JUST WHAT ARE GOOD AND EVIL? Radical Bleeding Heart image


A scientific point of view sees the source of ethical questions as within ourselves, not outside. At heart, something is bad because it makes us feel bad; it is good if it makes us feel good. Does that sound selfish? It certainly would be if we were always entirely selfish. Some people assume that we are, but the facts suggest otherwise. Most people are selfish sometimes and quite altruistic at others. We recognize that others are like us; we don't want to be hurt, and so we don't want to hurt others.

We want to be good. But sometimes we also want things we know perfectly well are not good. Both impulses come from inside us.

First Principle: Do Not Hurt Folks! So we can start with the observation that ethical ideas come from inside us, but they reach out to include others. Liberals (who, you remember, tend to be includers) have no trouble with this. Acknowledging our common humanity, we can tentatively posit a first universal ethical rule: don't hurt people.

That seems pretty basic and uncontroversial, but we immediately run into trouble. What about people who hurt us? What about situations in which helping one person hurts another? (In economic matters this happens a lot!) In a crowded room it may be difficult to avoid bumping into someone or stepping on someone else's toes, and we live in a crowded society. Coming up with rules that everyone (or at least almost everyone) sees as fair is extremely difficult in a world of differing values and conflicting interests.

But let us start with the oldest and most basic problem: is it all right to hurt people who hurt us? Our oldest and most revered texts wrestle with this question. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote a wonderful trilogy, the Oresteia (458 B.C.E.) about it. The Old and New Testaments, the Qur'an and the Mahabharata (ca. 4th century B.C.E.), spiritual texts of all cultures and faiths, all struggle with it. And while there are differences from one country, one culture, or one religion to the next, the collected wisdom of the ages has settled on one basic idea, one fundamental principle in answer to that problem. It is a principle on which even most liberals, including the most scientifically inclined, bow to Authority.

The principle is that of Justice.

The Ancient Principle of Justice. The idea of Justice has been so important through the ages in quelling violence and establishing a harmonious and civil society that to question it would appear to invite chaos perhaps the end of civilization. Yet if we dare to examine it, to be radical, to go to the roots, we find that like all other appeals to Authority, it too is based on illusion.

[Next: The Justice Illusion]