Thursday, May 12, 2005

Good and Evil

Interesting conversation with a friend. One of the discussions was over the definition of Evil.

He used it to define something else (I won't say what - no reason to offend you with the sort of societal taboos we argue about). I said "You can't use Evil as a definitive term - it has no semantic value." He said it did, of course (or there wouldn't have been a discussion about it, now, would there?) So we spent the next half hour debating the definition of the term. To no definitive conclusion.

This is a term that appears to have very common usage, so you would think that its meaning is clear. Here's a definition that shows multiple usages, one of which uses the term itself in its definition. (You know you have a problem when you use a term to help define itself - oroboros never gets very far).

This Wikipedia article has some interesting comments about the use of the term Evil, although I can't help but feel this is one of the most confused and muddled postings on a definition I've seen in a while. It appears to be so overloaded with different meanings and connotations that, as I said, it lacks semantic value because it doesn't communicate a concept clearly.

We seem to use a lot of terms, fairly regularly, where everyone just knows what they mean. I think that abstract nouns that actually communicate meaningful content should be tied at some level to concrete nouns (ie, something one can perceive with the senses, so that a common representation can be shared with another individual with the same senses). I posit that even emotions (some of them anyway) can be described in terms of "the feeling you get when you see a man pointing a gun in your face" (or "the feeling you get when I do this" as I slowly reach down and...ahem. Maybe in a later post).

Evil is a tough one. If it is to have semantic value, then it needs to be tied to concrete representations. Here is my first crack at it. (But you'll have to stick with me through another bumpy trip through left field first before I bounce off the wall and stumble back to home. (Hmmm...another blog topic - why are sports metaphors so common? In fact - why do humans play sports at all? Or better - why do humans find watching sports so fascinating? But I digress from my digression)).

Let's posit that life has a meaning. (Why? Because if life is meaningless, then who gives a rat's ass what anyone thinks about anything).

If life has a meaning, then that meaning (whatever it is), is "pro-life". (No, not in the "I'm for the death penalty for abortion doctors" kind of pro-life.) Pro-life in the most direct sense of the word - directly supportive of the continuation of life. The opposite of anti-life, which would be directly and actively against the continuation of life...something which tries to stop life.

Why should this be true? Because if the inherent, built-in meaning of life was in any way anti-life, then life would snuff itself. It would cease to be. It would be an ex-life. Anti-Life would be a self-cancelling concept, one that could randomly arise then rapidly disappear from the universe.

So we know that any meaning of life is, by definition, pro-life. Therefore living things, if they are to fulfill their purpose, to embody the "meaning of life" (whatever it may be), must actively be pro-life. Living things must support to some degree the continuation of life. (And probably the "growth" of life, if we can define what the heck that should mean. It almost certainly does not mean blind, unmitigated proliferation, which results in a malthusian meltdown and is ultimately "anti-life". But more on the Catholic Church later).

Now say we're going to construct an abstract dimension of measure, with one end labeled "Good" and the other end labeled "Evil". We arbitrarily assign the "Good" label to the positive side of the dimension, and "Evil" to the negative side. (Think of a number line - remember those from grade school?)

And to keep it simple, we'll make the positive side the "pro-life" side, and the negative side (yes, you guessed it - you're way too smart for me) the "anti-life" side.

So to be "Good", or perform good acts, one must act in support of the continuation and growth of life. Evil acts against the continuation or growth of life.

So is murder evil? Well, yes, most people would put murder in the anti-life category.

Is murder in self-defense evil? Perhaps, but certainly to a lesser degree. In fact, you can construct a reasonable case that says if someone is going to murder, then eliminating this source of "anti-life" is pro-life. You are helping life continue by removing an element that is working against the continuation of life.

Is accidental homocide evil? Well, it certainly had the same outcome as murder. But intentional murder requires an anti-life mindset, an "evil" way of thinking. Intentional murderers have demonstrated they can be evil, and therefore may be (will likely be?) again. People who cause a death by accident haven't necessarily demonstrated this mindset, this tendency to cause death. (Unless what they did was so clearly negligent that the likely outcome of someone's death was easily predicted - such a reckless disregard for the life of others is another form of "anti-life" thinking or tendency).

What about suffering? Is causing pain and suffering evil? If the afflicted individual feels like dying rather than continue with the pain and suffering, then yes, we'd have to say that causing that outcome is evil. Like the prior example, intent has an influence on where an act fits on the "good-evil" scale, although the actual outcome is the primary driver.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. We should really only call something "evil" if it can be demonstrated to be anti-life in some way.

And in real life, things get complicated. So there is room to argue about whether something or some act is evil or not. But at least with this definition we can have a common basis from which to evaluate.

This ties in to a framework of moral behavior I'm trying to formalize, one that derives from concrete bases for the meaning of life (rather than being handed down from a being with a booming voice that speaks in Hebrew). But that's for another post.


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