Good and evil: What’s the verdict?

st. michael defeats satan

St. Michael defeats the Devil” by Eugène Delacroix

Throughout the annals of human history, we have become familiar with the concept of good and evil, mostly in the context of the mythical conflict between good and evil. Thanks to popular culture deciding for most of us what good and evil are, many of us do not decide for ourselves what is “good” and what is “evil”, and even fewer have come to the conclusion that good and evil are merely human constructs, and that there can be no good or evil without humans to judge as such.

The way I see it, humans tend to act as though good and evil have been around since the beginning of time. This mentality has been the basis of morality since time immemorial, but it has also become the basis of a pervasive “us versus them” mentality that has sown the seeds of violence and hatred since the dawn of civilization. Then again, that could just as easily be called evil, although such a statement would fall on deaf ears.

One thing I’ve noticed about how we perceive good and evil is that the most common definitions of them are either narrow by themselves or interpreted in a grossly over-simplified way by most of humanity. I say this because what is good for some will not be good for others, and what is evil for some will not be evil for others. The ironic thing is that it is natural for humans to try and decide objectively what good and evil are, but it is not necessarily smart to do so, since everyone will have differing ideas.

The sad thing is that the narrow definitions assigned by society are the prevailing definitions, and it has become nearly impossible for most people to think of good and evil in any other way. In the case of good, most people see good as anything that benefits anyone other than yourself. When society talks of good, they usually praise those who live selflessly, as though the object of life is to benefit another human being rather than yourself. This mentality is unhealthy, and serves only to create a bad opinion of the self, since according to conventional norms, the self is evil and must be vanquished.

But then, evil is the other extreme. Most people see evil as anything that benefits only the self, or only exists to the disadvantage of others. In the case of society, however, the idea of evil is even more insidious, because when society talks of evil, they usually refer to anything that disagrees with the collective norms of the masses. For society, the word “evil” plays in to the “us versus them” mentality, and that is by far the most successful way to lead a people against something, especially if you’re a politician interested in starting a war. All you have to do to lead the people into accepting conflict is to make them think of who you want to fight as the evil enemy. It worked for the Crusades, it worked for the Vietnam War, and it worked for the war against the Middle East.

In this regard, I think the biggest reason that the concepts of good and evil are around is because they give meaning to conflict and human life. The reality is that conflict is a constant in the universe. It’s one of the only certainties in life, aside from death and taxes. Without meaning, however, conflict is just a very ugly thing. With the ability to judge “good” and “evil” for ourselves, we have given meaning to a meaningless universe. However, the illusion has worked too well, to the extent that we have allowed a powerful few to decide for us what good and evil are to us, and to manipulate those sensibilities to cause otherwise reasonable human beings to kill each other for their own amusement.

For me, the verdict is that good and evil are merely words, and like all words, they mean nothing until human give them meaning. In nature, good and evil don’t even apply, thus there is only the struggle for survival. Even if good and evil are applicable constructs, we have to have both. If we only had good, then we as humans would be too weak to assert ourselves, and thus would be swallowed up by anything that means to destroy us. If we only had evil, then we as humans would be unable to control ourselves. We would be killing and ravaging everything including each other until there was nothing left but a pitch-black void.

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