META: The problem of "Good vs. Evil"

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Mon Feb 18 21:38:15 PST 2008

On Feb 18, 11:22 pm, Jamas Enright <t... at> wrote:
> [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.

You make a very good point, though I'd like to think that there's more
to what's considered moral behaviour than prevailing social norms.

> "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.


... who exactly?

Murder might be another tricky thing, what with self-defense, war, et
cetera, but does any person on the earth argue that, for example,
serial killing is a "good" thing?  Not even serial killers think that
it's "good"-- they just could care less, which could be called
sociopathy or evil or whatever one wants to call it.

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

It's a conflation that's deeply ingrained-- I mean, have you ever
tried to play a chaotic good rogue?  Good luck finding a DM that will
sign off on _that_.

> 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.

Well, yes-- there are always shades of gray and changing opinions.
Gerald Ford, for example, was heavily villified for pardoning Nixon,
while today many people-- even staunch Democrats-- opine that it took
a great deal of courage on Ford's part and that it was, in the end,
right for the country.

> 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.)

Agreed, but no Western religion says that one is born or inherently
"evil".  There's a difference between "sinning" and being "evil".  One
can be absolved of a sin, one can redeem themselves or be given
grace-- or at least that's the theory.  Evil, on the other hand,
implies that one is marked as being antithetical to good from birth--
which negates the entire theory of free will which most religions--
Calvinist sects and Witnesses notwithstanding-- acknowledge.

In fact, one of C. S. Lewis's better apologies runs along the lines
of, God created us for his own amusement, he gave us free will so that
we can surprise him, it is because of that free will that we're able
to hurt each other, and so that's why a just God and an unjust world
can coexist.  (Most of Lewis's theological arguments aren't nearly so
compelling; his "you can't accept Jesus as a moral teacher without
accepting that he's the Son of God because he said he was and a moral
teacher wouldn't lie" is just juvenile kneejerking.)

We're neither of us born good or evil, but rather, in this view, we
have the capacity and more importantly the choice.

> > 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.

I agree with you in many cases.  Some villains, though, commit
destructive acts when they have nothing to gain from it other than the
sheer pleasure of it.  I guess that's a need in and of itself, but at
the same time, it's slightly different than a mere selfishness.

I mean, look at Aaron the Moor:

Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?

Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day,--and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,--
Wherein I did not some notorious ill:
As, kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men's cattle stray and break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg'd up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends' doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
'Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.'
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly;
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

... I mean, THAT'S a villain, and while not every villain can
realistically be an Aaron, I don't think an Aaron now and then is
necessarily unrealistic.


More information about the racc mailing list