Good and Evil

Perhaps the starkest of the ethical dichotomies is evil and good. The dichotomy has the advantage of establishing a simple logical process for deciding when actions are necessary. Certain actions are good, and should be supported. Others are evil, and must be opposed.

Judging an action as good or evil is implicitly a prediction of consequential outcome. Good actions will ultimately be proven beneficial for all except those that oppose them. Evil actions will be proven harmful. The only bases for these predictions are experience and direct communication from the divine. Leaving the latter aside until we turn to spirituality, the problem with using history as a guide is that it leads to magical thinking. Respectful rational inquiry ends because outcomes are presumed to be known.

How can we support this belief? Things change. People change. The crude and direct punishments of the sharia reflect the social dynamics of a time in which physical disfigurement was the only feasible means for propagating awareness of the unhappy consequences of a life of crime. The development of institutions of education established other means for creating awareness of cultural norms and the consequences of their violation. Does this mean that disfigurement, once encoded as a matter of divine principle, is no longer good?

This opens another area of doubt. If the punishments of the sharia are evil now, weren't they evil to begin with? Is any form of punishment supportable? If it's evil when committed against an upright person, isn't it evil when committed against a criminal? Matters become even worse when dealing with people lacking the sophistication to follow the rules. Juveniles are accorded separate standards in legal circles, as are the mentally ill. How do we deal with these classes? In the case of children, we expect that parents will play the role of chaperones. Is that the only supportable policy for the culturally or psychologically disadvantaged?

Because of the starkness of the judgments implied by good and evil, they tend to be reserved for extreme behavior.