SYNOPSIS OF GOOD AND EVIL

“Where there is good, there must be evil.” – Lu Wang, 13th century Chinese metaphysician.

In summing up the place of good and evil in a personal philosophical program, the following points are worth emphasis.

You will have to choose an understanding of the words ‘good’ and  ‘evil’ that is comprehensive enough to encompass their full meaning;  an error in definition may have later consequences. My definition of ‘good’ is that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe . Notice that omitting the latter meaning neglects the value of other living things. Evil then is the opposite.

Goods and evils can be classified as I have done in Table 1 in the Appendix, but the reader may have other thoughts, and the exercise of writing them down is likely to be helpful. Goods can be intrinsic, that is, good in themselves; or instrumental, that is valuable as means to other goods. They can also be internal to the individual and/or external, that is, outside the individual or shared. Intrinsic and internal goods are likely to be more vital to personal meaning and fulfillment. Goods can be ranked, albeit inexactly, but the summum bonum or highest good for most of us is likely to be the dual hope of happiness and meaning.

Evil can be natural or due to free agency; the latter being caused by accident or human imperfections of immaturity, error (especially mistaken certainty), weakness, selfishness (especially self-aggrandizement), and malice. Therefore the twin goals of self-perfection and humility are potent means to limit evil.

Humanity tends to view the universe as the stage for a conflict between Good and Evil, and this mythology has great power in our lives. Varied philosophical sources tell us the best way to defeat evil and separate oneself from it is to be a force for good; that is, good will – the commitment to do good – is the means to both defeat evil and transcend it. Traditionally the ‘saint’ and the ‘hero’ are the two apex manifestations of the self-perfection, humility, sacrifice, and selflessness that allow humans to side with goodness in the universe, and achieve apotheosis.

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GOOD VS. EVIL – PART II

In Part I, we discussed the enduring tradition of the conflict of Good and Evil especially as it was presented by the ancient prophet, Zarathustra. This mythological conflict survived into modernity – consider World War II conceived by many as a symbolic battle of the virtuous Allies against the evil Fascists. More recently the  light and dark sides of the force in the Star Wars saga or the conflicts in the wizarding world of Harry Potter are fictional but powerful examples. Ultimately this conflict seems to be a  recurring paradigm of the human interpretation of the cosmos

It is no accident that Friedrich Nietzsche adopts the personage of Zarathustra in his masterpiece, Thus Spake Zarathustra, to present an alternative narrative. He challenges traditional values and the very  existence of God. In his synthesis, man must awaken from complacency and dependence on religious and state authority; embrace life, existence, and this world; and remake himself as an uberman (superman). Human weakness is manifest in  failing to accept the world as disordered and to recognize that sometimes what is considered evil turns out on closer examination to be good; that is good and evil are not absolute. Virtue is being true to oneself, through will to power, that is command of oneself and one’s future. It is also acceptance of the eternal recurrence, that is the complete embrace of that which is as if all that happens has happened before and will happen again an infinite number of times.1

In another of his masterpieces, Beyond Good and Evil, he also challenges the goodness of truth. To Nietzsche, the value of an idea has greater significance than its truth, if fact what is health-producing is truth. The question of will is not whether it is free or unfree, but whether it is strong or weak. The will to power may be more powerful than self-preservation, and man must get beyond existing valuations and live creatively, even dangerously. But despite all of his irreverence, he never loses his admiration for the psychological discipline of the saints.2

1Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper&Row Publishers, 1961, pages 686-696.

2Ibid, pages 686-703

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GOOD VS. EVIL – PART I

The world turns and the world changes… In all my years, one thing does not change…The perpetual struggle of good and evil.” – T.S. Eliot, The Rock.

 

Prehistoric humans lived in a world natural wonders – sun, moon, stars, earth, storms, animals, food plants, and so forth. In the absence of science, most if not all human societies came to see or explain at least some of these phenomena as divine or as deities. With time they personified them and polytheism was the result. During that prehistoric era, they also came to distinguish desirable things (e.g. food) from undesirable things (e.g disease) and eventually abstracted from that contrast the idea of good and evil forces or agents in a struggle, each trying to dominate the cosmos, setting the stage for the mythological conflict of Good and Evil.

