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. user_1184 Inactive
    user_1184
    @MarkWilson

    Majestyk: 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.

    When you say “morally normal” you are describing a property of humanity that we consider normal in the 21st century.  But the story of the Good Samaritan was so profound because it was so unusual at the time.

    How do you make the leap from “it’s what ‘morally normal’ people do” to “it’s what everyone is morally obliged to do”?

    • #61
  2. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Q&A: Assuming a vanilla set of background assumptions (the setting is not a war zone, I am not Superman, etc)
    1. b.
    2. b. But I could accept A. The moral hazard argument is one of my main reasons for taking B, but it’s my life and my $20. But still no, my answer is B.
    3. b. Verging on C, which carries my insistence to the fact that this person is a potential threat and I have a gun. So I say we walk this way. Yep, just a little bit more…

    • #62
  3. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Well, the story of the Good Samaritan, if I am not incorrect, was written by non-Samarites who would describe a good one as the exception to the rule. cf. Saint Jerome on Lucretius.

    • #63
  4. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    10 cents:

    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.

    Despite the great odds against it, people do occasionally win the lottery.  Does that mean that God explicitly didn’t want all of those other people (who probably spent more money on the lotto) to lose?  Religious people finding religious meaning in happenstance is unsurprising, is it not?  “Seek and ye shall find,” and all that?

    I can think of little more wicked.  We are pattern-seeking creatures, so is it any shock that we find them in places – even when none are actually there?

    • #64
  5. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk: 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.

    Only if you think physical size is important.

    Consider: we can look at the stars. But so far there is not a shred of evidence that they can look at us!

    One of the reasons Jews are forbidden to count Jews is that we can be fooled into thinking that numbers matter. They don’t, not really. A single person with a great idea can change the world for all time. Force of will often is victorious over superior arms that are not deployed with conviction (see Ancient Rome, Modern America).

    This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think your life can change the world, there is a small but real chance that it will. If, on the other hand, you consider yourself a very tiny speck in the grand scheme of things, then are quite unlikely to do much more than live and die.

    It is religion that enables this empowerment. It is part of the reason why Jews are so much more influential than our population would dictate.

    • #65
  6. user_1184 Inactive
    user_1184
    @MarkWilson

    iWc: I will certainly agree that Hitler had no impact on the moon.

    I can’t resist making an off topic comment here.  Operation Paperclip, the US project to exfiltrate the best scientists and engineers from Hitler’s highly advanced ballistic missile program and bring them to the United States, was probably the single most important reason the US was able to land on the moon before the USSR.

    • #66
  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    iWc:

    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.

    I wasn’t particularly thinking of death. Sometimes, death is pretty obviously a blessing when it comes.

    • #67
  8. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Manny:Secularists are relativists, and for them morality fluctuates with time and necessity.

    This is interesting.  So, do you think that the ability to consider the moral actions of people in both the context of its effects upon humanity and its effect upon the universe makes you a relativist?

    I certainly don’t think this way – surely, our moral actions don’t affect the greater universe very much, but I think that you must concede that people who have an informed conscience would consider first and foremost their actions effect upon humanity.

    • #68
  9. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Mark Wilson:

    When you say “morally normal” you are describing a property of humanity that we consider normal in the 21st century. But the story of the Good Samaritan was so profound because it was so unusual at the time.

    How do you make the leap from “it’s what ‘morally normal’ people do” to “it’s what everyone is morally obliged to do”?

    Surely you’d be willing to grant that man in different states of being must adhere to different moral circumstances?

    Take for instance ancient man.  If an ancient man killed a mastodon with which he intended to feed his clan and family for months, but another man came to claim the carcass for his own would it be morally justifiable to kill the other man?

    I would say the answer then would be “yes.”  The answer today would be clearly “no” because today, man doesn’t exist in a state of existential privation.  I don’t think that this is an issue of “relativism” but one of “decisions made within their appropriate context.”

    The fact that we don’t live like animals and aren’t forced to adhere to the law of the jungle because our primary needs are met is what enables this morally normal and even morally obligatory behavior.

    • #69
  10. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Majestyk:

    10 cents:

    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.

    Despite the great odds against it, people do occasionally win the lottery. Does that mean that God explicitly didn’t want all of those other people (who probably spent more money on the lotto) to lose? Religious people finding religious meaning in happenstance is unsurprising, is it not? “Seek and ye shall find,” and all that?

