Beyond Good and Evil
There is so much bad in the best of us, And so much good in the worst of us. That it is ill behoves any of us To find fault with the rest of us. G. Dougan 25.8.1922
Philosophy changes nothing. It is not science, not empirical not progressive. While Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell may have debated passionately over the meaning of logic or mysticism, it changed nothing at large in society. Philosophy may be a challenging individual exercise for intelligent individuals but does it have resonance with society at large and has it demonstrated development in thought? While science has undoubtedly progressed and built the modern world on the shoulders of giants, the same may not be said of philosophy. Man has a yearning to understand our place in history, our purpose and what makes us the humans we are. But what is striking is its inability on two fronts: firstly, to provide answers and secondly to challenge individuals of the 21st Century to introspect and provide a meaningful modern perspective based on the revelations of ancient and modern philosophers. The conclusion is that though the thinking of these eminents provided individual succour to their questioning minds, philosophy has made not one jot of difference to how we live our lives, neither in our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with others nor with our individual understanding of what or who we are.
I begin with this to set out my stall as to the goodness or badness of the human being. Ultimately it may be simplified that man is neither all good nor all bad as the above quotation demonstrates. We live together with some sort of personal and societal morality propped up by two moral arbiters a decreasingly non influential religious doctrine and societal laws. The Christian religion has given citizens of the world basic tenents, to love our neighbours, turn the other cheek and do unto others as you would have done to yourself. Clearly this is followed arbitrarily, randomly, or not at all as seen on interactions on social media, wars waged and criminal theft, murder or fraud perpetrated by the ‘because we’re worth it’ rich haves on the poor have-nots, or social and moral deprivations causing harm by the poor, on the poor.
We really are the most destructive species and no amount of philosophy over millennia has brought an end to it. .Human beings have persecuted other human beings for reasons known best to the perpetrators – different skin colours through Jim Crow Laws, slavery, apartheid; different religions – Jews with horrific historical frequency, Catholics after the Reformation, Protestants before the Reformation, Christian converts in Indian Southern states; Muslims in the middle ages of the Crusades, the Chinese Muslim Uyhgur peoples and in Bosnia ; tribal Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda; homophobia; urban gang on gang; Native peoples by settlers in the Americans and Australia. And on and on for there is no definitive list because it is almost universal in some form at any time in every nation. The criteria for abuse are almost formulaic, one group feels a superiority over another, the Others are in a minority and the Others are perceived as harming the interests through their occupation of desirable land, inter mixing threatening purity of one type of human genetics, or having the temerity to believe in something different and very often all three.
Why have religion at all? The reason one would suppose is for society and individual good. It answers existential questions – philosophical questions – about who we are and why we are here and how we can live within a society. Thus, by looking beyond our own survival we find the meaning of life.
Terrible things have been done in name of religion or by followers of a religion – child abuse, anti-abortion, terrorism, crusader wars, the Inquisition, slavery, gun owning, burning of witches, missionaries – Persecution of those of different religions. There have been around 1000 Gods worshipped in history and across the world Zeus to Ra, Aphrodite, traditional African deities, Native American deities and so on and generally the majority of us are unbelievers of these now. Few Gods made it to the 21st Century. If you are born in a Western country then you are likely to have a Christian god, if you are born in India then a Hindu god, if you were born in a Middle Eastern Arab nation then an Islamic god. No god lords over any other. We believe in our god due to our geographical accident of birth, due to our time of birth in the history of the earth and the fundamentals of whether we believe or not lies in our family and the society in which we happen to find ourselves born. To commit acts of terror or war on people with different Gods is madness. (Christopher Hitchens)
While much good done in name of religion – aid, voluntary work, Salvation army, hospitals, anti-slavery, ten commandments, family, unity, respite, forgiveness, there remains the question, ‘Does religion perpetuate immorality or does the lack of religion perpetuate immorality?’ And while philosophers may ponder the question the history of humankind provides an uncomfortable answer that religion or lack of religion on balance creates a sum neutrality on positive and negative outcomes.
Religion managed by men (or indeed women), charged with benevolent guidance of our morality and goodness, has not been a wholly successful mission. Machiavelli saw organised religion as simply a tool for social control, that makes people more interested in a hypothetical afterlife than the reality of their present circumstance. He thought the Bible, like Plato’s Republic was an impossible ideal.
