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. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Member
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    John Wilson:But you should love your neighbor isn’t a statement of reason. It is a value statement. Your comparison is inapt.

    I have never claimed that morality and values can be derived solely through reason. It can — at most — be inferred based on what works and is successful. If you find that underwhelming, join the club.

    I hold a number of unproven, unscientific beliefs regarding morality; I don’t see how they would be in anyway improved by claiming they derive from religious revelation, unless I can show there to be a lot of evidence to back up that revelation as true.

    A person might find them aesthetically improved by the claim that they’re derived from religious revelation. Or a person might get some other, less-aesthetic satisfaction from the feeling of rootedness that tends to come along with locating the moral beliefs they would more-or-less have anyhow within the context of a long-held religious tradition.

    Some people may also find that plugging the moral beliefs they’d tend to have anyhow into a religious tradition adds depth and subtlety to their moral reasoning (though I’ve also known people to resort to religious arguments to avoid depth and subtlety).

    In other words, there are plenty of good reasons besides “a lot of evidence” to buy into religious revelation, though most people find they can’t buy into religious revelation at all unless they’re comfortable entertaining the idea that the important factual claims made by a religion might be true. (100% certainty that the main factual claims happened is not required, but 100% certainty that they did not happen would be prohibitive for most sane people).

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  2. iWc Coolidge

    Jim Beck: I think you are over-estimating man’s tendency toward moral behavior.

    Probably. But I am trying to give the Majestyk’s of this world the benefit of the doubt so it does not sideline the argument.

    • #242
  3. Tom Meyer Member
    Tom Meyer

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: In other words, there are plenty of good reasons besides “a lot of evidence” to buy into religious revelation, though most people find they can’t buy into religious revelation at all unless they’re comfortable entertaining the idea that the important factual claims made by a religion might be true.

    That makes total sense. Doesn’t move this debate forward, but makes total sense. :)

    • #243
  4. user_432921 Inactive

    Tom and iWc,

    The philosophical analysis of moral choice might benefit by asking whether man wishes to be moral or rather more wishes to be seen to be moral.   We see that man in many common situations is not naturally moral. So whether a person’s moral choices are shaped by faith in God, might be a question that is modified by what the nature of man is.  Are we more driven to look good, even competing in posing, or in a different vein, like Augustine praying “Lord make me good, but not yet”.  If we are really desiring to look moral then we will use our philosophical arguments to present ourselves in a good light, whether they are religious arguments or other philosophical arguments. If we view man as a self-loving idol factory, then we would be more hesitant to claim moral standing, if we view man as basically good and rationally self aware, then one could claim that they are basically good.  Is a human good at objective self assessment, will he hold himself as accountable as he would another person?

    John Wilson presents other questions about the method used to measure morality.  Is a utilitarian analysis a basis for moral choices, if not why not.

    • #244
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