who gets to decide what is good or evil?

Who decides? Who gets to decide what is good or evil? On the face of it that sounds like a rather simple question but such questions often belie simple answers. Linguistic logic and clear interpersonal communications notwithstanding, modern cultural propensities generally grant anyone full license to define words in whatever manner they find convenient or desirable. This becomes particularly evident whenever the subject of morality enters the conversation, especially when touching upon such topics as good and evil.

Good vs. Evil

Good vs. Evil

Now for those of us who hold a firm belief in God and who confidently share in the conviction that we have been endowed by our Creator with a conscience and the innate ability to know what is good and what is not we find little to question. But for those who may see things differently, things are seldom so straightforward. The question then becomes: how might the word ‘good’ be defined without God? “Simply put: who gets to define what the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean? If we’re not going to derive our understanding of goodness from the character and nature of God, for example, then from where? Who, precisely, gets to step into God’s empty shoes and define the content of the word ‘good’? Now that’s a crucial question, for unless we know what we mean by the word, then to proclaim that something is ‘good’ is utterly meaningless.”[1]

Bertrand Russell once quipped in response to the question “How do you tell the difference between good and evil?” by announcing “On the basis of feeling” which I suspect is how many of us make our moral choices. How something feels (do what feels good, don’t do what feels bad) to us sounds reasonable but then how do I come to terms with your feelings which don’t agree with mine?

For example (please, this is for illustrative purposes only and is in no way indicative of my own personal feelings,) suppose I feel greatly inspired when I play on a piano whose keys are made of ivory obtained from elephant tusks while you feel appalled at the atrocious brutality inflicted upon those unfortunate pachyderms. Whose feelings win out? Who decides?

Obviously, leaving moral choices to the vagaries of personal preference or feelings isn’t at all reasonable, yet these days that is exactly how many of us decide what is good or evil. Words have meaning beyond whatever we declare or wish them to mean. Likewise, allowing constantly changing social custom to define morality raises similar issues. Social customs vary across geographic, ethnic, political, and societal boundaries and who then has the authority to impose their own specific moral values on others. Who decides?

In the absence of God, there are two options: you can turn every individual person into a little godlet, able to decide good and evil for themselves. But then who evaluates between them when there are clashes between godlet claims? Alternatively, you can turn the state into God and let it determine good and evil, but then might becomes right and you have sheer, naked brutality. In short, if you try this latter route, morality becomes meaningless. If you go down the former route, morality becomes impossible.”[2]

More on this next week.


[1] Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist.
[2] Arthur A. Leff, Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law, Duke Law Journal 6, 1979, pp. 1229-1249.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: http://deaconscorner.org. Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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