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Can the Secular Define Evil?
I’m a fan of Dennis Prager, though I split my listening between him and Rush, as they’re both on at the same time. Dennis is an unabashed advocate for religion, and the notion that goodness flows from it. He frequently challenges secular people or atheists — like me — to contradict his claim that “[w]thout God there is no good and evil.”
It’s a good challenge, and I’ve been contemplating it for a long time. Not only do I think we should always confront our opponent’s best arguments directly but I really do think its important to ask myself — as secular person — how I draw the distinction between what is good and evil if I am not going to trust religion to define it for me?
First, how does religion define good and evil? Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland defined evil thus:
Evil is a lack of goodness. It is goodness spoiled. You can have good without evil, but you cannot have evil without good.
I think this is gibberish. First, it assumes that these are measurable quantities in any meaningful sense. Second, there’s a pseudoscientific feeling to it as well which mimics the notion that cold is the absence of heat and darkness is the absence of light. I don’t think this is a very good definition of evil at all. Evil is supposed to be the antithesis of good, not its absence; further, it implies that the mere act of not doing good is itself evil. It seems to negate the possibility of benign neglect.
From my outsider’s perspective, the Judeo-Christian tradition defines evil:
- As either against other people or against God;
- As acting in a fashion which is morally reprehensible, sinful or wicked;
- As violations of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments; and
- As violations of the Golden Rule.
Being as I am secular, I’m going to write off the evils against God right off the bat. Each person who isn’t a a Jew or a Christian in the world commits these “evils” either passively or actively on a daily basis. I don’t think I or anybody else is committing a sin or acting evilly when we don’t observe the proper obeisances to God. Why? Because none of us is harming anybody by not doing so.
So, what about the rest of those commandments? I can’t imagine another morally normal person who would assert that murder, theft, rape, perjury or adultery are acceptable or not evil. The secular generally agree on these. So where do I draw the distinction?
The things that all of us — secular and religious — seem to agree on as being evil is when someone acts maliciously in one’s own self interest without regard to the harm that those actions cause others. Compare this to enlightened self interest or the Harm Principle. Violating these is an outrage to the conscience of morally normal people. The Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is generally a good thing; violating it may not be explicitly evil, but to do so wantonly most likely is.
So let’s talk about some examples and see which of these responses are either good or evil:
- You come across a person on the side of the road who is unconscious and bleeding. Do you a) keep on walking, b) render aid and call 911 or c) rape, rob and kill them because they don’t know any different?
- You pull up to a red light. Standing in the intersection is a bum who is disheveled and inebriated. The bum has a sign with something cute like “Not going to lie, I just need a beer.” You have $20 in your pocket which you do not need. Do you a) Give them the $20, or b) keep on driving.
- A person who is a perfect stranger to you approaches. The stranger asks for a gun with which they can kill themselves. You have a gun. Do you a) hand them the gun and plug your ears or b) insist that this person get assistance?
Why or why not you do any of the options is just as important.
There are right and wrong answers. I’ll reveal mine in the comments.Published in General, Religion & Philosophy
Witnessing a lack of love or a love that has been twisted into something bad is a fairly normal part of human experience, even if the witness has no idea what “a measurable quantity” of love would be (and I think many of have no such notion of a measurable quantity of love).
Jumping the gun a bit in this discussion, though everyone can identify the right choices in these and most other hypothetical, the real question is, can you arrive at the right choices without assuming human life has value beyond it’s utility?
If you do believe it has value beyond it’s utility, why?
1. Render aid… duh! It would take a conscience of pure rust and decay to even contemplate the other options
2. Keep on driving – to be of any use whatever, compassion must be discerning.
3. A) Refuse access to your firearm, obviously and B) offer to help them acquire the help they need. After all, you can lead a horse to water….
Aside from the fun morality pop-quiz, we also have an innate conscience that nudges us in the correct direction. Naturally, one has the option to ignore one’s conscience to a degree that it can atrophy and even die, but there is a scold at each human’s core. Being secular (as I am myself) does not remove from us the feeling that we are, in fact, being watched.
