META: The problem of "Good vs. Evil"

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Tue Feb 19 02:25:57 PST 2008

On Feb 19, 1:38 pm, Tom Russell <milos_par... at> wrote:
> 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.

I'd like to think there is such a thing as free will but I can think
of no physical mechanism that would alter our behaviour other than our
genetic makeup (nature) and our collective life experiences (nurture).

> > "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.
> Um...
> ... who exactly?


Seriously, I recall reading a long time ago in a book about
Evolutionary Psychology that it is a myth that all birds are
monogamous: depending on the species, some male birds successfully
"mate" by raping female birds and this strategy is successful enough
that such birds are able to compete through natural selection with
monogamous male birds so that a status quo is established in that
species with a majority of birds carrying the gene for monogamy and a
majority of birds carrying the gene for mysogamy.  Could it be the
same way in humans?  Could there be a gene for sociopathy?  It's hard
to tell because human society has laws and it would be difficult to
distinquish a law abiding sociopath from a person who actually feels
guilt.  It's only serial killers that we can identify as either
sociopaths or psychotics and, alas, this is only in retrospect, after
they've commited their crimes.

Getting back to the subject of rape, I vaguely recall hearing about a
case in which an unsympathetic judge couldn't understand why a rape
victim was so angry.  "Why couldn't you have just lied there and
enjoyed it," he asked.  Wait, I'll do a google search.

Didn't find it but I found this.
Not everybody is sympathetic with rape victims and, instead, is
inclined to say that it is "her own fault", that she "asked for it"
and wonder if she "enjoyed it".

Anyway, it highlights the fact that some (sociopathic?) men can't
understand why women complain about rape.  A man on Geraldo, a self-
proclaimed pro-men activist, once said "Women aren't in any danger
from most rapists if they just give them what they want.  Why can't
they just do that?"

The fact is that most men can't relate to the idea that rape is
fundamentally evil.  The idea of women instantly submitting to one's
whims appeals to every horny male heterosexual teenager.  Does that
make every horny male heterosexual teenager a potential rapist?  No,
but it does make it difficult for most horny male heterosexual
teenager to put themselves in a woman's place.

Ironically, most heterosexual men would balk at the idea of anything
going in their... nether region.  But heterosexual men would then ask
why heterosexual women would reject them?  Are they lesbians?  Don't
they want to have sex with men?

The thing is that while a horny man would have sex with a clear
majority of the women in the world, women -no matter how horny- are
more selective, partly because they have to worry about getting
pregnant, partly because there is a double standard whereby they can
get a bad reputation even though they are a victim (as they would no
longer be a virgin), partly because some women experience pain during
sex (and not just the first time either), partly because women stand a
greater chance of catching a disease (which can limit their chances of
getting pregnant later) and partly because women experience a sense of
violation that men have trouble relating to.  (I once had my wife
force myself on me and it really wasn't so bad.)

I think five words could make any man understand: "Big dildo in your
ass".  Anytime I forget why rape is so evil I think "Big dildo in my
ass" and I snap out of it and think "Okay, okay, I get it!"

> 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.

I read an article in Scientific American Mind recently that pointed
out that while Jeffrey Dalmer was a classic sociopath, Charles Manson
(who showed affection for his own family members) was actually
psychotic and delusional (thinking he was a messiah).  Anyway, don't
forget that Jeffrey Dalmer was bothe having sex with and then eating
his victims so he had a lot of motivation for doing what he did other
than "I think I'm going to be evil today" (which is the sort of choice
that a literal belief in free will implies).

> > 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".

Christianity does.

> There's a difference between "sinning" and being "evil".

Semantics.  Supposedly, the "original sin" that we are born with is
passed down from Adam who, so the story goes, ate the apple from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil so that he was then capable of
commiting evil.  In the story, God considered Adam's disobedience to
be an evil act (even though he supposedly didn't know the difference
between good and evil before he disobeyed God and hence couldn't be
blamed for his actions... but whatever).

> One
> can be absolved of a sin, one can redeem themselves or be given
> grace-- or at least that's the theory.

Actually, the one sin that can't be forgiven is "blaspheming the holy
spirit" (which supposedly means that atheists can't go to Heaven,
which ironically would never give theists the chance to say "Nah nah
nah, told you!").

> 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.

Actually it is Western religions themselves that promote the whole
"good versus evil" idea.  If there were no such thing as objective
evil, if it were all just a question of one's point of view, then the
whole idea of scores of people being sent to Hell while a select few
went to Heaven would seem terribly arbitrary.

> 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

Actually, no, not according to the Biblical story.  Adam ate from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil despite God telling him not too.
Presumably, Adam eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
gave Adam and his descendents the ability to do evil (which presumably
is a way the Christian god can claim that the evil that exists in the
world is not his fault).  According to the story, God didn't want Adam
and his descendents to be free to do evil.

I suppose you could argue that Adam was using his free will when he
disobeyed God so Adam already had free will before he ate from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but given as he was too naive to
know he was doing anything wrong before he ate from the the Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil, it's really hard to credit Adam with free
will, isn't it?

Anyway, if there is no such thing as objective evil then the point is
moot: it would appear that most people who do evil things truly see
themselves as defending themselves or their country.  (See George W.
Bush invading Iraq.)  Very few people commit evil things just simply
because they enjoy being evil and, even then, they probably don't see
themselves as evil.  I see little room for free will in real world

> > 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

in fiction.  Granted, people who commit evil acts in real life may
find themselves enjoying the acts themselves (and therefore acquiring
intrinsic motivation for these acts) but "they're just evil" doesn't
explain why any real life villain would do the things they did.


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