    I can think of little more wicked. We are pattern-seeking creatures, so is it any shock that we find them in places – even when none are actually there?

    I agree with most of what you wrote but if it happened to you, it might alter your thoughts.

    Majestyk, you are throwing out a Red Herring with God wanted other people to lose. You are also saying after the fact someone is finding meaning. I am saying before the fact someone has assurance that improbable things will happen then they do.

    I am as skeptical as the next guy and think like you for the most part but what do you do when you are face with data that points in a different direction. Do you discount the data or change your thinking? I find too often the secularist and the religionist discount data and are closed minded. They see this in the other far more than in themselves and laugh the other off.

    • #70
  11. user_1184 Inactive
    user_1184
    @MarkWilson

    Majestyk: The fact that we don’t live like animals and aren’t forced to adhere to the law of the jungle because our primary needs are met is what enables this morally normal and even morally obligatory behavior.

    I like your analogy about the mastodon.  It establishes that it is possible for universal morality to be different in different eras based on human conditions, which is important.

    However, it doesn’t establish a positive reason that the amorphous idea of “morally normal” at any given time should carry weight as a binding code of behavior.

    • #71
  12. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Mark Wilson:

    Majestyk: The fact that we don’t live like animals and aren’t forced to adhere to the law of the jungle because our primary needs are met is what enables this morally normal and even morally obligatory behavior.

    I like your analogy about the mastodon. It establishes that it is possible for universal morality to be different in different eras based on human conditions, which is important.

    However, it doesn’t establish a positive reason that the amorphous idea of “morally normal” at any given time should carry weight as a binding code of behavior.

    Think about it like the construction of the Constitution.  The Constitution constructs what the government may do and the Bill of Rights constrains what government may NOT do.

    I don’t know if we can construct a positive list of the things that you can do – the universe of things which you could do being too large to fully describe – but it does make sense to build essentially a series of boundaries beyond which you may not go.  That this comes out as a list of prohibitions is a function of that problem.

    • #72
  13. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    10 cents: I agree with most of what you wrote but if it happened to you, it might alter your thoughts.

    Majestyk, you are throwing out a Red Herring with God wanted other people to lose. You are also saying after the fact someone is finding meaning. I am saying before the fact someone has assurance that improbable things will happen then they do.

    I am as skeptical as the next guy and think like you for the most part but what do you do when you are face with data that points in a different direction. Do you discount the data or change your thinking? I find too often the secularist and the religionist discount data and are closed minded. They see this in the other far more than in themselves and laugh the other off.

    Knowing me, I doubt it.  Now, if a rusty fridge fell out of the sky and hit you but left me alone I might think that I was pretty lucky – but it would be vile to think that, wouldn’t it?  I just don’t think I would assign my luck at avoiding the fridge to cosmic forces outside of gravity. :)

    • #73
  14. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    This is how a center RIGHT site should have had the top picture. These editors are all LEFTIES.

    Right_Way

    • #74
  15. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk: Take for instance ancient man.  If an ancient man killed a mastodon with which he intended to feed his clan and family for months, but another man came to claim the carcass for his own would it be morally justifiable to kill the other man? I would say the answer then would be “yes.”  The answer today would be clearly “no” because today, man doesn’t exist in a state of existential privation.  I don’t think that this is an issue of “relativism” but one of “decisions made within their appropriate context.”

    I LIKE this one!

    This is PRECISELY the world in which the Torah was given. Ideas like “you cannot kill him to get the food” are in fact timeless morality – but very hard to achieve in difficult circumstances.

    My morality is defined by the Torah, which is 3,500 years old. The question of whether you can kill someone else to survive have been settled in Torah law since Sinai. This is perfect condensation of a moral question that separates religionists from secularists.

    • #75
  16. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    I haven’t heard a secularist take up the question of why individual lives have worth. If human life isn’t innately sacred, why does it deserve protection?

    Of course one can argue that protecting others’ lives is really just a form of self-preservation and that we extend our own sense of worth to others in the hope that they will do the same, thereby really helping ourselves. And it is fairly obvious that people do better in a cooperative society where we tolerate a good deal of harmful behavior from others because to not do so would lead to devolution of society into Hobbesian chaos where all are worse off.

