, and not only manifest among indifferently selfish, callous, and insincere forms of hypocrites. Self-righteous people may do all sorts of terrible things or make all sorts of unfair judgments of others without being any less lovers of what is good and motivated by good outside of this glaring and counter-productive blindspot. And when (or to the degree that) the self-righteous are also committed to the wrong moral rules and values, the evil is just tragically ironically compounded.

As Nietzsche was wise to analyze in detail, moralism itself is one of the greatest temptations to immorality there is. It allows you to other, bully, and abuse the stigmatized immoral people, to distort the truth for the supposed sake of the good; and to do all of this not only with a clean conscience but with a conscience that is especially proud of itself. No religion is required for this. Just a black and white sense of political or moral rightness and wrongness and righteousness and unrighteousness.

Also some people are scrupulously dutiful to a moral fault. The excessively obedient person often seeks nothing but to be good and is one of the most effective instruments of evil in all of human history when he exercises disastrously poor judgment about who to follow and about what matters it is right to obey his leaders in. In many cases a flawed moral training that exacerbated, by overly praising, our conformist tendencies to unquestioningly defer to political, cultural, social, familial, or religious authorities, can account for the evil they do much better than any poverty of desire to be good or to do good. And does anyone with even a passing knowledge of history think that the only people who have exploited well-meaning obedient people for evil ends have been (or need be) religious leaders?

In fact, the Stoic psychologist in me thinks actions actually done from a desire for evil for evil’s own sake are very, very rare. Perhaps psychopaths and sociopaths are evil in the sense that they don’t care about the moral good. But it’s also important to note that they don’t seem to genuinely understand the difference between good and evil well enough to really be seen as doing things for their evil qua evil. And so it is hard to see whether they could care about being morally good or evil at all. They seem to do what just looks good to them, much as anyone else, and find the moral rules others demand of them to be wholly arbitrary conventions. I wouldn’t call these people “good” on this account, but they show just how hard it is to really find bona fide evil people.

Sometimes non-psychopathic people are motivated by the direct malignant will to inflict genuine harm for its own sake, fully aware that this is genuinely evil and not at all redeemed by any higher good or rationalized away in their minds by some weakness of will, etc. But if these acts of evil were all we had to worry about, civilization would probably be in fantastic shape. The vast majority of evil done in the world can be attributed to the garden variety misperceptions, miscalculations, ignorance, weakness of will, and/or self-deceptions of basically good and usually well-motivated standard issue human beings acting normally. Were these only problems when religions got a hold of them!

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KarlEd Karl Jennings

    Well argued. I have to agree with you, although I, like you, have initially given more credence to the quote in question than it deserves. Thanks for taking the time to write that out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    An interesting blog that’s relevant is http://www.sociopathworld.com, it’s written by a sociopath who discusses all kinds of moral issues.

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

    There is actually scientific evidence to support your point here. In the summer of 1971, Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo set out to test the effects of a prison environment on ordinary people. The participants were tested for psychological stability and randomly assigned to be either prisoners or guards. All of them knew how the experiment was set up and how long it would last. Even though there were no discernible differences between prisoners and guards when the experiment began, the guards soon became authoritarian and abusive, and the prisoners’ sense of autonomy and self worth began to crumble. The experiment had to be cut short due to its effects on the participants. Good — or at least good-enough, ordinary — people ended up doing evil things without aid of religion. There have been various versions of this experiment conducted since then, including some (amazingly and unwisely) conducted among grade-school children. It seems that all you have to do is to divide any group into “superior” and “inferior” subgroups based on any difference (no matter how meaningless), and savagery is likely to break out.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      yes, there’s also the Millgram obedience experiments and Hannah Arendt’s study of the banality of evil. There could be a whole post on the numerous empirical findings about variability of behaviors to context rather than character.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

      So, logically, the quote is false. (Because it’s an absolute claim, a single counter example is enough to disprove it.)

      But the real question is, will religions dismantle the unmerited division of people into “superior” and “inferior” subgroups? It’s a particularly poignant question because so many religions got their start when someone arose and insisted that the divisions at that time were baseless and oppressive. (As examples, I offer the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Kannakatthala Sutta, in which the Budda speaks out against the distinctions of caste, and the Exodus story, in which slaves are transformed into the elect.)

