Good, Evil, and Standards
Many religions embody the belief that evil exists. For example, Zoroaster divided the power of the Universe equally between good and bad gods, and saw everything as a battle between them.
In mechanistic science, there are only natural forces, which are neither good nor evil. There are disciplines that study fine-grain forces, such as physics and chemistry, and others that study complex, high-level forces, such as anthropology and sociology. Regardless of the granularity, all scientific disciplines simply study how things actually are.
When we apply these disciplines to our daily lives, they become good or evil, depending on how they are applied. For example, nuclear physics is good when used to build power plants that generate cheap electricity, but bad when used to make atom bombs that kill people. In other words, it is only within the context of needs that good and evil have meaning. Visitors from another planet wouldn't consider humans dropping bombs on each other to be a bad idea, but rather, just an interesting anthropological phenomenon, unless of course they got one dropped on them, in which case they'd consider it to be evil. So it all depends on the perspective of the observer, and good is merely that which the observer wants, while bad (or evil) is that which the observer does not want.
If there were but one desire, and only one object of that desire, morality would not be complex enough to warrant discussion. But competing interests, within each individual, and among individuals, introduce the concept of the greater good. We all want many things, and while we might be able to get anything we want, we cannot get everything we want. In consideration of the multiplicity of needs in question, good is the greater good, while bad is the greater bad. We can then define the best behavior as that which satisfies the most desires (i.e., "the greatest good for the greatest number"). For one individual, it's a matter of satisfying one desire without frustrating another. Impulsiveness is fine, assuming there are no consequences. For society, it is a matter of addressing the needs of the majority of people. Selfishness is OK, but not at someone else's expense.
As reasonable as it sounds, this is actually too vague to be useful. At what point is an action to be considered at the expense of someone else? Taking a parking space is at the expense of someone else who could have used it. And certifying that a proposed strategy will serve the greater good would require that we be familiar with all of the desires, and all of the objects of those desires, and that we add it all up in our heads. This isn't terribly realistic, and frequently, the "greater good" is used by unscrupulous people as the first half of a bait-and-switch. To even begin to approach true morality, we need to be more specific. So let's think of a marketplace, with a constant flux of lots of vendors, products, and customers — how do we always know in advance what the rules should be, in order to guarantee the greater good?
The very first rule must always be that physical force not be allowed, since there is no question that the transaction is bad for the one being forced. Second, everybody must be honest, about what they have and what they want (i.e., no fraud). If these rules are followed, all of the transactions will be good for both the seller and the buyer. Then, assuming that no third parties get hurt, the greater good will be achieved as the sum of all of the individual goods. Thus if there is no force or fraud, everybody wins.
Still we are lacking a necessary component in a working moral code, because so far, we only have a definition of what is good. But we also need to define what is bad. Thinking in terms of greater and lesser goods just gives us a slippery slope, and it's easy for unscrupulous people to blur the distinctions to get people to accept lesser goods. So we have to draw a line somewhere between good, better, and best — behavior above the line is good, while below it is bad.
Now we can understand Zoroaster when he said that there are equal quantities of good and bad in this world, and we can even resolve the moral dilemma that he created. Good and bad are always evenly matched because we set standards, and when we see that we are consistently above the line, we raise the standards to try to do even better. This brings good and bad back into balance. The dilemma comes from seeing that there will never be more good than bad in this world, and this leaves us wondering why we would bother trying to be better. The answer is that good is what we want, and we can get more of it if we try. We will perceive that there is still as much bad in this world, but we will know that we are doing better when we recall that we raised the standards.
To put it another way, the concept of good is meaningless without bad as the antithesis, and similarly, evil has no meaning without a concept of goodness. But it is a mistake to think that these mutually-defining concepts prescribe static quantities of each. If the definitions of good and evil stayed the same, we could create a world in which there is more good and less evil. But eventually, we would have so much good that we would no longer have a distinct concept of good versus evil. So we can either not bother trying to be better, or we can be better and raise the standards to keep good and evil in balance, which is better.
Within this framework we can understand how the definitions of good and bad can vary depending on the circumstances (i.e., "situational ethics"). This is hard to understand if good and evil are essences emanating from God and Satan, wherein we'd expect them to always have the same characteristics, but easy to understand if they are standards, wherein we sometimes slide the scale depending on circumstances.
We can even understand how the definitions vary from one person to the next. One person might think that going to a nightclub and only getting half-drunk is a good thing, because she used to get thoroughly drunk and do very stupid things, while another person might think that getting drunk at all is bad, because even half-drunk people are not as wise as their sober companions. How can one person's bad be another's good? We can understand this only if we see the difference between good and bad as a matter of standards. Everybody is trying to do better. Some people are further down that road than others, and the personal standards vary.
In society, varying moral standards cause problems, since it leaves us without a way of knowing what to expect in our interactions with other people, and this dampens the commerce, which is bad. If we could all agree that everyone is supposed to be up to a certain level, we could move more freely within society, knowing the rules. In this way, good and bad behavior take on a new meaning when they are instantiated in social expectations, and it becomes the responsibility of every citizen to be good, not just to get closer to God, but also to reaffirm the rules of society, thereby facilitating healthy interaction.
To condense all of the above, we can say that there are 4 levels of morality:
  1. satisfaction (consistently taking care of our own needs),
  2. compassion (including the desires of others in our efforts),
  3. integrity (accurately representing ourselves to others), and
  4. righteousness (raising the standards and setting an example).
Note that each of these levels is predicated on the one below it. Hence the compassion of an unsatisfied person might be just an insincere ploy; integrity without compassion is worthless; and righteousness without integrity is fraud.
To clarify our concepts of good and bad behavior, it is useful to think of people who instantiate such behaviors. Then, when faced with a moral dilemma and considering a possible solution, we can ask if it seems to be more consistent with what a good person, or a bad person, would do. We personified God, to get Him into the conversation. But we also have to personify Satan, such that we can hear the arguments for bad behavior in the same context, for the purpose of clarifying the difference. God instructs us to work with others for the greater good of society, while Satan tells us to be irresponsible, impulsively grabbing whatever we want at the moment, regardless of the consequences to ourselves or those around us.
This means that in Christian culture, the personifications are backwards. People possessed by the Devil are frequently portrayed as shrewd and sophisticated, while good people are innocent and naïve. But God is actually the wise one, while Satan is stupid. Here the Buddhist definitions of good and evil, as skilled and unskilled, are the most useful. Satan is about pain, suffering, poverty, disease, and death. That's all stupid stuff. God is healthy, active, rich, cultured, sophisticated, and wise. God is slick, while Satan is the bumbling idiot who does everything all wrong.
With this in mind, we should re-read the New Testament, and hear the wisdom of the teachings that is lost on western society. Jesus was not innocent and naïve — he was shrewd and sophisticated, especially for that period. Winning the hearts and minds of followers with pacific persistence was a new concept in Roman society, and it is a lesson that is still lost on most of the people in this world.
  • Good and bad are relative to the perspective of the observer.
  • We can get anything we want, but we can't get everything we want.
  • So we pursue the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • If there is no force or fraud in human commerce, everybody wins, and
  • the greater good is achieved as the sum of all of the individual goods.
  • "It's all good" isn't enough — we must define both good and bad.
  • Clear definitions of good and bad enhance social trust and interaction.
  • Morality is satisfaction, compassion, integrity, and righteousness.
  • God personifies good behavior, and Satan does bad behavior.
  • God tells us to coordinate, while Satan tells us to be selfish.

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