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:

  1. As either against other people or against God;
  2. As acting in a fashion which is morally reprehensible, sinful or wicked;
  3. As violations of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments; and
  4. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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
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  1. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    As perhaps Ricochet’s most-loathed secular terror, I feel a special license to pronounce on the nature of evil.
    TO me evil as about intent, or it is indistinguishable froom misfortune. Bad things happen to good people, but it’s evil in my sense if it is the result of intent. Assume that each person makes decision to satisfy theselves one way or another — some take joy in helping others and some take joy in harming, so the benefit to the actor is not a useful discriminant. It is malice, that is a will to harm another.
    That said, all of these tings are relative, but *not in an unconstrained sense*. Thou shalt not kill *except*. Honor they other and father *except*. So there can be caveats in any system.
    Where the caveats are determines the difference between malice and self-interest (which is not in itself a bad thing of course). Pushing an old lady, slapping a child, shooting a man — any of these things can occur on either the good or the evil side, so a mechanical definition won’t help.
    There are no solution, only trade-offs. For what would you kill? For what would you lie?
    I submit that these questions can be approached but not concluded in a general sense, but that the line between evil and not evil is a willingness to harm another with insufficient cause. I realize that doesn’t close the case. I say it’s as close as we get.
    What *causes* evil is a different question.

    • #31
  2. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    NOTE: Errors intentionally left in to complete my image as a crazy oerson. A shadowy figure, really.

    • #32
  3. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Well, I was going to write something brilliant and insightful (ahem), but then I watched Fr. Barron on the topic. It’s 10 minutes worth your time.

    I will say, speaking from a utilitarian viewpoint, the subjectivity inherent in the secular ethics of the West does not conduce to social cohesion. We now live in a society in which their mother’s womb is the most dangerous place for a child to be, and couples who are sterile by the very nature of their relationship complain about the accidental parentage of their procured child. Oof.

    I’d also enjoy hearing from you, Majestyk, on each point of Prager’s essay.

    The more I hear of The Hillsdale Dialogues on Western Heritage, the more convinced I am that the West’s success was achieved by individuals’ focus on the higher things — the unconditioned goods to which Fr. Barron refers.

    Ultimately, authentic love — willing the good of the other, as other, with total disregard for reciprocity, is modeled on Jesus. Self-abnegation and heroic self-sacrifice are built-ins, which tend to be on the decline as people move away from Christian faith.

    • #33
  4. Rocket City Dave Inactive
    Rocket City Dave
    @RocketCityDave

    it implies that the mere act of not doing good is itself evil.  It seems to negate the possibility of benign neglect.

    The Christian culture doesn’t include the moral category of benign neglect. Neglect is always malignant from the Christian perspective.

    Am I my brother’s keeper?

    Yes.

    Should I pray for my enemy?

    Yes.

    Now you may disagree with the Christian moral culture but it’s not ipso facto irrational to consider evil to be precisely the state of separation from the source of all good. The mere acts of evil from the Christian perspective are just symptoms of a deeper problem that pervades reality (the alienation of God from his creation).

    • #34
  5. Hydrogia Inactive
    Hydrogia
    @Hydrogia

    Cool, I thought that 20 was lost in the wash with 10 cents’ evil twin

    • #35
  6. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    First one is (a), second one is (b), third one is (c) “take my gun and go on my way”
    Why you may ask. Because any action I may take to assist opens me up to legal action either criminal or civil. It is best not to involve yourself in other people’s affairs any more than you absolutely have too. While I understand that other activity might be more morally correct, our current legal climate make the smart move to ignore things so that later you can deny any knowledge of the event.

    • #36
  7. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    To the secular the only true evil is the non-secular.

    • #37
  8. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Hydrogia:Cool, I thought that 20 was lost in the wash with 10 cents’ evil twin

    Majestyk,

    Please denounce this as evil. It is a lie. I have no evil twin.

    As a person of faith I would like there to be morality outside religion. Somehow it is not there. Or if it is there, it cannot be explained.

    I have not read all the comments. The answer to number two is locked up in the golden rule. One way to answer it is you do not give the $20 because the beer won’t help him. The other way is to give the $20 because he is being honest and that should be rewarded. In both cases one should show respect for the individual.

    Evil is like darkness. It is easy. Goodness is like light and requires energy. It takes something to put off gratification for others. In the material it is a loser move. On the spiritual there can be a reward and instant gratification. I think the key to goodness in the Christian faith is humility and joy.  It can be fun and not a chore but it does seem to be a battle.