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Hinduism has a caste system baked right in, doesn’t it? And Christendom was an era of feudalism.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

      Not being a Hindu, I hesitate to comment. But I think Hinduism was, at least in part, a religion of conquerors. (Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.)

      While Christendom became feudal, that wasn’t how it started out. The tendency to be corrupted by distinctions of caste (in a broad sense) is very common in religions, but then, it’s very common in non-religious social institutions as well.

    • Nox

      “It’s a particularly poignant question because so many religions got their start when someone arose and insisted that the divisions at that time were baseless and oppressive.”

      Or that there needed to be new designations of which people were inferior/superior. The christian religion started by discarding the traditional jewish view (jews superior, all others inferior) then insisting that the saved were the new superior group, and those who didn’t follow Jesus were the new inferior group.

      “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

      To the degree that it even makes sense to talk about “good people” or “bad people”, Shira and Dan are right and Weinberg is wrong. You do not need religion for good people to do bad things. You need otherwise good people to think bad things are good. Religion is the easiest way to make that happen. If someone is doing something horrendous because they are genuinely convinced it is the right thing to do, more than nine times out of ten it’s because their religion told them to do that thing.

      The real culprit (in both religious and non-religious examples) is people not thinking enough or not thinking practically enough. If a person summarily categorizes certain actions as good without thinking about how those actions would affect themself and others, or summarily categorizes certain actions as evil without ever thinking about whether there was any harm to them or whether they were actually doing harm by stigmatizing those things, that person is engaging in the same process by which religion gives us horrible ideas (whether they are religious or not).

      If someone thinks of themselves as a good person and does things a good person wouldn’t do, there may be any number of possible causes (including that we are using a dysfunctional definition of good in our judgment of them). No religion necessary. If someone who earnestly claims to believe in loving their neighbor supports torture or opposes equality, it is because they have accepted a definition of love which short circuits their basic human empathy, and teaches them to be more concerned with how an act makes their imaginary friend feel than how it affects others. In these cases, religion is almost always the main cause.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      “If someone is doing something horrendous because they are genuinely convinced it is the right thing to do, more than nine times out of ten it’s because their religion told them to do that thing.”

      You vastly underestimate the powers of bad politics, morality, and culture if you think they only account for 1/10 of these cases.

  • Laurent Weppe

    In a way, the quote itself should be considered an instrument of evil, as it can provide justification to “other, bully, and abuse the stigmatized immoral people

  • Kodie

    I admit that the first dozen or so times I came across it, its
    superficial charms and its appeal to my prejudices lulled me into a
    nodding attitude of approval. But a friend last week remarked that the
    meme was ridiculously false and, even though he didn’t explain why he
    thought so, I suddenly snapped out of it and agreed with him and started
    coming up with reasons it was wrong. Sometimes that’s all it takes to
    reconsider an unexamined belief inconsistent with dozens of other your
    beliefs, as I quickly realized this one was.

    That’s how religion works on people too. For good people to do bad things, it doesn’t take religion – religion takes what is true about people and utilizes it in their favor. People like short sayings, quotes, if you will, that confirm what they think or propose to them what they should think in a neat mathematically logical set of words. Think how often a religious person, as demonstrated in the video paired to another post you made today, lays out a passage from the bible. All it takes for them to believe, apparently, is that only the fool denies god exists, for example. Religious people compare what the quote is to their experience and “Presto!” it becomes true to them that they are in sync and atheists are fools.

    When I skimmed this article earlier, immediately I thought of Marc Driscoll (that his name?). I thought Libby Anne posted recently about this guy (or possibly another guy) seeming to prioritize what the men of his congregation drive, but I can’t find the article quickly. It seems like a great example of how religion does take what’s true about people and uses it to turn them into worse people. If god is coming any second, why care about the environment and future generations who have to live on earth? But to drive the point home, he used cute little rhymes that played on men’s vanity, as if to imply that what you drive will be ridiculed and judged by other men regarding your masculinity. “If you drive a minivan, then you’re a mini man,” etc. The quote by Weinberg uses the same trick! You were lulled, and what follows is that you see what’s true behind the lens of what the quote teaches you is true. It doesn’t take religion, it takes persuasion. Religions most notably seek to persuade in a poisonous false way that you can see from the outside but not from the inside, but are not exclusive to our culture in being false.