Are there really such things as Good and Evil anyway? To Nietzsche writing in 1886 there is only Right and Wrong, not good, and evil. So, who decides what is right or wrong, good, or evil now the Church has lost its power to construct the path of morality through human society. Nietzsche has us believe there is only one morality – that of the individual. He contests some of the key presuppositions of the old philosophies like ‘self-consciousness,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘free will.’ In their place, he offers the ‘will to power’ as an explanation of all behaviour, denying a universal morality for all human beings, replaced by an instinct for growth and durability. It is all nuance. There are evil acts and good acts. There are complex interplays at work. Nurture over nature or genetic predisposition. Understanding Nurture may be a little less complicated than trying to figure out what our historical Nature has been and how evolution has played any part, if at all.
Nurture may be guiding from trusted and loved family elders. It’s there in Dickens’ David Copperfield, ‘Never’, said my aunt, ‘be mean in anything; never be false; never be cruel. Avoid those three vices, Trot, and I can always be hopeful for you’. A little diamond of moral philosophy tucked away in an old story.
Nurture and circumstances though can hone morals in a depressing direction. More than 40% of young people subjected to the criminal justice process reoffend within 12 months. An average young offender crashes not once but reoffends four times after being sentenced in the criminal courts. The tougher we get on young people the more crimes they commit, the more victims they create and the greater the total misery for our society. They did not have the sort of family relationships and support that a child needs to thrive. Youth Offender Institutions and youth custody centres all over the world are one of the most effective methods ever invented to increase rates of reoffending and worsen levels of crime by young people. There is even a term for it – recidivism, a tendency to reoffend. The criminalisation -and incarceration of young people simply does not work. Young inmates are many times more likely to have been in the care system than other children which means we need to turn our attention to what happens in the care system rather than simply locking up more care leavers. (Guardian Long Read 23/7/2020)
Milgram’s 1961 obedience experiments appeared to prove that people were predisposed to follow authority and that any one of us can be led to do evil. Reinforcing the probing recountings in the book, ‘Ordinary Men’, of how indeed, ordinary men, followed and participated, apparently obediently, in gross acts of barbarity in German occupied territory in World War II.
A theme, on human nature is that man the beast is aggression, brutality, nastiness. Steven Jay Gould (1977 p247) cites two examples of genetic predisposition to aggression. Firstly, EO Wilson in his book ‘Sociobiology,’ believed that repeated, often genocidal warfare has shaped our genetic destiny, he thought that the existence of nonaggressiveness is embarrassing as it breeds out aggression. And secondly (p240) referencing the anthropologist Raymond Darts contention that as a result of early hunting ‘the predatory transition and the weapons fixation explained man’s bloody history, his eternal aggression, his irrational, self-destroying, inexorable pursuit of death for deaths sake.’ By that argument territorial urges were presumably enhanced by the move from a nomadic condition to a settled agricultural society where protection of place was even more paramount.
This innate aggression argument is potted with flaws. Describing our nature as combative and aggressive in such simplistic terms is unhelpful for several reasons. No individual is always aggressive, there is a male dominance implied, a division of labour implied and a negation of the female in this ancient human world where other characteristics shared by both women and men are possibly, probably, present which could also be said to be defining qualities, fun, love, friendship and so on. Ultimately, we do not know and the extrapolation of theories can lead us down erroneous pathways of imagination.
Sigmund Freud in ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ examined how we are by nature selfish and aggressive while at the same time society demands that we supress our biological inclinations and act altruistically. He puts it that primitive instincts for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification is an inherent quality of civilization that gives rise to perpetual feelings of discontent among individuals, justifying neither the individual nor civilization. Freud was not expressing a view that altruism was an especially positive phenomenon. His view was that it had the effect of making people unhappy by supressing urges of self-fulfilment.
That the individual advantage is the only criterion for success in nature is founded in the theory of Natural selection and Darwinism. How then could anything but selfishness ever evolves as a biological trait of behaviour?
Altruism may well be that moderator. But contrary to Freuds view, a source of human well-being. Evolutionary scientists speculate that altruism has such deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Darwin argued that altruism, which he called “sympathy” or “benevolence,” is “an essential part of the social instincts.” Altruism is not in itself genetic but, by its practice, family genes benefit, so called ‘kin selection’, and in consequence individual sacrifice can lead to perpetuation of our own genes. By doing good then a radiating effect occurs benefiting society, our families, and ourselves achieving the biological win.
The realm of biological potentiality includes the capacity for kindness. Kin selection, if that be a real thing, serve us well by nudging our thinking away from domination and toward a perception of respect and unity with other men and other species. Altruistic acts are the cement of stable societies. Peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological as aggression and self-interest and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.