    • #38
  9. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk posits that ethics are somehow obvious. But it is quite clear that this is not so, and Frank Soto pointed to it early on, when he asked how one values a life that is not measurably useful.

    So, for example, how do the secular measure each life? Is a janitor worth as much as a CEO? Is a 20 year old working person worth as much, more, or less than an infant? Or a baby with Down’s Syndrome? Or an old person who is no longer working?

    It is this question that truly separates rational secularists from religious morality. Unless one believes that every person has a soul, and that each soul has enormous value – despite all the evidence to the contrary – then human life is often not worth much more (and sometimes much less) than a good mule.

    The secular approach leads to euthanasia, abortion, eugenics, and sterilization of the poor. And this is not mere speculation: each and every one of these tools has been deployed by secularists, at some point, everywhere they have had power.

    • #39
  10. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk also writes: I can’t imagine another morally normal person who would assert that Murder, Theft, Rape, Perjury or Adultery are acceptable or not evil. 

    As I point out above, the differences are easy to see when one reduces the arguments to issues that require biblical morality.

    Beastiality, if the animal is not harmed, is theoretically fine for a secularist (taboo aside). If so, then what is the difference between, say, raping a mentally retarded (or even comatose) person and an animal? Religion can draw the line. Secularists? Not so much.

    Adultery hangs on whether or not marriage is purely a contract, or whether we think there is sanctity in a marriage. Sanctity involves bringing G-d into it, which can be the difference between a genuine contractual loophole that may allow for adultery (such as the difference between love and sex, or even “sex” and sex), and a religious marriage that can clearly draw lines for what is and is not acceptable.

    And so on.

    • #40
  11. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: True, this only addresses evil in the human heart, not so-called “natural evils” (like natural disasters).

    I think it just muddies the water to call “evil” those bad things that happen which are not chosen by people, such as natural disasters — well, unless you think they are chosen by a god, I guess.

    • #41
  12. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    Tuck: You cannot have morality without religion.

    I would say free will, the ability to choose among alternatives, is what makes morality, and good and evil, possible.  A person cannot be said to be acting good or evil if they didn’t choose to act that way, but instead are, e.g., biological machines.  If you have free will, whether not not there’s a god, you can be good or evil.

    To start to decide which acts are good and which are evil, I think one has to realize that the fundamental alternative confronting human beings is existence and non-existence: life and death.  For each person, the foundational, axiomatic, unarguable good is their life.  Somewhere down the line from that (hand waving) are natural rights, etc.

    • #42
  13. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    A few thoughts:

    1. My main problem with Prager’s arguments on these matters is that he’s just kicking the can down to the question of God’s existence. So yes, while questions of whether or not good and evil exist are much easier to answer if we stipulate that God exists in the Judeo-Christian sense, but that’s — inherently — a big stipulation for a non-believer to make.
    2. Even with that stipulation, there’s the question of how we know that our understanding of Him is accurate. How do we know that the Decalogue, or the Golden Rule, or anything in the Bible is an accurate description of what God said or wants?
    3. There is nothing inherently contradictory in saying that Judaism and Christianity are correct — or most closely approximate the Truth — on morality, but wrong on other subjects (i.e., metaphysics).
    • #43
  14. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    To answer the post’s question, I’d venture that evil is malicious action that violates the Golden Rule and/or the Harm Principle.

    • #44
  15. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    I think the notion that the Golden Rule and/or Harm Principle are logically-derivable morality is ridiculous on its face.

    (ed. Absent religion) Nobody in the world values the life of a stranger as much as they value their own (though some cultures do rate the death of a stranger as more valuable than the life of the suicide bomber).

    This boils down, very quickly and easily, to some version of “Might Makes Right.” One can put a patina of culture on it, and call it “Survival of the Fittest”.

    Without Judeo-Christian assumptions about the value of a soul – and the notion that people are each in the image of G-d – then it is clearly and obviously true that a powerful warlord is worth “more” than a low-caste herder of water buffalo. It is then trivial to dehumanize the “other”, defining Blacks or Jews or climate change deniers as apes and pigs who have lived past their utility. In such societies (and they are quite common), rape, adultery, murder, torture, etc. as we define them are not moral failings. The powerful take what they want.

    Modern America is quickly moving in this direction.

    • #45
  16. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    iWc: Without Judeo-Christian assumptions about the value of a soul – and the notion that people are each in the image of G-d – then it is clearly and obviously true that a powerful warlord is worth “more” than a low-caste herder of water buffalo.

