After the last Q&A feature, I got several questions and comments dealing with the matter of good and evil. What is good? What is evil? How can we know?
Rather than addressing these questions individually, I think it would be better to explore the matter in general. Most of us have a mound of unstated assumptions around such basic concepts and we need to deal with them up front. We can deal with more specific issues in the comments, or perhaps in another post.
The nature of good and evil is ultimately a question of philosophy, not of the “on the ground religion” that I practice and write about. But it is good for ordinary people to wrestle with these issues, even if we don’t have the depth of knowledge that professional philosophers can bring to the conversation. I have no special expertise in this matter and I certainly carry no authority in the field of philosophy. But I think about these things, and thinking in public is a good thing.
A foundation of animism
Any question of philosophy or ethics has to start somewhere – I start with animism. In particular, I start with the animistic principle that all living things are not things but persons with their own inherent value and autonomy. Our ideas about good and evil must include non-human persons. Raccoons, wolves, trees, and rivers all have the right to do their own things for their own reasons.
If our ideas about good and evil deal only with humans, human needs, and human desires, they will be incomplete. We are neither the center of the universe nor its head. We are simply part of Nature – as is every other person.
The problem of dualism
The very phrase “good and evil” implies a binary dualism. Something is good or it is evil. It’s day or it’s night. It’s black or it’s white. The monotheistic religions have made this worse with their idea of God and the Devil – a God of Good and a God of Evil. Pick a side… and it’s very clear which side you’re supposed to pick.
But where in Nature do we see dualism? Yes, there’s day and night, but there’s also dawn and dusk. There are nights when the moon is so bright it might as well be day, and then there’s artificial light. There’s black and white, but there’s also a whole rainbow of colors. As a polytheist, I see not one God or two Gods but many Gods.
We have an evolutionary urge to reduce things to binary decisions: can I eat this animal or will this animal eat me? But life as we actually experience it is rarely so simple, and trying to reduce complicated situations down to a binary decision often causes more harm than good.
Good and evil is not as simple as good or evil.
The problem of relativism
If good and evil cannot be settled with a simple dualistic approach, perhaps we can solve the problem by narrowing the scope from the universal to the individual. We instinctively understand that what’s good for the wolf is bad for the deer, and vice versa. Perhaps good and evil can only be understood from the standpoint of the person experiencing it.
The problem with relativism is that it shuts off inquiry and debate. “This is good for me and it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.” What’s bad for the wolf may be good for the deer… until the predators are removed, the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment, and starvation sets in. The problem of good and evil cannot be settled by oversimplifying it.
Philosophical relativism is far more complicated than this – you can argue that what I’m doing here is philosophical relativism. But relativism as it’s commonly understood is a lazy and inadequate answer to a difficult problem.
Intent and Obligations – What Our Intuition Tells Us
A question of intent
Appealing to the law in questions of philosophy is always problematic – the law is no reliable gauge of good and evil, or even of right and wrong. But the law around killing other humans illustrates our intuitive understanding that intent matters, even when the outcome is the same.
If you intentionally kill someone, you’ll be charged with murder. If convicted, in Texas there are two possible sentences: life in prison, or death.
If you have no intention to kill someone, but you’re behaving in a reckless manner (if you are “aware of but consciously disregard a substantial and unjustifiable risk”) and they die because of your actions, you’ll be charged with manslaughter. If convicted, in Texas the sentence is between 2 and 20 years in prison.
If someone breaks into your home and threatens your life and you kill them, this is considered self-defense – you have committed no crime. The presumption is that you had no intent to kill the invader, but that lethal force was required to stop them.
In all three circumstances, you have killed another person. Intent makes the difference between walking away free, spending a few years in prison, or dying in prison.
This becomes relevant when we begin to consider the nature of evil. We understand that life is hard and uncertain – sometimes bad things happen. But when someone causes harm on purpose, we see it differently.
This is my intuitive definition of evil: intentionally causing harm. But I’m not sure it’s broad enough.
The crime of negligence
Following the legal thread a bit further, we encounter negligence. You’re texting while driving – or perhaps even while walking – and you run into someone and hurt them. You don’t clear the ice off your sidewalk and someone falls and breaks a leg. You run a restaurant, don’t check your food temperatures, and your customers get food poisoning. There was no intent to harm – in some cases you did nothing. But because you were negligent someone got hurt and the law will hold you responsible.
Again, the law is not a reliable gauge of ethics. But at a high level – particularly for things that have existed for centuries – they reflect our collective understanding of good and evil. The fact that negligence is a crime reflects our intuitive understanding that not directly causing harm isn’t good enough. There are times when we have an obligation to take special care, or to render aid.
Failing to consider the impact of our actions and non-actions on others is a step toward evil.
Virtues and Values
An epistemology of virtues
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge – how do we know what we know? How do we know what is good and what is evil?We know what we know about good and evil the same way we know about everything else: by observation of cause and effect. As small children, we learn that treating other people well tends to make them want to treat us well, and that hitting them tends to make them want to hit us back.
