"...I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..." [Deuteronomy 5:8-10]

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


Tim, aka Darkstar218, asks "...Where do we get such notions [of Good and Evil] and are they universal?..." (see here for his post in full)

Hi Tim

Thanks for your great opener.

I shan't bore you with a list of dictionary references... But it's interesting to note that linguists say the words "good" and "evil" come from Indo-European roots meaning "unite, join, fit" and "bad" respectively.

These basic concepts seem to be all-but universal in human cultures - as is some form of the concept of the "principle of reciprocity", or Golden Rule".

For that, it is clear we have a basis for understanding "good" and "evil" which goes beyond individual short-term concerns. It's clear also that expressions of things being "good" and "evil" are often very subjective. There are, after all, still people around who insist that Hitler was "good"; and others who question the saintliness of Mother Theresa, claiming that she effectively denied care to some parents with curable diseases.

But that aside, if we seek objective concepts of Good and Evil which can stand the test of time, we need to consider the interests of everyone involved in an action. (I don't believe, for the record, that "objectivity" is something you can always obtain. But I think its something we can reasonably seek).

I would say that for an act to be truly "good", it has to be for the real benefit of everyone involved. For "bad", it would follow that an act does harm (not just in the short term) for at least some party. "Evil" would imply some special malice of action - a deliberate desire to cause harm. (As the dictionary says: "Characterized by anger or spite; malicious").

From that, I say we can safely say that Hitler's actions were and always will be wrong. His justifications for his genocide were nothing but insane. They were based on pickings from the Bible and from the work of philosophers and scientists all taken clearly out of context. Unless people in the future decide that they want to reject all reason and rationality, we can safely say that Hitler will always be considered to be wrong - and so wrong that if anything justifies the use of the word "evil", Hitler does.

But where do these concepts come from? Well, altruistic behaviour occurs in the animal world. Humans, like many other animals, are successful because we are able to work together in groups. Societies need rules for behaviour, or they break down. From the viewpoint of evolutionary biology, basic "morality" is something we have evolved with. If we didn't have these rules, we wouldn't have societies, and you and I wouldn't be having this discussion ;>

What is clear is that these rules have been with us for a very long time. The first human cultures seem to have arisen about 8,000 BCE, with proto-Indo European cultures dating from around 3,000 BCE. To put that into context, Abraham is said to have lived around 1,800 (or perhaps 2,200) BCE.

Now, we can't agree on whether or not God exists. But, as I hope I've demonstrated, I'm sure we can agree that basic morality, and the concepts of "good" and "evil", most certainly do exist.

And with that, I'll hand the mike back over to you :>



DarkStar218 said...

My comments are on my site.

PTET said...

You can read Tim's response, any my reply when it appears, HERE.