    I’d wholly agree that morality has to be premised on treating all moral actors with equal justice and worth, but I’m not sure that necessarily mandates a belief in the soul.

    Put another way, I’d agree with the statement that we have to treat each other as if we all had souls equally made in the image of God.

    • #46
  17. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    iWc: I think the notion that the Golden Rule and/or Harm Principle are logically-derivable morality is ridiculous on its face.

    Has anyone here argued that they are morally derivable in the sense you mean? I know some people do, but they’re fools: we all operate under unproven assertions (thank God).

    I guess another problem I have with Prager is that he seems to have an implicit assumption that the only morally serious unproven assertions are to be found in religion.

    • #47
  18. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:To answer the post’s question, I’d venture that evil is malicious action that violates the Golden Rule and/or the Harm Principle.

    It does seem to me that evil is an active thing – it is wanton in its disregard for harm caused to others.

    Another aspect of this that is lacking is the boundless scope that the religious assume must apply to such actions.  If for instance, you condemn, say, Hitler’s actions as transcending the boundaries of legality and crossing over into being “Evil” (which they doubtless were) the religious want to assign cosmic significance to that evil – that those actions transcend the boundaries of time and space and ring ring throughout eternity in infamy.  The assumption is that unless these actions can be considered evil in the cosmic sense that reducing their scope will somehow reduced the evil.

    As a Secular person, I have no issue with calling Hitler’s actions evil, but I simultaneously don’t think that Hitler’s actions make a whit of difference to the dark side of the moon.  Evil’s scope for the secular is limited its effect upon human beings – not its effect upon the universe.

    • #48
  19. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: I’d agree with the statement that we have to treat each other as if we all had souls equally made in the image of God.

    But this is an unprovable / illogical assumption. It is not held as a principle outside Judeo/Christianity. Which means that I have no problem asserting that other cultures, which lack this assumption, are in fact immoral. It is that kind of morality that justified, internally, Mao and Pol Pot.

    • #49
  20. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Has anyone here argued that they are morally derivable in the sense you mean? I know some people do, but they’re fools: we all operate under unproven assertions (thank God).

    I think Majestyk does precisely this when he says that every normal moral person agrees with this kind of basic moral code. I don’t think that they do.

    • #50
  21. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWc:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Has anyone here argued that they are morally derivable in the sense you mean? I know some people do, but they’re fools: we all operate under unproven assertions (thank God).

    I think Majestyk does precisely this when he says that every normal moral person agrees with this kind of basic moral code. I don’t think that they do.

    You’ve misquoted me.  I said “Morally normal.”  I don’t think that people such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or even garden-variety psychopaths are operating in a morally normal framework.

    People who are possessed of empathy don’t act that way towards other people, but people who lack it are freed of the ability to contemplate the harm they’re causing to others because they can’t consider what having someone do that to themselves would be like, or at least, they can contemplate it and don’t care.

    Adding religion to a person’s moral framework is unlikely (in my opinion) to do much more than reinforce a person’s existing moral tendencies for good or ill.  Having religion is no more guarantee of good behavior than having none is of bad behavior.

    • #51
  22. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Owen Findy:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: True, this only addresses evil in the human heart, not so-called “natural evils” (like natural disasters).

    I think it just muddies the water to call “evil” those bad things that happen which are not chosen by people, such as natural disasters — well, unless you think they are chosen by a god, I guess.

    I sympathize, which is why I called them s0-called “natural evils”.

    Still, “natural evil” is an established term, and I can understand why it is. It’s very easy to feel as if natural evils were caused by some malign force, and very difficult to treat them all with stoic equanimity.

    Perhaps this is just a result of the pathetic fallacy – the human tendency to anthropomorphize what isn’t human because it reflects our own state of mind (even believers in God can acknowledge that humans do this on occasions where it isn’t warranted). Nonetheless, suspecting that evil is more than just the sum of willful human misconduct – that evil can escape the confines of human intention and take on a life of its own – seems a normal part of human life, for whatever reason we do it.

    • #52
  23. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk: As a Secular person, I have no issue with calling Hitler’s actions evil, but I simultaneously don’t think that Hitler’s actions make a whit of difference to the dark side of the moon.  Evil’s scope for the secular is limited its effect upon human beings – not its effect upon the universe.

    This is a very interesting angle.

    I believe as a matter of religious principle, that every action we do matters. Every kindness, small act of consideration, etc. improves the world.

