William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Atheism And Its Problem Of Evil

As atheist learning about what is evil.

Evil is a problem for atheists because, for them, it does not exist absolutely. But if you are atheist and think it does exist absolutely, let me ask you, What is evil?

Now you might say evil is “immoral” or “wicked” or some other word, but this merely shifts the question. For then I must ask, What is immoral? What is wicked? It would not be an answer—you would be running in circles—if you said that what is “evil” is “immoral”.

What I’m after is an objective, non-circular definition. There are several possibilities. Incidentally, although many do not, atheists do hold with an absolute definition. The difficulty, as you will see, is justifying these definitions.

But first…This question riles. The immediate reaction, I have noticed, is to evade, to shift the burden, “Well you tell me your definition!” or “Oh yeah? Which religion is the best?” or “I don’t need some imaginary sky pixie to tell me!” or “Let me point out some evil or silly things that religious people said were or weren’t evil.”

Ouch! Touched a nerve, did we? All of these are non sequiturs, and weak ones at that. Full of emotion, though. I think it’s because people translate the question “What is evil” to the accusation “You are, or might be, or your beliefs cause you or others to be, evil.” That itself is another non sequitur, a distraction. But if it makes you feel better, I am casting no stones nor even aspersions. Indeed, like the person who denies gravity is still stuck to the ground, so too the atheist who rejects evil is still bound by absolute good and evil (let him who readeth understand).

That some religious act or espouse acting badly is not proof that evil doesn’t exist. Neither is it proof that some atheists act, or espouse acting, morally. That an atheist or theist holds the correct or incorrect moral belief is not proof of anything except that that atheist or theist holds the correct or incorrect moral belief, and that others don’t. Obvious, you will say; and you are right, but statements which bear repeating.

The same fallacy put differently: a person might say what is true and act against that truth, as the murderer who admits what he does is wrong. This does not make—obviously does not make—murder non evil.

Emphasis on another beloved fallacy. I will not tell you my definition, for it is beside the point. I am asking for yours. It is, as said, a non sequitur, to demand that you first start with my or with anybody else’s definition before you can answer. Suppose you asked me to define a triangle. Would you accept my answer, “You tell me your definition first! Ha!”? Would you say to yourself, “Wow, that Briggs is a clever guy. He really got me with that zinger!”? Or would you say, “Why can’t he answer a simple question? What’s he trying to hide? Maybe he doesn’t know the answer.”? And then suppose I insist, “Evil is lack of the number 14”. Does this absurdity therefore make your definition, whatever it is, correct? I pray you answer no.

Here are the possible positions for non-absolute evil. Have I missed any? Like, say, yours?

Evil does not exist except relatively

Different groups of folks will disagree whether an act is evil. Fads change. Views are malleable. What is evil to us was or is not evil to them. This viewpoint boils down to “Evil is what the majority of this group of people say it is.” The minority must suffer or at least acquiesce. This requires a majority but is not dependent on it. Agreement could be defined at some cut-point greater than the majority; say, an act is evil if two-thirds agree—but then at least a majority must agree with this shift, so we’re right back to a majority.

This view depends strangely on geography as well as, more obviously, time, points not well appreciated. Consider that majorities and minorities can be created wily nilly by finding just enough who agree with a view (and a minority which does not), regardless of where or when those others reside. So that, right now, if you can find at least one more who agrees that it is not evil to slit the throat of a third, then the act is not evil. And it doesn’t have to be now. You could appeal to a historical personage who also wanted the third person eliminated. This at least makes defining evil in practice easy. (It is no argument to say “Nobody does this” because (a) that is irrelevant for definitions and (b) it isn’t true: small groups often decide what is evil.) No matter what, it can’t be all people across all time, at the very least because we cannot now poll the people who will but have not yet lived.

Geographic and time barriers must be appealed to, as in for example “The majority who exist within the USA now”, but this is arbitrary, since these borders are arbitrary (and shifting) and so is the time horizon. Yet these boundaries are absolutely required if this view is to work. Odd, that.

If this view of evil is accepted, then these two situations are logically equivalent (logically): a majority in a specific culture and time thinks it an evil taboo to eat a certain fish, and Germans in 1940 thought it fine to dispose of unwanted people. Of course, others, calling on different geographies and sets of peoples, can point back and say eating the fish was not evil but burning the people was, but this decision is just as arbitrary and subject to revision as the original beliefs. Future geographically grouped people might again decide it is good to ban the fish and burn people.

It might be that the mental conflict of holding to this geography-time absurdity causes to group people to fall into “us” and “them” as a way to relieve the mental pressure, holding that morals exist for “us” but anything goes for “them.” However, this is psychology and not philosophy, so whether this is true is not of real interest here.

Might makes right

This is only slightly different than “evil is relative”, except here a majority is not required, merely muscle. In fact, any minority, even a minority of one, is sufficient as long as it is strong enough to impose its views on the minority. Time enters absolutely (muscle can only affect the now), and the geographical boundary requirement is no longer absurd (there are natural limits to reach).

Immediately, then, this view is more coherent, though certainly more objectionable if you are on the receiving end of the fist. What the muscle decides is evil is evil. The beleaguered can (mentally, anyway) disagree, but what are they going to do about it?

If this view is correct, then it becomes impossible to judge history. Whatever anybody got away with through force of arms just was not evil. Now, those put upon might disagree vehemently with this definition of evil, but unless they can build up enough support to overthrow their overseers, then it’s tough cookies for them.

The mighty may also hold to the correct view of evil and still be mighty, or again they may hold to an incorrect view. The question before us is, Is whatever the mighty say is evil defined as evil? Clearly not.

Pragmatism and utilitarianism

Evil is that which does not work. What works? Depends on the situation or goal. If you aspire to build a road through the jungle, then whatever works toward the goal is not evil, including (say) “recruiting” slave labor and all that that entails. If you say not then you must still define the context of works. That which is evil keeps society from working, perhaps? Intolerably vague or viciously circular. Maximum happiness? So that if ninety-nine people would admit glee (and all others are indifferent) at your demise you would, as a good little utilitarian, submit to the knife being drawn across your neck? Or would you say to the approaching mob, “What you’re doing is wrong!”? So much for universal pragmatism! Least amount of pain? What about those who like pain (and whom many support for so liking it)?

And just what is pain? The suffering and aches causes by exercise or practice? Clearly you could eliminate much pain by outlawing sports (progressives are after football even now). Is pain a fatty liver in late adulthood so that it is right to forbid, by force and cause pain, the pleasure-giving drinking of 16.1 ounces of soda pop? Can pain include mental distress, as advocates of euthanasia argue? Can pain be ascribed to a certain configuration of neurons in the brain, thus including both physical and mental distress? If so, then we’re back to wondering about those people who spank each other for (what they call) fun. Optimal brain states must then necessarily differ from person to person. And that means my brain state can conflict with yours, or that mine is maximized when yours is minimized (Mwahahaha!). This isn’t a joke; it is an objection, and a clear one—and a devastating one.

Either pragmatism has as its goal something external to people but desired by them, like good roads or effective weapons, and therefore anything goes to bring these goals to fruition, as hoped by socialists; or pragmatism is maximizing or minimizing some internal function, like pain, lack of hunger, or “brain states”, but then there is no way to resolve contests between people except by appealing to geographic-time relativism or might.

There is a good reason philosophers reject pragmatism, and that good reason is its incoherence. There is no way to infrangibly define any floating system of ethics based on what “works.” As a bonus, I left the best objection for last. Who—who exactly—gets to define “works”? (Me? Mwahahahaha!)

Evolution and biology

We don’t know how it did it, but evolution (which we are all accepting as an observed fact, at least arguendo: by this I mean it is a fallacy to chirp on and on about people not accepting evolution because here it is a truth) equipped us with a sense of right and wrong. Evil is doing what is wrong evolutionarily, in the sense evil harms our fitness or reproductive abilities or something like that. Thus abortion, same-sex “marriage”, euthanasia, pornography, adoption, contraception, masturbation and so forth, since they all each of them harm one’s own reproductive success, are all evil. Right?

Now it is only an observed correlation, and beside the point philosophically, but it is a curious correlation that those who hold with atheism tend (tend) to hold positive views of the list just given. There is philosophical meat to be had, though. Because the disagreement means what? That people disagree! And we are done; this disagreement just is the proof evolution cannot decide what is evil. For if we are all here by evolution (and we are) then how is it evolution causes you to give one definition of evil and me another? This can only imply that whatever views we have are arbitrary, or that if one view does happen to match the correct definition of evil it does so only accidentally (and how do we judge?).

There is no way to list which behaviors are in accord with evolution and which not, not if you say evolution causes behaviors, because then all behaviors are caused by evolution. There is no way to “reach above” or “step outside” evolution and do something at variance with it. We are “stuck” in the evolutionary stream of events. What “feels” like evil to you isn’t really evil, it’s just a feeling caused by evolution. That my feeling differs from yours is therefore no conflict (to evolution), for who said evolution had to be consistent? Variation is, after all, what drives evolution. That some of us “feel” it’s swell to slaughter others of us is what increases our fitness (or whatever).

Evil doesn’t exist

Evil doesn’t exist. It’s only an opinion. What happens, happens. The universe is cold, pitiless, indifferent. Best to hold a gun and say you are against guns (so others don’t have them). Hunker down and stay away from danger zones. Get away with what you can, for nothing really matters in the end. Imagine all the people coming together as one? Hey, a good thing to preach because it keeps me safe, which means that evil is really bad things happening to me.

Even this doesn’t work as a definition, not if the “me” proviso is included. Saying what is evil is bad things happening to you means you have a universal goal: yourself. What happens when the other guy, who has the same goal and his eye on your wife, acts on his belief? Who arbitrates? We are at a combination of might and the vague hope enough other people agree you and yours are worth protecting. As the kiddies say, good luck with that.

No, the only coherent view is to say evil doesn’t exist, which necessarily must include admitting whatever happens to you (or to anybody, including to your kids, if they haven’t been aborted) is not evil. It isn’t good, either. It just is. And that is just what I set out to prove.

