I have no desire to write a dissertation about the nature of good and evil, the root causes of good and evil, nor extensive examples of good and evil. I only want to ponder the concepts of good and evil as they show up in the world, today. As a layperson, I can observe events and behaviors then come to some sort of personal conclusion so as to make some sense about the behavior of my fellow humans.
People commonly regard evil as the polar opposite of goodness. Historically, individuals have struggled against evil to become good. Evil is thought of as brutal while goodness is regarded as peaceful. Upon further examination, some thinkers have concluded that evil and good are not polar opposites.
There is something more subtle at work regarding good and evil. Personally, I am not satisfied with theological explanations that attribute the existence of evil with some sort of malevolent deity and goodness with a benevolent deity. Such concepts allow us to disown responsibility for terrible events and behavior. I don’t believe there is a conspiracy of demonic entities that plan for bad things to happen to us nor in the world around us.
This topic came to mind yesterday afternoon as I was seated in the back yard, relaxing in the pleasant, sunny weather. The peaceful calm was suddenly interrupted by a large, fiercely barking brown dog, she was chasing one of the neighborhood squirrels. The squirrel scampered up the tree in front of me then began scolding the dog that continued to bark and growl in response.
Within a minute, the dog’s owner arrived to reclaim her pet. The young woman apologized for the disturbance then left my yard. Meantime, the squirrel remained perched on a branch, chattering and scolding the departing dog and owner.
I soon imagined a scenario in the form of an animated cartoon, that features a group of anthropomorphized squirrels who are worried about the intrusion of dogs and cats into their rightfully owned territory. Meantime the cartoonist has attributed human characteristics to the dogs and cats in their roles as villains. The squirrel hero might be a character like “Rocky the Flying Squirrel” or Hanna-Barbera’s “Secret Squirrel”. The rodent hero saves the day by defeating the “bad” dog or cat in a humiliating way.
Of course this imaginary scene is very simplistic. In real life, we know that dogs chasing squirrels is more nuanced than the concept of good versus evil can explain. Squirrels are charming little lawn creatures that are fun to watch whereas dogs and cats are esteemedd pets that are much beloved by their owners.
Neither the squirrels nor the pets are actually good or evil, they simply behave in pleasant or unpleasant ways. We humans arbitrarily assign qualities to these animals. In the case of the big dog chasing the cute squirrel up a tree, it was human intervention that resolved the simple, yet violent incident.
It looked like the “good” squirrel won and the “bad” dog lost and received scoldings from the squirrel and the human. After awhile, the squirrel’s chattering mellowed into a softer “grumbling” tone and then stopped altogether. I looked up into the branches and saw that he was studying me, too. Eventually, the tiny animal made his way down the tree trunk and resumed browsing for seeds and nuts.
I couldn’t help but think of the current human scale dispute between religionists and the LGBT community. It employs the ominous phrase, “deeply held religious belief”. The past several months I’ve heard this phrase being used in legal battles involving discrimination against people like me.
In my mind, I picture big, threatening institutions barking out “deeply held religious beliefs” as they interrupt our daily lives and chase us away from our civil rights. There are those who have the opinion that people like me are inherently evil and they have the duty to deny commercial service to me and my kind. Many people in my community label the religionists as misguided and evil. Scriptures are quoted both by the believers and their targets to bolster the various opinions. There is an impasse regarding strictly legal considerations at this time, too.
Meantime, the two sides regard one another as the epitome of evil. One side claims to be directed by their God to discriminate. We, on the other side just want to be free to live our lives without harrassment and deprivation of our rights. It looks like the chase will be happening for a long time.
In cases like this, what is the right thing to do? In a secular democratic republic, labels of good and evil are irrelevant. The right thing to do is that which will benefit the greatest number of people. In the end, a compromise will be needed to assauge the deeply held religious believers crowd and, at the same time, enforce the equality and civil rights deserved by all Americans. This will take a lot of patience and wisdom to accomplish.
There are some philosophical thinkers who believe that all authority, regardless of source, is destructive and evil. Some of them claim that religious and political leaders destroy their followers. In turn, the followers destroy their leaders.
In my opinion, there are people who act skillfully and others who act unskillfully. Skillful people do not infringe upon the freedoms of their fellow humans. Unskillful people only want freedoms for themselves. Some form of authority is needed in order to mediate and enforce our civility. Pure selfishness is not conducive to a safe, healthy society. We often disagree about the amount and degree of authority to use and upon whom to apply it.
In my view, it is personal responsibility that is most important. As we mature, we learn to be our own gurus and simultaneously be our own disciples. We have the responsibility to question “accepted wisdom”. It is up to each individual to treat all other individuals with kindness and compassion. This is especially helpful behavior in regards to our relationships with whom we disagree.
I think we choose to be “evil” when we choose indifference to the happiness of others and only think about our own joy. We choose to be “good”, when we consider the joys of everybody. It really is good to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.