On Good and Evil

Presented at the April 1995 regular monthly service of The North Texas Church of Freethought

The world is in moral decay, say the theists, because of "moral relativism." Only a divine power makes possible an absolute standard of right and wrong, they say.

Yet if we leave aside all the evil that men (and women) do, there is much that remains that is terrible and unjust in the world. From disease and starvation to natural catastrophes and birth defects, there is suffering and torment that has nothing to do with human failing. So if there is a Supreme Being, an Ultimate Author of ourselves and the universe, he cannot be both all-good and all-powerful. Because if he were, he would put an end to such things.

But I'm afraid the situation is much much worse even than that.

Four hundred years before Jesus Christ is supposed to have been born, Socrates speculated as to, "whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods." Socrates also observed that the gods — plural — argued and disagreed about right and wrong as much as human beings, according to the holy scriptures corresponding to the gods known to him and his countrymen. Socrates got around this by supposing that that which all the gods approved was the good, and that which they all objected to was the evil, and that all else was neither good nor evil. He might just as well have considered the problem of a single God — like that of the Christian Bible — who's inconsistent about what is beloved. But, as we know only too well, there simply is no honest way out of such contradictions.

So let's just consider a strictly theoretical situation. Let's suppose there's a God, and that He, She, or It is the absolute standard of morality. Is right and wrong then simply no more than this God's say-so? Or is what is right loved by this God and what is wrong hated by this God because of what right and wrong are in themselves? Do you see the nature of the question?

In the first instance, if good and evil are no more than the product of the will of a divine power, and if that will is truly free, then such a God could, with a thought, cause what we consider to be the most repugnant and heinous criminal act to become the highest virtue. And he could cause the snuffing out of lives by a tsunami or a volcanic eruption to seem as wonderfully miraculous as the saving of lives by a rain of manna.

Now the further question would arise, of course, as to whether if such things happened we would know it. Why? Because of "the moral law within us," as Kant put it, or "the work of the law written in our hearts," as even "Saint Paul" acknowledged [Romans 2:15]. For if morality is nothing more than divine say-so, then presumably, like the gravitational effects of a massive body, any change in His (or Her or Its) will would cause our own consciences to be instantaneously altered. But has this ever happened? And, if it did, what would distinguish it from simple mind-control or what is called "brainwashing?"

At any rate, if there is a God, and if this God's will absolutely determines what is right and wrong, then this supposed God's being all-good is no more than His (or Her or Its) being all-powerful. It's not absolute morality at all. It's morality that's completely RELATIVE to His (or Her or Its) desire. In a word — well, three actually — it's MIGHT MAKES RIGHT. And that, my friends, is nothing more than the law of the jungle. How's that for an admirable system of morality?

But now we may ask whether that is more or less pathetic than the alternative situation of a God who is Himself (or Herself or Itself) subject to a logically anterior or prior standard of morality. That would be the case in the instance of things that are good being beloved by God because they're good. Because, of course, that puts God on the same level with human beings. It makes Him (or Her or It) irrelevant, at least from the standpoint of morality.

Well, we know He — or She or It — is irrelevant. That's why we're revolted by such Biblical stories as that of Yahweh asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering — as if an all-good God could be pleased by a criminal act. Abraham certainly did know how to flatter Yahweh, didn't he? It's curious that this same God is also supposed to have issued orders of mass extermination, orders that "The Good Book" tells us were actually carried out with less hesitation than Abraham had in preparing to kill his own son.

Well, so much for theistic "absolute morality." It's anything but.

What does determine right and wrong, then? Well, as we all know — and Socrates knew in his day as well — people argue about such things. We even have people saying that it's wrong to wear fur, or eat eggs and butter. And as Socrates also realized, these differences can't be resolved by resort to arithmetic, or measuring sticks, or scales. But let's just take one example to examine what it is that we Freethinkers consider right and wrong. And let's take an example where there's two people involved, and an action that typically raises a moral question.