Man is not an individual. Our interactions with other humans, even without statutes and laws, even without a religious belief do shape our morality and behaviours. Being part of society shapes our behaviour.
Religious or not, Christian, or not – the so described Golden Rule does well to elucidate the adhesive of society’s altruistic bond: said by Jesus. “So, in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).
Other more contemporary writers, influential economists, have expressed views that man’s duty, his first call, is to himself. They have not to my knowledge expressed the unspoken inference, that Jesus was wrong. The dog eat doggedness required for the economic win is not really an obscure view at all as it forms much of the basis of neo-classicist economics that focuses on supply and demand as the driving forces behind the production, pricing, and consumption of goods and services, highly influential in Western capitalist government policies and pretty much the reason why some people get very rich while social and environmental degradation issues are marginalised.
Carl Jung was unequivocal in his belief that : ‘The only real danger that exists is man himself. We are the origin of all coming evil’. Evil’s apotheosis of torture and killing is given free licence with an imperative that men will kill during war when seemingly ‘Thou shalt not kill’ ceases to apply. Evil acts are enacted by individuals who choose to take from others – theft; those who defraud and scam trusting people, those in India who sold old fire extinguishers purporting them to be oxygen cylinders to people desperately trying to save family members during Covid, or those corporate elites who pursued Sub Post office employees as frauds and thieves while wilfully ignoring their own flawed IT system, or those who made money from Covid procurement, or the bankers who risked and lost our money and were saved by our taxes that propped them up and raised inflation and denied money to our community services. I could go on. Because it does go on and on.
I started by denouncing philosophy but it is notable that an elite of potential governors and law makers are educated in Politics, Economics and Philosophy, that in education and learning, philosophy matters. The probability is that philosophy has indeed shaped men’s thinking in how they govern and what laws and codes are enacted to protect us all from harm. So perhaps like science our library of philosophical thought has impact, has been progressive has been enormous in creating our society of mega cities, new technologies, culture, engineering, and massive reshaping of the natural world. Undoubtedly though our traditional philosophers have cared too little about our interactions with the environment and non-human species. Philosophising about these matters has been far too establishment ‘fringe’, for far too long – the writings of Peter Singer and Kenneth Boulding, of Native Americans and Aboriginals that cared about the land and their place in it. The countless individuals sharing postings and writing on social media of gritty maxims of truth about the environment are the philosophers of this new age of open source non hierarchal free global self-expression.
.The Philosophy of good and evil, of all philosophy possibly, may be in the end just about looking for answers in ethics, religion, logic, rationality, consciousness, and economics among others, in an attempt, to somehow, get a grip of the human condition and explain why many of the things we do not make sense.
There is no real polarity in people’s good or badness. Just as there is no real right wing or left or capitalist or socialist, conservative, or labour. What we have has is a continuum of degrees. I cannot see many capitalists saying there is no place for state intervention or socialist saying there is not an advantage in having some private enterprise innovation and investment. We decide on political systems and ideologies that come down to the degree of state intervention in managing the externalities outside of the economic market place and consequently how low or high our taxes. Some, many even, have called for an end to the adversarial system of government in the UK and that can apply between nations internationally so that we can address the climate and ecological crisis, the economic future, social and health care, poverty, war, and inequality, in a spirit of cooperation.
There is a Council of Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007. An independent group of global leaders working for peace, justice, human rights, and a sustainable planet. We hear little if anything of them now but we need their wisdom and integrity and to hear their voices in the future. The UN has shown itself not able to fulfil that role. At the end of the day there is nothing wholly good or wholly bad about human beings just varying degrees of selfish ness and altruism and confusion. Religion does not offer the moral code we badly need. Perhaps philosophy does.
Browning, C. R., & Gallagher, K. (1993). Ordinary men (pp. 176-84). New York: Harper Collins.
Gould, S. J. (1992). Ever since Darwin: Reflections in natural history. WW Norton & Company.
Guardian Newspaper Long read 23/7/2020 Chris Daw
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. se, 21, 59-145.
Nietzsche, F. (1989). Beyond good & evil: prelude to a philosophy of the future. Vintage. Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil – p98
Guardian letters 21 July 2023
Scott, R. (2014). Kenneth Boulding: A voice crying in the wilderness. Springer.
Walker, M. U. (1993). Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. International Philosophical Quarterly, 33(3), 370-371
White, M. (2004). Machiavelli: a man misunderstood. Little, Brown.