Virtues are qualities that over time have been shown to be helpful – things like reciprocity, hospitality, honesty, moderation, courage, justice, and kindness.
There are many virtues, and sometimes they are in conflict – as anyone who’s ever tried to be both honest and kind at the same time knows all too well. In our attempts to do good and to avoid evil, we frequently have to make hard choices that are less than perfect. And because we are human, with the perspective and limitations of humans, even our best decisions may ultimately prove to be harmful.
If we are wise, that leads to another virtue – humility. It demands that we recognize the limitations of our knowledge, particularly in dealing with complicated situations.
Virtues and the Gods
The Gods are (among other things) the personification of Their virtues. The Gods are good because They are virtuous, not simply because They are Gods. A commenter asked how this could be: how can virtues exist on their own? The answer is that virtues are emergent: they flow from the interactions of persons, human and otherwise.
There can be no hospitality in a lifeless world. There are no guests, there are no hosts, and there are no obligations from that interaction. But once we have life we begin to have interactions, which lead to the principles and practice of hospitality help that life to grow and thrive.
And that’s as close to a definition of “good” as I can get: that which promotes the growth and thriving of all persons.
The desire for a clear and objective source of virtue is as strong and as illusive as the desire for a binary definition of good and evil. We want things to be simple. They aren’t. We deal with them as best we can.
A question of values
Taken on their own, virtues are as close to pure good as we can get. But there are many virtues, and they don’t always play well together. Values are how we weight the various virtues – they’re what’s most important to us.
As a polytheists, we understand that different people worship different Gods in different ways. Likewise, we understand that different people will have different values. It’s why we have different cultures, different religions, and different political parties. Diversity – another virtue – is more than food, language, and gender identity. Humility demands that we understand our way isn’t the only way, and may not be the best way.
Our challenge is to make sure we respect people with values different from our own, while refusing to tolerate behaviors that are harmful. This is very hard in today’s polarized political environment, where the idea of compromising with the loyal opposition has been replaced with the demand to destroy your “enemies.”
A Working Model
So far we’ve established a foundation in the world as it actually is, discussed the importance and limitations of intent, and found the beginnings of good in virtues and values. We’ve tentatively defined good as “that which promotes the growth and thriving of all persons” and evil as “intentionally causing harm.”
Now let’s try to put it together into a working model.
There are no Forces of Good and Evil
This goes with the rejection of dualism, but it’s worth saying explicitly: there are no forces of good and evil locked in some grand cosmic battle. There are Gods I don’t particularly like (such as most trickster Gods), but that doesn’t mean They’re evil… nor does it mean I’m evil because I oppose a divine being.
When we see persons and groups in opposition that does not mean one is good and the other is evil. Perhaps both are virtuous but they have radically different values. Or perhaps both are doing evil things – we hear a lot about choosing the “lesser evil” at election time.
So we often speak of good and evil, but we are always referring to individual activities and ideas, not to cosmic forces.
Good and evil in conversation
Whenever there’s a mass shooting, there’s always a cry of “why?!” We want to understand how a human could do such horrible and needless things to other humans. And every time, I see intelligent and well-educated Evangelical Christian bloggers argue against trying to explain these actions in naturalistic terms. They say “it’s evil at work.” Even if they don’t mean “the devil made them do it” (or if they don’t say it even though they do mean it) they’re attempting to distance themselves from the killer. They’re reassuring themselves that they would never do anything like that. But the lessons of Germany in the Nazi era tell us that “yes, in the right circumstances, you probably would.”
More importantly, they’re accepting that these things happen and there’s nothing we can do about them. They’re giving up. “Evil” becomes a lazy shortcut to avoid difficult work.
When we realize that there are no forces of good and evil, we tend to throw the word “evil” around much less often. I rarely hear Pagans and polytheists using it casually. When we do, it’s because something so offends our virtues that no other word will do. I did a word search on this blog. While I have made my extreme dislike for Donald Trump very clear since he was a candidate, I never used the word “evil” to describe him or his actions until he began taking children away from families at the border. As I said at the time:
Immigration policy is a political issue about which reasonable and decent people can have vastly different opinions. But the extremes to which Trump is willing to go to enforce his immigration policy is neither reasonable nor decent.
This is, I think, the proper use of “evil” in political and social conversations. It’s something that’s not just a disagreement, not just something we don’t like, not just something we think may hurt some people. It’s something that harms other persons intentionally or callously, and that offends our virtues to such an extent that words like “wrong” and “harmful” and “bad” aren’t adequate.
Contemplating Good and Evil
I’m up to 2200 words and I don’t know that I’ve said a lot. Philosophers have written volumes on this. Good and evil can’t be reduced to bullet points readable in a minute and 27 seconds.
This is a very simple look at good and evil. Some might call it simplistic. So be it. This is not my area of expertise, but it is a matter ordinary people encounter on a regular basis. We are better off thinking about it and discussing it instead of ignoring it – or worse, repeating the judgements of other religions.
These are my thoughts. You’re welcome to share yours in the comments.