Other views

There are other possibilities, but all appear to be variations on the main themes. Tradition? That’s geographic-time relativism. Introspection? Same. Conclave-type agreements? Same. Evil is what is against the law. More might than relativistic tradition, but both are there. Evil is what is immoral? We already did that. Everything boils down to floating, oscillating, at-sea opinion or muscle, which is opinion expressed with force or believable threat of force.

Comments

Update Please don’t let’s rely on the I-don’t-about-your-tone fallacy, perhaps the internet’s most common. If you can’t address the actual arguments above, then please say so.

Update Many responses. Very few answering the question, “What is evil?” If you’re response does not include this, you have failed.

Be nice. Remember, we’re just chatting. Just to keep us sane, I beg you will start your comments with the same headings I used. As in “Evolution and biology: here is why I think you are wrong, Briggs.” Otherwise we’ll all get lost. See also the header above. Server troubles cause me to clear each and every comment by hand. That is why yours isn’t yet showing. It will.

Update Comments appear to be restored. I’ll be mostly away from the computer today, but have some access. Let me know if you’re having trouble.

98 Comments

  1. Excellent essay. I am reminded of Socrates’ inquiry of a man on the way to court to prosecute his own father for the negligent death of a slave. The man said that justice demanded it even though the accused was his father.

    So, Socrates asked, what makes this prosecution just?

    The gods, answered the man.

    It is just because the gods say so, or do the gods cleave to it because it is already just?

    And they are off a running. As with most of Socrates, the point is missed altogether. Unless justice and the gods are understood as indistinguishable to begin with, then a circle is all that will ever be argued.

    Unless there is good there is no evil. And unless good and the goodness standard are united in entity, we can never know what is really good. God does not merely love that which is good, God is good in and of himself. Something is not good because God says so, metaphysically. Good and God are the same thing to begin with.

  2. La Longue Carabine

    January 26, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    I visit here every day, but don’t comment much because I don’t have much to contribute. So, let me not contribute much here:

    Arguing with atheists? It’s like wrestling with water.

    When it comes to discussing Evil, well, that always seem to get attributed to insanity, greed, etc. In the end we arrive at, “We’re nice to others so that they’ll be nice to us.” In other words, ethics, morality and the rest are the result of a sort of Mexican standoff, with everyone holding back and speaking politely because otherwise deadly chaos will ensue.

    That’s not a world view that I can accept. But to an atheist it’s just reality, so it must be accepted.

    Good and Evil are real and absolute, and if there is any sort of gray space between them, it is very confined and hardly worth setting up occupancy.

  3. Matt,
    Your very first claim is nonesense:

    Evil is a problem for atheists because, for them, it does not exist absolutely.

    I am an atheist and I believe evil exists. I said so on twitter several times. I think it exists absolutely.

    I have no idea why you think atheists can’t or don’t think evil exists absolutely. It’s entirely possible for them to believe it exists absolutely and some do.

    On twitter you kept challenging me to define “the problem of evil.” As far as I can see there is no such “problem”. But at least now I see what you think you mean by it. But I have no idea why you think any of this is a “problem” for me— an atheist.

    Given the history on twitter, it seems that you may have confused people’s refusal to “the problem” with people refusing to define “evil”. But that’s not my problem nor the problem of any atheist. Good luck with all this though.

    Maybe we can have a more interesting talk when you want to discuss how one identifies what is evil. I think the question of how to figure out what is good or evil is an interesting question whether you are a mono-theist, polytheist, agnostic, atheist or what have you. We can then debate whether the best way to identify what is evil is to wait for a personal revelation from god (possibly as a burning bush) or by some other method. But that’s a totally different question than (a) whether evil exists or (b) whether there evil is absolute.

  4. You won’t like this Briggs, but abstract concepts often have circular or open ended definitions. What is kinetic energy? It is the energy of motion. What is energy? It is the ability to do work. What is work? It is a force applied through a distance. What is a force? It is a push or a pull. The last makes reference to an everyday experience that you hope the reader will accept without further questions. Even concrete objects can have problems of definition. Is a stool or a bench a chair? I believe that the same is true for any definition of evil, whether inspired by religion or not. It must make reference to everyday experience that the reader shares with the writer. I do not see that atheists have more of a definition problem than theists do and Donald, I think that Socrates had a point. One that can not be dismissed so easily.

    I have not given a personal definition, both because I do not have one that differs from what can be found in a dictionary and because the question is not really directed at me.

  5. Dear Dr. Briggs:

    First, I suspect that the atheist vs etc discussion has little to do with good vs evil. Religions, whether they worship no Gods or many, tend to define good and evil in the same way: good agrees, evil disagrees, with all else a matter of degree.

    Second, it’s easy to define good and evil in some disciplines: in math it’s true (good) if (and only if) it can be reduced to counting on your fingers; in phsyics it’s good (true) if (aoi) it describes a real world phenonmenon accurately enough for whatever the current purpose it.

    In human affairs things are less clear: one idea I like is that something is evil if it adds unnecessary complexity and/or reduces another human being’s freedom of choice. Good, in contrast, simplifies and/or liberates.

    Notice that this allows for necessary evil – capital punishment is undoubtedly evil, but often justified – while marking Christianity (and thus the Ameerican revolution) as good because these are based on the idea that every human being (not just the rich, the blessed, or the noble) has both the rights and the abilities needed for self-determination.

  6. Are you saying Carabine that you don’t accept the golden rule? Also isn’t a long carbine a contradiction in terms?

  7. One of the benefits of being an atheist is not having to worry about the arbitrary values people place on things including words. To me, evil is just a word. I might use it to describe certain behaviours and personalities or I might use another – cruel, violent, unspeakable, vile, psychopathic. By using it, it doesn’t claim a force beyond the human brain’s ability and choice to do horrible things.

    Why would you think it matters to atheists?

  8. There are so many things wrong with this that one hardly knows where to start. Lets begin at the beginning.

    1. You trying to talk about what atheists think is a bit like (sorry about this) Lewandowski or Oreskes writing about what climate sceptics think.

    2. The original tweet didnt touch any nerves, it was just almost comically ridiculous.

    3. What is ‘evil’? It’s a word. One that I never use. One that religious people use. They ask to be ‘delivered from’ it, whatever that means.

    4. This is one of the best examples of what psychologists call ‘projection’ that I’ve ever come across.
    It’s a problem for those who believe in an all-powerful 100% good god, but for atheists there is no issue. Stuff happens.

  9. Briggs

    January 26, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Paul M,

    No definition of evil offered. Except possibly, “It doesn’t exist”, which is what I set out to prove (that some atheists hold that position).

    Tiny CO2,

    Same comment.

    Lucia,

    No definition offered.

    Scotian,

    If words ultimately have no meaning (all is circular), then there is not only little but not point to conversing.

    Paul,

    Comes close to defining absolute evil, i.e. the lack of good math skills. This is highly defensible; I mean, the lack of good.

    La Longue, Carbine,

    Thank you. Keep ’em comin’!

  10. Paddy O'Furniture

    January 26, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    I am an evil atheist, like it or not.

  11. Briggs

    January 26, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Paddy,

    I happen to know for a certain fact that you are neither.

  12. TheLastDemocrat

    January 26, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Hi – Stumbled here after a couple clicks from WUWT.
    Here is an interesting article about the concept of morality being inherently integrated into public health efforts. Seldom acknowledged, but always involved when one person or group claims to be doing good for others. [And remember: the mercy of the wicked is cruel.]

    Enemies of the People: The Moral Dimension to Public Health. James A. Morone. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, Vol. 22, No. 4, August 1997.

  13. I am sure you can agree with me that some rules in the old testament can be called evil in present day. EG taking te females of a conquered enemy as seks slaves.

    Eating people is evil, but what if you crashed on a mountain top in Chile?
    Polygamy? Slavery?
    Should gays be imprisoned like in Uganda?
    What about eating meat?

    Evil is dynamic, that’s why we have parliaments that are full-time reviewing the laws.

  14. I’m quite sure that ‘evil’ is relative, I just wonder why you religious types always get your knickers in a twist about it. Is it a little bit too tempting perhaps? Just a little taste and then you want more? The result being akin to an ex-smoker, forever telling others about dangerous behavior but never letting on where this concern stems from.

  15. That is quite a leap in logic Briggs, but conversation has to start somewhere. I don’t think that our distant ancestors waited until every word had a rigorous and independent definition before they started communicating. How would that work? I also believe that this applies to the word “evil” as much as any other word. By the way, what is your non-circular and closed definition of kinetic energy? Asking this may be against your rules but c’est la vie or is it c’est la guerre?

    Human language is not computer programming or even math. If it was what would happen to free will? 🙂 Even math has its problems as you have recently shown.

  16. Lucia,

    No definition offered.

    So what?

    You begin by making a false claim (unless you hide behind the ambiguity that you didn’t say “all”.) I pointed that out. Instead of admitting that your first sentence is simply wrong, you to want to side step by complaining I didn’t give you a definition. Well… you refuse to give definitions of words you use. Other people can certainly refuse to give you definitions of words you use. (In fact, the later is more justified than the former.)

    That said: Rest assured (a) I have a definition of evil and (b) it is not circular. Moreover, my failure to volunteer a definition merely because you demand one does not mean “This question riles”. As far as I can see the notion the question riles is another delusion of yours. My not answering your question tells you no more than your previous refusal to answer me when I asked you your definition of “the problem of evil”.

    It means: I chose not to answer that question at this point. I would prefer to watch you bumbling around trying to imagine definitions, describing them and the rebutting the definitions you are ascribing to the fictional “atheists” that haunt my mind. Watching your sophistry is sort of amusing, and I’d prefer to do this.

    Please carry on! And yes. Nothing would amuse me more than you– who will not provide definitions when asked — once again complaining that people don’t provide definitions when you demand them! Have at it!

  17. Briggs

    January 26, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    Lucia,

    No definition offered; side detour about “tone.”

    Scotian,

    I interpret your words to mean, “I agree with you, Briggs.” You clever dog, you.

    andy,

    No definition, except “relative”, which has been shown to be false.

