META: The problem of "Good vs. Evil"

Jamas Enright thad at
Mon Feb 18 20:22:28 PST 2008

[Feel free to sprinkle in "IMO" if it makes you feel any better.]

One of the big problems of "good versus evil" is that the terms aren't 
defined. What is "good"? What is "evil"?

There are no absolute definitions, it is entirely relative. There are many 
things that we reading this would agree are good, but are seen as 
not-good, and vice versa. To go straight to extreme examples, consider 
fundamentalist Islam vs... well... I shall use the term "Western 
civilisation" merely because I can't immediately think of a better term.

There are many acts committed in the name of Islam that the portrayers 
think are good, but we condemn, and, as I said, vice versa.

"Good" and "Evil" are judgements, which are made by humans, relative to 
the culture they know. Tom mentions "rape", but again this is considered 
evil by us, but there are people who consider it a good thing.

Michael Shermer in "The Science of Good and Evil" talks about provisional 
morality: "true for most people in most circumstances most of the time". 
Actions taken outside the "most" are then judged, sometimes as good, 
sometimes as evil, depending on the precise circumstances and who is 

(There is also a conflation between "good" and "lawful" which can be a 
very fine distinction.)

On Mon, 18 Feb 2008, Tom Russell wrote:

> There's a fourth view you're neglecting, and that it that we are
> neither good nor evil in any abstract way, but that we are all capable
> of good and evil acts.  In this view, _actions_ are good or evil and
> people are not.

Actions are actions, neither good nor evil. They are only judged as such 
by people, with their own biases, etc.

>> 1) and 3) appeal to advocates of Western religions.  1) appeals to
> I disagree with you very strongly here re: viewpoint # 1.  I am not
> aware of any major Western religion that says that people are
> basically evil, and I am also not aware of any modern mainstream
> religion that says

Most Western religions say "you are a sinner and you must do this to be 
absolved". (Religion has many facets, this one speaking to the use of 
religion as a source of control/power, but that's another discussion.)

> I don't personally think that "heroes" are better than us.  What makes
> them heroes (and thus inspiring) isn't some abstract, inate goodness
> but rather the fact that they do things that are good.
> Ordinary people are capable of bravery, and they're capable of doing
> great things given the right circumstances.  That is what's
> inspirational about the best superheroes-- they're ordinary people who
> rise to the challenge.

Above all said, I largely agree with this. Heroes are those that try to do 
"good" (usually defined as what is best for society). Villians are those 
who put their own needs above society and are willing to destroy whatever 
aspects of society they need to to achieve those needs.

[Martin said:]
>> Natural selection encourages nondestructive behviour: indeed, there
>> would appear to be nothing in our genes that encourages "evil"
>> behaviour and, indeed, a gene that would cause one to become evil
>> enough to kill his own children would be selected against.

I think it was recently shown that, at least on a social scale, we need 
both altruistic and warlike genes to survive. Altruistic to ensure our own 
society survives, warlike to kick the asses of anyone who wants to 
interfer with our society.
Is war evil? Depends...

Switching tack, Dr Doom was mentioned. From the point of view of Fantastic 
Four, he's the villain. From the point of view of the Latveria, yeah, he's 
an ass, but also provided them a lot of wealth.

(Another semi-related real worl example: corporations who "exploit" third 
world countries and set up sweat-shops. For most of those people, the 
alternative is running around with no income or anything that comes from 
that at all...)

Jamas Enright
Blue Light Productions homepage:

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