I’m going to have to disagree with you though that the option to NOT do good is in fact an evil. If you can do a thing and decide not to, that is an evil. Neglect, yes — but not benign.
I’m interested in the answers. Particularly 2.
How did you conclude that this is what evil is “supposed to be”? Why should it be the antithesis of good rather than good’s absence?
At the risk of quoting myself again and being a bore,
True, this only addresses evil in the human heart, not so-called “natural evils” (like natural disasters). But it does illustrate that the choice between absence (not having what you refuse) and antithesis (being opposed to what you refuse) need not be as mutually exclusive or clear-cut in moral reasoning as it is in, say, math (where 0 and -1 are indeed very different things).
I thought the secular definition of evil was to deny catastrophic, man-caused global warming.
And at the risk of being a bore by paraphrasing myself, Is it really proper to describe cold as the absence of heat?
Isn’t the real physical property simply temperature, to which we describe one side of the spectrum as heat, and the other cold? Describing it as the absence of heat is a focus on the cause of the temperature’s current state, not the property itself.
“Evil according to a Christian worldview is any action, thought or attitude that is contrary to the character or will of God.”
There is no definition of evil without God: so your definition, “From my outsider’s perspective evil falls under a couple of categories in the Judeo-Christian tradition – evils against other people and evils against God;” is inaccurate. Only the latter case exists.
Of course, those laws include how to treat other people so that you don’t do evil.
I think of evil and good as synonymous, in many ways, to chaos and order. To have order, and therefore good, you must have laws, and those laws have to come from somewhere.
Without religion and God and you’re left with Nature’s laws: Nasty, Brutal, and Short. I highly recommend reading Chagnon’s Noble Savages to get a good understanding of what that’s like.
The fact that the worst, most evil crimes in history have been perpetrated by atheist, anti-religious regimes makes the point quite nicely, I think.
You cannot have morality without religion. And the secular folk who think you can are simply aping religious behavior without providing another framework.
That Wikipedia article is interesting, I read it after reading the “Why did God create Ebola” thread.
I think a thorough awareness of one’s own ignorance is enough to make benign neglect a very attractive path for a person aspiring to Christian virtue in many cases. Knowing that my ignorance or arrogance is often likely to cause harm even when I try to do good is a legitimate reason for avoiding some (even many) attempts at good.
Speaking of which, I think it’s possible for a Christian to recognize the utility of the harm principle and consequentialism – and even employ consequentialist reasoning – without descending into evil. Consequentialism doesn’t complete my moral vision of the world, but it makes up a large-enough chunk of it (probably why I’ve occasionally been accused of being a Godless utilitarian by those who haven’t yet figured out that I can also be annoyingly religious). Being the blinkered, ignorant, biased creatures that we are, we can’t always judge the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of our own conduct very well. But if we have some idea of the likely outcome of different types of conduct and can reason from that, well, at least that’s something.
That huge divide between deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics that philosophers like to make so much of seems to matter less in everyday life than philosophers would probably like. I suspect even diehard deontologists end up using a lot of consequentialist reasoning just to make it through an average day, even if they don’t acknowledge that that’s what they’re doing.
Yes. Heat is simply movement. Cold is the absence of movement. They can “cool” an atom to absolute zero by immobilizing it with lasers. Seems odd, but given the definition of heat, that’s how it works.
“But what does it mean to “cool” atoms? Atoms are constantly in motion, so cooling atoms to low temperatures essentially amounts to reducing their motion or speed.”
“How Do Lasers Help Create Both the Coldest and Hottest Spots on Earth?”
It’s an interesting question for the secular like us. The toughest question for the God-fearing is why indiscriminate catastrophe (ebola, tsunamis, etc) happens if God is good. For the secular, it is how to objectively identify evil.
I firmly believe in Evil. But what is that belief rooted in? I would be hard pressed to come up with an answer on the spot. I find child abuse, sexual violence, and wanton murder evil and worthy of violent responses. I was raised in a Christian worldview so it is impossible for me to remove that influence, though these things are with a few exceptions, universally considered repulsive. Had I been raised in India or China, I would likely feel the same.