    One of the reasons I think most people love quotes is that they are succinct truisms but the reason I don’t love quotes is that they seem true because they are succinct and don’t take a long time to examine. Take a look at Pinterest. People love the shit out of inspiring quotes that reflect their own experience but do not take the time to examine whether or not they are true in general. The bible is one source of snippets that seem to apply generally, that people whip out instead of putting a thought into their own words – if someone already put it perfectly, there doesn’t seem to be a need to think. And remarkably, as often as people may feel alone in this world, feeling pain that nobody else understands, finding these quotes validates them that their thoughts are shared by others, and the feeling of being recognized by a wizard who doesn’t actually know you is intoxicating, “exactly!”, they pin and share on fb. Pretty pictures help. Extrapolating one’s experience to be universal also seems to happen a lot – how often do you talk to someone who assumes everyone sees things the same way they do? While they are being fed and supported what to think, like conspiracies, for example, it’s everyone who doesn’t agree with them who are blind to the obvious facts. Yes, we can and do question all sorts of memes, but it doesn’t make sense that all atheistic memes are true, just because… ?

    What seems to be unique about religion and the idea of getting good people to do evil things (for what they’ve been led to believe are good reasons) – they can be manipulated to serve an imaginary king to the detriment of actual human beings. I do not think it is unique. Since atheist blogs generally target religions, and many atheists are former believers, I don’t see so much awareness or focus on what else isn’t true. Religion uses general marketing tactics to gain and retain adherents. Like a skin cream ad or a car ad, etc., it appeals to flaws and vanity in the target audience. You feel ok until you are made aware that you are missing something. If you can perform a simple parlor trick to prove Jesus to yourself, without questioning what else might have worked or what actually happened, you can be manipulated to do anything. A little quote to get you in such as “only a fool denies god exists” is not only meant to help the in-group feel superior to others, it’s to diminish the confidence of the mark because he doesn’t want to be a fool, just in case there’s a god, oughtn’t he consider it a while? “But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion,” is effectively the same sign. Superiority in atheism, and a smug remark to imply immunity to persuasion if one is only not religious. Religion capitalizes (literally) on persuasion and targeting the human’s insecurities but it’s not the only thing that does, and it’s not the only path to creating a team of doers. Politics is done the same way, advertising is..

    I get why that quote is used in context – religion does promote some of the most awful behaviors. To get a parent to deprive their child of medical attention is to otherwise believe this parent does not want the best for their child and actively trying to kill them. Is that what’s true? Not usually. It is weird how the religious people do not claim that the parent was influenced by religious beliefs, it was that the information given was clearly and extremely misconstrued and misapplied, blaming the parent fully, and not even accounting for mental illness – they know a monster when they hear about one. Atheists, on the other hand, would pity the parent for having been poisoned in mind by religion. To get a parent to a point where they let their own child die unnecessarily, it seems to take religion. When you’re immersed in atheist blogs and hear all these heartbreaking stories again and again, it seems to verify the quote, but that’s only because you’re immersed in a topic that focuses on these instances. Just like the recent quote on my facebook feed, “memories destroy us,” it doesn’t seem to require qualification because it’s true as far as the person immersed in dwelling on the past wants it to be.

    tl;dr – Tootsie Roll Jingle

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-De-Fleuriot/611844223 Mike De Fleuriot

    You are looking at the quote to hard. It is a simple quote, which means people of the book are considered by others and themselves to be good, and these same “good” people do bad things in reality. That is it, there is nothing else to discuss. It is a remark pointing out the problems getting one’s morality from books and not from personal development.
    The quote works in that manner I think. (Your examination of it, just generates webhits)

    • http://profiles.google.com/david.mike.simon David Simon

      What? The quote means what it says. Your interpretation is a more than a bit of a stretch.