    Hans,

    No definition offered, evasion.

    LastDemocrat,

    Thanks.

  18. Oh gosh. I missed this in your response to Paul M?

    Except possibly, “It doesn’t exist”, which is what I set out to prove (that some atheists hold that position).

    You set out to prove some atheist think evil doesn’t exist? This is side splitting!?

    Either a person believes evil exists, they believe it does not exist, or they have no opinion. It happens to be true that some atheist think it exists, some think it does not exist and some have no opinion. You set out to ‘prove’ that for some it doesn’t exist? No one ever disputed that some atheists think it doesn’t exist. Yes. Some think it doesn’t exist.

    But what you claim in your introduction is Evil is a problem for atheist….
    In fact, evil is not a problem for most atheist. But as for your writing: if you merely set out to prove that some atheists think evil does not exist, maybe you should say that more clearly. Because lots of people would just respond,

    “Yeah. Duh. For your next trick could you set out to prove some cats like tuna.”

  19. Briggs

    January 26, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Lucia,

    No definition offered; more about “tone”, quibbling about this or that atheist believes A not B.

  20. “I beg you will start your comments with the same headings I used”

    Don’t beg others. Why don’t you accept *your* headings?

    Evil does not exist except relatively
    Evil doesn’t exist
    Might makes right
    Pragmatism and utilitarianism
    Evolution and biology
    Other views
    Comments
    Update

    All of the above, especially “Update” 😉

  21. Matt,
    At Twitter, you seemed to invite me to discuss these here. But I come here and find you respond to me like this:

    No definition offered; side detour about “tone.”

    To this I say:

    (1) You still do not engage my point that your claim “Evil is a problem for atheists” is wrong at least a generality (which is how you express it.) Evil is generally not a problem for atheists– yet it seems to be the major claim in your post.

    (2) You evade my point by making a snarky claim I took a side detour about “tone”. I said absolutely nothing about “tone”.

    (3) You evade my point by by complaining I did not give you a definition you asked for. Given your excursion into discussion what your not giving definitions people request for you means or does not mean, you should well know that my not giving you a definition of evil is irrelevant to my observation about the falsity of the major claim in your post.

    On to:

    quibbling about this or that atheist believes A not B.

    Your entire post seems to be you suggesting what atheists believe and why you think these beliefs are a problem for them. This is your blog. You get to make the rules. Is my engaging your claims about what they believe not allowed in your forum? If so, there is really no point in my trying to have a substantive discussion here on your turf. Because no one can have a substantive discussion of your claims and arguments if observing your claims are false is off limits.

    Given that your response to my previous comments I (and possibly you) wonder why I’m bothering here.

    I’m here because on Twitter, you wrote “Skip first claim; I grant it to you. Now your definition, please. (Answer on blog; I’m off Twitter tonight as of now.)”

    I take that as an invitation to discuss things here— and hope that means you have resolved to actually engage comments and have a substantive discussion here. But, being cautious, I feel that I need some evidence that you are willing to engage in a conversation and that evidence requires you giving proof that you are willing to respond to what I say rather than merely demand that I give you definitions. So, before I indulge you with my definition,

    Are you conceding that you did in fact claim “Evil is a problem for atheists ” and that your claim is either (a) wrong or (b) you did not support the claim that evil is a problem for atheists?

    Because if you are not conceding that, we need to resolve that issue first. After all, my position is that my definition of evil is irrelevant to that claim. And I don’t want to move onto this silly evasion of yours before we resolve whether we actually agree that the main claim in your post is, in fact, incorrect.

    Once we get past this, we can move on to the tangent about my definition of evil.

  22. Working definition: Ask every person on earth that is alive at this precise moment to rate an infinite list of human actions as either “evil” or “not evil”,and then colate that list. If more than 50% of people rates an action as evil, and you have a complete list of all such evils, then you have defined human evil.

    Love and kisses,

    Francsois

  23. Ha! You are probably correct Briggs, but don’t let it get around. It would spoil my reputation. The clever bit is alright though. You can use that.

  24. What is evil? The simple definition is, as you say, those actions that are decidedly not moral. I don’t consider that begging the question. The definition of evil is clearly linked to the definition of morality, as are all opposites. Most would have an easier time defining morality than it’s absence. So I will start there.

    I define morality as treating other beings in the way you would wish to be treated *if you were them.* Not as you would wish to be treated. This is not the Golden Rule, at least not as it is usually explained. It is closer to the idea of not judging a man until have walked in his shoes.

    Many people use the Golden Rule to justify denying liberty to others on the grounds that *they* would want someone to make them see the light if *they* were into rock and roll porn, shooting up junk, or a lowdown cheap little punk; or something…

    Imposing the force of law to prevent two men from signing a marriage contract is immoral, but may not be evil since good and evil are on opposite ends of a long continuum.

    So I am sure that my view will be consigned to the category that “Evil does not exist, except relatively.” However, Matt, I think you give this view a short shrift in you list of possible answers.

    Your statement that “this viewpoint boils down to “Evil is what the majority of this group of people say it is. The minority must suffer or at least acquiesce,” is ridiculous.

    Morality is not voted on, and cannot be imposed on the minority. Germans killing Jews in 1940 is immoral because the Jews didn’t want to be killed, and did nothing to deserve being killed. I see no difference between your description of moral relativism and might makes right.

    I it’s not a paradox that I consider it immoral to be killed, while knowing that I may need to perform the moral act of killing another; either to prevent the killing of others, or to honor their request for death.

    Although I haven’t read the books or watched the show, I think the premise of “Darkly Dreaming Dexter’, a serial killer who only kills serial killers, is illuminates the definition of Evil.

    1. Serial killers are evil, since their victims don’t want to die.

    2. Serial killers don’t want to die.

    3. Is killing a serial killer moral, since it prevents more immorality that it causes?

    4. Is Dexter more or less moral than a lawman who has killed a serial killer?

    Is it less moral because Dexter commits the moral act of killing a killer…for fun? Mmm, I suspect you would say yes. And if you did, then I would “accuse” you of moral relativism.

    Now I’ll go back and read the other comments.

  25. Maybe it’s axiomatic, a self-evident principle, a starting point for comparison, a universal Platonic form. Maybe, like Potter Stewart, we’re unable to define evil, but we know it when we see it.

  26. After reading the other comments, I must add this. I have defined evil. It is clearly relative. And I don’t believe you have proven that relativism is wrong. Your proof starts with the the ridiculous premise that relative morality implies that moral acts are determined by majority rule.

    Morality is determined by the individual, and the fitness and usefulness of that morality is tested by the rest of the universe.

  27. Evil as anything other than a social construct doesn’t – can’t – exist for atheists.

    Only if there is a quantifiable measure of evil- (Is it a particle, or a wave?) – then yes, evil is absolute.

    I think your description of atheists is misleading. To me, an essential part of atheism is not caring about theism.

  28. “Evil is a problem for atheists because, for them, it does not exist absolutely.”

    Mr. Briggs,

    If you don’t tell me what evil is in this claim, how am I supposed to judge whether or not it exists absolutely? I don’t know if atheists believe it doesn’t exist absolutly, but even if they do, why would evil be a problem for them?

    Anyway, if I define Evil = Satan, does Satan exist absolutely? Could God and Satan coexist? This is a problem for theists, I think.

    (Yes, I didn’t really pay attetion to the rest of the post.)

  29. Since there is a heated discussion going on here, let me throw in my two cents. In Hindu philosophy, God is equated with the truth and all of reality, which is characterized as being unknowable in its entirety by mere mortals – we mortals can only get glimpses at bits and pieces of reality. The good is defined to be that which is on the side of God. Thus, a logically inconsistent set of beliefs about the real world contains within it the seed of evil because it leads one to act against God. It is an eternal struggle to discover and uproot such evil. The eventual goal is to be one with God, i.e. to exist in complete harmony with all of creation.

    As per the above, evil is absolute.

    An odd outcome is that “might is right” is, sadly, a consistent system, and as a result, a person who rules via tyranny can be doing God’s work (like a famous banker or, say, President). You can see paeans to logical consistency in the writings of Ray Dalio as well – these people are pragmatists, and yet, not necessarily inconsistent/ evil.

    As per the above, goodness is relative, and hence each person’s concept of evil is relative.

    In order to discover a definition of good/evil that is more stable modulo fickle individual preferences, one has to consider a system of ethics that incorporates the Golden Rule or similar application of universality, together with some arbitrary set of value judgments (e.g. a disdain for violence and wanton destruction. It is common for people who honor all of creation to dislike these two.)

    Whether such an universal ethical system sufficiently accurately reflects the society one actually lives in is a totally different matter, however. From time to time, one might need to consider certain relevant facts like the size of an overly grown tyrannical Govt into one’s determinations of ethical behavior. E.g. Ed Snowden is a traitor to the US Govt whose concept of tolerable evil changed after his discovery of the shenanigans of the NSA police state apparatus.

  30. Briggs,
    You list several “arguments”, but there is another view that you are entirely unaware of:

    Each person and/or animal on this planet occupies his own Umwelt (see Wiki) and is, both existentially and epistemologically, an island unto himself.

    What you or Scotian or Gary or Lucia believe to be moral is completely – AND I MEAN COMPLETELY – out of my hands. I cannot step into your brain and force you to agree with me on what is right or wrong – just as you can’t step into mine. In this Universe, this is simply not an option.

    What this means is that IT DOES NOT MATTER TO ME what you believe to be right or wrong, because I have can have no more influence on it than I can the weather. And the opposite is that YOU must choose what is right or wrong for yourself and not rely on what “divine revelation” or the Pope/President/Commissar tells you to believe.

    Millions have been murdered because of the fallacious belief that such an influence can exist. Whether instigated by religious zealots or Marxists, you cannot force another to believe what you believe – the most you can do is kill the man who doesn’t.

    By the way, trying to force others to believe what I believe, just happens to be my own personal definition of evil.

    And yes, I’m an Atheist.

  31. Yeah, I think evil is a problem for atheists:

    “What is ‘evil’? It’s a word.”