From a self-interest standpoint, these wicked behaviors are not compatible with a civilized society, which I value chiefly. And on an emotional level, they produce rage in anyone not committing such atrocities. I don’t much care how people arrive at that conclusion as long as they do.
This doesn’t get at the point I was making. Heat and Cold are descriptions we give to different sides of the same spectrum: Temperature. It is a misappropriation of the word heat to describe all temperatures as varying amounts of heat since the words hot and cold were created to categorize different points on that spectrum.
The terms are meaningless if we are to accept materialist premises that there are no higher order system beyond physics, as our entire reality of perception is then illusory, including how we perceive varying temperatures.
I find this question easy.
I don’t think it does misappropriate the term heat to describe even cold objects as having warmth in proportion to their absolute temperature.
It would be a misappropriation of language, though, to declare that “Now that we know that cold things just have less thermal energy than hot things do, no one should be allowed to call ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ opposites anymore.”
Words can be opposite in more than one way, and even though cold things are simply less hot than hot things, calling cold the opposite of hot still makes sense.
Hot and cold are just different ends of the temperature spectrum, but Heat is used to describe the thermal energy – so Heat is a different quantity from temperature. When something is hot, it contains some amount of heat (energy/motion). When it is cold, it has less heat (energy/motion). That’s what is meant by cold is the absence of heat: there is a thing (motion or energy) that there is either a lot of or not a lot of, resulting in either hot or cold. Hot and Cold are of course then relative to some state to which you compare.
That is the physical meaning of those terms. Whether there is a deeper metaphysical understanding is another matter. Whether ‘cold is the absence of heat’ is an apt metaphor for good and evil is also another matter. But the metaphor is logical, as it does refer to the physical definitions.
Is it innate? Or is it taught? I think a certain degree of empathy, which contributes to conscience, might be innate, but I suspect much of the structure of our consciences is taught. Is there research on this, does anyone know? It seems like it would be hard to get control subjects, but maybe not impossible to approximate them somehow.
Oh, and b, b, and b (somewhat obviously).
No. Heat is energy, which is a real thing in the world. Cold is literally its absence. Temperature, then, is just a scale on which we measure heat. (Waiting to have my head taken off by a physicist.)
You come across a person on the side of the road who is unconscious and bleeding. Do you a) keep on walking, b) render aid and call 911 or c) rape, rob and kill them because they don’t know any different?
Christian says b is the only good answer. Both a and c are sinful options. Option c is worse evil than option a.
Christian says that there is not enough information here to make this choice with confidence. Either may be correct, and you are not going to learn which would be the best option. Christian is looking for the best choice to serve the bum’s best interests, but Christian is a soft touch, and is half likely to give over some cash.
Christian’s response may rest on how long it has been since he last heard the plea from the guy who runs the mission that Christian supports: “Please don’t give cash to those guys.” If they go hungry for long they will show up here, where they will get better nutrition and a shower, and we will try to get them back on their meds, but if they won’t do that, we can at least get them to call their family to let them know how they are doing.”
A person who is a perfect stranger to you approaches. The stranger asks for a gun with which they can kill themselves. You have a gun. Do you a) hand them the gun and plug your ears or b) insist that this person get assistance?
Christian says b is the only good choice, and choice a is evil. This stranger is a child of G-d, and G-d wants what is good for him, and requires that his life be valued. Christian perceives this stranger to be in crisis, and immediately seeks to call on assistance from better-qualified helpers. Christian does not let this stranger know about Christian’s gun.
Once this stranger is in communication with helpers who are trained in helping potential suicides get appropriate help, Christian checks to make sure that he is signed up for a shift at the mission.
Let me recommend that you read Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a classic.
G-d made people to be perfect, and in perfect relationship with Himself. The first people chose disobedience, thereby allowing sin to corrupt the world and everything in it. Nothing in the world can be in relationship with G-d, because nothing that is unholy can exist in the presence of our holy G-d.
