Sometimes it’s hard to understand the world we live in. Growing up religious I had a lot of ideas about the world that never seemed to really ring true when faced with the reality of the situation. It left me feeling like there were a lot of unanswered questions about why things happen the way they do. The answers I was given were often to the tune of “God works in mysterious ways.”
When you’re in that mindset you believe there is some cosmic reason that makes sense to a moral worldview of good and evil. But it was years later that I realized the world doesn’t really work that way, only we humans do.
People have had several arguments about the nature of good and evil. Some people believe (as I once did) that good and evil are inherent in nature. Built into the structure of the universe around us. Either as a directive from a higher power or as some sense of cosmic justice like karma. So they make up reasons for why the world works the way it does, based on that assumption.
My perspective is different and I now understand that nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t seem to have a concept of good and evil. Things just are.
If good and evil exist (which they do) they exist purely in the hearts and minds of sentient beings like ourselves. Which makes them open to interpretation. I think the best way to explain this is to give examples.
What is murder? Is it murder when an animal rips apart another animal because it is hungry? When is it murder and when is it war? Nature doesn’t make distinctions, we do. Nature simply sees the end result, even encouranges the end result by adapting animals to have carnivorous teeth and vemon to paralyze their pray. It doesn’t see the killing of another creature as wrong. It doesn’t take a moral position on it.
Rape is another good example. Nature doesn’t view rape as wrong, even if we do. Many women have made claims their bodies have betrayed them as they’ve become wet for their rapists. Nature doesn’t care who it is or what the situation is or whether you consent or not. Nature simply sees the situation like it would any sexual encounter. It’s only goal is to encourage procreation, whether that is with your loving husband of ten years or a rapist on the street. You could get pregnant from either.
The same is true with pain and torture. Pain is an alert system. It’s your body telling you something is wrong, don’t do that. It doesn’t know if you’re doing it to yourself, if it was an accident or if someone is intentionally doing it to you. The pain doesn’t shut off just because nature sees the injustice being done to you by someone else with a knife. It doesn’t recognize the difference between a punch in the face or accidently running face first into a tree trunk. Nature doesn’t care. It’s not set up to work that way. Pain is there to help ensure your survival by alerting you that something is wrong and you should fix it. That’s all it does.
The same is also true with theft. There is no cosmic ownership record where something is guaranteed to be returned to you because you rightfully own it. If someone steals something from you it is now theirs. Nature doesn’t make a distinction. Nor should it, because there are so many variables at play. Maybe you dropped it on accident and someone found it. In some cultures they may still consider that theft if you don’t return it to the original owner, in other cultures it’s finders keepers. Maybe you are hungry and you need to steal food to survive. Legally it may still be considered theft, but morally is it? Once again it depends on the perspectives of the individuals involved, nature doesn’t have a bias. Nature doesn’t care.
Why is all of this important? Well for one simple reason. We live in this world and we should understand the platform we are working off of. If we believe that the platform recognizes and favors goodness, justice and righteousness, we’ve set ourselves up for a false world view and we are already at a disadvantage. A worldview based on bias rather than observation is going to leave us with a bunch of false assumptions.
It’s easy for people to make claims this way or that way from their own personal perspective or their culturally moral perspective. They can even make claims about their perspective being the divine way or built into the fabric of the universe. But when they make claims about good and evil like that, they are really only showing a bias, they aren’t actually making a true statement based on observation.
So let’s start over. Let’s look at nature based on observation of it. How it really works and what if anything it cares about. Let’s not immediately assume that our own bias of what we consider good and evil is automatically what nature deems good and evil as well. Just from the few examples I’ve shown, I’m arguing that nature doesn’t even recognize the concept of good and evil. Which makes good and evil just as valueless to nature as other man made concepts like honor, sin and respect.
So where does that leave us?
Well it leaves us with us. Just because these things are not recognized in nature doesn’t mean that they have no value to us. Obviously we recognize good and evil. But it’s important to understand how we recognize it. If it’s not inherent in nature, than it is personal and cultural. Which means that the definitions of good and evil can change. I think we have enough proof of that already. All one has to do is look back on human history.
