Right vs Good
September 16, 2010
Good and evil are quite distinct moral concepts from right and wrong. It is perfectly possible to behave in the right way with respect to one's ethics and the law in general and yet still cause evil. This need not show a flaw in the ethical system in question; it may just as easily reveal ignorance or carelessness. We might judge these as moral failings, but a word such as 'evil' has come to mean something far more damning.
Similarly, civil disobedience shows that sometimes the usual ethical and legal norms must be transgressed because our understanding of what is good or evil takes precedence. We might express this by saying that a particular law is wrong, which is another way of saying what is deemed right by the law is wrong by our personal ethical judgement. It would be an even stronger objection to say that a certain law is evil. We would not usually judge the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 that stripped Jews of their German citizenship as merely wrong (like unfair taxation) but as a great evil.
Thus what is good and what is right need not match and good people can inadvertently cause evil. The simplistic story that all evil must be caused by evil people draws us into fallacious reasoning. Since only a cartoon villain revels in evilness, one consequence of thinking along these lines is an inability to recognise the evils to which we have all contributed indirectly.
Part 14 of 23 in the Pentenary series.
You stress that when you say "right" and "wrong", you're talking about "one's ethics and the law in general". But the former seems a lot more important than the latter to how the words are generally used. If something seems wrong to me, I'm going to call it "wrong" regardless of whether the law agrees with me. And I find it hard to imagine someone calling something "the right thing to do" just because they're told to do it, and not because there's a personal value judgment there. If you don't force legality into the "right/wrong" judgment, it meshes perfectly with the concepts of "good and evil". I'd say that evil is not a separate concept to wrong, but just a greater degree. And similarly, good is something which is very right.
Posted by: Mory Buckman | September 16, 2010 at 11:09 AM
Oh, and I would appreciate an example of when something that's "right" is not "good". Just because you have the best of intentions doesn't mean what you're doing is right. If it causes evil, what you did was wrong.
Posted by: Mory Buckman | September 16, 2010 at 11:12 AM
Mory: thanks for raising these points of discussion.
"If something seems wrong to me, I'm going to call it "wrong" regardless of whether the law agrees with me. And I find it hard to imagine someone calling something 'the right thing to do' just because they're told to do it, and not because there's a personal value judgment there."
There are a surprisingly large number of people for whom it is the law, as the commonly agreed ethical baseline, which is the decider of what is right or wrong. "I didn't do anything wrong, officer" doesn't mean "I didn't transgress my ethical code" but "I didn't break any laws". For many people (principally but not exclusively those preferring concrete language use) the law is the most basic source of right and wrong.
Similarly, since under the law one is required to (say) pay taxes, such people would say that "paying taxes is the right thing to do". Such people would not say they claim this because 'they were told to do it' but rather they would claim that the right thing to do is what society has agreed is right i.e. the law. (You may reasonably object that this is slightly naive, but such people nonetheless are very common).
"I would appreciate an example of when something that's 'right' is not 'good'."
Suppose you are a duty ethicist, and you believe that moral value depends upon your actions. The right thing to do for many such people is to tell the truth. Now suppose you have to tell someone, say, your daughter, a very painful truth about her mother (e.g. she threw your daughter down the stairs as a baby). Telling her the truth is the right thing to do (by your ethics, as a duty ethicist) but there is nothing good about this.
Similarly, suppose you are President of a small nation that has vowed not to cleave to terrorist demands (for fear that it would encourage other terrorists to raise their demands). They capture your son and make demands. The right thing to do, from many different ethical perspectives (although not all) is to uphold your vow not to give in to terrorist demands. But there is nothing good about the course of action this sets in motion.
"Just because you have the best of intentions doesn't mean what you're doing is right. If it causes evil, what you did was wrong."
I agree with your sentiment, but not your wording. I would say 'just because you have the best of intentions doesn't mean what you're doing is *good*'. And this distinction is important because right and wrong, as I claim here, are relative to a system of ethics (or a system of laws, which functions as the public version of ethics) and not to the moral categories of good and evil.
Your claim that if you cause evil your action was wrong presupposes a consequentialist ethical stance i.e. that we judge actions by their outcomes. But this is not the only ethical path on offer - and I would further contend that it is by no means the best ethical path to select, since we are notoriously incapable of predicting the outcomes of our actions. To adopt consequentialism as one's sole ethical system is to risk not knowing the moral worth of any action taken, because its outcomes can only truly be discovered in practice.
Posted by: Chris | September 20, 2010 at 08:55 AM