What is ‘good’ and ‘evil?’
A few months ago I saw a video featuring Stephen Fry, which was doing its rounds on Facebook, in which Fry replies passionately to the question of what he would say were he to meet God.
“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about?
[…] “How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.”
I like the question of good and evil because it is so simple and yet at the same time so elusive, and hence there is an entire field of philosophy dedicated to it: ethics. The definition of good and evil is something that is almost too simple or too obvious to be able to put in to words. On one hand we all know what is good and what is evil, that is to say we feel it, and on the other hand any attempt to put it into words, that is to define it or put it into a box, seems to lose the essence of it. It is as if we can talk around it, but never hit it directly on the head. Like sunlight, we can see it but we cannot catch it.
Utilitarian philosophy likes to think that if one could sum up the total good and total evil consequences of any given action, then one would know how good or how evil that action were. This is all very well except (1) such a thing is impossible to do seeing as we do not know the future of all things, and (2) how do we define what is a good consequence and what is an evil consequence?
I’m going to attempt to answer this question, or at least: to talk around it a lot by giving a few different perspectives.
The first mistake that Fry makes is thinking that there could possibly be good without evil. This is easy enough to understand. We live in a relative universe (thank you Einstein for the math), which means that everything — not just space and time, but also everything within space and time — is relative. Our only struggle with understanding what this means is that, like a fish looking for water, it is difficult to perceive what you have never not seen. Instead relativity means that we only perceive change. For example, if you take a shower at 20°C, is this hot or cold? If the ambient temperature is 10°C then it is hot, and if it’s 30°C then the shower is cold. What Einstein did is tell us this very obvious, but very telling, fact of the universe — except he proved that it also applies to space and time itself. It also applies to good and evil.
I will use the words ‘bad’ and ‘evil’ interchangeably, as I consider bad feelings to be part of the generic ‘evil’ to which Fry objects.
Happiness, contentment, joy, security, freedom… these ‘good’ feelings are relative. Neither do they have a top or a bottom. As soon as one gets used to them, they become normal and are no longer perceived. Then any decrease, let’s say back the the former level, is a bad feeling. To put it another way: happiness is feeling happier than usual; security is feeling more than usually secure. If you were unable to leave your house you would call freedom being able to play in the garden. If humans lived all across the galaxy and regularly teleported between planets then being restricted only to Earth would feel like being in prison and no doubt would violate the Galactic Convention on Human Rights, Section 278, Subsection B12: The right of all sapient beings to travel without hindrance throughout the galaxy.
Some food for thought: if feelings are relative, can we compare the value of the feelings of any two individuals? A child in Ethiopia is crying because they have no food today. A child in Los Angeles is crying because they’re not allowed to play on the iPad today. Who feels worse? The starving child? Are you sure? Does the starving child deserve more empathy? Perhaps. But the question is whether they are or are not feeling worse. Incidentally, this point is the reason why I think ‘privilege’ is bullshit. If everything is relative then you can perceive someone else having more or less when you compare them to yourself, but they themselves can only make a comparison with themselves as the zero point. Perhaps this is what is meant by “all people are equal in the eyes of God” or it at least means that it is impossible to compare the feelings of any two people and say which one is better off. As they used to say: “comparisons are odious.” Incidentally, this study (there’s also a TED talk on it somewhere) found that lottery winners and people who became seriously disabled both returned to their default level of happiness after 6 months.
Feelings are one thing, but what about evil itself? What about plague and disease? Murder? Rape? Mosquitoes? Bone cancer in children? Mint flavored ice cream?
My first point is that evil itself is, like everything else: relative. Murder, rape and bone cancer in children represent what is a moral-emotional low point for each of us. If there were no murder, no rape, no violence of any kind, you would instead feel as upset about someone calling you “John” out of context, instead of “Mr Smith” as you would feel about rape now. The evil of the action itself is relative to you. The thing you consider to be the most evil thing you know of incites the worst moral feeling you are able to feel. Evil is not a property of the action, it is a relative perspective based on what you have experience and are currently experiencing.
My second point is this: did you ever consider how the disease feels? I’m not trying to wind you up. Think about foxes and rabbits. What are rabbits? Are they cute and fluffy and jump around? Or food? What are foxes? Elegant beasts? Menaces that eat chickens? Or evil monsters, massive hairy things with big teeth?
Diseases are living beings. They have life cycles. They might even have feelings. So do foxes and rabbits, and they keep each other in balance. Disease also sustains balance in the ecosystem: if a population of anything becomes unnaturally large, the close proximity of the individuals of the population encourages the spread of disease, which slows the growth rate. The whole thing is symbiotic. Mosquitoes? Technically mosquitoes, along with many other parasites, are the few life forms on Earth that don’t systematically murder and consume the flesh of other life forms. That’s right, I can reframe it so that mosquitoes look like the good guys — they only want a tiny bit of blood that you don’t even need — and you as evil: how many animals and plants have you murdered for your own nourishment or just out of greed?
Here’s another perspective:
Is pain evil? Is fear evil? Is death evil?
Pain is used by nature and people to teach lessons, for example: don’t touch fire. Some people find pain pleasurable, in some contexts. Fear is usually considered evil, but not always, many people enjoy bungee jumping and/or horror movies. Death means different things to different people: fear of the unknown, the pain of having lost someone, or the destruction of a form. Evil in all of these things is subjective rather than objective, it is relative and based on your perspective. You can see this in the word ‘rape’, the word itself literally defines the action as something that is not wanted by the victim, and hence it is a subjective word. ‘Murder’ on the other hand, is not so clear-cut.