      (Also, I am so very tired of the “herp derp you’re just posting this to get hits” meme. It’s about the most blatant example of a non-sequitur that I can think of.)

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

    While we’re on the subject of what makes good people do bad things, there’s apparently a recent study that is summarized: “Many people express objections against child labor, exploitation of the workforce or meat production involving cruelty against animals. At the same time, however, people ignore their own moral standards when acting as market participants, searching for the cheapest electronics, fashion or food. Thus, markets reduce moral concerns.”

    Can you imagine if the quote ended, “But for good people to do evil things, that takes market forces.” SNORT!

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, that’s another issue, what we might call the bureaucracy of evil.

  • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

    My own sense as a psychologist is that most of the harm done in this world is done with good intentions. That, or moral indifference–meaning the actor in that situation isn’t weighing the morally relevant consequences of their actions. What I say to my daughters is that if you want to do good it’s not enough to be well intentioned, you have to be right about the real world contingencies that govern wellbeing.
    As I get older I find some of my favorite stories–for example, the Lord of the Rings–hold less and less appeal because they construct a fantasy world in which bad actors do bad things simply because they find evil appealing. The motivation for evil is so transparently bogus that it kills the story line. The problem with this kind of thinking twofold: 1. When other people do harm, we assume they are bad people. 2. Because we believe ourselves to be good we can’t see the harm we are doing.

    • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

      Your last points are SO important, imo. It’s hard to convince many people that the results of their behavior matter — if one’s intention was to do good, but the results were bad, one has to clean up the mess and learn from the experience.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes, Valerie! That’s why I hated Lord of the Rings!!

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I think that’s possibly true of Big Bad and his hordes, who are little more than stage props. I think it’s less true of figures like Saruman, Denethor, and Smeagol who are driven by a prideful attempt to control the chaos around him, dispair at having his life destroyed, and a conflict between love and greed.

  • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

    That said, I do think that one of the most loathsome, pernicious aspects of religion is that it distorts people’s moral instincts and reasoning so that people do harm when they are trying to do good.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Yes. It just doesn’t do this uniquely. See: politics.

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    A poor relationship with authority seems to be the primary motivator in a lot of cases, but this is especially the case in many religious situations (I say this even with the chi-ro as my avatar…). My work this semester in epistemology focused on the relationships between specialists and laymen, where a good example of how to go about this relationship is what I call the virtue of discernment — hence the title of my blog, “The Discerning Christian.”

    A lot of moral issues are going to be failures to require follow-through on claims and lack of holding leadership to critique. The Jim Jones’s of the world wouldn’t get away with anything if laymen held them to impartial review.

  • qbsmd

    I think a lot of this is disagreement over terminology. The “goodness” of a decision can be quickly defined as how beneficial that decision is to however many people minus how detrimental it is to however many people. This value then falls on a continuum, rather than being a binary good-bad value.

    The “goodness” of a person can be defined as how much the person takes into account the goodness of an action versus how much they consider the cost and benefit to themselves. This value ranges from a person who demonstrates true altruism to a person who helps others when it’s convenient and will do inconvenient things when it’s really important to a person who is mostly selfish but helps others when it’s easy to a sociopath who does only what’s in their own best interest.

    To convert these values to good-evil binary values requires a threshold. I suggest putting the threshold for an evil decision at a decision that is likely to cause someone suffering and is not calculated to prevent others from suffering. An evil person is then someone who makes evil decisions based on reliable information (e.g. a mugger who is willing to put someone in a hospital to steal a wallet and cell phone is undeniably evil by these definitions).

    These definitions remove a number of your disagreements: someone can make a good decision based on available information that turns out to have unexpected effects. A shark, a virus, or a person who is mentally deficient due to drugs or brain damage can’t be described as good or bad because they aren’t capable of evaluating decisions based on their likely effects to others.

    By this standard, something like burning a witch is not evil, only mistaken, because the intent is to prevent the witch from hurting others. The calculation for opposing abortion is similar.

