Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Good and evil

Until the Neoconservatives rolled out their "axis of evil" in President Bush's State of the Union Address seven years ago, and other than President Reagan's reference to an "evil empire" in 1983 ("to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil") I can recall no general public discussion of public affairs or the lives of individuals that in any way relied on this concept of "evil." Sure, theologians and philosophers have debated "good and evil", but at a practical level, public discourse about our daily lives, our governments, or the relations between nations did not seem to be hinged on a determination of "evil."

Sure, there are occasional "tweaks", that are more mocking than being serious references, such as Google having the motto "Don't be Evil" or people (including me) referring to Microsoft as "The Evil Empire", but for the most part, public references to "evil" are more playful, than serious -- with the exception of right-wing conservatives and religious evangelicals.

Obviously some politicians have seen some value in polarizing life and labeling their side "good" and their enemies as "evil." But, does this political use of "evil" really relate to the conception of good and evil as referenced by theologians and philosophers or is it merely an "us vs. them", "you are either with us or against us" mentality?

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_and_evil
See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axis_of_Evil
See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_empire

Is a discussion of "good and evil" implicitly about a struggle between "right and wrong"? Are all wrongs implicitly "evil"? Are "little white lies" and "monstrous lies" both simply "evil" per se? Is evil a relatively generic concept with no sense of a threshold that can distinguish between "innocent mistakes" and "crimes against humanity"?

Personally, I do not sense any symmetry of a spectrum between so-called good and evil. When I think of"good", I think not of everyday activities that are completely harmless, but of instances where some extra effort is exerted to accomplished something positive that is out of the ordinary, such as a dramatic act of kindness or mercy, or saving a life, or offering hope where there was only despair. I do not think of tying my shoelaces, eating lunch, paying my taxes, or even jury duty [now there's an evil!] as somehow being examples of "good."

I am thinking that we need three categories or states: beneficial, neutral or benign, and harmful. Most of our everyday activities, either at a personal, group, government, or international level, will tend to be relatively benign. Some activities may be harmful to self and others. Other activities may be beneficial and lead to improving our own lives and the lives of others.

Yes, we definitely seek to minimize those harmful activities and maximize the beneficial and benign activities, but where this idea of a "struggle" between "good and evil" fits in is unclear, to me, from a purely philosophical or practical perspective.

Two simple questions come to mind:

1) Should we reserve the term "evil" for only the most extreme cases or should it apply whenever an action is neither benign or beneficial?

2) Rather than the current political practice of using the term "evil" for its political value when harm is extreme, should we simply use "evil" to mean any temptation to cause harm to self or others?

Here is one quote about evil that never really made sense to me: "Time is always on the side of evil." It is from Newt Gingrich:
http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.13273/pub_detail.asp

He says:

Time is always on the side of evil. That is an important premise of history. Time is always on the side of evil because the terrorists can wait, they can plan, and they can look for vulnerabilities while the good go about their daily business. To defeat terrorism, the good have to mobilize for decisive victory.

I understand what he is saying, but I do not buy it. It seems to me that you have to have a very weak model of "good" to imagine that evil will tend to prevail if given enough time. It is as if he presumes that "good" is stupid and "evil" is inherently smarter than "good." He seems to forget that "evil" can make mistakes, run out of resources, lose resolve, be undermined or superseded by social and political and economic changes, etc.

-- Jack Krupansky

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