Virtually every culture and most religious traditions incorporate the struggle of these two forces into their belief system, and seek to ascertain the impact on man and his place in it. One of the earliest of these comes from the Vedas of the subcontinent of India where two deities were considered most powerful: Vishnu (the preserver – also called Krishna) and Shiva (the destroyer).

In Persia, perhaps drawing on a similar Aryan tradition, a prophet known as Zarathustra, derived a religion and philosophy focused on the struggle between Good and Evil, perhaps 600 to 1000 years before Christ. He preached a near monotheism with  Ahura Mazdah as the supreme god, Lord of Light, Lord of Wisdom, ‘God of gods,’ ‘the first and the last.’ However a series of evil spirits he called Druj (servants of the Lie) led by Ahriman (also known as Angro-Mainyus) were fighting with Ahura Mazdah to dominate the universe. In his system Evil comes from free will, and cannot create; it is ‘not-life.’ Humans are born into the struggle and their role is to take individual responsibility and be active and diligent in the cause of good (inactivity is equivalent to aiding the Druj). Man’s duties then are to make all enemies into friends, to make the wicked righteous, and to make the ignorant learned. The greatest virtues are piety and honesty or honor.

After Zorasterism was adopted in Persia, these ideas worked themselves into Judaism and then Christianity where the evil spirit was called Satan and finally into Islam where it was known as Iblis (or Eblis). This dualism was also reflected in the two equal gods of Manichaeism, an extinct religion embraced by Augustine before he converted to Christianity.

1Gore, Charles, The Philosophy of the Good Life. Everyman’s Library, 1954. Chapter 2 – pages 31-52.

2 Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, 1954, p. 369.

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CAUSES OF EVIL (cont’d)

In the last blog, we noted that evil can be due to natural causes or to human free will and that there are six explanations of evil due to the latter. We then looked at the first two: immaturity and accident. Now we will look at the four other causes of evil due to human free will.

In the category of evil due to error, I am referring to the use of information not readily seen as invalid in a decision for action. This may be avoidable through careful study of circumstances of decision and thoughtful reflection on actions.  Socrates sees  insufficient or erroneous knowledge as the defining feature in human behavior, that is, he sees virtue as identical to knowledge, arguing that no man will knowingly do what he knows to be wrong. However, I am unconvinced as my last three categories of human evil will demonstrate.

Weakness is a common source of evil and includes intemperance, rashness, negligence, and cowardice. It is overcome by the ancient virtues of temperance and fortitude combined with patience and diligence in decision making. Unlike error which may be unavoidable, weakness can be overcome by the mature individual through the art of self-discipline.

Selfishness is an excess of the self-preservation instinct intensified by human emotions and psychological constitution. Early in life it leads to evils of immaturity, but later in life it blinds us to fairness and compassion. It often reflects the belief that personal sacrifice is  unnatural, irrational, or unrewarding, but many great thinkers – for example, Buddha, Jesus, Epicurus, Seneca, and Spinoza -conclude that restraint, moderation, and selflessness can be good for both the individual and for others.

Last is malice, the intention to cause harm to others. The more common form, mean-spiritedness, leads to relatively minor evil; whereas the less common form, cruelty, can lead to major evils. Most of us have experienced the former although most often subconsciously; especially in response to a perceived hurt. It may be overcome by self-examination and control of emotions especially anger. Cruelty in all of its forms must be overcome through ethical reversal and good will or if necessary by external restraint.

Extreme evils of error can be seen in an unwavering certainty of one’s belief. When paired with selfish desire to outshine others, we get Becker’s misplaced heroism discussed in Escape From Evil1. When paired with cruelty we get J. Brownowski’s vision of the catastrophic evil of the Nazis in The Ascent of Man2.