We’ve had cultures in the past that sacrificed people to their gods. Although we look back on that today and say that is wrong, they certainly didn’t believe that. We can claim all we want that our moral position is right or inspired by the divine, but they could say the same thing back then. No one has any evidence to show who is right and who is wrong.
Of course today we can make a solid argument that sacrificing people to gods doesn’t actually produce any effect other than pointless suffering and death. So why do it? But that’s not a moral position, that’s just an observable fact. It doesn’t mean it was wrong for them to do it. The only reason it’s wrong is because we believe it’s wrong, not because it really is. I understand that’s a hard concept to accept, it is for me too. But we have to remember our own bias and the fact that nature doesn’t have one.
A lot of people claim that their morality (sense of good and evil) comes from God or a higher power. They can believe that all they want. We can’t disprove it, but we can’t prove it either. Because it exists in that state of unobservability, we have to label it as personal bias. Just because we may live in a culture where the mass majority believe it, also doesn’t make it any more true. Truth (aka observable facts) is not a democracy. Either something is observably true or it is not. It doesn’t matter how many people believe it or disbelieve it. We can’t just vote something true. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll understand that. Even if it flies in the face of your other beliefs.
With this understanding of good and evil being a construct of sentient beings, we can better understand where our disagreements come from. For example it wasn’t that long ago in this country that the mass majority of people believed that homosexuality is wrong. We could make all kinds of arguments for why that is. But we didn’t need to, we just accepted the fact that it is wrong.
Today our perspective is changing in the west and many countries are legalizing marriages between homosexuals. But there are other countries just now implementing new laws which punish homosexuality with prison time or even death. Two different approches. Who is right and who is wrong? It all depends on your bias.
In the west we empathize with individual suffering. We increasingly believe in individual freedom. In other parts of the world the individual is deemphasized in favor of cultural integrity and a mandate on procreation as a primary sexual motivation. Ultimately, nature doesn’t care if we live in a society that hangs gay people in town square or whether we embrace a cutlure of complete acceptance. We can make arguments in favor of one or the other depending on our personal or cultural bias. We have been since the dawn of man.
So if good and evil is complely based on perspective, then there is no solid ground to stand on right? Basically yes. It comes down to beliefs. This tends to make us uncomfortable. All of us want a rock to stand on. Which is I think one of the reasons why people cling so strongly to their biases, especially those that claim divine inspiration or karmic justice. They want to know there is some third party that is in control and making up the rules. A parent figure or ultimate judge. But the best we can really do is observe and based on observation, figure out how things work.
Even if good and evil aren’t inherent in nature, we as sentient beings can further tune and perfect our own definitions of them. To do this we need to start with an observable fact. A good fact to start with is harm and survival. We know that we all want to survive and that we want to live as harm free as possible. So harm reduction is a good place to start and if we begin with that we can then look at everything else from that perspective. We now have a standard by which to judge things. So now when an issue comes up, we can ask the following questions:
1. Does it harm the individual?
2. Does it harm other individuals?
3. Does it harm society/culture as a whole?
If the answer is no to all three, then we can say that it should be legal and acceptable. If the answer is no to only one or two of them, then we have to further observe what effect it has. If the answer is yes to all of them, then we should probably make it illegal. If it harms the individual but not others or society as a whole, than again it is something that needs further observation and we have to make a judgement call on how much personal harm we are willing to let others do to themselves.
Nature may not care. It may not have a bias other than perhaps personal survivial. But we do and that still matters to us because we are us. We can further perfect our definitions of good and evil (and many other things) even if nature doesn’t recognize them.
In a way it’s kind of cool that nature doesn’t care. We can choose to be sad about that, hoping and wishing for structure from some higher power/parent figure that will give us rules to live by. Or we can accept that we live in an open source world where we are truly free and can define our own right and wrong. Here’s a thought, even if there is a higher power at work, maybe he/she/it set up the world that way, without any biases or definitions of good and evil so that we could have that freedom to define it ourselves. I can’t prove that or even the existence of a higher power, but it is an interesting thought and one that in my mind anyway, jives well with the idea of a highly advanced intelligence that believes in freedom in the ultimate kind of way.