As the author of a fantasy fiction novel, I carefully avoided the good v. evil dichotomy, because the narratives we use to capture it routinely fail to, reinforcing oversimplifications that are already too thoroughly embedded in our consciousness. Instead, the dichotomy at the center of my mythology was Order v. Chaos, with each being in some ways “good” and in some ways “evil,” but their interplay occupying a more sublime role in the definition of our reality.
However, as I shift my focus from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from analyzing to advocating, the need to define “good” and “evil” becomes more pressing, the reality that some notion of what serves humanity’s interests v. what doesn’t has to inform both our personal choices and our public policy preferences.
The ways in which I am about to use the word “evil,” and perhaps the ways in which I am about to use “good” as well, may seem exaggerated. The familiar meanings of the words are reserved for more extreme instances, more exceptional degrees. But the point of this essay is to emphasize what an error that really is, that those extreme instances and exceptional degrees are comprised of and catalyzed by all of the small, almost trivial, instances of “good” and “evil” that fill our daily lives and our moment-by-moment choices.
The traditional meanings of the words, and the weight given to what they represent, may also create a false impression that the identification of so much ubiquitous “evil” is oppressive, that it takes life too seriously. This customary reaction to these new, more encompassing, and more useful definitions of “good” and “evil” also has to be revised; the struggle to do “good” and avoid “evil” is a constant of life, embedded in the minutia, and therefore should be taken as much in stride as the struggle to live a healthy life, to earn a living, to be a good spouse and parent and child and friend. We should be able to laugh at ourselves when we fail, even knowing that our failures in this regard make some marginal contribution to the sum total of “evil” in the world. And we should reward our own and others’ successes, as small as they may be, with the acknowledgement due to having truly contributed to ” the good”.
In some ways, we lack the vocabulary to identify the goals that define “the good.” If I say that it is the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human happiness (and thus of acting in ways which contribute to them), someone will say that it is something more than happiness that we seek. So I’ll co-opt a word to encompass that “something more,” including all that it might entail: Well-being. That which is “good” increases the quantity, quality (breadth and depth), distribution, and sustainability of human well-being. In fact, I would say that it involves increasing the well-being, along all of the aforementioned dimensions, of all conscious entities, to the extent that they are conscious.
For those who want to apply reason and goodwill without any preconceived constraints, this creates a very functional focal point. It avoids both the insinuation of mystified abstractions into our morality, and the convenient biases of various “-centrisms,” including anthrocentrism. It takes nothing for granted, but provides a framework through which to discover a morality which serves the well-being of all those who have any consciousness with which to experience it.
“Good” is comprised of all instances of adherence to this ideal, while “evil” is comprised of all lapses. An important point of departure is to realize that we are all some mixture of the two, all defined by some successes in committing ourselves to the ideal of the “good” as I’ve defined it, as well as by some lapses. I, for instance, recognize that my definition of “good” probably recommends vegetarianism, since when large mammals are slaughtered for my dinner, it is an act which ends the well-being of a somewhat conscious creature. But I am not a vegetarian. By my own definition, I am somewhat “evil.”
“Good” and “Evil” are not a dichotomy, but rather values on a continuum, with higher values comprised of and catalyzed by the accumulation of smaller values. Every horrendous act of violence occurs in a context rather than a vacuum, a thousand trivial cruelties having fed into it. Every glorious act of generosity or nobility occurs in a context as well, one built up from numerous small acts of kindness. To reserve the concepts of “good” and “evil” only to the exceptional dramatic culminations embodied in a few, of all the mundane and trivial choices by all of us over the course of our lives, is to disregard the responsibility we all have for both, and the ways in which our mundane daily choices create both.
But this raises another counterintuitive facet of the paradigm of good v. evil that I am advocating, one which is a rather enormous departure from past conceptualizations: “Evil” is not the inexcusable extreme that our religions have tried to make it, but rather the accumulation of mere ordinary lapses. Our traditional conceptualization of evil as the cackling villain who delights in others’ suffering is both too exclusive, and too routinely disregarded as something trivial and acceptable when it in fact occurs (as it so frequently does). “Evil” is nothing more or less than the surrender to our baser natures, while “good” is nothing more or less than the on-going effort to act with more reason, humility, and goodwill instead.
We should not beat ourselves up for our lapses, or beat others up for theirs. But we should hold both ourselves and others responsible for them. They are ordinary, routine, such a pervasive part of our lives that they become normalized, accepted as just the way things are, often even justified as good clean fun. This happens because we do not want to impose on ourselves the oppression of constant recognition that many of our own actions are in fact small instances of “evil,” and so define their evilness out of existence. Or, in some cases, we recognize that it is evil, and delight in it, knowing that we lack either the will or the discipline to alter our behavior, and so instead, to reduce our cognitive dissonance, alter our judgment.
But these choices erase the opposition to “evil” within ourselves, and instead projects all opposition onto others. Instead of being forgiving of both ourselves and others, we perceive nothing to forgive in ourselves, and no need to forgive it in others. Instead of gently holding both ourselves and others to a higher standard of conduct, we hold ourselves only to the standard we have become comfortable with, and hold others to the standard we are comfortable imposing on them, never noticing the double-standards that inevitably ensue. We lapse into in-groups and out-groups, with those defined as “the other” meriting no tolerance, while both ourselves and those with whom we are identifying meriting no criticism (the classic expression of in-group/out-group biases).
These thoughts are inspired today both by the amount of vitriol directed against me in some places (currently only by people who have never met me), some of it deserved and some of it not, and by the amount of vitriol I have directed at others, usually in reaction to provocations of belligerence, but still lapses that can’t simply be defined out of existence. One thing is certain: We should never experience joy in inflicting harm on others, whether we believe they deserve it or not. And the blogosphere has become a place where recognition of that obvious truism has apparently completely evaporated. Though it may sound hyperbolic, the internet, which has accelerated and amplified so many aspects of our existence, has accelerated and amplified this ordinary “evil” as well. It is a breeding ground of our baser natures, and a place where people inflict harm on others with glee, rarely if ever pausing to be ashamed of having done so.
I am not going to become a vegetarian, at least not yet, but I am going to make a redoubled effort not to feed my own inner-demons, not to acquiesce to my own aggressive or defensive instincts in my interactions with others, particularly in this medium which is so conducive to casual brutality. And, in this moment, I feel no anger toward those who have similarly erred, with whom some mutual antagonisms have grown, who take such continual delight in trying to “take me down a peg”.
This is our true shared endeavor: To seek to lift one another up rather than knock one another down. To forgive ourselves and others quickly. To admit to our own errors more eagerly than we criticize or ridicule others for theirs. To take no delight in others’ weaknesses, but rather to help them find their strengths. To be more committed to acknowledging and addressing our own foibles, without losing our sense of humor in the process. To laugh with one another rather than at one another. To refrain from inflicting suffering as a form of entertainment. To sincerely strive to increase the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human (and animal) well-being. To be good, and to help one another be good, in our shared effort to improve the quality of our lives.