    “…immoral, but may not be evil since good and evil are on opposite ends of a long continuum.”

    “Your proof starts with the the ridiculous premise that relative morality implies that moral acts are determined by majority rule.”

    “Ask every person on earth that is alive at this precise moment to rate an infinite list…”

    “Morality is determined by the individual, and the fitness and usefulness of that morality is tested by the rest of the universe.”

    “Evil is dynamic, that’s why we have parliaments that are full-time reviewing the laws.”

    “Watching your sophistry is sort of amusing…”

    “(Yes, I didn’t really pay attetion to the rest of the post.)”

  32. I agree with lucia’s first sentence:
    “Matt,Your very first claim is nonesense:
    Evil is a problem for atheists because, for them, it does not exist absolutely” – but my reasons are different from (in fact in a sense opposite to) lucia’s.

    I don’t know if I qualify as an atheist, but for me evil does not exist absolutely – and for me that is not a problem.

    So far as I have ever been able to tell, “good” and “evil” are just words used by people to label certain behaviours that they feel compelled to encourage or (resp.) discourage (usually on the basis of effects of such behaviours on the perceived welfare of the family, tribe, or super-tribe, rather than on the immediate well-being of the individual); and they tend to have the desired effect by virtue of being connected to approval and shaming since infancy in a brain which evolved over many generations to manage the behaviour of a social animal so as to be successful in its context by responding to approval and shaming signals from its peers.

    P.S. Really this wouldn’t be a bad post if you could only suppress your tendency to throw in egregious straw men at every opportunity. It’s especially discouraging when you have (like here) some interesting things to say which get smothered and lost in the overwhelming mass of “cleverly” inserted straw.

  33. Amazed by the number of concessions here – several atheists admit to both relativism and pragmatism.

    An atheist could say “Evil is objective – It is a privation; a lack of good. Good is a perfection of being, something which is actually fulfilling according to a thing’s nature/final cause. Every being, insofar as it is a being, is good…”

    And so on and so on. The atheist could ground morality in objective truth but would have to admit to a broadly Aristotelian metaphysics and, in the last analysis, admit that it depends on God. I’ve seen some atheiststake this to a certain point and no further. Maybe add “fair-weather Thomism” to your list of options?

  34. Patrick,

    That post is the equivalent of a drive-by shooting. What were you aiming for? I’m pretty sure you missed.

  35. The issue is whether or not atheism can offer a rational ontological ground for concepts like good and evil, ought, morality, etc., that rise above personal opinion (likes and dislikes) or social convention. If not, then on what basis do you adjudicate between conflicting personal or social visions of right and wrong such that you are able to justify taking actions to correct perceived evils? Objectively speaking, given atheism, there is no rational ontological grounding for universal moral principles. Most atheists seem to be either too dense or too squeamish to admit this. Fortunately, some do have the cajones to avoid sugarcoating the clear implications of their worldview. These atheists, at least, are worthy of respect:

    http://people.duke.edu/~alexrose/dditamler.pdf

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/confessions-of-an-ex-moralist/?_r=0

    http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/the-inevitable-consequence-of-an-atheistic-worldview/

  36. Ambrs57,

    I do not agree that good and evil, right and wrong, do not exist without God.

    I have no proof that Gods exist, and I believe that it is impossible to prove that they do not. How does that prevent me from making moral judgement? From adjudicating the relative quality of an act?

    You offer meager middle ground for people who do not share your worldview. I make no claims of understanding the purpose of the universe, but I don’t see why that means I am incapable of leaving it better than I found it, or uninterested in doing so.

    You imagine an unpleasant universe: Right and wrong cannot exist without God; anyone who doesn’t see that and still claims some choices are better than others, has no cojones and isn’t worthy of respect. Jihad you may understand, being a good neighbor – because it’s better for both of us – seems to evade you.

    You are a difficult entity to sympathize with.

  37. “Fortunately, some do have the cajones to avoid sugarcoating the clear implications of their worldview.”

    What is good is that which I say is good. It can be no other way.

    – signed,

    Atheist.

  38. ps.
    Individualism is a b*tch. No one to do your thinking for you.

  39. La Longue Carabine

    January 27, 2014 at 1:43 am

    Scotian: Sorry it’s been a very busy day, so I’m just getting back now. That probably means neither you nor anyone else will see this response.

    First: No, my comment had nothing to do with the golden rule. The golden rule doesn’t require reciprocation to succeed. Its goal is improving the individual in terms of character, quality of life and relation with Deity. In other words, it’s not “Everyone play nice and no one gets hurt,” but rather somewhat, but not completely like “I’ll be nice to everyone because doing that will make me happier.” Any secondary effects are…secondary.

    Second: In Natty Bumppo’s day[1] most long guns had smooth barrels, not rifled ones. The French called the rifled one ‘carabines’. Our hero got his appellation because his ‘rifle'[2] was in fact rifled, and he was competent with it at very long ranges[3].

    —-
    1. In the day the fictional character was supposed to have lived, I mean.
    2. Affectionately called ‘Killdeer’.
    3. Long for that period, anyway.

  40. We don’t live in Eden anymore.
    22 The Lord said, “These people now know the difference between right and wrong, just as we do.

  41. Evil is a force- therefore, it can not be just one thing.

  42. Milton Hathaway

    January 27, 2014 at 3:32 am

    I used to spend time contemplating whether Obama is an evil jerk or just a clueless jerk. Then it dawned on me that, what difference, at this point, does it make?

    Ok, ok, fine. Heading “Other views”:

    I know exactly what evil is, but I can’t and won’t pre-define it for you. That’s would just be giving Satan a clear opening. I was raised right, I’m honest, empathetic, considerate, blah, blah, blah. I’ve lived long enough to witness a lot of good and bad stuff. If you did something in the past and wonder whether it is evil, ask me and I’ll tell you. If you are thinking about doing something in the future and wonder if it would be evil, ask me and I’ll tell you.

    But I do reserve the right to ask a few clarifying questions first – both of you and those potentially affected. Evil can be tricky sometimes.

  43. “No definition of evil offered. Except possibly, “It doesn’t exist”, which is what I set out to prove (that some atheists hold that position).”

    You haven’t clearly explained why evil (real or not) might be a problem specifically for atheists.

    If by defining evil you mean – how can an atheist society set in stone moral rules for everyone to stick by – then it isn’t a problem confined to atheists. We are continuously trying to fashion rules to create a more harmonious society. The law books are always in flux, not least because we now have new ways to be evil, that were never covered by religious texts. I see those who try to follow the Koran and the Bible have more problem with trying to merge the old version of evil with the new, than atheists who can just move with the times. I’d even say that those who make moral decisions based on very old and flawed writings can be more ‘evil’ than those who seek to create new rules based on growing enlightenment and tolerance.

    Are our more secular societies more or less evil than those that were or still are dominated by religion? There’s probably a lot more incautious sex but a lot less culturally endorsed violence.

  44. The secular version of ‘evil’ is a description. Like the word ‘naughty’ it is a judgement about behaviour: “that’s naughty”, “you’re naughty”, “a naughty thing to do”. Religious ideas about evil, by comparison, seem to hold that evil is a thing in itself, with a nature (or supernature), or purpose.

    Atheists don’t believe that evil exists, because they (generally) don’t look for supernatural accounts of the world. So in many senses, your attempt to understand the atheists definition is a little daft. You might as well ask ‘what is the atheists’ god?’

    Of course, *some* atheists do attempt to give accounts of the world that are analogous to religious stories of creation and judgement, and adhere to them with the convictions of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. This makes them angrily turn against religion, and even to hold it as ‘evil’. But for many atheists, atheism is in itself inconsequential, in the sense that it is what people *do* believe, rather than what they don’t believe that is important.

    The implication of your question, and your statements about shifting the burden are unfair. Atheism is a broad church, if you’ll pardon the pun. While some forms of atheism — or more plainly: secular thought — do suffer from the relativism you refer to obliquely, some atheists on the other hand can and do find a universal/objective basis for their moral ideas in an understanding the human condition. For instance, merely the fact of a capacity for moral judgement seems to be an (almost) universal human characteristic. To the extent that this capacity occasionally fails, we can say that humans are imperfect we can find reasons for that failure. And to the extent that secular (and for that matter, religious) moral ideas differ, we can explain why differences emerge.

    Relativism is only a problem for moral thinking if it is terminal to moral thinking. Different cultures (secular and atheist) produce different mores, but that doesn’t have to be fatal to discussion across cultural differences, nor does it mean that such differences cannot be transcended. Indeed, such a dialogue might be a moral imperative, albeit one which is occasionally resisted by religious (and secular) zealots.

    ‘Might is right’ is also a clumsy misconception of atheism. We can share values by agreement rather than through force. Moral thinking is about the *judgement* of actions, not the *policing* of actions.

    I don’t use the word ‘evil’. And so I don’t really need to offer a secular definition of it. I also don’t need there to be a universal/objective definition of absolute wrong for me to judge actions. I can think of examples in which a moral principle might be abandoned for good reasons. And I can imagine situations in which one might want to hold with a principle in spite of the consequences, even without the promise of an afterlife.

    Even if there were a thing such as evil, it would still be people making judgements about the actions it seemingly drove. Those judgements would still be prone to the same problems that beset secular moral thinking.

  45. Briggs

    January 27, 2014 at 8:46 am

    All,

    Lot of words, evasions, “atheism means this not that”, but no answers or attempts to directly answer arguments. How about that geography-time restriction on relativism? What about being stuck in evolution? Why, why exactly, is it wrong for some thug to beat your loved one to death with a baseball bat? Just because you think so? But the guy with the bat thinks otherwise. Why is your opinion superior?

    Let me assist. If your comment starts with anything but “I think evil is defined as….” then you’re probably heading in the wrong direction. Some of us are beginning to wonder if you really can define it.