    However, punishing people for gay sex, sex before marriage, leaving a religion, or drawing Muhammed cause suffering without even a mistaken claim for preventing suffering and can be called evil. Any political philosophy that advocates causing suffering for some abstract greater good unrelated to preventing suffering is probably better described as a religious philosophy than a political philosophy.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

      Not that I disagree, but what constitutes “beneficial”? This is the real problem of ethics. When we try to define ethics with reference to suffering, it quickly grows superficial and subjective. We will suffer relative to what we value, and what we value is subjective. People with opposing values will suffer when the other benefits.
      If we want to conceive of ethics as objective, we will have to come up with a more consistent system of criteria dealing with something more fundamental than suffering. My current intuitions lead somewhere toward a certain kind of subjective state of being. I’m calling it “being-with-others,” where you are not only aware of your own being and not allowing others to demand anything of your being, but you are also being in such a way that you have the enjoyment of the presence of other beings.

    • qbsmd

      I disagree; I think suffering and quality of life considerations are the most fundamental thing on which ethics can be based. Your alternative looks to me like it’s simply hard-coding a small set of things that you value (liberty and social interaction).

      If what people valued were truly arbitrary, it would be impossible for people to agree to any ethical framework, and from that perspective, I don’t think it’s possible to have objective ethics. However, unless we’re discussing aliens or superintelligent AIs, people have relatively similar values and moral intuitions, and it’s possible to make relatively objective ethical frameworks by appealing to those similarities.

      I think even Islamists would agree with me about most basic things I consider beneficial: not being executed or tortured, having basic human needs met, having choices over one’s own life, being able to follow one’s own conscience related to political or religious ideas, etc. The difference is that their religion requires them to deny others those things for more arbitrary reasons. Which is the point of Weinberg’s quote and the original point.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

      I think you underestimate the amount of suffering that can come from less biological means. Anything in which someone places value will cause emotional distress when it is no longer in the state that they value. Break a child’s toy and see how they like it!

      I have seen a large number of people go through periods of emotional distress simply because my beliefs were different, and I had come to relate to them in important ways. Conservative Christians value ideological uniformity, it would seem.

      All I mean to say is that suffering is very subjective past some basic things like physical torture. Ask yourself honestly, when was the last time you suffered in some way? I would guess that it was not because someone started waterboarding you.

    • qbsmd

      I think you’re arguing with something I never said; my intention for this topic was to briefly describe ethics in a way that allowed me to generate a reasonable definition for evil actions and evil people for the purpose of evaluating Weinberg’s assertion. Therefore my focus has been on human rights violations associated with religious organizations rather than hurt feelings between acquaintances.

      You seem to be focused on the specific issue of the morality of promoting or arguing for atheism around people who find such a conversation uncomfortable. In a suffering-based moral framework, this involves comparing your potential discomfort with being silent to others discomfort with hearing you, and also the discomfort of future atheists in a future society that is more tolerant of atheism. I think most people would agree that if the context is a funeral, you should probably keep quiet, and if some preacher came up and started bothering you, you’re okay to argue whatever you’d like. But generally, this calculation is difficult and it’s more of a judgment call.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

      Evil is a lot harder to pinpoint than you’re granting. Ask yourself this question: what all would you think goes in the “suffering” category? Then ask yourself what happened the last time you had a really bad day. You will find, I believe, that much of your suffering comes from something related to your personal values. Are you suffering when you don’t get a promotion? Are you suffering when the stock market crashes?

      You’re making the same mistakes as the early utilitarians. I do believe consequentialism of a sort is the answer, but this particular approach doesn’t really cut it. I’ve seen Sam Harris promote this sort of idea, but really, people shouldn’t listen to Sam Harris. He’s probably a brilliant neuroscientist, but he’s not a very good philosopher.

      I should mention that I am a Christian; I just like this guy’s blog. I believe that I have my own blog linked in my Disqus profile. You might enjoy some of it. I approach Christianity with elements of existentialism and other philosophies. I think dialog with atheists and other critics is tremendously important, hence why I am here.

    • qbsmd

      Yeah, I didn’t realize you were a Christian. Obviously, I read some things into your comments that you didn’t intend.

