Wednesday, August 04, 2004

A Dialogue: The Good, Part I

A Dialogue: The Good, Part I
A person challenged me the other day as to whether or not good and evil actually exist. This person explained that he was a moral skeptic and cultural relativist. What follows is a loose adaptation of our conversation -- I'll call this fellow Relativius ("R"), and I'll be Marius ("M"):

R: You write much assuming that there is such a thing as good and such a thing as evil, and that we can tell them apart. Without that assumption, your arguments fail. I don't think we can be so sure. What is good to me may not be good to you and what is right in one cultural context may not be in another. Granted, there are things that are repugnant to most humans, but that might just be some sort of survival instinct kicking in, a feeling that were that behavior universalized, the practice would threaten all of mankind including the one having the feeling.

M: Would you at least agree that good and evil, if they exist in an absolute sense, are related?

R: Yes, they would seem to be.

M: So the good is the opposite of evil and vice versa.

R: I suppose, if they exist at all that is.

M: And evil is an absence of good.

R: Yes.

M: Now, if we are assuming that they actually exist then we are saying that one of them, at least, has actual substance such that the other can be defined as the lack of the first, and that lacking or that taking away is also a definite kind of existence.

R: Yes, certainly -- that is obvious.

M: So which would most likely be the one with real substance, assuming it actually exists?

R: It is difficult to say, but I would like to say the Good.

M: Indeed, so would any reasonable person. Your inclination to say so is indicative of a fact about the reality of the Good. But I digress. We are working now with assumptions, trying to figure out where the substance must be if Good and evil do indeed actually exist. What kinds things strike you as 'Good' according to your instincts?

R: Well, things I suppose such as fair laws, happy relationships and the like.

M: OK, how about beauty? The beauty of a cherry tree blossoming in spring? How about a mother giving birth to healthy children?

R: Yes, those strike most people as good, but then again, that's all relative.

M: Yes, but at least for now, from our perspectives, these things strike us as partaking in some measure of the Good, if there is such a thing.

R: Yes.

M: Would you say that these things, trees blossoming, relationships developing, mothers birthing, and governments promulgating fair laws are acts of creation?

R: Yes, I suppose if you mean as opposed to acts that destroy.

M: Exactly. Evil does not create, does it?

R: It can I think -- look at Adolf Hitler. He was on his way to 'creating' a Third Reich and 'room to live' for his arian race. If anything is evil, that would be, if there is such a thing as evil, right? And I'm not admitting there is, but it seems like that evil was an evil of 'creating'.

M: But to get to the desired end point, he created nothing but tools employed in destroying lives, destroying relationships, and destroying entire communities. He created nothing, but rather destroyed to implement his twisted vision of a new society.

R: Well, that is true beyond a doubt.

M: So the Good is found in acts of creation, like the forming of relationships, or the birth of a child, while it would seem evil is found in acts of destruction or of preventing those acts of creation.

R: It would seem, again assuming that good and evil even exist, which I still do not think is the case.

M: Very well, but as the Good is found in acts of creation, it must be the one with substance, correct?

R: It would seem so.

M: And evil is a lack or a destruction of that which is good.

R: Yes.

M: Evil must then be linked to chaos and loneliness, and, ultimately, nothingness.

R: Why?

M: What does one who plots destruction of things that are good have in mind when he does it?

R: I suppose he must think of some end he desires above those things he is destroying.

M: And what would be the ultimate evil end?

R: Destroying everything, I suppose.

M: And once everything is destroyed, the evildoer would be utterly alone, having even destroyed those who may have assisted him in the earlier phases of destruction.

R: I suppose.

M: There can be no point to that, as he has cut himself off from all possible forms of the Good -- he cannot even exercise power, as there is nothing to exercise it over. It is chaotic, meaningless destuction that he has engaged in, and he is absolutely alone onceit is over.

R: Yes.

M: What then? The final act of destruction, the only person he can exercise power over is himself, and having finished that final act, nothing would remain.

R: Indeed. So ultimate evil is linked to the opposite of creation -- it is absolute nothingness.

M: And the good is the one of the two, therefore, with substance -- it is creation.

R: It would seem.

M: So which then must precede? Things in general, and by that I mean being itself, or the Good? Evil cannot precede because it exists as an absence of Good.

R: Well, didn't we just say they are the same thing?

M: Yes, and no. Acts of creation take a measure of the Good, if the Good has actual existence. That is why we can call a certain act good or not. If it creates, if it is not of chaos but of order, then it partakes of the Good.

R: Well, then I guess Good must come first.

M: Yes. Were that not the case, we could not call the very first act good or bad.

R: Yes.

M: And the Good then cannot have been created, but preexists creation.

R: OK, so I'll concede that if Good and Evil actually exist, then the Good must be the one that has actual substance, evil does not, and the Good must precede being.

M: Yes -- the Good is like light, and evil is the shadow cast when something acts to block the light.

R: Yes, yes, but we still haven't said anything about whether good or evil do exist or not. I still maintain they do not. But the day is getting late -- perhaps we can continue another time.

M: Certainly.

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