    But that doesn’t really answer the question, because one can easily come up with all sorts of cases where one can make very objective arguments that certain lives are actually a burden to society and thereby make life worse off for the majority of people. Mandatory death sentences for severe crimes, euthanasia, the elimination of the chronically unproductive and terminally ill, sterilization and/or elimination of certain groups of people who seem to be a net burden on society like the chronically poor or the mentally ill, would all seem to make objective sense. Yet secularists, most secularists anyway, won’t champion these ideas. Why not? If life isn’t innately sacred, why should we not at least consider some of these ideas?

    • #76
  17. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    #74 Sock sock socky sock

    But now you’ve reversed his suitjacket and turned this into another thread on homosexuality. Good going, you darned dirty sock.

    • #77
  18. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWc:

    I LIKE this one!

    This is PRECISELY the world in which the Torah was given. Ideas like “you cannot kill him to get the food” are in fact timeless morality – but very hard to achieve in difficult circumstances.

    My morality is defined by the Torah, which is 3,500 years old. The question of whether you can kill someone else to survive have been settled in Torah law since Sinai. This is perfect condensation of a moral question that separates religionists from secularists.

    How precisely is it moral to allow your family to starve under such circumstances?  Or, on the other hand, if you kill the other person what about the family they were trying to feed?  The answer is always a little more complex than a simple reading might give.

    On the topic of an earlier poster – what about the notion of “loving your enemy” – I don’t find that to be moral in the slightest.  I certainly don’t love Islamic Jihadists.  I want to kill them; I want war – precisely because of the same reasoning that justifies killing the guy trying to steal your mastodon.

    They represent an existential threat, and we should expunge them wherever we find them.

    • #78
  19. Ross C Inactive
    Ross C
    @RossC

    People who are willing to actually do good, not in theoretical terms but in practical terms tend to be religious.  If you are looking for a volunteer to coach a youth team, to personally help the downtrodden, or take in a jew who is threatened by nazi extermination to hide from them; you are much more likely to get helped by a religious person than a secular one.  There is no definitive reason this should be so but I believe it to be.  The famous study was coauthored by Prof. Putnam of Harvard.  Praeger has brought up the holocaust example.

    On the other end of the spectrum, we have labor unions or Acorn organizers paying people $50 to show up at a protest or providing crack to vote.  These unabashedly secular organization are the road map for the secular good.

    • #79
  20. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    John Wilson. Child’s play. We (as you say) assign value to the lives of complete strangers because that is the world we wish to inhabit. Enlightened self-interest (as if there were another kind!)
    There’s an algebra relating the value of a given life based on how cnnected it is to yous. It works remarkably well, and adapts easily to different societies. Steven Pinker mentions it in his magnificent _The Blank Slate_. I’ll come up with a name.

    • #80
  21. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    I should add that there’s an element of implacability that drives my conviction that we should extirpate Radical Islam.  They are implacable.  They can’t be bargained with or made to compromise.  In addition to that, they do things which are morally reprehensible – and they’re possessed of the idea that they ought to do these things on the basis of religious teachings.

    • #81
  22. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    Side Note: Mostly because this has been tickling my brain …

    We’ve been equating the Harm Principle to the Golden Rule, but closer examination would show they aren’t quite the same (to steal from Rabbi Daniel Lappin.)

    The Harm principle states: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Generally I’ve found this distilled to, “Don’t harm others” when applied on a personal scale.

    The Golden Rule states: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

    The two thus appear similar. Hover, the Harm Principle is stated in the negative. “Don’t harm others”. Passivity is acceptable in this case, as it does not in general harm another save in extreme cases (such as example 1).

    The Golden Rule speaks to the positive. Do. I believe this is why question 2 is coming up with varied responses. Though by the harm principle doing nothing is acceptable (even favorable, as supplying money for beer could cause harm), there’s a sense that more might or could be done. Few here really want to leave it at “keep moving.”

    It’s an important distinction. We aren’t called to merely do no harm, we’re called to do good.

    Carry on.

    • #82
  23. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Ball Diamond Ball:#74 Sock sock socky sock

    But now you’ve reversed his suitjacket and turned this into another thread on homosexuality.Good going, you darned dirty sock.

    No, I didn’t. I just thought that “our better angels” should be on the right not the left. BDB you need to quit seeing “one thing” only in posts. You are getting a one track mind.

    • #83
  24. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Majestyk: 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,

    [….] 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.

