Good and Evil, Part 1

[updated 7/27/20 to change one "it's" to "its"]

I am a frequent reader of
The Evangelical Outpost, Vox Popoli and even Fark. A frequent topic is that of morality, which is the study of good and evil and the practical application thereof.

What I find interesting is a certain lack of rigor. While not surprising for
Fark, it isn't quite expected of the other two blogs. What I mean by this is that in any debate it is crucial to first define one's terms. If we can't agree on what we're discussing then we won't effectively communicate. Too, reason cannot turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. Sloppy definitions beget sloppy reasoning.

Defining "good" turns out to be a surprisingly difficult problem. The Oxford English Dictionary provides one definition as "to be desired or approved of." This begs the question of why is something desired or approved of? The obvious answer is "because it's good", but this is just a circular definition: good is good. Another definition from the same source is "possessing or displaying moral virtue." Since "moral virtues" are those which are good, this is yet another circular definition.

"Good is the absence of evil" is also proffered. If evil is defined as "not good", then this definition is equivalent to "good is not (i.e. the absence of) not good (evil)". Using the transformation that the negation of the negation of "something" is "something", this definition just says "good is good". Once again, it's circular and therefore meaningless. Sometimes "good" is treated as if were analogous to something material like light or heat: "evil is the absence of good like darkness is the absence of light, or cold is the absence of heat." In these cases, we know what light is (a collection of photons) and what heat is (energy in transit). But this brings us no closer to knowing what is measured by "good".

Another definition is one that is often used by Christians: "God is good". This is certainly in accord with Christian doctrine; the Psalmist said, "Taste and see that the LORD is good." [Ps 34:8] But Scripture also says that "God is love" [1 John 4:8 & 16] and that "God is holy"[Ps 99:9, Isa 6:3, Rev 4:8]. Just as without a definition of "love" and "holy", these statements don't tell us what these attributes mean, the same is true of "good". "God is good" is a true statement but it isn't a definition.

Another problem with saying "God is good" is that it only applies to theists. One might argue that an atheist is simply a theist who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge what he or she instinctively knows to be true, so that this definition is universal, but that presupposes the truth of (mono)theism and the falsity of atheism. The topic of morality is difficult enough without deliberately provoking either side. Too, the polytheist would object to being left out and could deliver a crippling blow by simply responding, "yes, but which god?" If at all possible the goal should be to find a definition that is worldview invariant. We know that all humans have an intuitive notion of "good" even if the definition is ill-formed and this gives some basis for hoping to find a definition on which theists, atheists, and agnostics can agree.

Fark user
jaedreth offered this definition, "Good is a lack of corruption. Evil is the presence of corruption. Corruption is the damaging and twisting of something natural from its natural state. So Good is being in one's natural state, and Evil is being twisted out of one's natural state." Like the definition "God is good", this suffers from the imprecision of the term "natural state." What is the "natural state" of a weapon? Is an atomic bomb good or evil? A polarizing question, to be sure. Someone might argue that weapons aren't "natural", being the product of man. But one could equally argue that humans are natural and so the products of humanity are also natural. Any number of other contentious examples could be given. This, too, is a dead end; but it contains the hint of a clue.

The Christian apologist
Ravi Zacharias offered a similar definition that evil is the misuse of design. Unfortunately, the reference escapes me. Nevertheless, "design" is more well-defined than "natural state." Zacharias used the example of an airplane to illustrate his point: an airplane is good if it is used according to its design, which is to transport people and freight from one place to another. It is bad if it is used some other way, such as being deliberately flown into a building. The problem with this definition is that is assumes that everything has a purpose. The theist may think that there is a divine purpose for an earthquake but the naturalist will not. We still seek a definition that doesn't favor one worldview over another.

But, we're almost there. Design implies purpose. In the article
Can Michael Martin Be a Moral Realist?: Sic et Non, Paul Copan wrote that "evil is a departure from the way things ought to be". Unfortunately, Copan says this in a parenthetical note and so misses the power and significance of his words. Good and evil are "distance" measurements between "is" and "ought". The closer something is to the way it ought to be the more good it is and the father something is from the way it ought to be the more evil it is.

Is this, finally, the right definition of "good" and "evil"? The distance between "is" and "ought"? I think so. First, it is measurable. Granted, the notion of distance used here is poorly defined. But this intuitive notion is at the heart of the words "good", "better" and "best". Second, this definition doesn't depend on worldview. The theist may argue that the mental machinery necessary for a mind to understand "oughtness" can only come from God while the atheist can argue that "oughtness" is an emergent property of evolutionary processes. But both agree that it exists regardless of its origin. This property is hugely important and the implications will be explored in later sections. Third, this definition can be obtained from other, independent, lines of reasoning. I submitted this definition to
the evangelical outpost (post #31) approximately three months before finding the article by Copan. Going back to 2004, I find that I wrote: "For both the Christian theist as well as the atheist, morality is no more than subjective personal opinion. In other words, for both God and man, there is no external moral 'ruler'." I was close, but I didn't have a metric. Perhaps I'll recount this development in my thinking in another post. Nostalgia aside, multiple independent ways to arrive at the same result provide a warrant for thinking the result correct.

Definition: good and evil are distance measurements between "is" and "ought". The closer something is to what it ought to be the more good it is. The farther something is from what it ought to be the more evil it is.
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