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Good and Evil Are Subjective, but Should We Let Them Be?
You can't tell people what they ought to do based on a fact of what's good or bad.
The world you see depends on what you value. When you see a chair, you don't look at the chair per se but at the significance of the chair in relation to what you are trying to do. A chair can be practical if you are tired, an obstacle if it's blocking your way, or inspiring if it is in a museum.
This is evident to some. But what is not apparent is that since there are infinite values from which to see the world, what is right or wrong will depend on the values people choose.
Hume referenced this problem when he said we couldn't derive an ought from an is. You can't tell a person what's right based on a fact—an is—because there are unlimited is's to choose from. An example from The Only Realistic Prediction About A.I. and A.G.I.:
Let's say you have to invest $1M in fighting extreme poverty or cancer. Both decisions lead to benefits and suffering. How will you determine which decision is "right"? The answer is you can't.
The consequence of an unlimited number of facts to judge what's good or bad is that people you deem evil might see themselves as good because the facts they use to evaluate what's right or wrong differ from yours. I could share immediate examples of villains such as Hitler, but I'll instead share one from literature, one from real life, and one from TV. These might be more relatable and provide further depth to my hypothesis than our most known villains could.
For example, Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment believes he's an extraordinary person—above ordinary. And as one, he can overstep obstacles, even if it means killing.
Watch him communicate this belief:
If the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound … to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. All great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say, capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals— more or less, of course.
At one point, someone asks him why he committed a crime, shed blood, and doesn't regret it. He reveals the facts that guide his actions—what he ought to do
"[Blood] which everyone sheds, which flows and has flowed on earth, like a waterfall, which has been poured out like champagne, and for which they crown people on the Roman Capitoline and designates them benefactors of mankind…By this stupid act, I merely wanted to place myself in an independent position, to take the first step, to acquire the means, and then the whole thing would have been wiped away by relatively immeasurable benefits…But I didn't even succeed in taking the first step…If I had succeeded, I'd have been crowned.”
Raskolnikov never thought what he did was immoral. He only regretted not doing what he did more competently.
At times, it might seem like Raskolnikov was good. He experienced mental and physiological responses that only a person who felt guilt would experience:
Intention to turn himself in
But, even if this was the case, and even though the novel implies there is an objective truth, beauty, and concept of goodness, it was not the truth Raskolnikov believed in. Doubting if what he did was good or bad didn't mean he knew the difference. It only meant he grasped the relativeness of morality.
In 385 B.C.E., Plato highlighted this same problem during a Socratic dialogue—people don't always know they are evil, and how can we judge if they are?
Focus on the figure of Meno, abbreviated as Men, as it represents how many of us would understand the problem:
Soc. There are some who desire evil?
Soc. Do you mean that they think the evils which they desire, to be good; or do they know that they are evil and yet desire them?
Men. Both, I think.
Soc. And do you really imagine, Meno, that a man knows evils to be evils and desires them notwithstanding?
Men. Certainly, I do.
Soc. And desire is of possession?
Men. Yes, of possession.
Soc. And does he think that the evils will do good to him who possesses them, or does he know that they will do him harm?
Men. There are some who think that the evils will do them good, and others who know that they will do them harm.
Soc. And, in your opinion, do those who think that they will do them good know that they are evils?
Men. Certainly not.
Soc. Is it not obvious that those who are ignorant of their nature do not desire them; but they desire what they suppose to be goods although they are really evils; and if they are mistaken and suppose the evils to be good they really desire goods?
Men. Yes, in that case.
Soc. Well, and do those who, as you say, desire evils, and think that evils are hurtful to the possessor of them, know that they will be hurt by them?
Men. They must know it.
Soc. And must they not suppose that those who are hurt are miserable in proportion to the hurt which is inflicted upon them?
Men. How can it be otherwise?
Soc. But are not the miserable ill-fated?
Men. Yes, indeed.
Soc. And does any one desire to be miserable and ill-fated?
Men. I should say not, Socrates.
Soc. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?
Men. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.
To finish off with a more modern example, think of Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad. You don’t have to watch the series to understand the kind of person he embodies.
He's among the most disciplined, level-headed, and loyal characters from a series in which pretty much everyone is a chaotic murderer. Most of us would classify his actions as deviant. But he's "good" under the value structure of what it means to be a hitman—he's not killing, betraying, or exposing his people but only those who oppose them or him.
The following quote gives you a glance at Mike's view on morality:
I've known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other, but if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again, but you took something that wasn't yours and you sold it for a profit. You are now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that's up to you.
My premise suggests "good" and "bad" are subjective principles, so we can't say people should or shouldn't do something, as there are infinite facts to justify both sides. But the question is, should we enforce an irrefutable view of what is acceptable or wrong regardless of this?