    I will certainly agree that Hitler had no impact on the moon. But surely you would accept that he impacted the arc of history and human development and progress? I would say that to the extent we spread respect for human life (what Godel’s Ghost calls “reducing entropy”), we do in fact alter the world – though not necessarily in any physically measurable sense.

    • #53
  24. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: suspecting that evil is more than just the sum of willful human misconduct – that evil can escape the confines of human intention and take on a life of its own

    I don’t think evil is outside of human intention. Nature is morally apathetic (it does not care whether someone lives or dies). Evil results from bad choices that people make.

    Death is NOT evil. It is just Game Over.

    • #54
  25. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk:

    iWc:

    Tom Meyer, Ed.: Has anyone here argued that they are morally derivable in the sense you mean? I know some people do, but they’re fools: we all operate under unproven assertions (thank God).

    I think Majestyk does precisely this when he says that every normal moral person agrees with this kind of basic moral code. I don’t think that they do.

    You’ve misquoted me. I said “Morally normal.” I don’t think that people such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy or even garden-variety psychopaths are operating in a morally normal framework.

    I agree that in the Judeo-Christian West, one needs to get to psychopaths to find people who are not “morally normal”. But plenty of other societies don’t share these moral values. Lies are not a problem in much of Asia. “Might makes Right” is quite common.

    • #55
  26. user_1184 Inactive
    user_1184
    @MarkWilson

    Frank Soto:

    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.

    By analogy, when looking at lake levels during a drought, the quantity of water is given in terms of feet and inches.  I say “low” means the relative absence of water while “high” means its presence or relative abundance.  You say we shouldn’t define water levels this way, because “low” and “high” are just “opposite ends of the same spectrum.”  Do you see why your description doesn’t really do justice to the natural phenomenon we are describing?

    • #56
  27. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Majestyk: Adding religion to a person’s moral framework is unlikely (in my opinion) to do much more than reinforce a person’s existing moral tendencies for good or ill. Having religion is no more guarantee of good behavior than having none is of bad behavior.

    Majestyk,

    This completely discounts accounts of people inexplicably changing or converting. People have become “new people”. Their spouses and friends see a change that looks like a 180 from what they were before. How is this explained? People who have had this happen to them say God did something in their lives. Are they imagining or having hopeful thinking? Or are others discounting something real because it does not fit into their experience or paradigm?

    I heard this yesterday. A man thought for sure that he was going to win the lottery and give the money to a church. Completely crazy stuff but for the fact that the guy buys the lottery ticket and wins. Of course this is discounting all the people who thought this and lost but there is a difference. It is experienced more than explainable. Telling the difference between the genuine and the well made counterfeit is not easy for an amateur. They look too much alike but they aren’t.

    • #57
  28. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Now for answers and discussion of my questions, the answers to which I thought were fairly obvious.  The more interesting thing is: why?

    1. 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?

    In the case of this question, a person could keep on walking past out of a desire to not get involved.  You might thing this is an example of benign neglect, but if you are (again) a morally normal person and can place yourself in the injured person’s position your desire for aid and the other person’s responsibility to render aid should be obvious.

    • #58
  29. virgil15marlow@yahoo.com Coolidge
    virgil15marlow@yahoo.com
    @Manny

    The questions don’t strike me as that probing of the issue, so i’ll skip them.  But to the question that titles this post, I don’t see how secularists can define evil.  To me there are very few greater evils than abortion, and yet not only do secularists tolerate it, they actually applaud it as some sort of freedom of choice.  A freedom to kill innocence is not moral.  Secularists are relativists, and for them morality fluctuates with time and necessity.

    • #59
  30. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWc:

    I will certainly agree that Hitler had no impact on the moon. But surely you would accept that he impacted the arc of history and human development and progress? I would say that to the extent we spread respect for human life (what Godel’s Ghost calls “reducing entropy”), we do in fact alter the world – though not necessarily in any physically measurable sense.

    Of course I accept that.  I just don’t think that it matters on Alpha Centauri.  Understanding that our position in the universe is that of a very tiny speck in the grand scheme is something that almost nobody wants to contemplate, but it’s true.

    That sense of the reduction of evil to meaninglessness on the scale of the infinite is what I think troubles religious people.  I feel like Dennis is confused or confounded by the notion that people can simultaneously place these things in different contexts.  To Dennis, its seems as if there is only one context: that of cosmic evil.

    Surely, to us humans and in our everyday lives that is the only perspective we’re going to encounter – but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that exists.

    • #60
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