Good and Evil – useful categories?

The comments on my post about the question whether the universe is morally neutral have come full circle: they mostly center about another question: are people morally neutral? Is humanity morally neutral? This is a good question. For a long time the sciences said that humans are in fact usually selfish – even the most unselfish act has a selfish component. Nowadays psychology is more neutral: it is clear most humans have compassion built in as much as a sense of justice. That is: we are built to help people in small ways without expecting reward (like helping someone find their way in a strange city). We are also built to resent it when someone else gets more  than we do for no apparent reason.

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This should not come as too much of a surprise. It is in fact surprising how much common sense gets thrown out when it comes to listening to science. For years we have let people tell us that selfishness is at the root of most of our behavior – the genetics of compassion – yet we see kindness all around. I mean the simple kindness of getting someone a cup of coffee. The pat on the back of a coworker who has lost a parent. The understanding we give women who are pregnant. Our patience runs out. Our kindness has limits. But that doesn’t mean that generally we don’t feel for other people.

The next issue is that of course there are differences between people. Sociopaths are a clear example: while the smart ones may be able to pass themselves off as decent human beings, fundamentally they do not care. Similarly there are people who care more than others. I don’t think it’s stretching to call such people saints. After all – if we are going to label the problem cases, why not label the opposite category as well?

Most people are somewhere in between. But making it a scale with only two ends doesn’t really work. That’s the disadvantage of moral judgement. In sciences like sociology and psychology the moral judgement is for the most part replaced by labels and scales. ‘You score 5 out of 10 on social sense’ or something like that.

In the study of ethics the approach is different again. While I took a 10 week course on the subject – the whole thing can be summed up pretty much as follows: there are two fundamental ways to judge ethics. One way is to look at motive. Right motive, right intention must mean the action itself is right as well. The other approach is to look at the effect. If the effect is positive, the motive must be right as well. Most philosophers will take both extremes into account while still leaning to one side or the other more.

But are good and evil useful categories? Most of our actions don’t fit that pattern at all. Theosophy has replaced that dualistic vision by another one: selfish or unselfish. Is it selfish of me to write this article? Or unselfish? That’s all about motive. But does that work? What IS my motive for writing all this down anyhow? Is it my way of getting the last word on that discussion about whether the universe is morally neutral? Or am I just continuing a conversation? Or do I want to show off just how much I did learn at college? Or do I just want to keep my online profile active? Or do I want to share some of my insights? Perhaps I just love to write?

I think it’s all of the above – and perhaps some motives I haven’t uncovered yet. Does that make me selfish, or does it make me a person who uses her passion to contribute something to the spiritual landscape of today?

But I don’t really need an answer to those questions – my main point is: good and evil are not useful categories to describe or pinpoint most of our lives…

3 thoughts on “Good and Evil – useful categories?”

  1. Hi Katinka,

    I enjoyed reading this post. Good and evil are dualities, like hot and cold, which means each derives its meaning from the other and so cannot exist independently. So they are not real in that sense. Wow, now you’ve started me thinking about this all over again (I used to think about morality a lot). Thanks for the post!

  2. Good and Evil are a matter of action coupled with motive, not of being, IMHO.
    We can do good things, this does not make us good people. We can do bad things, this does not make us bad people. Most people do good and bad things. What does that make us. I think we can classify actions as good or evil, but that is a tricky endeavour, and we must be careful. Case in point: happened in my city not long ago…a woman shoots her husband. Evil? He was in the process of killing their little toddler at the time..Good?
    I think to say, as postmodernists do, there is no good and there is no evil is a dangerous sidewalk to trip along.
    But either good or evil is not a matter of persons, but of actions and motives.

  3. Maybe it’s not a matter of selfish or unselfish. Maybe it’s a matter of selfish or whole-ish. As in, you can consider only yourself in leiu of a decision, or you can consider the whole, which includes you.
    So when Ayn Rand advocated total selfishness, I get what she was going for. After all, you can’t love and help anyone else unless you love and help yourself. But those things can be done simultaneously. Seeing things that way requires the viewer to take a lot of responsibility, I think. This idea has caused me to become more meticulous when making any decisions, and has made me more sensitive to the butterfly effect.

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