Shades of ‘good’ (Part1)

darkside [1]

Good & Evil

Where is it we get the notion of good and evil? After all, we can’t refer to evolutionary process in this way because ‘it does what it does’: ‘inadaptable’ species simply die out. And yet there are many who look at some of its ‘products’ and judge some as better than others—some more worthy of ‘saving’ [as if we would want to interfere with ‘natural’ processes; God forbid!] than others.

The word ‘good’ actually comes from the word ‘God’. It is God [according to the Bible] who is the measure of ‘good and evil’, or ‘good and the lack of it [good]’. In Genesis 2:31 we read that God said it [the creation] was [very] good—the opposite of ‘not good’. It was, presumably, the way God intended it. Thomas Aquinas concluded that the word ‘evil’ did not signify any essence, form or substance. Evil, he advocated, could only be described as an ‘absence of goodness’. Anything that lacks ‘goodness’ could, according to Aquinas, be described as ‘evil’, which, for Aquinas, simply meant something that was less than good. God, according to Aquinas, did not, and could not have created anything less than good. Man has rebelled against God and is consequently less than perfect—although he [man], according to this view, was created as a perfect being. It is, nevertheless, this absence of God’s created ‘best’, that results in evil .[1] So far I have no problem and happily concur with Aquinas; however, according to Aquinas’ theology a malignant tumour, for example, can be considered ‘good’ because it performs as it should perform—the way malignant tumours tend to, that is. The evil (lack of good) consists in the privation of health in the affected person. So, for example, a cancer is not evil because there is no such thing as evil.

Premature death is not in question as it simply means the end of  [or lack of] something good. The philosopher Richard Swinburne calls death simply the end of a ‘good’ thing. Good for some, perhaps? I suggest that a ‘logical’ conclusion for this ‘reasoning’ [2]is that of playing clever games with words. This, in my opinion, will not do because the Biblical picture depicts evil as being an entity and not an absence[3]. Evil is, I suggest, an entity which is the opposite of good. Evil is more than privation for it has manifested itself in, what would seem, the unnecessary suffering of millions.

In his book [Why A Suffering World Makes Sense] Christopher Tiegreen states that, in the world, there is an ‘arch rapist’. Tiegreen reminds us [this may be new for some] that the whole question of suffering began with, what he calls, ‘a rebellious instigator’. He suggests that this ‘instigator’ is the one who ‘governs’ this ‘veil of tears’. Tiegreen concludes that this world is ‘continually raped’—but not, as Star Wars depicts it, by the ‘dark side of the force’ [as if God is schizophrenic] nor by some kind of amorphous negative vibes, but by something [one] that has personality and purpose; the originator of malevolence even.

So, ‘who’ decides what is good and its antonym, let’s call it ‘evil’? Well, if it’s up to the post-modern measurement of what is good and evil [right and wrong] then the meaning could well change before you get to [if you should] the end of this article The fact is that something that is considered socially unacceptable ‘today’ may well be acceptable ‘tomorrow’. We will always have people telling us what we ‘want’ to hear rather than be told of ‘absolutes’. That is precisely what St Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:3: “They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them what whatever their itching ears want to hear.” [NLT] However, the ironic [at least it seems like irony to me] thing is that people[4], instinctively, know when to adjudge some deed as unjust [bad or evil] especially when something affects someone close to them: child molesting, rape and murder most would say were not good—even evil.  I suggest that we either accept that all morals are ‘mores’ [5]  or we take seriously the claims of the Bible, which give an obvious lead in things ‘good & bad, right & wrong.

When considering the notion of ‘good’ and ‘evil’—especially God’s part in it—we need to establish whether or not we can include God in our ‘moral community; in other words; ‘Is it necessary for God to abide by the same code of ethics?’  Some suggest that God is not a part of the moral community we share [however shifting], that God is therefore not culpable if we should be looking for answers to difficult questions such as: why a ‘good God’, who is able to do anything and willing to do so, doesn’t actually  match up to expectations. The idea that God should want to act in such a duplicit way is not how I, personally, see it—especially when such a possibility is used as an excuse for God not doing the things we would expect such a God to do were he a part of our ‘moral community’. Of course, a god who has created such an amazing [life supporting] universe—who could be considered strictly transcendent—would not have to be  accountable to anyone—but only if this ‘god’ had not given any kind of personal communication.

Derek White

[1] I don’t personally espouse the view that Genesis infers that man was made perfect, because clearly GOD is the only perfect being. Rather, I advocate that. God’s creation of man in his image means that mankind reflects the image of his creator.

[2] It is likely that Aquinas’ ideas on the nature of ‘evil’ may have been influenced by Islamic teaching, which is [if you didn’t know] fatalistic. Furthermore, Islamic teaching denies a literal Genesis fall, and therefore does not espouse any drastic change to the condition of mankind vis a vis ‘original sin’. The Qur’an does however say that people are evil and that they deserve God’s [Allah’s] condemnation [Faith to Faith – Christianity & Islam in Dialogue]. My point here is: If there is no literal ‘fall’, there is no possibility of giving it as a reason for pain and suffering.

[3] Aquinas was apparently influenced by Aristotelian philosophy (not all bad), which came to Europe through the Muslims in Spain. Furthermore, Aquinas had followed some ideas of the Islamic philosopher Avicenne [see Larrimore on Aquinas: The problem of Evil].

[4] I’m not suggesting that there is such a thing as a [natural] ‘God shaped conscience’ as different behaviour[s], in varying cultures suggest otherwise. However, one can assume that those in our Western, Judeo-Christian ,culture will have [at least at the beginning of the twenty-first century] imbibed a sense of right and wrong—good and evil.

[5] Another ethical theory suggests that what is morally right is determined by the culture to which one belongs. Ethics is defined in terms of what is ethnically acceptable. What the community says constitutes what is morally right for its members. Cultural practices are ethical commands. Whatever similarity may exist between moral codes in different social groups is simply due to common needs and aspirations, not to any universal moral prescriptions. See the ‘Danger’?