    In the traditional Christian understanding, evil is indeed the absence of good. Good is love. God is love (literally, because the Trinity is a relationship within Himself; three Persons but one Being). Acting with either malice or indifference to another person exhibits a failure to love.

    Evil is always corruption. It can be difficult to consider evil as an absence because it can seem so much like a presence. But its presence is actually aspects of good — intelligence, creativity, beauty, strength, curiosity, agency — misapplied and abused. What made Hitler and Stalin evil, what made serial killers evil, were their rejections and distortions of love.

    If one accepts this most basic premise — that evil is an absence/rejection/distortion of love — then the question becomes: What is love?

    John Lennon was not wrong when he sang that, “All you need is love.” But he was wrong to propose that love is easily understood and embraced. Even after a thousand generations of human experience, it remains a lifelong struggle for each of us to express love in all situations and to prioritize it.

    • #84
  25. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    A key point in the Mastodon problem is that time is bot the difference. The relative value of the mastodon is. For me, the Mastodon is the culture. This connects with the notin — for what would you kill?
    Caveat — folks with military service (and I don’t mean KP in Oklahoma) may be more accustomed to discussiing this in frank terms. Fear not, ye of small gonads, I won’t reach through my little plastic keyboard and commit Ricocide.

    • #85
  26. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Ross C:Praeger has brought up the holocaust example.

    To which I say, spare me.  The Holocaust was masterminded and carried out primarily by people who were Catholics.  That’s not to indict all Catholics, but it does throw a wet blanket on the notion that people who are religious are going to act morally.

    What we had in that situation was a group of people who were psychotic and happened to get into power.  Their religion didn’t restrain them one bit – in fact, it could be argued that there was an element of millennialism inherent to Nazism.

    • #86
  27. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    Ball Diamond Ball:John Wilson.Child’s play.We (as you say) assign value to the lives of complete strangers because that is the world we wish to inhabit.Enlightened self-interest (as if there were another kind!) There’s an algebra relating the value of a given life based on how cnnected it is to yous.It works remarkably well, and adapts easily to different societies.Steven Pinker mentions it in his magnificent _The Blank Slate_.I’ll come up with a name.

    You haven’t answered the question. If it can be reduced to a mathematical equation, you’ll have to show the math that proves that keeping the vegetative or the severely mentally ill alive makes our lives better. You’d also have to show how certain acts that don’t take life but merely impose restrictions on it, like forced sterilization, aren’t in the enlightened self-interest of the vast majority of the population.

    • #87
  28. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk: How precisely is it moral to allow your family to starve under such circumstances?  Or, on the other hand, if you kill the other person what about the family they were trying to feed?

    That is why I don’t think morality can be defined without a foundational text that one accepts as true.

    Jewish Law is extremely clear on this: One cannot kill someone else to save a third person’s life. And lives cannot be weighed numerically. Each person is compared to the whole world.

    A devout Jew will not commit adultery, worship an idol, or kill another person, even if compelled to by threat of death. Each of these is a form of murder. Adultery and idol worship both kill a sacred relationship.

    • #88
  29. user_1126573 Member
    user_1126573
    @

    Majestyk:To which I say, spare me. The Holocaust was masterminded and carried out primarily by people who were Catholics. That’s not to indict all Catholics, but it does throw a wet blanket on the notion that people who are religious are going to act morally.

    To which I will say, “spare me.” This argument only holds water if those Nazis were actually following the morality they were taught. Religion isn’t a guarantee that all exposed to it will accept it and behave morally. Morality as revealed by God and written in our being, is merely the necessary first condition to doing what is good. Our ability to choose otherwise and even to lie to ourselves about the nature of our choices, doesn’t disqualify God as being the source of morality.

    • #89
  30. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Ball Diamond Ball:John Wilson.Child’s play.We (as you say) assign value to the lives of complete strangers because that is the world we wish to inhabit.Enlightened self-interest (as if there were another kind!) There’s an algebra relating the value of a given life based on how cnnected it is to yous.It works remarkably well, and adapts easily to different societies.Steven Pinker mentions it in his magnificent _The Blank Slate_.I’ll come up with a name.

    Except to the Warlord who gets to the top of the pile. Because while in an equal society, it makes sense to have enlightened self-interest; to a dictator, enlightenment is weakness. The dictators who get to the top (and stay there) are ruthless. And absent Judeo-Christianity, such dictators are the rule, not the exception.

    • #90
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