Wednesday 26 June 2024

The asymmetry of "good" and evil actions

It is striking (when you think about it) how it is easy to recognize - and be confident of the identity of - evil actions; but not good ones. 

There are plenty of well known actions that are evil with such a high degree of certainty as to make it nigh impossible to imagine any situation in which they could deliberately and consciously be done from genuinely good motivations.   

Yet, because good and evil are not symmetrical, the same does not apply to good actions. I can't think of any action that is good in and of itself - what makes it good comes from the motivation, and from that motivation proceeding from a full accordance with God's creative will. 

This is why it is so much easier to talk about "goodness" in double-negatives; in terms of opposing evil rather than genuinely doing good. 

It is the doing of good that is the problem; because nothing "done" is good in and of itself - we just can't get away from why it is done.   

People really want good to be definable in terms of acts; because if it could be, then good could be made into a plan, described in bullet points; and "implemented" on the world and other-people.  

Yet it is the fact that good cannot validly be thus conceptualized that has made all schemes for making-the-world-a-better-place (i.e. the entirety of politics and social engineering) into the realm of such self-deception, lies and horrors.

I suspect that we can only really-do real-good in those sadly-brief moments in which we are ourselves really good - when really-are on God's wavelength, as it were. 

And of course that means that the real-good which is done by us is only seldom in any objectively observable or definable form - but most likely to be in our thinking, a particular choice, a word or phrase, or some very particular (maybe unnoticed) action.  



Ron Tomlinson said...

Yes I have always been struck by how much the denizens of synlogos disagree with each other and even oppose one another whilst agreeing remarkably closely about what are the major large-scale evils in the world today.

However, if what you say is true, this to to be expected and there can't be much agreement about what's good: the nature of goodness contains unlimited variety, depending on individuals and their personal motivations.

And if goodness could be reduced to a set of actions or algorithm this would mean utilitarianism and hedonism were true, which they aren't!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ron "if goodness could be reduced to a set of actions or algorithm this would mean utilitarianism and hedonism were true, which they aren't!"

Yes, exactly!

Wolfgang said...

Dear Bruce,

I think this is an enormously wise post of yours! If we had a plan to do "good", we could navigate our way to heaven ourselves. Do enough "good" to complete your scorecard and get the ticket to heaven. And Jesus Christ's sacrifice on the cross would have been superfluous at this point. I also would like to do "good" but have come to the conclusion that I simply don't know how. Avoiding evil is the best that I can strive for, and that in itself is hard enough. In our fallen state all that is left for us is to accept god's grace and Jesus' sacrifice. You have put into clear words what I have felt for quite a long time.

Best, Wolfgang

Bruce Charlton said...


Thank you!

I do, however, believe that avoiding evil is (usually) an insufficient motivation for human life. It also seems to lead to a depressive or anxious siege mentality; and can lead to a kind of spiritual safety-first restrictiveness, asceticism, quietism - which may become anti-life. By avoiding one especially-feared sin it is easy to overcompensate in an opposite direction - as when the principle to avoid or minimize suffering goes across to precautionary "mercy killing" and "assisted suicide".

For instance, if we are to be creative (in the broad sense of the concept, which would include friendship, marriage, raising children - as well as jobs, crafts, arts) then we must have positive ideas concerning what to aim at.

Wolfgang said...

I did all that. I am 57, founded 3 biotech companies in Switzerland, one of which went public; started two families, have three kids and now live on a farm where I produce wine and have a bunch of Alpakas and more. This may qualify as successful in a worldly sense, but I am pretty certain that non of this is meaningful in any way when it comes to the salvation of my soul.

Best, Wolfgang

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wolfgang "non of this is meaningful in any way when it comes to the salvation of my soul."

Exactly - because the actions say nothing about what motivated them.

Plus long-term socially observable (especially status-linked) motivations are generally not-good.

Bruce Charlton said...

Bruce S. has left a comment:

"People really want good to be definable in terms of acts..".

Good must be thus defined for the high priests of Empiricism to lay claim to the moral domain. But as you infer, all such schemes for Utopia built on this foundation result in dystopian realities.

"I do, however, believe that avoiding evil is (usually) an insufficient motivation for human life. It also seems to lead to a depressive or anxious siege mentality; and can lead to a kind of spiritual safety-first restrictiveness, asceticism, quietism - which may become anti-life"

Definitely. In my case (as an agnostic, presently) this wrong turning was/is the result of me simply not being spiritually equipped to deal with the discovery that a great evil has infiltrated almost all organs of Western society. The fact that almost no one I speak to feels similarly adds to the feeling of isolation and despair. Your essays on the primacy of motivation and embracing the simple-clear positive have been helpful.

Agnosticism is not a tenable position in a great spiritual war and I though I have chosen the side of Christian morality in an intellectual sense, I’m yet to find the path to the faith itself. However, I am very thankful for having been guided to this island of wisdom in the spiritual desert. All the best.

