On Good and Evil

Good and evil have no independent existence outside the mind.  They have a subjective, but not an objective existence, in the sense that, if there were no minds capable of being conscious of good and evil, good and evil would cease to exist.  They are not “real,” in the sense that they would not continue to exist, as a rock or a planet or a star would continue to exist, if all living creatures suddenly died.  However, we perceive them as real, absolute categories, for all that.  The reason is that the ability to perceive the world in terms of good and evil, like all our other abilities and characteristics, is the result of the process of evolution.  It has helped us, and, presumably, the thinking creatures who were our ancestors, to survive.  We experience good and evil as having a real, absolute existence, not because they really do, but because that has been the mode of perceiving them that has maximized our chances of survival. 

Of course, many thinkers through the ages have come to the intellectual conclusion that good and evil are subjective, matters of culture, or relative, depending on the situation.  The number of individuals who actually experience good and evil in this way, however, must be vanishingly small.  To demonstrate this it is enough to look at the actions of the individuals expressing these thoughts.  In the end, they are just as judgmental and act as moral beings in just the same way as everyone else.  It is difficult to escape ones nature.  I experience good and evil in the same way.  I make moral judgments just as easily.  The predisposition to develop a morality is as much hard wired in my brain as in anyone else’s.  I act as a moral being, as everyone else does, not because of religious or philosophical teachings, but because that is my nature.  Intellectually, however, I realize that good and evil do not exist absolutely, as I perceive them.  To the extent that they have any real existence at all, they are “figments of my imagination,” electro-chemical constructs of my mind. 

This realization leads by no means to the conclusion that I should act immorally or amorally.  If nothing else, it would be very inefficient for me to attempt to rationally examine all my possible courses of action, and come to intellectual conclusions regarding what I should actually do in any given situation.  Realization of what morality is and why it exists, however, may qualify my actions.  Good and evil exist because they have helped us to survive.  I claim (and will have more to say on this topic later) that there is one paramount thing that we really “ought” to do.  We really ought to survive.  To the extent that our lives have any point or purpose at all, that is it.  (Far from seeing that as a meager purpose, by the way, or a reason to despair, I consider life wonderful, improbable, and gloriously worth living in light of this “purpose.”  More on this later, as well.)  We ought to examine all our other actions in the light of this paramount “good” of survival.  There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.

There is nothing, then, that trumps survival in considerations of whether an act is moral or not.  By survival I mean the survival of that which is essential about us, namely, our genetic material.  (In this sense, it is possible in rare circumstances to act in a way that promotes our survival even if it leads to the death of the consciousness and the physical body that we normally perceive as our “selves.”)  If nothing trumps survival, then, it is quite possible for situations to arise, particular in this modern world, which is not the world we are adapted to survive in, when actions we perceive as highly moral are really self destructive.  In such cases, we “ought” not to act in the manner that seems “good,” but in the way that promotes our survival.  For example, it has been deemed highly moral and heroic to throw one’s self on a live grenade to save the lives of others.  However, we “ought” not to act in that way.  In an example highlighted in the election of 2008, many thought the vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, was acting morally by deliberately deciding to carry a Down’s Syndrome infant to term and care for it.  Indeed, in the context of her culture and background, it is quite possible to argue that her act was, in fact, “good.”  It was also self destructive.  Objectively, she “ought” not to have done it.

I am certainly not arguing here that one ought constantly to try to outwit Mother Nature, and deliberately decide not to act morally.  Morality exists because it has promoted our survival.  We are social beings, and can best promote our survival by living harmoniously with others of our species.  We can generally best accomplish that by adhering to moral rules.  We are not ideally intelligent creatures.  It is unlikely that we are smart enough to attempt to live outside the context of morality.  To promote our own survival, then, we must live within it.  However, we should not lose sight of what morality is, and why it exists.  While we are predisposed, by our nature, to perceive it as an absolute, we must not forget that it is not really objective and absolute, but is subjective, and a construct of our conscious minds.  Normally, we will survive by being virtuous.  However, when the choice is between virtue and survival, we must choose to survive.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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