Why I believe: Good and evil
This essay is part of a series called Why I Believe.
I initially thought I could knock this essay off in half an hour or so, but it has proven to be somewhat more knotty than that, mostly in figuring out what I actually think since I haven’t spent as much time pondering this as I have with the other topics.
I’m starting this series off with good and evil — morality — because these principles are foundational. If they don’t exist, everything else crumbles.
The meaning of morality
As humans, we have this thing called behavior: we think, we speak, we do. We make choices, hundreds or more each day. We make things happen, on a dizzyingly wide spectrum from very small things to massive, world-changing things. Now, things happen in the natural world as well — the sun rises, water flows, gravity pulls, trees grow, animals eat and mate and die. The difference is that we humans classify our behavior on a scale of good and evil. We have consciences.
Much human behavior is neutral — choosing between two brands of bread at the grocery store, to pick a mundane example — and the actions of both animal and nature also seem to be neutral. Is it good when a rock falls down a cliff? Is it evil when the wind blows the leaves off a tree? It seems to me that the closer animals get to humans in behavior and form, the more we project our morality onto them — a chimpanzee beheading and eating its offspring strikes me as far more horrifying than an ant doing the same — and yet it all appears to be just projection, anthropomorphizing as we tend to do. Animal behavior isn’t good or evil. Those classifications are reserved for humans alone.
What, then, are good and evil? They are the two halves of a scale upon which we measure our thoughts, words, and actions. Intriguingly, you need both for either to make any sense; without good, there is no evil, and vice versa. (Lehi said this more eloquently.)
So, we have this concept of morality. It leads to a number of other questions: whether the definition of the scale is up to us, for example, and whether such a scale should inform our behavior.
The definition of the scale
Are we making this stuff up? That’s the question. I wrestled with this for a while and I don’t know that I have a solid answer yet, but I find that it’s easier for me to look at it from the inverse: does moral relativism make sense?
First, some terms kifed from Wikipedia: descriptive moral relativism is the idea that people see morality differently. Next, meta-ethical relativists believe that “good” and “evil” are relative to the traditions or beliefs of an individual or group. Finally, normative relativists go a step further and believe that we ought to tolerate others’ behavior regardless of whether it falls under our “evil” or not.
Descriptive relativism is of course quite true — there is, to understate it, a difference of opinion on what is good and what is not, across cultures and time. But then again is there really as much of a difference as we might think? Most religious traditions generally agree on what is good — helping others, being kind, etc. — and what is evil — lying, stealing, hurting, killing, etc.
Because of that (among other things), meta-ethical relativism doesn’t ring true to me. There does seem to be an underlying foundation of morality that is universal. Interpretations of it may differ, and we almost always stack our own extra cultural made-up rules on top of it, but there’s something there, something beyond our making. More on that in a moment.
Normative relativism is just ridiculous (and its minions are thankfully few). By its standard, we should tolerate an individual raping, murdering, and eating a child. But that “should” is problematic by their own standards because it attempts to prescribe the normative relativists’ standard of good (toleration of all behavior) onto other people whose standards of good are different (toleration of only some behavior).
The next question is whether this universal morality is just a byproduct of evolution. To my understanding, this would mean that being “good” would help you live longer and make more posterity (life must go on). “Good” would mean maintaining a healthy relationship with those around you — knitting societies together — for greater protection against danger and for a greater chance at reproductive success. A lot of the human behavior we classify as good makes sense under this rubric, but some of it doesn’t — for example, it doesn’t explain why we consider it good and noble for someone to lose their life saving that of a perfect stranger.
So, as I’ve found moral relativism lacking in substance, and as evolution doesn’t quite explain morality to my satisfaction, I find it easier to believe that this universal morality comes from outside of us humans, namely from God.
Whether it matters
If there is in fact a standard of good and evil, and if it’s something real outside ourselves and not just whatever we want it to be to suit our convenience, then yes, of course morality matters. Some ramifications:
First, we ought to know what the standard is — what is good and what is evil. This requires going to the source of the standard, rather than relying on flawed, distorted human interpretations of it.
Second, we ought to listen to our consciences. We all seem to have one (the exceptions are rare enough that we won’t consider them here), and that conscience urges us to choose good over the evil that we naturally tend to choose.
Third, we ought to relentlessly strive to ensure that all our behavior is good and not evil, for our own sake and for the good of those around us (because it’s good to care about others’ needs above our own). When we do think, say, or do evil things, whether small or large, we ought to stop and never do it again, and fix whatever mess we’ve made.
This wasn’t quite as personal as I’d hoped it would be, but I suppose that’s part of talking about things this way, aiming for objectivity instead of subjectivity (if that’s at all possible). Let me just say that beyond all this, the idea of good and evil resonates with me, especially as I look at my thoughts, words, and actions. I can see how what I do has an effect for good or ill on myself and on those around me. It makes sense.
With that foundation, we can now move on to the source of this standard of good and evil: God.