Our decision-makers have answered yes. There are rules that civilians must follow to avoid punishment. Politics gave us some, but religion likely had the most impact on all of us. Many religions set a consensus of morality based on a metaphysical argument that people can't prove or disprove. Even if you don't believe in it, and you are part of an entire lineage of agnostics, you and they lived in societies that these religious beliefs shaped.
The Biblical book of Exodus establishes the following rules:
"Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."
Some Jewish, Christian, and Catholic people have ignored the rule. But most haven't, and that has, I speculate, led to better outcomes than if the rule was to murder.
The challenge is that "right" or "wrong" is subjective, whether good or bad, in most people's eyes. This raises the question of how people can accept a moral code they don't believe in. A friend with a Master's degree in Political Science gave me an example:
Imagine there's a social contract—thou shalt not steal. Everyone in society knows it. Yet, someone steals my phone to sell it and feed their family. They violated my right to private property through a "wrongful act." But let's say the person who robbed me is an immigrant running from a dictatorship that took their homes, family, and sexual dignity. How do you expect to impose the moral rules of a social contract on someone like this who has never benefited from it? To someone who has been a victim of acts that the same people who legislatively punish them deem wrong?
How do you tell someone who has been wronged that they should act a certain way based on facts that didn't apply to them?
You can't. But you can enforce a moral code through the law, a set of facts, regardless of whether you should.
Perhaps we can follow what our gut tells us is good or bad, as a reader of mine said. They said morality is an emotional phenomenon, so we can’t define it through reason:
It's a gut reaction, an involuntary feeling when you see something wrong. People can use reason to build up defenses against these reactions, but those defenses are generally imperfect.
There's some truth to that. Evolution programmed us to do and not do specific actions. Kids won't jump off the first cliff they see because their gut will tell them not to jump. The gut reactions apply to interpersonal interactions. Even the roughest kids will stop hitting their friends if they start bleeding. Their instincts warn them it's not beneficial for them or their species to kill someone for a toy.
But it's also true that evolution alone can't determine if someone is violent or evil. Jeffrey Dahmer regretted what he did. You could say he knew what most people deemed good or bad and which side he was. Still, he says he felt the compulsion to kill. A gut feeling that it was the right thing to do for him. So he kept doing it.
I believe the basic premise of science poses an answer. We should define a problem, make conjectures about how to solve it, test each, and choose the best one. Best usually being the one that most qualified people around the world deem most desirable.
Now, I'm aware that this is a statement that requires a lot of nuances. For example, how do we know who the most qualified people are, and what does qualified even mean? Most of the 500 men from the German Police Battalion 101 went on to believe murdering Jews was the best option, so they killed 83,000 of them in 11 months. So, for now, we'll only consider "qualified" as an attribute linked to what the person does for a living, their skin in the game, the time they have done it, and the group's diversity. This last point is crucial, as heterogeneous groups are less likely to be under the same biases. If soldiers from every country in the world had been part of the Battalion, they wouldn't have killed the same amount of people as non-Nazis would have stopped some of the actions.
Kant's categorical imperative offers a one-sentence antidote for our discussion—when deciding if an action is right or wrong, you should determine if the action would lead to an overall benefit or harm if everyone else did the same action in this circumstance. Confucious, Cicero, Nassim Taleb, and many others discuss this same principle of reciprocal balance, albeit using different words.
The downside of this rule is that it's reactive. For example, it tells you not to do bad things to people but doesn't encourage you to do good ones, either. It says, "Why the hell would you send a nuclear bomb to X country? They could send one back!" But it doesn't say, "You should help this country going through situations you wouldn't want to live."
The categorical imperative limits both good and bad actions.
You could try to counter this with the Golden Rule—do to others what you would like them to do to you.
But what if you want to do is exterminate a race because you feel it's inferior, and you would want someone to do that to you if you were because it's a sickness?
Well, that wouldn't bring much good either.
I want to clarify that following a similar approach to science doesn't solve the problem of having infinite facts, that morality is subjective, and that there might be "better" ways of acting than the ones we have. But it prevents us from getting into an anarchic circle of self-destruction, which most people, I think, would catalog as bad.
I believe, then, that, for the time being, our system will inevitably force people to believe or act based on moral systems they disagree with. Rules that benefit the most amount of diverse people possible. As accepted moral codes reach a wider audience, we can only hope that people who deviate from what most people consider as "good" are easier to identify within a crowd.
In an age of misinformation, relativism, and field-based biases, In the Arms of Morpheus is the only human behavior newsletter written by a scientist exploring every scientific or spiritual field to explain our conduct.