Like many of us, I spend some of my time on social media having discussions about current events. There are several people who I would consider “regulars” when these topics manifest, one of which is my uncle. While there are times when he provides respectable contributions to the topic, there are other times when he flies off the rails and begins speaking of subjects in terms of “good” and “evil.”
My uncle’s ethical analysis of these topics is not unique. Plenty of people do it. Go to the Liberal America Facebook page and look at the comments sections underneath posted articles. It’s clear as day. When major topics generate these types of conversations, I tend to sit back for a moment and ponder the efficacy of “good” and “evil.” Considering that I live in American society, there is no shortage of viewpoints from which to pull ideas.
How Does American Society Define “Good” And “Evil?”
On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen walks into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. and opens fire, killing 49 patrons and wounding over 50 others. That’s the night Omar Mateen commits the single worst mass shooting in American history. While the public and the media have spent the last five days debating what factors played a contributory role on his actions, bouncing between motivation by sexuality and radical Islam, one factor remains the same: his actions are considered “evil.”
Evil is an interesting concept because evil does not unilaterally apply to any specific action. What one person considers to be evil, may be another person’s good. In fact, the term good also does not unilaterally apply to any specific action, for what one person considers to be good may be evil to another.
In terms of good and evil as defined in American society, Omar Mateen’s murderous Sunday morning is defined as “evil.” After all, his actions are responsible for the violent deaths of over four dozen innocent people. But to Mateen, his actions were “good.” To ISIS, his actions are “good.” To other radicalize Muslims, his actions are “good.” To those who condemn homosexuality to the point of violence, Omar Mateen’s targeting of a gay nightclub is “good.”
Despite those who will likely throw support for Omar Mateen’s actions living primarily on the fringe of their respective societies, it is still important to point out they exist. To have an ethical conversation over actions such as these, it is important to point out all possible viewpoints.
American society defines “good” as actions they consider “in the best interest.” In turn, American society defines “evil” as actions they consider “not in the best interest,” but the term is more commonly applied to actions involving violent crime or other acts considered “heinous.”
American society, on the whole, leaves little to the imagination when it comes to identifying what is good and what is evil. While the minutiae of what is considered good and evil differs depending on which part of American society is being questioned, each facet makes a clear, distinctive demarcation between the two. We consider these topics in terms of polarity, with actions considered either benevolent (“good”) or malevolent (“evil”).
Despite the simplicity of dividing actions this way — after all, it requires little mental effort to define in such polarized ways — bisecting actions this way presents some rather complicated ethical ramifications. Making matters worse, there are many among us who view these actions, regardless of their placement in the ethical field, as inherent.
Why Does American Society View “Good” And “Evil” As Inherent?
For the sake of full disclosure, I do not accept the idea that anything, good or evil, is inherent. The moral qualification of any action is not permanently, essentially, or characteristically good or evil, but is instead defined as such by virtue of how the society in question views such action. But there exist many who would challenge this view.
But why are actions considered by many as inherently good or evil? There are likely many reasons why, but I would venture that one of the most influential contributing factors would be religious beliefs.
The anchor of religious ideas, beyond the deities in question, are a defined system of ethics that, in some cases, the deities themselves manifest. In Christianity, God is a creator deity, responsible for the breadth of existence. This creator deity is also responsible for the acquisition of law through Moses and other figures in the Old Testament text.
The Ten Commandments, for example, are a well-known provision of ethics, alleged to have been handed to Moses by God himself. Considering the importance of these laws in Christian tradition, as well as the pervasive influence of Christianity in American society, the Ten Commandments are a notable source of ethics in American society as a whole, so much so that some of these ideas manifest in secular ethics as well.
“Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal.” — Exod. 20:13-15, KJV
Even to the non-religious in American society, murder and larceny are abominable acts and carry stiff legal penalties. Even though there is disagreement over the scope of these penalties, we all agree that penalties for these actions should exist. Adultery, while not illegal, is considered a detestable offense and carries with it social stigma.
But the offensive nature of these actions, and others like them, are not inherently determined. They are manifestations of human morality, and as such are only held to account in terms of human morality. While the religious say the Bible is the definitive word of God — which, if that were true, would qualify these actions as inherently abhorrent — the Bible, like the religion of which it is associated, is an invention of man, which means the Ten Commandments, the moral philosophies said to have come from God himself, are actually an invention of man.
Because moral attitudes are the invention of man, they are subject to man’s ever-changing worldview. Because they change, they cannot be inherent.
But to call something inherent, much like bisecting actions into “good” and “evil” camps, requires little mental effort to understand and justify. Defining an action as either “good” or “evil” is simple enough, but is made even simpler by defending such a classification as inherent. To call something inherent removes the need to justify the viewpoint. Who can argue with a moral attitude if it comes from God, right?
Inherent good and evil aren’t necessarily supernaturally derived either. Many people in American society view good and evil as inherent based on Enlightenment philosophy, notably that of John Locke, whose commentary on “natural law” provide the backbone of American society’s ideological views on the freedom of men.
How Does “Inherent Good” And “Inherent Evil” Affect American Society?
The ease with which American society bisects moral attitudes, while also applying “inherent” qualifiers, has a profound effect on sociopolitical attitudes and actions in American society. While clearly defined ethics can have positive influence (such as the view of murder as a detested act contributing to legal penalties for murder), that isn’t to say that the simple explanation of inherent “good” and “evil” doesn’t come without its share of complications.
In the southern parts of American society, public lynching of African-Americans was a morally justified action. It wasn’t uncommon to see entire towns gather in the center to string someone up, light them on fire, mutilate their bodies while they were still alive, and even take pieces of the body home as trophies. In the 21st century, actions such as these are considered “inherently evil,” but even 100 years ago, that “inherently evil” viewpoint did not exist in these areas.
Many instances of lynching were in response to perceived crimes African-Americans were alleged to have committed, so in that regard, lynching was a form of retributive justice and would be considered “inherently good” because justice was being served.
When it comes to moral attitudes, nothing is inherently good or evil. Concepts of good and evil are subjective ideas, based solely on the moral attitudes of the men and women who shape them. It is important to keep this in mind as society evolves, for dependence upon an idea being inherently good or evil can retard the growth of society and if a society stops growing, that society withers away.
Featured image by dARTh9220, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.