Death is one of those words that is meaningful more as an observation, that is: other people and other things die and you have an emotional reaction to that but you do not ever die and you will never die. That previous comment sounds very strange I know, but it’s actually logical: death itself is by definition the state of non-existence, non-existence means not experiencing, and you cannot experience not-experiencing hence you cannot experience death. Despite everything dying around you, the experiencer themselves, that is you, cannot die. If this makes absolutely no sense to you then that is because you think that what you are is the same thing as what other things that you have witnessed dying are (e.g. other people and animals) — but the evidence is to the contrary. Those other people are not experiencing in your perspective, you may assume they are experiencing to themselves, but they are not experiencing to you. You define yourself as the thing that experiences being you, yet you define other people as bodies that walks, talk and mean something to you. That is not the same thing. You have never seen an experiencer die — it does not appear to be possible.
What I have tried to illustrate above is that there can be no objective evil. But there does appear to be subjective evil. Actually since everything is subjective, i.e. everything is relative, it really makes sense that nothing can be evil in an absolute sense. This is why there is always an exception.
Subjective evil is whatever you consider to be evil. Your instincts were right all along. If you feel something is evil or bad then it is, to you, evil or bad. Some other weirdo might like mint flavored ice cream. Going back to the definition of ‘rape’ being something that is not wanted, this here appears to be the key. Could we say that evil is something that is not wanted?
Yes, we could define ‘evil’ as anything that is not wanted, and therefore ‘good’ as anything that is desired. It’s funny how looking into anything deeply enough tends to destroy it. To reveal the roots is to destroy the tree. If good and evil are subjective, and they can only be defined as good being what you want and evil being something you don’t want, then both words are as meaningless as saying that we want what we want and we don’t want what we don’t want!
Can we learn anything from this?
Take a look at the world. Do you see evil in it? What is this evil you are seeing if not things that you, from your perspective, wish were not there? Evil as a desire for change. And good: not desiring change? So is evil a desire for change? Is not all desire a desire for change..? I mean… if we can only perceive change then all of our desires must be related to change in some way. When something remains constant we take it for granted, stop thinking about it, and hence we do not have desires connected to it. Only when we lose something we have taken for granted do we notice it again. Does this mean that all desire is evil?
Surely that doesn’t make sense? If desire is evil, and I desire to help someone who is hurt, that is not an evil desire is it? It’s a good desire. If I desire to be happy, that is surely not an evil desire. Unless I perceive myself as unable to satisfy that desire, then the desire itself becomes tormenting. So does that make evil a desire that I perceive as unable to be satisfied, and good a desire that can be satisfied?
Evil being a desire that I perceive as being unable to be satisfied includes the following: I am hungry and I have no food. I am in pain and I have no way to stop the pain. I am dying and I don’t want to die and I can’t stop myself from dying. Someone is trying to take my money and I don’t want them to have it and I can’t do anything about it. Incidentally, if I had control over whether I could stop the pain, would it hurt less? The answer is yes. If someone was trying to take my money and I was a pro-kickboxer I might even enjoy the experience.
To put it another way, evil is a situation that I want to change but that I have no control over. If I’m OK with the unfolding of events then it’s not evil, and if I feel I have control, that I could change it if I wanted to, it would also not be evil. Bone cancer in children is considered evil because we do not want it and we can’t do anything about it. But the next question is why do we not want it?
If we don’t want it then it is surely because it is bad. But if bad itself is not wanting something then we get a kind of circular logic. We don’t want it because it’s bad, but it’s bad because we don’t want it. It’s bad because it’s bad? It’s evil because it’s evil.
Perhaps this is the message of the story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for which they are metaphorically cast out of paradise. The story is literally telling us that to have the perception of what is good and evil is itself the creation of evil. The fox is not evil for eating the rabbit, and the rabbit not evil for eating grass (poor grass), because neither knows the knowledge of good and evil. Only man knows that.
This is a very unfulfilling definition, so let’s switch over from talking about evil to talking about good, to see if that makes any more sense of it.
If evil is wanting something to change and not being able to change it, then does it make sense that good is not wanting something to change? If I am 7 happy and then I am 8 happy, that’s a change which is good, right? So good is wanting something to change and it does change. Therefore good is what we want. Evil then is what we don’t want. But we already know that.
Clearly the two, both good and evil are linked to expectation. I say this because something is only evil if I both want to change it and perceive myself as being unable to change it. It’s OK as long as I know I can change it; I’ll only panic if I try to change it and that fails. That would make ‘good’ the same thing as control. ‘Evil’ or ‘bad’ would then be perceived lack of control.
The next question: why is lack of control bad? There is no logical reason, other than the circular logic that lack of control is bad because it doesn’t get us what we want, which is bad because it’s bad, which is lack of control. I would say that lack of control is bad because we think that we should have control.
Why do we think we should have control? ‘Should’ means to have a right to it, to be righteous: the world should be this way, or you should not have done that. It’s about being the boss. That is that we think that we have a right to control. If we didn’t think we had a right to control then we wouldn’t be upset about it. The issue is then one of ego. Evil is thinking that we have a right to control the universe which is somehow being withheld from us by unknown hands.
And bone cancer in children? The child suffers because he or she thinks that she should not be suffering, pain is not painful unless it’s not supposed to be there. Stephen Fry suffers because he feels that he should be able to control bone cancer but he cannot.
Evil then is evil. Your belief that something is evil is what defines that thing as being evil, in your subjective perspective. Technically you create evil when you think something is evil. Evil exists because you believe in it. The reason we think like this is an ego problem. It comes from believing that we should have control over something we do not and should not have control over. If we did, we’d ruin everything. Evil then comes from thinking that you are God, i.e. having a right to control the universe.
I will leave you with some Hamlet (Act II, Scene II)
there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so