In HEADCANDY, we columnists Sophie and Harvey write about big topics from our respective philosophical and scientific perspectives. Any books or studies that come up week-by-week will feature at the bottom of each article for anybody interested in reading more. This week’s theme is good and evil.
The concepts of good and evil are as archaic as humanity itself. From Eve giving into temptation and plucking the apple in the Garden of Eden, to those people who refuse to make space on the central line during rush hour, evil manifests itself under many different guises. But how are these guises formed? Who, or what, maintains the authority to dictate what is good and what is evil — and should this authority be questioned?
Well, absolutely. Moral valuations vary between religion, culture, time and individual preference, and thus there is no strict grounding of good nor evil; with both existing on a spectrum of shifting standards and ideals. As Nietzsche coins in his book, Beyond Good and Evil, we as a human race remain potentially ‘unknown to ourselves’ through our tumultuous ethics. Following the antiquity of morality, Nietzsche suggests that the concept of ‘good’ holds intrinsic links to aristocracy, wealth and religious purity, whilst the concept of ‘bad’ correlates with denigration, poverty and vulgarity. Although the relationship established here between class relations and morality has become more complex across time, the entrenchment of morality in the shifting social, political and cultural spheres renders it problematic. This can be seen in the contemporary controversy of FGM, which is upheld in certain African and Middle-Eastern cultures as a marital and cultural rite of passage for women. On the other side of the coin, the practice of FGM is deeply condemned across other social spheres as a violation of basic human rights, with the United Nations assembly voting for the eradication of the practice globally in 2012.
Yet, amongst quarrels of what constitutes as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the concept of ‘evil’ is set apart as the most transgressive, uncanny manifestation of immorality. Generally, ‘evil’ can be divided into two camps: natural evils, such as uncontrollable hurricanes, disease pandemics, etc, and moral evils, meaning the betrayal of religious and societal ideals. In the wake of the Manchester terrorist attack, the judgement of an evil act has shown to encourage solidarity in society, painting morality as a vessel of both conflict and cohesion for civilisation. However, this begs the question whether ‘evil’ is, in fact, an innate feature in the human mind, or whether it develops through social conditioning. The latter is a more plausible suggestion, as all human behaviour exists on a spectrum that encompasses the fluidity of both ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Whilst psychological abnormalities can manifest through the form of extreme lacking in empathy and understanding, interpreted by us as ‘evil’ and ‘bad’, the majority of society floats along a fluid spectrum of morality.
In spite of this, a Nietzsche-style ‘transvaluation of values’ and upheaval of society’s entrenched moral system might not be entirely feasible or advisable. But, if you happen to open your eyes to the structure of the world around you — question why, and how, (and when and who, if you’re keen) and you may just find yourself asking some valuable questions.
Mentioned today in HEADCANDY:
‘Beyond Good and Evil’ – Friedrich Nietzche