  46. If I were a hippie (atheist), I would respond (not answer) that “Evil”, i.e. act-negative (also “Good”, i.e. act-positive; and “Meh”, i.e. act-whatever) is a defined set. I pick its contents rather arbitrarily, but roughly based on what is as best possible for me, all things considered.
    (Which is not an answer, since it shoves the burden of definition onto “all things considered” – but that covers so very much, is such a cloud of opaque greyness, that I do not think it can be reasoned against as easily. But it does leave them more open to the charge of being sociopaths, which is why they avoid using it except with the young.)

    —–

    Why do devils (who are, after all, famous for just this) ACT evil?

    And: Why do sociopaths (who are, after all, famous for just this) ACT evil (and often act not-evil)?
    (Sociopaths as per the useful classical definition – i.e. those who have “the moral disease”, not the amazingly useless modern definitions.)

    =

    1) Other sentients as objects
    There is nothing physically connecting you (the devil in Hell, or the sociopath in the White House) to anyone else: you do not feel their pain, pleasure, anything. This makes them (the anyone else) directly RATIONALLY equivalent to the way humans on earth view a blade of grass, a stone, a waft of air, etc: i.e. objects.

    2) Other sentients as actors
    For a devil in hell there is yourself (pleasure, pain, boredom, etc etc), and those above you (ditto).

    If those above you say “do”, then you do, else you suffer: thus reason speaks to you.
    Those below you (humans in Hell) have the same rule relative to you: thus reason speaks to them.

    3) The practical result of the above are actions, some of which Biblically are evil (the list fills… well, a book; and the specifics very much more), and some what are not (protecting your own, fighting your enemies, etc).

    = evil in abstract

    a) The Ultimate Power has defined “evil” (aka sin, unrighteousness). It a lot of -specifics- (items) which make up the set, -labeled- “evil” (sin, unrighteousness, etc). There is no disagreement because, well, He tends to smite what annoys Him; and also because He has infinite intelligence, and knows literally everything.

    b) Away from some set defined by some sentience, there is no naturally-defined thing such as evil (or good): a junior sociopath may create an arbitrary set of definitions for use by himself, or a senior one does so for use by those below him.

    To sum it up (and perhaps the alternate question you should rather consider – or are you doing so already?): -sociopathy- is the path any rational atheist (or God-rejecting devil) walks.
    Being a devil = proper rational self-consideration.
    It is that simple: those who do not are irrational – or liars, of course.

    Charity without God is -irrational-: why give to the poor? Why help fund a hospital? You lose, but gain (usually) nothing (or else very little – very much less that you gave) in return.
    If doing so makes you “feel good”, then you are being stupid: learn to feel good by instead supporting mass murder of all those who will not submit to you – less human scum makes the world a nicer place to live in.
    To be so powerfully moved by “feelings” you choose not to control is WEAK. It is PATHETIC.

    This weakness, this being pathetic, is the single most powerful acting force in the practice of atheism: it supersedes rationality. (It even supersedes self-preservation.)

    Recall, if you will, that the proper practice of reason is also commanded by the bible (the endless work of the pursuit of truth)…
    When hippies use “feeling” as a “reason” they very strongly tend to greatly reduce the relative value of applying reason (which is an extremely irrational act). But doing so DOES make sense from the sociopathic view point: after all, why obey reason if you are not forced to? And this is why sociopaths are -characterized- by various (often rather odd) insanities, despite generally being more objective than the average person.

    =

    The reason one cannot reason with an atheist is that they assign almost no value to reason. Oh, they lie and scream about “science”, blah blah. But reason will not move them: or rather it will not move them beyond what they feel like moving.

    But. Human beings are inherently rational: the grey cells keep ticking. So there WILL be a large degree of rationality present in (normal, non-defective) humans. Walking. Eating. Working. Boinking. But for those things that are less-connected to the nervous system:

    There are 2 ways to be driven-moved:
    Christians are driven internally – hence sayings such that the American system can only work with a Christian population. This is true: e.g. capitalism cannot function in the presence of a certain threshold of corruption. (And those who practice atheism are pretty much, per-definition, corrupt.)
    Atheists must be driven externally (else they devolve into utter anarchy: so strong men arise to enforce civilization – from which they then benefit most of all of course): hence socialism, communism, etc. etc.

    =

    Why do a good? (I.e. why not do a evil?)
    Christian (practicing): or else God may smack me.
    Non-Christian (in Hell): or else the devil above may get inventive, and perhaps feed me my raw living spleen, on a bed of my cooked-but-still-living liver.
    Non-Christian (on Earth): Yawn. Don’t wanna that. Maybe I’ll feel like it later. Maybe not. Whatever. Now eff off, or I’ll gut your children with a shovel. (Considering the practical mechanics of many abortions, this last is actually not an exaggeration.)

    =

    I think I’ve repeated myself: whether here or somewhere else, I do not recall. But it is my 10 cents.

  47. Why is it a problem if we can’t or can’t be bothered?

  48. Ben got in before me, but I was going to say, why stop with ‘evil’?
    Surely atheists must provide precise and rigorous definitions of ‘god’, ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘the holy spirit’, and other woolly terms that religious people use but atheists don’t. And if they cannot do so, clearly they have a ‘problem’.

  49. “How about that geography-time restriction on relativism?”

    It’s not a question for atheists as such. However, Kant has an answer for you:

    “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

    We can act as though there is no ‘geography-time restriction’, and wish for there not to be, while still observing that time and place have a function in the development of moral ideas. This is as true for theists as atheists. If we take a timeless view, we will note that many of the Bible’s adherents are promiscuous with its many injunctions over time, to say the least. A fixed idea of universal wrong doesn’t seem to be that helpful.

    “What about being stuck in evolution?”

    This is something I criticise as much as you do. I point out, however, that the desire to locate the basis for morality in evolution is as problematic as the attempt to defer the definition of good/bad to Gods/Devils. Judgement is as human as action.

    “Why, why exactly, is it wrong for some thug to beat your loved to death with a baseball bat? Just because you think so?”

    Or because God says so? The desire to be free from aggression/pain/suffering/slavery is about as universal a thing as it is possible to find. This being our *condition*. Hence, Mill talks about the privation of pain and Kant talks about treating people as ends in themselves.

    “But the guy with the bat thinks otherwise.”

    He might do. Or he might be preoccupied with something other than moral judgement, rather than thinking it is ‘right’ to use his bat to assert his will. The difficulty is not in the action of the hypothetical assailant — we can take him for granted. The difficult moral question is how to deal with him. If there’s evil in the world, we might be justified in simply annihilating him. But then we have to deal with the hazard that we might be doing a greater wrong. A conception of ‘evil’ free of time, place and circumstance — ie a (supernatural?) force to be vanquished — allows us to dehumanise the actions of others, and to treat them as sub-/inhuman.

    For example, the popular epitome of ‘evil’ in the world is the holocaust. Is this best understood as the appearance of some force acting on the world, or the consequences of historical events, very much particular to that place and time? We can say with certainty that the Nazi’s ideas are abhorrent. But they make very little sense outside of Germany/Europe in the 1930s. To say that those ideas are ‘evil’ (in the supernatural sense) would seem to suggest that we can understand them without knowledge of how they developed, and worse: how even right-thinking people came to be vulnerable to them, or incapable of resisting them.

    “Why is your opinion superior?”

    What does ‘superior’ mean here? Are you more convinced by my argument that asserting one’s will through the use of a bat is wrong, or by the bat-wielder’s argument that his actions are right (in the event that he has one)?

    “If you comment starts with anything but “I think evil is….” then you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.”

    But what if people think ‘evil’ is no more than a judgement, rather than a thing?

  50. Thank you for a very stimulating topic and to all respondents. I’ve been viewing this site for a couple of months maybe more. I’m skeptical that good and evil is statistically an arguable point. They both certainly exist and yet time, space and circumstance appear to have an influence. We are all present in the physical but certainly more than “the physical” realm exists. This concept leads me to think that behind or beyond that physical veil perceptions of good and evil could easily be other than how they are defined (or not defined as the case may be) here on earth. Is such a transition, the physical giving way to the metaphysical possible?

  51. “Why, why exactly, is it wrong for some thug to beat your loved one to death with a baseball bat? Just because you think so? But the guy with the bat thinks otherwise. Why is your opinion superior?” In certain societies it would not be wrong and my opinion might not be superior. Religion might play a big part in that. If we have to reserve evil as a word pertaining to a belief in a higher power then a great many hideous things are done that are not evil – burning witches or stoning adulterers for example. Someone from a different religion or an atheist might disagree. Whose opinion is superior?

    Laws could be said to be an attempt to define evil. They do vary from country to country and decade to decade. We create them in an attempt to avoid chaos, which is not conducive to human progress. We need structure and peace to turn our attention to something other than survival. How good those laws are and how well they are enforced is another matter.

  52. Maimonides, in his classic The Guide of the Perplexed, attributes the root of the word Satan to the Hebrew s’teh, “turning away”. This is a different word than used in Proverbs 4:15; “avoid it, do not pass by it; turn away (s’tai) from it. This would then mean that the goal of Satan (evil) is to lead the target from the path of truth. But then one has to contemplate what is “truth”.

  53. Okay, I’ll spin the wheel one more time, mostly because I’m fascinated by the responses indicating that we are would be incapable of recognizing evil if God hadn’t once whispered the answer in someone’s ear. Oops, forgot the rule! Let me start again.

    What is evil? Evil is the callous and willful disregard that the other guy has as much of a right to exist as you do.

    From this follows many things:

    Evil requires sentience, the asteroid with our name in it isn’t evil. Neither is the black plague.

    Evil isn’t an attribute, it exists on a scale. Throwing your gum on the sidewalk doesn’t compare to shooting the idiot in the car ahead of you.

    I would expect that we could have discussions about good and evil with any individually sentient alien species we are capable of communicating with, even if God had failed to whisper in their ear.

  54. Pointless waste of time!!!

    The problem of evil: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/

  55. Evil is as evil does. That said, it is clear to me that depriving a fellow human of his right to life is wrong. Writ large it is certainly evil.

    For me, heat of passion murders are likely not evil whereas planned murders likely are evil.

    I can’t seem to get any more specific. This is a good discussion however, and I agree that most atheists seem to have difficulty with evil specifically and morality in general.