      It’s popular for atheists and theists to argue against Sam Harris’s philosophical and political ideas. I don’t get it; I think he usually sounds reasonable and the people who disagree with him usually seem to be missing some important point. I haven’t read his book on morality, but I’ve read some of the online discussion related to it. His ideas sounded good to me so I’m not surprised you see similarities to my ideas.

      Negative experiences fit on a range from being in severe physical pain to having a vaguely bored-dissatisfied feeling (it must be a logarithmic scale). To me, “suffering” denotes the upper end of that scale. Sam Harris said something similar to this, so you may not like it, but: some moral calculations are difficult and possibly unanswerable but some are really easy. It doesn’t take a fully developed moral philosophy that can answer what action is morally correct in any circumstance to be able to say that it is evil for Muslims to kill apostates or throw acid on girls for going to school or for Christian or Muslim religious fanatics to kill gay people.

      As I understand it, one problem with utilitarianism is that it takes into account every effect of an action on everyone. I support a moral philosophy that takes into account what a person could reasonably predict would happen and how much effort they put into researching what could go wrong.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

      The first issue is as you say: to perform good actions, we would need to predict the future. A variety of approahes try to solve this, such as rule utilitarianism, which states you would want to follow the approach that gives the most pleasure/least suffering should everyone adopt it as a rule.

      The more important issue to me is as I have been arguing: whose pleasure and whose suffering do we value? Utilitarianism suffers the problem of being totally unable to distinguish between persons on any criteria except number. It is not difficult to imagine the death of one bringing about the immense pleasure of five or even five thousand (public executions, for example). In utilitarian terms, that’s good, but we recognize something wrong.

      That’s why I say that goodness is probably something more fundamental about being in general. I still think some kind of consequentialism is the answer, but it’s not utilitarianism.

  • Edward

    It doesn’t matter whether the evil deed is done by a cult or evil people in general. Religion is still the top outlet for good people to do evil. It doesn’t matter that you don’t like it; it’s the truth. Are you sure you ‘snapped out of it,’ or did you snap into it?

  • Vinjo

    Great post! My assessment is the Nietzsche’s Will to Power is responsible for much evil and religion has little to do with it.

  • Dan Lennon


    I think Weinberg’s comment is persuasive because it’s pithy and reads like a syllogism. I had taken it at face value too. I’m glad that you wrote this article. It made me think.

    I agree that a good person is one who is generally compassionate, honest, fair-minded, loving, etc. Now if we define a good person this way, then I think it stands to reason that we should define a good act the same way, ie: one that is motivated by these characteristics and intended to improve the human condition. I also agree that good people do bad things when the misperceive
    the evil for the good.

    You cited several factors other than religion that would also cause good people to do bad things, including: moral conflicts, moral weakness, mental illness, brainwashing, confusion, deception, and cultural conditioning. Based on the definitions set forth, I don’t think any of these things qualify as factors which make good people do bad things. Actions resulting from moral weakness are per se not well-intended and are therefore not good acts. Individuals who have a mental illness or are brainwashed do not have moral competence and so their actions cannot qualify as either good or bad. Those who are confused or deceived may take actions that have bad consequences, but if their intent was to do good, their acts are good. The remaining two will take a little more discussion.

    Moral Conflict: When both sides of an argument are motivated to achieve good outcomes as defined above, then both sides are engaged in doing good. This is problematic only for the utilitarian who attempts to define good and bad based on outcomes, which are always at least partly fortuitous.

    Cultural Conditioning: Cultural conditioning can lead good people to do bad things. This conditioning comes almost exclusively from religion. It is absolutist, dictatorial,intolerant, and self-righteous. Secular culture on the other hand encourages evidence-based inquiry, democracy, and human rights. It is no coincidence that democracies emerged only after the Enlightenment.

    So after reconsideration I still agree with Steven Weinberg. Religion prescribes behavior predicated not on the well-being of individuals but on obedience to rigid rules that often conflict with the welfare of individuals. This irrational behavior is responsible for otherwise good people with sound minds acting in ways that are patently bad while believing them to be good.