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By Robert A. Vella

As a thought experiment, I’d like our readers to answer two philosophical questions.  The first one should be answered before reading the second question for this to work properly.  Please conceive your first answer before scrolling down to read the second question.

Question #1:  Does GOOD and EVIL exist?

GOOD versus EVIL

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Question #2:  If you believe GOOD and EVIL exists, would they still exist if human beings had never existed?

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19 thoughts on “2 Questions for our Readers: Does GOOD and EVIL exist?

    • Your answer is probably representative of a great many people. It does lead to other questions, though. If good and evil don’t exist beyond humans, then even higher order mammals such as apes and dolphins must be amoral. Yet, they do at times exhibit behavior which we observe as compassionate and altruistic. Since humans are mammals, what makes us different?

      Thanks for responding, Helen. 🙂

      • Robert, I don’t think for a minute that other animals can’t love and treat others with kindness. Other animals can also sneak, and deceive, they can gang up and plan attacks on others of their own kind. Other animals also have a sense of fairness, as shown by experiments with dogs and with pigs, in which these animals will refuse to do the assigned chore if the treats meted out are unequal. (Their mates who perform the same act should be rewarded with the same treat.) Other animals at least equal, sometimes surpass, humans in loyalty and
        altruism. Mice in lab cages will take their food to a less fortunate mouse who can’t get to his/her own food. Animals will risk their own safety to rescue others, sometimes even others of another species. This only off the top of my head, so to speak, but I still stick to my original response. These examples of other animals caring for, or harming, other creatures don’t change the fact that the concept of good and evil is a human construct. It occurs to me that perhaps I’m responding semantically instead of conceptually? Can you give an example of a behavior of a non-human animal that could be called evil?

      • Yes, I think you were responding semantically instead of conceptually… and that’s precisely the point of the questions in this post.

        All the excellent examples you cited reveal that many animals behave according to similar moral constructs as humans. IMO, our concept of “good and evil” is just an artificial oversimplification of our subjectively constructed morality. If an animal cannot be evil, then neither should a human be seen as evil.

        It is my hope that humanity will someday move beyond the concepts of good and evil, and begin to judge people based on their specific behaviors instead. Today I might do something harmful, while tomorrow I might do something helpful. Neither makes me good nor evil.

        Great discussion!

  1. 1. Does beauty [kindness, heroism, sympathy] exist? 2. What if there were no humans.

    The problem, it seems to me, is converting things that are best thought of as qualifiers into abstract concepts.

    • Can not a person be kind, heroic, or sympathetic one day and mean, cowardly, or callous the next? How can a “good” person do bad things? How can an “evil” person do good? These abstract concepts of good and evil seem nonsensical to me.

      • Here is one of the many places we agree. No person is either too good or evil. They have capacity to act such that their actions result are judged good or bad.

      • The way you differentiate the two groups illustrates what I am saying. You admit that there can be heroic and cowardly acts (done by the same person). So does that mean there is no such thing as heroism?

        I assume you would admit there are such things as good acts and evil ones. For exmple, nogt to put conclusions in your mouth but wouldn’t the sharing of a last crust of bread with a stranger be considered a “good” act? And would not the wanton slaying of the children of your enemy be considered an “evil” one? Now maybe you will say there is no such thing as “heroism” because one can do both cowardly and heroic things at different time. But that does ntot mean you can’t use the attribute to particuar actions. So with “good” and “evil.”

        It is the turning the attribute into an abstract that is the problem. That is what Socrates did repeatedly in the dialgues in Pato’s very clever way, much to the astonishment of his listeners. His point usully was that the abstract (beauty, love, etc.) was an abstraction that humans could only approximate. Much like the ideal “triangle” is something that humans can only get close to but never actually draw. The trick, I think, was to try to substitute an ideal abstraction for a relative attribute. It’s really just a semantic trick even though it was marvelled at at least through the Middle Ages.

        You take the opposite tack. You say that a person cannot be wholly good or wholly evil and therefore the abstractions can’t exist. That is probably a fairer point of view but it still has to do with using words differently in different contexts. If you say that “evil” as an abstraction cannot exist, it doesn’t mean that “evil” as an attribute of actions doesn’t. For surely you would admit of it’s use in the psentence “the planning, bulding and use of the death camps were evil.” If you don’t admit the use there, then you are just saying the word has no semantic meaning. If you admit it there, then your problem is simply the transference of the attributive funciton of the word to an abstract one. In other words, you are more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist.

      • Well, I don’t see myself as having a “problem.” This is a philosophical discussion. The abstract, arbitrary, and subjective concepts of “good and evil” are generally ascribed to people and other figures rather than to specific acts. For example: “God is good,” “Hitler was evil,” etc. This facilitates both hero-worship and demonization impulses in people which can lead to terrible tragedies such as Nazi Germany and The Holocaust. Please note the arbitrary subjectivity in the example of Hitler – he was both worshiped and demonized. To me, Hitler was just a human being afflicted with psychopathy and other ailments who was able to seize the opportunity presented by populist angst to pursue his perverse ideas.

        Today, America and much of the West are demonizing hundreds of millions of people who happen to be Muslim. I think this is wrong, and I blame our flawed concepts of “good and evil.”

        As for likening my philosophy on this topic to Aristotle rather than Plato, fair enough. I read the Republic, and Plato’s idea of philosopher-kings runs contrary to my democratic sensibilities.

      • Of course you have a “problem.” See American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed: 2001) “n. 1. A question to be considered, solved, or answered.” The very fact that you solicited opinions shows that it was a “problem” you posed.

      • I posed these questions to stimulate a philosophical discussion, hopefully to expand awareness of our moral constructs, and not to elicit highly personal exchanges.

      • Robert, I don’t know what you found so “personal” about the exchange (not insult was intended on my part), but to be safe I’ll end the exchange.

      • In an unrelated reading, I came across something that seems to suggest the same thing as you are saying. Georg Büchner said in connection with his French Revolution play:: “There are no great criminals, only great crimes.”

    • Yes, and that subjective judgement arrogantly asserts objective morality (which doesn’t exist). This is how religion is presented to the simplistic or inexperienced mind. This is how hero-worship leads to tyrannical authority. This is how whole groups of people are demonized. It may be our greatest failure as a species.

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