Remembering Frankena’s principle of beneficence we discussed in the section on ethics3, our primary duty is not to inflict evil or harm. This requires us to eliminate to the extent possible all the evil due to our actions, particularly that due to error, weakness, selfishness, and malice. Alternatively, knowledge, humility, self-examination, fortitude, consideration of others, and good will are the remedies for most human caused evil.

1Becker, Ernest, Escape From Evil. The Free Press, New York, 1975.

2Brownoswki, J., The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 374.

3Frankena, William K., Ethics,  Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0-13-290478-0 .  1973, p. 47.

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CAUSES OF EVIL

“Nature in her indifference makes no distinction between good and evil.” – Anatole France

 

 

We don’t usually think about causes of good, they simply seem to be good fortune or derive from personal effort. On the other hand for some reason, it is characteristic of human understanding to wonder why there is evil. We are unlikely to ask why a day is beautiful, but inclined to ask rhetorically at least why a hurricane with its resultant damage or injuries should occur.

Traditionally philosophers attribute evil to two main causes: nature and free agency. Natural evil is that which occurs through the forces of nature: calamity (earthquakes, droughts, and the like), disease, and imperfections in natural function (e.g. genetic mutations or congenital conditions). Science can explain the basis for most natural evils, but not in any satisfying way why the universe has them. This ‘why’ is the crux of thinking about natural evil. Psychologically, it tends to make humans see the universe as hostile or indifferent to us while undermining belief in an all-powerful or beneficent divinity. These interpretations will be examined in more detail in later blogs.

The other main cause of evil is that committed by free agents, which for most of us means human free will (we will discuss the possibility of evil non-humans such as Satan in later blogs). While the number of evils due to free agency is large, the reasons fall into six main groups (in rough order of increasing severity): immaturity, accident, error, weakness, selfishness, and malice.

The first two of these are largely unavoidable and on the whole minor. The evils of youth are generally unintentional whereas accidental evil appears to be almost a variety of natural evil. Both lead to feelings of guilt or remorse and thus serve a place in human maturation and socialization and may drive individual and human progress .

(continued next post)

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THE SUMMUM BONUM (HIGHEST GOOD)

The highest good of the mind is the knowledge of God, and the highest virtue of the mind is to know God.” – Benedict De Spinoza, Ethics.

 

Few philosophers attempt to rank goods and evils, but for thousands of years, philosophers have been trying to determine the most desirable good often referred to as the summum bonum or ‘supreme good.’ Classical Greek philosophers believe the highest good is eudaemonia, which translates roughly as ‘happiness,’ but is more commonly thought to mean ‘flourishing life.’ Aristotle feels that since man is in essence a rational being, his highest good is the exercise of his rational powers or contemplation. St. Thomas Aquinas thinks God created man to seek beatitude or supreme blessedness. Spinoza echoes this in his Ethics. Montaigne considers pleasure attendant to virtue – especially in the form of contempt of death as the means to tranquility – as the ultimate good for most men.

In a different vein, Utilitarians see the highest good at a societal level as the maximum happiness or pleasure for the largest number. To my knowledge, in all of philosophy, only Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of this approach, attempts to rank and quantify goods – in his case: pleasures and pains. However his list is intended to guide governance, whereas the list in Table 2 is focused on individuals. His list of pleasures includes wealth, skill, friendship, good reputation, power, piety, imagination, and relief. His list of pains includes: privation, awkwardness, enmity, bad reputation.  He also has the following on both lists: sense, benevolence, malevolence, memory, expectation, and association. He goes on to define each and attempts to create a ‘hedonic calculus’ by considering several ‘calculable’ factors: intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent.

I attempt in Appendix – Diagram 1 to create a chart ranking the goods listed on Table 2. For each of us, I suspect internal and intrinsic goods rank the highest in thinking about our own life. The two highest ranking goods by this process seem to me to be equal: happiness and meaning. I suppose some readers will feel they are essentially the same, but in my mind and perhaps by philosophical tradition they are distinct.

As in all things, I think it may be best for each reader to create his own chart. In later chapters we will come back to the question of the summum bonum, but in general this site will consider happiness (in the sense of eudaimonia) and meaning as the twin supreme goods.

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