  56. Briggs

    January 27, 2014 at 9:59 am

    davebowne,

    Thanks! A workable definition! “Evil is the callous and willful disregard that the other guy has as much of a right to exist as you do.”

    (1) That include those “other guys” who haven’t popped out of the womb yet?

    (2) How do you know this principle? I mean, how can you prove to us it is true? Is it just obviously true, true for “no reason” except your gut feeling? Or have you derived it from simpler premises? If so, which?

    TinyCO2,

    Interesting people keep bringing up religion—when atheism is its lack. Anyway, am I right in saying your definition is “Evil does not exist”, i.e. the “what happens, happens and people call it different things”? This, as I said in the main article, is certainly defensible and even coherent. But scary, very scary. How would you dissuade bands of better armed marauders?

    All,

    Still waiting for specific rebuttals for the arguments above. I’m particularly interested in hearing those against (what I call) the geography-time absurdity.

  57. Briggs “How would you dissuade bands of better armed marauders?” You do it by arming yourself and hoping for the best. This is the way it always has been done as it is too late to debate the finer points of evil.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6qQSll7InQ

  58. Biggs – “Interesting people keep bringing up religion—when atheism is its lack. ”

    You bought up atheism. Thus you brought up religion. To substitute like terms:

    “The Lack of Religion And Its Problem Of Evil”

    “Evil”, like sin, is a *religious* concept, or it is a description.

    Had you said “Moral Darwinism and its problem of evil”, or “postmodernism and the problem of moral relativism”, it would be harder to say that you had invited the comparison.

    “I’m particularly interested in hearing those against (what I call) the geography-time absurdity.”

    Would you judge a cave man, or any other prehistoric individual living in a condition of natural liberty, for his ‘sin’?

    Would you judge a peasant forced off the land by enclosure for stealing bread to feed his family?

    Clearly, mores and morals develop as society develops. One can only make judgements about actions in the context of those actions. Thus, the notion of moral universality is a nonsense.

  59. “Interesting people keep bringing up religion—when atheism is its lack.”

    Atheism is the disbelief in a god, not religions and those who follow them.

    “But scary, very scary. How would you dissuade bands of better armed marauders?”

    I doubt many lives have been spared by appealing to a god and if circumstances were such, I’m sure any sensible atheist would have a go, without worrying they’d be struck down for fibbing. Until very recently there was a heavy reliance on religion as a stick to control the masses. We are at a transition stage where we try to substitute social authority (governments, UN, etc) for a ‘higher’ court. Those institutions don’t exist because we all believe in the same things. They’re not always successful at maintaining their collective vision of lawfulness/good. They’re just a new solution for an old problem.

    What seems to be a better model all round is commerce. It has had an amazing effect on destroying evil. The best way to prevent a marauder killing you is to convince them you’re more valuable alive. The next step is to make them believe that you’d be even more useful if you were happy. So by that thought process, evil is an absence of shopping 😉 Or more broadly evil is an absence of cooperation.

  60. The consistent theme of “evil” has at its core deception — a lie (e.g. Satan is commonly referred to as the “father of lies”). Evil has as an element a lie. Put another way, where there’s a lie, there’s evil. Cleary some evil is worse than others (a murderer maintaining a façade of innocence has done more evil than the husband who told his wife ‘that dress doesn’t make your hips look big’ though even that maintains pride).

    In modern parlance is also the economist’s concept of “externality” — something one does in one’s selfish/self-centered pursuits that impacts (usually adversely) another.

    The worse the impact from an externality the greater the potential evil — and “evil” applies when a lie is involved to perpetuate the externality (e.g. if my pursuit of wealth causes me to cheat you in a deal, that’s bad, worse to steal from you outright, and much worse to murder you for your money-filled wallet).

    Lying is an essential, though not necessarily dominant, feature of all evil. To perpetuate such activities that are intrusively harmful to others requires one lie — because one must maintain a façade of reasonableness, or more such as a façade of high moral integrity to continue behaviors having adverse consequences on others.

    CONSIDER: An atheist, by not outwardly aligning with a religion that establishes particular criteria cannot violate the religion’s espoused mores — an atheist is thus incapable of being a hypocrite.

    As most reading this are Christians, recall Jesus views on hypocrisy — better to be hot or ice cold than lukewarm (in modern terms, a “lukewarmer” is “Jesus-vomit”), and many more such remarks establishing a very consistent theme. As the summarizing cliché’ goes: “Hell’s Hottest Fires Burn for Hypocrites.”

    Which illustrates some of the many fundamental flaws in Brigg’s overt and implied logic in this essay — atheists, by virtue of being “ice cold” have less of a problem with evil than those of faith, who are always at risk for their hypocrisy. And they are invariably hypocrites.

    Further, “people of faith” have different versions of belief. They may all say they’re “Christians” but one can “peel the onion” of any particular church/denomination and find numerous mutually-exclusive value-systems.

    Atheists might not have some moral reference like the bible, but then, really, neither do “Christians” as its so easy to prove so-called “Christian” values/morals vary, sometimes radically, between denominations.

    It’s not that ‘evil doesn’t exist absolutely’ for atheists, as Briggs asserts at the very outset, the problem is that evil doesn’t exist absolutely for anyone. Though they are free to believe otherwise and so often do–asserting moral superiority (the seven deadly sin of pride) from their “Christian” soapbox and its ever-fluid & changing set of values as asserted vs. actually practiced — two very very different things which by definition is an problem of hypocrisy to which no atheist can be prone.

  61. Mark Twain entered the essay, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying” in a context — there’s some profound truths there: http://www.online-literature.com/twain/1320/

  62. Matt,

    (1) That include those “other guys” who haven’t popped out of the womb yet?

    That’s a pretty good illustration of the idea that evil isn’t an attribute. It’s my understanding that most human embryos are naturally not carried to term. That isn’t evil. Does it become evil because human choice is involved? As long as the existence of the baby depends wholly on the mothers willingness, it is clearly the mother’s business.

    (2) How do you know this principle? I mean, how can you prove to us it is true? Is it just obviously true, true for “no reason” except your gut feeling? Or have you derived it from simpler premises? If so, which?

    Because we stand on the shoulders of giants, it seems obviously true to me. Could I have reasoned it out myself if I was the only sentient being in reach? Not likely. The ability to distinguish good from evil is the gift the culture. Will that arise spontaneously in other species? Some animal behaviorists claim that it has. Will it arise spontaneously in alien cultures? Nobody knows, but it seems likely to me. It seems like the natural outcome of an environment where two entities working together can accomplish more than either one working alone.

  63. Evil requires intent, and it is also relative.

    In other words, intentionally doing something bad is not evil (like breaking your curfew by sneaking out of the house). Evil requires more than merely intentionally being bad.

    So, evil is intentionally doing something really bad which hurts another.

    That is my definition.

    Now – why does intent matter.

    Well – say you are raised in a culture which eats their dead parents. You do this, but you don’t think you are doing something really bad – because in your culture what you are doing is really good. Not evil. If you are raised in a culture in which eating your dead parents is really bad and you do this – you are evil. So the same act can be evil for one person and not evil for another. Evil is relative.

    Or say that your dad has cancer and asks you to kill him. You don’t want to, but honor his wishes and kill him. This is technically murder – but not evil.

    Not all murder is evil.

    By my logic – if a mother kills her five children because she believes she is saving them from hell – but it turns out she is mentally insane – I would say that her act was not evil. Why – because she didn’t intentionally do something she knew to be really bad – she thought (wrongly based on her cultures objective standards) she was doing something good.

    So I would also say evil has nothing to do with the criminal justice system. Our society (the USA) punishes acts which are not evil and rewards act which are evil. For example we punish drug use (not evil). But we give abortion a pass, which is evil if the person knows they are doing something really bad.

    Of course, this is all just my opinion.

  64. A supplement to my earlier answer.

    I don’t think people can do evil to themselves.

    In other words – if you want a tattoo that cannot be evil.

    If you want to cut off your arm – that cannot be evil.

    If you want to kill yourself – that cannot be evil.

    Why – because you are not doing harm to another (per my definition).

    Also, consider this – animals do many acts which some might consider evil – but are not (in my opinion).

    If a shark eats a person, this is not evil according to my definition.

    If a lion eats its cubs, this is not evil according to my definition.

    Now – if an animal is self-aware, like some primates, perhaps orca and dolphins, etc. then I think they can do evil. But only if they intentionally do something really bad to harm another.

    So when monkeys engage in war against another tribe – that may not be evil because they may not think they are doing something really bad.

    However, (I speculate) some monkeys do things they know are really bad on purpose to harm another – and that meets my definition of evil.

    So evil is not restricted to humans, but can be done by any self aware being.

  65. Atheist here. I don’t think evil exists. I also don’t see the problem with that. I will try to keep my argument short, aware that there will be holes in it, you can point them out if you like, and I can answer. I also promise to try to concede every single point that I can’t argue with in a rational manner.

    I don’t need an absolute concept of good or evil to interact with people, to love or to be loved, or to do the things I love in life. What I need (all every sane human needs, I think) is empathy and reason.

    Reason tells me that doing something that would be perceived as evil will probably bring harm to myself, e.g., if it’s illegal, or if it will bring about the rejection of society to myself.

    Empathy draws me away from doing harm to another human or living being, (this you can call conscience if you like, I don’t want to argue semantics) and pulls me toward doing good to them. They feel good, because of empathy I feel good.

    In short, I don’t see how a concept of absolute evil is necessary or desirable. Even more, I deny that it is necessary because every human has the tools and the need to behave in a manner that won’t be perceived as evil or wrong by their fellow humans.

    And sorry about my English, not my first language.

  66. “Why, why exactly, is it wrong for some thug to beat your loved one to death with a baseball bat? Just because you think so? But the guy with the bat thinks otherwise. Why is your opinion superior?”

    All knowledge in your brain is your “opinion”. It can be no other way.

    Unless of course you invoke the supernatural and believe that God placed it there for you.