Christopher Martin said...

Dear Bruce,

Dump this or post it, as you think fit, and seeing as it's you, I'll be happy to see it edited or recensed down to the bone, for whatever criterion that you think appropriate to apply. Or, simply, make a suggestion or two, and I’ll try to cut it down to size and relevance myself.

There is a grain of relevance here, about asymmetry of good and evil, and in your support, which I'd be glad to see come out somewhere, if only to show that what you say is by no means weird or personal or made-up, but part of a long tradition, seen both in East and West, which we both share, and which we both think important, I think that this is important, together with about only four-and-half people in the whole world.

all too long: see following posts



Christopher Martin said...

Is it of any interest to mention that Philippa Foot, who, as far as I know, first formulated the “trolly problem”, was one of the leading members of the "women” who were “up to something” in Oxford in 1956 - objecting to their University's decision to honour a man chiefly known for having decided (unnecessarily? as he probably knew?) to destroy two populous and historic cities in the enemy but practically defeated country of Japan, killing, each time at a single stroke, a huge proportion of the people living in either: Mr Harry S. Truman,former President of these United States., awarded an honorary doctorate in Laws by their own university, Oxford, in that year.

They took the opportunity of the occasion of, I think, a merely formal vote to confirm the decision of the real governors of the University, to express their dissent. I seem to have lost my way in this sentence, so I'll break off and start again.

Well, her, then: she frequently referred to the asymmetry of good and evil, which she expressed by means of a brief quotation from the rather odd 6th(?) century Greek theologian known as Pseudo Dionysius. In Latin the quotation runs, rather epigrammatically, "Bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu".(The translation from Greek into Latin is accurate, I will promise you, though at the moment I can't remember the Greek words.)

Unepigrammatically and unhelpfully this translates into modern English as: "Good is from the full wholeness of cause: evil is from each individual defect". Mrs Foot used to gloss this even less epigramatically, but more helpfully, as: "Something is good only if *everything* about is good; something is bad if *anything* about is bad.

She derived her knowledge of this rather obscure and implausible source, I think, from her mentor Elizabeth Anscombe, who had noticed the rather frequent use St Thomas Aquinas made of it of it in his own discussions of good and evil, in the *Summa Theologiae* and elsewhere. Aquinas was often rather cautious in dealing with and quoting the teachings of Pseudo-Dionysius; scholars in that age were usually willing to accept, as he was, its (in fact pseudonymous) ascription to the authorship to a first-century figure of considerable position in Athens when St Paul visited - some time in the mid-fifties, I think, of the first century, AD or CE, as you please.

Christopher Martin said...

More about Pseudo-Dionysius
The real Dionysius is said to have been is said to have been a philosopher as well as a man of considerable reputation among the cultural milieu of that time and place, described as "pretty much over-the-top in religion" by Paul himself (relayed to us by his cultural milieu of the time and place. consists of St Paul's own words, conveyed to us by his sidekick / chronicler / biographer, St Luke, when he describes Paul's first, and probably only, and clearly rather ridiculous and not-very-successful visit to Athens - some time in the mid 50's? One of his partial successes was arousing the interest of Dionysius, a member of the ancient and prestigious council of past city officials, both civil and religious. (civil and religious) officials, which traditionally met on the city-centre site of the Areopagus (clearly identifiable even today, the so -called "Hill of Ares", Dionysius found Paul's exposition of this new Gospel so convincing that he embraced it whole-heartedly and in fact sought Baptism, perhaps the first ever Greek intellectual Christian.

Though Thomas was too accepting of the attribution of the works of the much later Pseudo- Dionysius, to the original Athenian disciple of St Paul, he was rather wary of accepting too automatically some of Pseudo Dionysius very neo-Platonic ideas, He could spot a useful and valuable phrase when he saw one. The epigram is quoted frequently and pointedly by Thomas, probably more often seen than any other words in the oeuvre of Pseudo Dionysius.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chris - A good epigram!

Although I wonder if there ought to be an "it" inserted after "about"?

But it seem the insight has seldom been very often or generally acted upon. Perhaps because to know it as true requires a comprehensible and coherent metaphysics of evil underpinning.

Christopher Martin said...

Yes, quite right. The not-very-snappy epigram should read "Something is good only if *everything* about it is good; something is bad if *anything* about is bad." Sorry: it's hard to proof-read one's own stuff, as I'm sure you know, because one sees in the text exactly what one knows ought to be there, but in fact isn't.

Christopher Martin said...

I remember Foot laying great stress on it at the last public lecture of hers I attended - 1984 or 1987? - and her pointing out that it was very often forgotten, which accounted for the poor quality of moral philosophy in her day. Or maybe I have made this up, thinking that it's something true, and relevant, that she might well have said on the occasion. The invention, if it is one, is and probably was unintentional.