Terry takes a gun and shoots Kelly. (How's that for gender-neutrality?) Is it right or is it wrong? Well, it depends, doesn't it? Oh, my, but that's moral relativism! Yet even the most obsessed of those who insist on an "absolute morality" would distinguish between situations in which Terry had caught Kelly breaking in, or in which Terry was threatening Kelly or Kelly's family, and so on and so forth. But now let me call your attention to the fact that just about all of the circumstances that could conceivably affect how anyone would judge the act of Terry shooting Kelly are ABSOLUTELY related to whether or not the shooting was a violation of the morally equivalent status of Terry and Kelly as human beings or whether the shooting was somehow a response or a result of a violation that had already taken place and, if so, who was the perpetrator of that violation. No reasonable person, on the other hand, would take a position, for example, that it was perfectly fine for Terry to shoot Kelly because Terry — but not Kelly — is a member of a "superior" race or a believer in "the one true God." Nor would any reasonable person say that it's OK for Terry to shoot Kelly if Kelly is older, or better educated, or descended from royalty, or has more money in the bank. And we could go on and on with additional things that would certainly be inadequate to justify Terry's shooting Kelly.

The moral equivalence of human beings is the one absolute principle that we use in thinking about right and wrong, at least the category of right and wrong that's uppermost in people's minds. It is a good deal more absolute than the slippery sort of ethics to be found in the Holy Bible, because it is a principle which is God-irrelevant and therefore God-proof. It is just as valid whether or not there are any god(s) at all. And what is the power of this principle? Why is it so appealing that it is fast becoming the acknowledged — even if sometimes reluctantly acknowledged — principle of morality all over the world?

Well, it's for the same reason, I would argue, that we say that 2 and 2 makes 4: it's the simplest way of making sense of our experience. It would be a lot more complicated to try to live by the sort of moral calculus that people used to try to live by. It would be much more difficult to suppose that the conflicting commands of tribal deities justified most anything. It would be much more troubling to believe that one person's youth and vitality, or a bigger army, or the advantage of surprise, or trickery, or the possession of a weapon determined something so important as right and wrong. And, as our own nation's history painfully shows, a system equating moral worth with genealogy and ancestry quickly becomes intolerable to thinking people.

Equality before the moral law is a much simpler (even if it's not altogether simple) principle. It's the principle of parsimony, the same principle on which all our other knowledge is predicated. That's where we get our morality. And perhaps that's why Socrates held that knowledge was the only good and ignorance the only evil.

This is the only way of looking at things that also explains another observation made by Socrates: that no one knowingly does evil. No, even the worst criminal has an excuse, even if it's only "I couldn't help myself." Because to try to justify doing wrong is like trying to prove that 2 and 2 is 5.

Still, one could ask: WHY? Why must we rest our morality on a principle of understanding, of knowledge, and of reason? Why not on something else? It's difficult to think of a reply to such a challenge. It's like being asked why sanity should be preferred to madness. And that's how I would answer it: by saying that the need to make sense of things in the way that we do — the only way that we can — is inherent in the human condition.

Oh, we're pretty good at fooling ourselves. It's altogether too easy to think that we're justified in being ugly to others because we imagine they intended to be ugly to us first, and so on. But there's still that moral law "written in our hearts," a law that becomes clearer and more compelling the more we pay attention to it. Some call it The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or there's the converse: Don't do to others what you don't want them doing to you. Some prefer The Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them. But the common theme to all of these is a good old "shalt not:" If it doesn't harm others, do as you please.

This is where our "natural" rights come from. They come not so much from the nature we read about in science texts but from our own nature as thinking beings. Likewise, these rights are inalienable, not because it is impossible for anyone to violate them, but because their violation represents an assault on our nature as thinking beings, no matter whether you are the one who perpetrates or suffers the wrongdoing. For along with natural and inalienable rights come natural and inalienable responsibilities. It is on both of these that our humanity fundamentally depends.

This is why we teach our children that:

We'll do what's right because it's right,

We'll do it with all of our might,

Until we all go down for the night, night, night,

We'll do what's right because it's right.

I think when the children are brought in a little later that they'll recite this rationalist "catechism" for us. And in lieu of our having group singing — as a few of you have asked for — and to show these children that what they're being taught is what we all also know to be the truth, I invite everyone to join in with them when they recite it.

Thank you very much, and Good Morning.

© 1995 by Tim Gorski