  67. Just like Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind, so did Eve steal the divine Knowledge of Good and Evil from the garden of Eden.
    Now that man has the Knowledge, why is God still needed? We were expelled from the Pareadise because of the Knowledge!

    So Briggs demands a “definition of Evil”. Well, we don’t need no stinkin’ definition, because each and every human being posesses the Divine Knowledge, stolen from God by Eve, whom we are forever grateful for doing so.

    So it is christian people who have problems with evil, they still need God for guidance on morality.

    In the sixties dutch Roman Catholic Bishop Bekkers was very popular in the Netherlands because he realised that the Catholics in the Netherlands had the Kwowledge in deciding how many children were enough in a marriage.

    Don’t call the Knowledge hubris, because God himself acknowledged that with this Knowlewdge man is like God.

  68. Actually Briggs’ demand for a definition is odd since the obligation to define a word must surely fall on the one who uses it.

    But now I am tempted to use it – at least in the negative sense. Because, for all the risk of harm he brings to the world with his AGW denialism, I would be inclined to say Briggs, though probably “bad”, is not “evil” . And the reason I deny him that label is because I don’t suspect any real wish to hurt others in his vainly posturing behaviour of picking holes on the arguments of AGW advocates (and all progressive left-liberal politicos) rather than seriously considering the overall picture.

    So I suppose that malicious intent – or any other kind of deliberate overriding of the dictates of conscience – is what underlies my own conception of evil (something like what the religious might describe as knowingly making a pact with the devil).

  69. Alan Cooper:

    I am not sure that debating can ever be seen as “bad” or “evil”.

    When you say “for all the risk of harm he brings to the world with his AGW denialism” what you really mean is not whether he is right or wrong. But instead that he may express his opinion and convince others to also hold the same opinion, which is different than your opinion, and thereby maybe convince more than 50% of the people that AGW is not happening.

    Whether Briggs is right or wrong (I happen to believe he is right about AGW) – expressing an opinion can never be “bad” or “evil” in my opinion.

    By the way – using the term “denial” or “denialism” is name calling and “bad” (but not evil in my opinion, because it is not bad enough).

  70. The relativism of evil has hardly been shown to be false by you Briggs. A hanging claim……

  71. On Relativity:

    Having decided to use the word “evil”(and thereby gained some obligation to say what I mean by it) if find my answer above very similar to that of RickA (further above) in that the distinction between “bad” and “evil” is a matter of intent (and perhaps also magnitude though I can imagine thinking of his curfew-breaking escapade as “just little bit evil”). But, as usual with words, there is a shading of meaning. We might consider a person who cannibalizes children to be evil even if he was a psychopath without conscience (though perhaps less so if we knew he was delusional). I think though that the reason for this is more out of inability to imagine the truly psychopathic state than out of really extending the definition. (After all we probably wouldn’t use the word evil if the psychopath were replaced by a baby-eating lion).

    So perhaps I do have an absolute definition of “evil” as deliberate action contrary to the dictates of conscience – even though it is one I cannot ever truly test with regard to another person because I don’t have access to their internal mental processes. But then being evil is not a property of the act itself but rather of its relation to the conscience (or perhaps to a religious the “soul”) of the actor. So even though the definition of evil is absolute, the evilness of a particular action is relative.

  72. “We might consider…”

    Is this a “royal” use of the word “We”? Or must we all reach a consensus and agree on everything?

    Can’t an individual decide for himself what is right or wrong? Actually, isn’t that the only way a decision is ever reached? At the individual level.

  73. RickA We’re going a bit off topic here but I was just giving Briggs a bit of what I perceive as “his own medicine” (ie arguing with a mix of ad hominem and straw man that is somehow seen by its presenter as “clever”).

    Actually I think he is wrong about the danger of possible AGW.
    But I explicitly stated that he is not “evil”.

    I do think that debate can be “bad” if carried out dishonestly (and I *suspect* Briggs of some of that though I also suspect it’s a kind of subconscious dishonesty that does not depend on a deliberate intent to do wrong). Of course, if I am going to stand behind that then I have to define “bad” – which for me is a lot harder than defining “evil”.

  74. Yes Jim, you too have the Knowledge!

  75. I do not have an absolute definition of “good” and “bad”, and as I said before, for me that is not a problem. When I say some action is “bad” or “wrong” I am merely expressing my own feelings and I do not believe that anyone else’s such assertions have any more absolute content than my own.

    This does not mean that discussions of ethics (and aesthetics) are pointless, but logical argument may play only a small part in them. How we feel about things influences our behaviour and my own sense of ethics does not rule out trying to persuade others to change their ethical and aesthetic positions. Since the object of such arguments is more to change feelings than opinions I have no objection to the use of appeal to emotions in such arguments. (The only problem is that if it’s so blatant that the manipulative intent becomes clear then it might not be effective.)

  76. Might as well take a shot at this… but from a more agnostic position.

    I believe there is absolute good and evil but realize current philosophical development is incapable of precisely defining it. Much the same way that I believe there is a Unified Field Theory that explains all of the observed physical forces that has yet to be fully developed. I have zero problem admitting to my lack of absolute knowledge on either front. We have been trying to understand the universe in a systematic way for a mere few thousand years by even the most generous measure, it would be hubris to believe we have all of the answers.

    So far the closest approximation I can see is that, despite Dark Helmet’s assertion to the contrary, evil is dumb. Evil might win in the short term but the longer story of civilization is of slowly increasing moral development and it tracks with general intellectual progress.

    I will also note that it should be painfully apparent that current religion is of little aid in the development of this proposed ‘universal theory of morality’, seeing as all of the major religions are also evolving their own definition of good and evil over time. However I would note that nothing in my brief explanation of good/evil is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity; if ‘evil’ is opposition to God and God is both omnibenevolent and omniscient then it follows that a complete understanding of reality would allow one to always be able to discern the correct/good choice and to understand it to be the ‘best’ and most rational one.

    The problem comes when imperfect mortals must make moral decisions without the advantage of being omniscient. For now we try to encode our current best understanding into laws, courses of philosophy and ethics, etc. and we muddle along. I won’t even assert that a moral code can currently be codified that is totally rational, logical or completely internally consistent. No other proposal for dealing with the issue being on the table, I’m happy enough to go along.

  77. Andrew Farquharson

    January 27, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    Hello,

    We are all illusions of separation. As illusions, our only reason for being is to feed a machine with the energy we generate through anxiety, conflict, hostility, greed, control, displacement of disowned parts of our illusory selves onto others, etc etc.

    “Good” and “Evil” are simply part of the overall dualistic construct designed to keep us miserable, confused, unaware, and at each other’s throats. “Good” and “Evil” don’t exist. Unless you are suffering from possession in some sense, which is, unfortunately, an overwhelmingly common state of human affairs, you will innately know how to treat others, illusions though you each be.

    No need for flavour-of-the-decade religions such as Buddhism. Just be silent and remember who you are.

    Thank you, Mr Briggs, for your forum.

    Andrew Farquharson.

  78. Briggs:

    After further thought on relativeness and evil, I still believe evil is like weather. All weather is local and so is what is perceived as evil.

    Like your fish example – that belief is probably confined to some vague area.

    My thought for measuring whether certain acts are evil goes like this.

    Ask yourself how you would feel if the act were turned around.

    If you are a women and a man raped you – ask the man this question.

    Would it be ok with you if someone raped you? If the man answered – no – I would not want to be raped, than we know he knows he is doing something really bad that is hurting someone else. So his act is evil (and objectively wrong according to my local culture). Even our judicial system agrees this action is wrong and will put the person in jail.

    Now take take the example of justifiable homicide – or more narrowly – self-defense.

    Someone is trying to kill me because of the color of my skin. I defend myself against great bodily harm by killing the person trying to kill me. Is that evil? I say no. Now turn it around. Ask the person trying to kill me – would it be ok for you to defend yourself against someone trying to kill you because of the color of your skin. If the person says yes (which I believe would be the most common answer – since the right to self-defense seems pretty universal) than we know that my action is not evil and his is.

    So in addition to my definition of evil “intentionally doing something really bad which hurts another”, I would add that you can tell when someone is doing something really bad by asking the person (metaphorically) if they would object to the same act being performed on them. If they object (like my rape example) then that is strong evidence that the act is really bad and that they know it. If they do not object (like my self-defense example) than that is strong evidence that the act is not really bad.

    I am very interested in your thoughts on my definition of evil and my thoughts on how to tell (locally) if something is really bad.

  79. Equating moral relativism to majority politics is too simplistic. No one believes that the majority is always right. Relativism only means that good and evil are directions on a linear scale, not black and white absolutes. This is generally true, otherwise concepts like a necessary evil to prevent a greater one would be meaningless.

    A more interesting question is whether evil is objective or subjective. Robert Persig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, said that Quality is the instantaneous reaction of the individual as part of the act of perception. Moral judgement is where the rubber meets the road; the interface between the subjective and objective worlds.

    Each individual has his own unique set of filters that determine how we see the world. Some of these filters are built in (genetic), some learned (social), and some are internally developed (individual). We develop our own filters by reading and thinking about issues like environmentalism, feminism, scepticism or religion until we adopt some of these viewpoints. The actual judgement is almost always subconscious. Good is what we seek, and evil is what we avoid.

    Moral arguments are usually about placement on the Good/Evil scale. Is abortion better or worse than an unwanted pregnancy? Is the risk of warming greater than that of economic collapse? Is divorce worse than marital abuse?

    There is one sense where evil might be considered both objective and absolute. If the phrase God is Good is considered a definition instead of a description, then the absolute absence of good, or God, could be considered an absolute evil. To an atheist this would be meaningless, so it is true that atheism and absolute morality are incompatible.

  80. Well said Hans, it seems to be Christians who get themselves into a spin over definitions.

  81. Hi William, I am going to answer your challenge:

    “Evil is a problem for atheists because, for them, it does not exist absolutely. But if you are atheist and think it does exist absolutely, let me ask you, What is evil?”

    But first, a few clarifications.

