Sunday, March 16, 2008

Some good in everything?

In his criticism of my essay, Micah Cowan says, "Nothing is pure evil; not one thing." [emphasis original]

I'm glad that Micah can find the good in rape, slaughter, slavery, tyranny, Nazism, Stalinism, pedophilia, torture, mass murder, human sacrifice, pestilence, famine, plague, and the Bush administration, because I sure can't.

With all due respect, Micah, please get a clue: there's a lot in this world that's pure, unadulterated evil.


  1. Unless one is a hedonistic utilitarian, I suppose. (I mean, people rape others because they enjoy that, right?)

  2. You would have to be at least partly sociopathic, i.e. indifferent to the suffering of other people. Hedonism means assigning strong positive value to sensual pleasure.

    Any utilitarian worth his or her salt is always going to consider the overall impact of an action to everyone involved.

  3. Of course they're going to consider the overall effect - nothing I said contradicts that. My point is that, in order to consider the overall effect, they will first have to consider its parts, one of which is the rapist's sexual pleasure. They would, therefore, have to say that there's IS "something good" in rape - it's just that there's even more evil there.

    As far as I'm concerned, even considering rapist's pleasure as morally relevant is good evidence that there's something deeply wrong with utilitarianism in general.

  4. Tea: We're now into the deeply equivocal character of natural language. The problem is that the word "good" means too many things to use it casually, without giving consideration to the various mutually-contradictory definitions.

  5. Barefoot Bum, tea's point, though, was precisely mine. Nobody was ever talking about "the overall impact" of an action. Our specific case is religion, for which I absolutely agree that "the overall impact" is virtually never better than neutral (and often far worse). The point of contention we're having, is whether any good ever results from religious belief, not whether its effect, when taken as a whole, may be good. That for some things, the "good" is negligible in comparison to the overwhelmingly evil impact, does not negate my point.

    However, I confess I'm having trouble finding good in rape or pedophilia. One could make tea's argument, or the argument that, for some attention-starved children, it brings them the attention they crave (god, please no one quote this out of context). I'm not sure it's worth bothering with such silly things, though, and will concede your point. By definition, evil is pure evil, so I could at least have phrased it better to exempt "evil itself".

    However, your examples of Nazism and Stalinism, are far easier to deal with. Both provided much-needed unity to a couple countries, one of them brought drastic financial improvement to a nation in an economic crisis, and of course one can say that the fraternity of belonging to something could be a good thing. Again, none of this comes remotely close to justifying the evil that came form these, which was far greater in magnitude than any good that may have followed, but the point is that they were not "wholly absent of any good effect whatsoever".

    As to pestilence, famine, plague... those are not evil at all, unless they have a human cause. Morality applies to action and intent; "acts of God" lack these (assuming that "acts of God" is a euphemism).

  6. Larry,

    I've read your posts on MESR and I'm currently in agreement. It's also been a while since I've read them, so hopefully rereading them would clear up the following issue, but I wanted to pose a question first: Saying that "pure, unadulterated evil" exists looks like an objective statement, or at least temporarily universal (but we'll neglect the latter). Assuming it's objective, what does it mean? All I can think of right now is that it's stating that there exists at least one agent-caused event that no party approves of or likes. My mind is drawing a blank on what kind of event this would be.

  7. Saying that "pure, unadulterated evil" exists looks like an objective statement

    Indeed. It's an unfortunate characteristic of the English language that it's very easy to slip into objectivist language when describing subjective properties. We see this characteristic even in describing obviously and unproblematically subjective properties. We say, for instance, "Ice cream tastes good," to describe our subjective attitude towards ice cream.

    When I say that thus and such is unadulterated, pure evil, I'm saying that I despise the action completely, and can find nothing within myself to excuse or mitigate my contempt for those who perform such actions.


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