There are plenty of examples of overused words whose meanings have been lost or mangled over time, but perhaps the most important of these are the words “good” and “evil”. These words are so difficult to define in any sort of concrete way; when you ask a person to define them, he or she will often define them by example. “Good” is typically defined by examples of things that person likes — feeding the poor, for example, or having manners, going to church, being with friends, reading a “good” book or listening to “good” music, or having fun in general, and so on — essentially defining “good” as anything that makes that person happy. “Evil” is even easier to find examples for, possibly because there are many very large examples — murder, genocide, torture, suffering, destitution, etc. — but it is very difficult to give it a generalized dictionary definition like “the force in nature that gives rise to wickedness” which could encompass smaller examples (like, say, unbridled road rage). Even the dictionary doesn’t really help — it just pushes the definition off onto another word (“wickedness”), the definition of which is equally unhelpful. As a result, it is often easier to generalize “evil” as “the opposite of good”; that is to say, it is the opposite of what makes that person happy; it is all those things that person does not like.
Two unfortunate consequences arise from these usual definitions, however. First, there are grey areas for all sorts of things like alcohol or sex or war. Are these things “good” or “evil”, or in what circumstances are they one or the other? Is alcohol “evil” because it can be ruinous to the life of an addict, or is it “good” because of health benefits, delicious flavor, natural occurrence (i.e. “God made it”), and so on? Was there actually some other “evil” in the addict’s life that led to psychological problems and addiction, and not the alcohol itself? Maybe sex is “evil” because it can promote STDs or cause greater emotional damage after a break-up than would have resulted from an abstinent relationship, or maybe it’s “good” because it’s a natural expression of love, also has many health benefits, is pleasurable, and so on. Some would argue that it’s “good” as long as it’s between consenting adults, regardless of preferences or consequences, some that it’s “good” if it’s between two people who really love each other, and some that it’s only “good” if it’s between heterosexual married couples.
Second, you inevitably end up with relativity to the definitions — what may legitimately be considered “good” to one person may legitimately not be so considered by another. War, for example, is considered by some to be “good” as long it’s for a just cause; others contend that it is “evil” no matter the cause, because human life is destroyed. Even just causes for war are debated. Is intervening to end genocide a just reason for war? Probably most would say so. Is the spread of democracy a “good” enough reason? Many might say so, but definitely fewer. What if there’s only the threat of genocide? Is preemptive war “good” to prevent the use of WMDs or chemical weapons which may or may not actually exist? Fewer still would say so — in fact many might consider this bordering on or flat out crossing over into “evil” territory. What about war simply for protecting national interests? Surely that’s “evil” — unless it’s America that’s doing it, right?
So how do you decide? We definitely need some metric for issues as important as war. Is a thing “good” if 95% of the people surveyed think it is? What if it’s only 94%, or 75%, or even 51%? What if it’s only 45%, but those in favor happen to be the most educated or most wealthy or most religious or most cosmopolitan — are there some criteria that make the opinion of one group weightier than that of another? Regardless of the percentage or criteria that are agreed upon as sufficient to classify a thing as “good”, how is change of opinion to be handled? A century ago, nearly all Americans knew that abortion was “evil”, but now the majority knows that it is “good”. What if for some reason the majority opinion tips back the other way, even overwhelmingly? Is abortion then “evil” once again, even though right now we know it to be “good”? Suppose even that there occurs a resurgence in certain pagan religions, and human sacrifice — something everyone now knows to be “evil” — actually becomes a debated issue. If enough people believe that it should be protected under freedom of religion, provided that the sacrificed are willing participants, does it suddenly become “good”? I realize that’s an outrageous example, but I think it is worth considering. After all, if something is “good” simply because you like it, who are you to say that something else is “evil” even though someone else likes it? Clearly such sloppy definitions are dangerous, but there are safer — I’ll explore those in my next post.