    “…for atheists because…”: You seem to think that this situation is different from that of theists. I am a theist, but I cannot see any good reason for this distinction. Yes, a theist might think he has a more reliable way of distinguishing good from evil (“good is what is in my holy book”, etc.) but defining what, as a concept, good and evil are, is exactly the same, except for concepts that involve God (“Whatever God does is by definition good”, etc.). Or perhaps you think an atheist has less reason to be good (can’t be sent to hell etc.)? Such reasoning by theists is (as a theist I can say this) an affront to God – it amounts in the end to might is right.

    You analyse various possible answers to shortcut pointless discussion, which is good. But I find your analysis unsatisfactory. As for the relativist ones, I ignore them: relativism is ultimately self-contradictory. Then you suggest:

    Pragmatism and utilitarianism: These are two different things. I agree both are indefensible, but I’ll mention utilitarianism again when I answer your challenge.

    Evolution: Here you mistake it for a definition of good and evil. It isn’t, it is an explanation for how concepts of good and evil arise in intelligent sentient beings. One can (and I do) accept evolution as a good explanation. But as a theist this is necessary: God isn’t so stupid as to have to break his own rules to get things to work, so if he wants us to have a choice between good and evil (free will) both must arise in the normal working of the universe – which develops species by evolution. An atheist would similarly say that this good explanation relieves us of needing to posit god to explain it – but he would not say (except for the shallow thinkers) that what evolves causes us any obligation to act accordingly, nor that it provides any definition of good and evil.

    Evil doesn’t exist: Some people say that and argue about it as you do; but most of them still do nice things, which leads me to conclude that evil really does exist, their beliefs notwithstanding.

    To summarise my reaction to your post: I think that anything you can say to the negative about atheists is equally true about theists, except for a few extra (but base) arguments available to theists such as “might is right, and god is might”.

    Now to answer your challenge:

    Some time ago I was privileged to discover a short definition of both good and evil, as follows:

    “Good is trying to benefit everyone;
    evil is trying to harm any innocent one.”

    I call this the Principle of Goodness, and you can read about it at http://peacelegacy.org and http://principleofgoodness.net .

    You ask: “How do you know this principle? I mean, how can you prove to us it is true? Is it just obviously true, true for “no reason” except your gut feeling? Or have you derived it from simpler premises? If so, which?”

    One answer to this brings us back to utilitarianism. Let me put this scenario to you:

    Suppose we live in an absolutely perfect world: it can be any way we choose, without any limitations; what would we choose it to be?

    My answer: I want every single sentient being to be maximally benefited; everyone perfectly happy, prosperous, wise (or whatever else you consider to be a benefit). Every dog shall have its bone, but no cow shall be killed to get said bone. And so on.

    Now, I put it simply: in such a world, this is the right choice. But it IS a choice, and someone can freely choose that it should be otherwise for no reason – there cannot be a reason to choose otherwise because, as we have posited it to be a perfect world, whatever your reason is, you can have that too without hurting anyone else.

    So, in our perfect world: either: choose that all should be maximally benefited – which I call “good” or choose that some should suffer (which I call “evil”). These are word definitions, but I submit that we should choose good and reject evil. That’s why I call it a Principle. I believe that God himself faced this same choice and freely chose to be good. But, for atheists, god’s nonexistence doesn’t alter my argument in any way.

    Moving on, we have the sad fact that we do not live in a perfect world; we cannot simultaneously make every sentient being perfectly benefited.

    Utilitarianism solves this problem by suggesting:

    (Utilitarianism): If you can’t benefit everyone, benefit as many as you can as much as you can. (Benefit is defined differently by different utilitarians – maximal happiness, minimal misery, maximal happiness minus misery, etc. – none of which changes the rationale.)

    It sounds good, but there are problems: philosophers have shown the utilitarian calculation to be incoherent, and it requires perfect knowledge of the future, infinite calculating power, and so on – and lots more problems.

    The Principle of Goodness solve the ‘imperfect world’ problem differently:

    (Principle of Goodness): If we can’t maximally benefit every sentient being, lets try to do so anyway, but accept that we might, and perhaps probably will, fail. So, try to find solutions that help everyone, never deliberately harm an innocent, no matter how big the payoff. And so on.

    Lots more to say about it, but I think I might let you get a word in edgewise. 🙂

  82. It appears that Briggs has left the room.

  83. Briggs

    January 29, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Hans Erren,

    He has. He’ll be back Friday.

  84. Reply to craig hamilton, who said:

    “Relativism only means that good and evil are directions on a linear scale, not black and white absolutes. This is generally true, otherwise concepts like a necessary evil to prevent a greater one would be meaningless.”

    I think you misunderstand what the term “moral relativism” refers to: it doesn’t refer to various moral judgements having relative relationships with each other, but:

    “Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism)

    In other words, it refers to the idea that morality is agent-relative. Most people who believe in morals at all also agree that some things are better or worse than others – robbing you is not as bad as killing you, for example – so there is no great need for a term to refer to that idea.

  85. Evil is willfully hurting someone unnecessarily. Works perfectly well for me.

  86. Darcy, you are an evil relativist utilitarian, just like me. 🙂

  87. Evil is an ATTITUDE towards others that, when utilised, causes extreme pain and sorrow, and sometimes death, unto others. All in one sentence.

    I cheated, however, by remembering an old sunday school lesson about the word ‘patience’.

  88. One thing I’m not sure about is what a good definition of evil _is_ — without any circular references. How should theists define it? If theists can’t either, the problem isn’t theism v. atheism, but the problem.

    How about this: evil is the absence of good, and good is close to the character of God.

    Atheists would say that defining “good” as “like God” is vacuous; per Ockham, if God approved hatred, we’d say hatred was good. But if “good” is anything other than “like God,” then there is a standard by which God is being judged, and He’s less than It.

    I tend to think that God is fundamental enough that we really can base good on His character without being vacuous: that know it or not, our definitions _are_ based on Him. But surely this is not mere tautology: it sure _feels_ like when I say, Taste and see that the Lord is good, I’m saying more than “Taste and see that the Lord is like Himself.” Or am I? I imagine a conversation like this:

    Theist: You say this set of actions is good and that is evil. But you can’t explain why.
    Atheist: No. You say that “good” means “like God.” But you can’t explain why.
    Theist: No.

    Of course, emotionally, this is a terrible way to start with the angry atheist, who identifies God with things that are very unlike God. But that’s another matter.

  89. Well, you stirred up enough comments to show that Atheists can do whatever they want and justify it via their own personal definitions. They take upon themselves the self-anointing of moral authority to determine good, evil, justice and so on, based on their own personal procilivities. This allows them to consider themselves to be automatically tautologically moral.

    It is this concept of moral elitism which leads to the Leftist bent which most Atheists gravitate toward, where they become the savior/messiahs of those who they perceive as victims of others who they designate as oppressors. These three categories or classes dominate AtheoLeftism: the Messiah class; the Victimhood Class; and the Oppressor Class. All three are required in order for the Messiahs to keep their self-image as saviors of the world intact.

    In order for this to work, good and evil must be defined only by the savior class, and only for the situations which they want to control. This is the hazard of relativism: it performs no braking on the aspirations of those who would control others.

  90. Well Stan, most conservatives I know or know f are either atehist or weakly theist. Most Catholics I know are radicalised leftists. So what you are saying sounds like a P.O.S. to me.

  91. Mr. Briggs:

    I was hoping you would visit this thread this weekend and take a look at my three posts above.

    I set forth a definition (I think) and a rule for helping determine when someone is acting really bad.

    What do you think?

  92. Briggs

    February 4, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Hans, All,

    I’m still trying to get back to this. Probably do a separate post with best counter arguments.

    Time…time…

  93. The Definition of Evil
    Evil is the label for any universal act that has been declared to be a wrongful universal act of men or a man, in particular by either a religious God or Gods, a nation, a society a religious or other group, or even an individual. Such a declared evil act may be either unique to the declarer and his associates or it may also be common to, accepted by, or rejected by other persons, groups, religions, societies, nations or Gods anywhere in the cosmos, and in any stated timeframes. In that sense, evil is relative.

    A universal act is any of the myriad possible acts of man that occur anywhere and at any time—past, present or future.

    A wrongful universal act (an evil act) is one that has been declared to injure others in any significant way–physically, mentally, emotionally, materially or psychically, or even group-wise, nation-wise, or religious-wise.

    It is fortunate that most of the time and in most places on earth evil acts are recognized as common to man, and are declared in laws or customs designed to prevent or punish evil doers.

    “Declared” must mean either written statements or verbal understandings from government laws, cultural groups, religions, societies, nations, God or Gods that a given universal act is wrongful.

  94. Evil is “live” backwards; death in other words. Good is life, evil is (premature) death, that which causes to die. I also acknowledge death of body as somewhat distinct of death of mind (spirit, will).

    That which enlightens your mind, brings knowledge and truth, joy and/or happiness, is part of good. That which opposes things things is evil.

    Many things of themselves are neither good nor evil; merely tools to be used to accomplish good or evil.

  95. Evil is live backwards

    It is closest to your evolutionary argument about life:

    “Evil is doing what is wrong evolutionarily, in the sense evil harms our fitness or reproductive abilities or something like that.”

    As you see, “conservatives” do indeed adopt this list of things and calls them wrong, but not perhaps evil. Evil is intentional strong wrong.

    Christian scripture, OT specifically, calls violations of such things “confusion”.

    Progressives see the same list as fun things to do.

  96. Whups, old thread, new comment. How did that happen? Oh, bookmarked page, not the home page. Well I’d better fix the bookmark.

  97. I’m afraid I had no choice but to stop reading when you revealed your hypocracy. You are correct when you guessed that the reason we get [angry] when Theists ask us about morality is it’s usually an accusation. However, you have NO concept of the free exchange of ideas.

    If I asked you “who was your favourite character in Suicide Squad?” And you responded “you first” I would say “Harley Quinn, you?” Fully expecting you to answer the question now.

    You, however, take “you first” as a Zinger rather than a genuine question. This makes you impossible to communicate with. And a hypocrite.

    I am NOT going to tell you where I get my morality, but I will say that your attitude has offended it.

    Edited [This blog insists on decorum.]

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