Good and Evil (Musing)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the natures of good and evil.

First thought: I recently listened to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and what I’m sure are other worthwhile works, talk about “moral pluralism” — his conclusion after studying morality anthropologically. While there doesn’t seem to be only one version of “morality” that has manifested throughout every culture and era and society in all of human history, there are also not infinite versions of morality – and the enduring ones all have some strong similar themes and recurring elements.

Contrary to the Jeremiah 17:9-infused theology of my upbringing, I think the story may be a little bit more complex than what I was told — that humans are musty, rotten creatures that spawn and spew only evil. Our core nature as humans is a fantastic debate; one worth having (civilly); and not necessarily the point of this post. However, it relates because I’d like to hypothesize that the natures of good and evil are strong, deep, codified truths. And I think that perhaps we can trust our gut a bit more (for the Reformed readers: don’t worry, just a little bit) than sometimes I think we do concerning the natures of good and evil.

Like Lewis’s deep magic, I think there are truths built into the fabric of the universe we live in that are so fundamental and true that it makes sense that they manifest all over the place; even separate from each other, and yet reminiscent. Echoes throughout history that repeat themselves in human culture. Virtue; value; morals; goodness. There are plenty of counterexamples. There always are. But looking in broad, broad brushstrokes, I think there’s something to respect about the mass and magnitude of good, and how deeply its essence resonates within the heart of humanity. Likewise for evil.

Second thought: As an example, I recently listened to the book Take My Hand. I highly recommend reading it. It depicts an example of onerous, systemic racism enacted by the American government against Black people within the last century. It’s not an easy read. It’s a story, partly, of power wielded against those unable to overcome its subversiveness, and dastardly (I would argue erroneous) assumptions about how some people are more or less valuable than others.

I hypothesize that those themes should hit most people roughly the same way, regardless of stake or proximity or beliefs or religion or shared experience. (The fact that they don’t hit all people the same way is sad and difficult and complicated and part of why the world is in the shape that it is.) I think there are a number of claims one could make that would resonate the same way in most heartstrings around the world; throughout history. No one should kill puppies. No one should abuse children (or anyone). No one should steal. Everyone should try to act with kindness, and consideration, and compassion. Everyone respects the person who sacrifices for the good of another person. Everyone’s hearts are moved when soldiers lay down their arms and celebrate Christmas together like in All Quiet on the Western Front.

Of course, we don’t — and that’s the complexity of the human history and condition. But today, I’m just musing on the fact that I think most of us would more or less agree on what both good and evil smell and sound and feel and look like. It makes me think of Genesis’s story – of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” If our origins do include an interaction with an entity such as that, maybe it makes sense that the coding for good and evil seems to run deep and resonate uniformly across even chasms of difference in other respects. Or perhaps by default their natures are so fundamentally true and so deep that there wouldn’t be any other way it could work.

What do you think about this?


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