Moral Relativism & Defining Evil


So this post was born of a few discussions I had with a co-worker about human nature and the nature of evil. I was telling her that one of the few things my mother and I agree upon is that there’s evil in everyone (there’s good too, but both are present in everyone). She asked “You really believe that?” “Yes.” I quickly replied. “Well, I guess, I try to see the good in everyone.”she said. I told her that this reminded me of Carl Roger’s perspective of humanistic psychology.

As a descriptive moral relativist, I think that people have both good and evil within them, and that which of those impulses wins out at any given time and circumstance is often up for grabs. I see many shades of gray in terms of human behavior. My colleague doesn’t like to label people as “evil” per se, instead preferring words like “thoughtless” or maybe “inappropriate”, but I suggested that these are mere degrees of evil as Dante Allegheri’s Divine Comedy illustrated – with God & the Angels at the uppermost level of heaven, and Lucifer, demons, and the worst offenders of humankind at the lowest level of hell. I think there are some extremely good people and some extremely bad ones, with the majority of us falling somewhere in between.

At this point, I think that I should define what I mean by evil, since so many see it as a very loaded term. I would simply define it as a lack of goodness, or moral imperfection.  I also want to come back to the word “offender” since I think that the concept of someone or something being offensive to someone else is a very clear example of moral relativism. In days gone by, in the very early 20th century, it was scandalous and offensive for a woman to wear dresses above the ankle. Nowadays, such thinking would be dismissed as misogynistic or old-fashioned at best.

The Puritans had a different moral code than most of us do.

I think that just as many would agree that every person is crazy in his or her own way, so too is everyone evil, or  morally imperfect in his or her own way. The other commonly agreed upon concept about human behavior is that everyone has a bad habit of two, or at least has had one at some point in life. How bad is bad is the question that’s begged here…

One of the reasons I think my colleague and others have difficulty labeling others as “evil” in a casual way is because to do so generally implies the absence of goodness or any redeeming qualities. Yet, we all have some measure of both evil and good within us.

I try to remind myself that even someone I find utterly repellent and infuriating beyond words must be nice to someone in this world at some point in time, it just doesn’t happen to be me. Even the worst person has a smidgen of good inside somewhere, just as the best person has a smidgen of bad or evil.

I differ from other relativists who might suggest that there is no good or evil ultimately. I would suggest that we all have clear ideas about what we’re willing to accept as good or bad behavior at a given point in time, but that this can differ between indiviudals and groups over time and across cultures.

“I’ve seen good men do bad things and bad men do good things.” says Clancy Brown as Meacham in Cowboys & Aliens. Although I consider it a mediocre film, this line resonates for me. I think most people recognize this possibility in life with respect to human behavior.

One question raised by this statement is “When a person who habitually does ‘bad’ things does something ‘good’, is it perceived the same way, or as morally valuable as when someone who habitually does ‘good’ things does something ‘good’ ?  My perception is that we tend to be suspicious of those who are normally “bad” when they do something “good” – we tend to think it was self-serving, accidental, or done under duress. Such cynicism tends to devalue the “good” thing.  Hence, we are measuring and comparing a person’s actions against some given standard.

The normative moral relativist would argue that there is no real standard of good or bad. As a descriptive moral relativist, I would argue that there is a definite standard for a given individual or group of individuals, but merely that there are, or at least can be differences between standards culturally and/or historically.

See also: http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/relativism.html

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