Even in our sinful state, we continue to show the love that G-d built into humanity. We know what is good and we know what is bad, because we were made for good but cannot attain goodness because the corruption of sin keeps dragging us down.
In this state of affairs it is no surprise that people who turn their backs on G-d and seek to go their own ways retain the knowledge of good and evil. Over time, various groups of people have rationalized wrong understandings of good and evil, but such twisted views are not sustainable unless adopted by a culture that has powerful enforcement mechanisms (Islam comes to mind). Some non-Christians have done a good job of working out a moral code, and others have not done well. Everyone who is without G-d will be following some rationalized morality that will be defective in some ways.
Christians are not immune from sin, and Christians do not keep our own moral code without error and without rationalizing. Our morals are not likely to be completely free from defect. But we do keep trying to reform ourselves, knowing that this is what G-d wants of us, and knowing in the end that our own righteousness is not what will save us in eternity, but the righteousness that is given to us by G-d. That is the Good News.
I think this misses the point completely. I’m not familiar with Prager’s full explanation of his point, but it’s common in Christian apologetics.
It does not deny that people have moral principles without believing in God. The question is why?
The harm principle is utilitarian. It can be used as a basis for personal morals, but it is still arbitrary.
What gives value to the other people you should not harm? Christians have an authority in God. He tells what is right and wrong.
Without God, you don’t have that authority, so you must establish one of your own. We all know murder is wrong. why?
You can suggest practical reasons. Lawlessness has obvious consequences, but there will always be exceptions.
You could suggest that human intelligence gives us rights. It seems obvious, but what is the limiting principle? Most people would object to killing coma patients. Why?
I would like to add an example to the challenge, if I might: A burning bush appears before you and identifies itself as the Voice of God. It commands you to (a) take your only child to a mountaintop and sacrifice him; (b) fly a plane into a building filled with infidels, killing as many as possible; or (c) withdraw from the world and spend all of your time in engaged in prayer. Which, if any, of these commands are moral?
Visionary experiences (good and bad) are a fairly normal part of human experience. The Christian rule of thumb I’ve heard is this:
Apply moral reasoning to your visions, even the religious ones, and assume that visions that don’t comport with moral reasoning are not, in fact, the voice of God.
Experiencing a vision with hallucinatory intensity can be good, even in a purely secular context (being totally overcome by the vision of the artistic work you’re about to produce or the scientific problem you’ve suddenly solved isn’t all that odd).
So, if you believe the voice of God is telling you to kill some one, you ask yourself, “Does moral reasoning suggest that God would really tell me to do this?” The (Christian) answer is no. So you assume that it’s not the voice of God talking to you, ignore the voice, and move on with your life.
If you believe the voice of God is telling you to lead a cloistered life away from the world and wholly devoted to prayer, you still should employ moral reasoning, although here the answer is less clear-cut. To abandon a spouse or dependent children in order to live a monastic life is pretty clearly wrong. But some people are called to a cloistered life and flourish in it.
Midge, Doesn’t your answer suggest that there is a form of moral reasoning independent of revealed morality? And if so, doesn’t that answer the question about whether and how a secular person can understand good and evil?
Well, yes. Most human beings seem naturally endowed with some form of moral reasoning. I’ve listened to atheists and agnostics puzzle through moral dilemmas plenty of times. To say that nonbelievers lack any moral capacity whatsoever flies in the face of everyday experience. Christians who try to argue this should rethink.
It would be more reasonable for Christians to claim that nonbelievers have capacity for moral reasoning (sometimes a great deal of capacity), but that Christian revelation completes and perfects humans’ capacity for moral reasoning.
(Note, though, that Christians can believe that even atheists’ moral reasoning is a gift from God without contradicting themselves. If God creates and sustains everything, then the natural moral reasoning unbelievers have is also a gift from God.)
Of course you are being watched. God sees you. He wants you to turn to Him and worship.
He made you to be a perfect, loving person, but you inherited the corruption of sin. Your relationship with G-d is broken. He is the source of your conscience.
Jesus is calling you. He wants to restore your broken relationship. He wants to restore all your broken relationships.
Secular evil = Any opinion other than one’s own.