Values, Morality, Good & Evil

2168 words
9 minute read

storm

Freedom

Who is more free, the general or the soldier? The general makes higher level decisions, the general has more power. But he also has more responsibility. He is expected to make highly consequential decisions continuously and quickly. He also carries the burden of his decisions with him — maybe thousands of lives lost due to an error. The soldier is comparatively free from responsibility. He is not burdened with making high level, high pressure strategic decisions. The solider needs only to follow orders.

We think we want freedom, we say we want freedom, but most people would much rather be a soldier than a general. Most people want to be told what to do, what to think, what to feel. Freedom is a burden — it is a burden worth carrying perhaps, but it is a burden no less.

Nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Human beings need a goal, a destination, there must be better and worse, we must have values. Without values we have nowhere to go, nothing to do — we are lost.

Once we have values we can derive a corresponding morality. A morality is like the compass which guides us collectively over the landscape, toward our destination, toward our goal. The moral compass defines Good and Evil. “The Good” are those actions and characteristics which move us toward the goal. “The Evil” are those which move us away from the goal.

Of course morality and values do bleed together. Some tenet of a morality like “speaking the truth” may also be a terminal value. Speaking the truth may help us move toward our other goals, but to have many people speaking the truth can also be a goal in itself.

Inverting Good & Evil: Rational Utilitarianism

A given set of values does not necessarily imply one morality that could simply be followed by all people and which would then move the group optimally toward the goal — toward the maximization of the values.

The talents, capabilities, situations, and strategies of people varies so widely that one person’s Good may well be another person’s Evil — all while they are both truly serving the same values. A morality may dictate individual non-violence, for example, as a moral tenet in service of the wider goal of general peace and well-being, but there are almost certainly exceptions. What if you had the opportunity to assassinate a dangerous leader before they could bring about world war — the classic “if you could kill Hitler scenario”? And of course, having killed them before they could do their damage, it might appear to others that you’ve killed an innocent person.

Now you’ve taken action which is “evil” according to the morality, and yet — at least in your estimation — it is perfectly in-line with the higher goal of overall peace. This becomes a slippery slope though. Would you kill a dangerous author before they wrote their work? Maybe Marx? What about a group of people? A fledgling political party? And then there is the problem of predicting the future. Are you sure that this specific political leader would bring about mass chaos? How do you know assassinating them won’t actually cause more chaos?

When we make these utilitarian arguments — that killing Hitler before his rise would have been justified, for example — we’re taking a God’s eye view. In reality we can never know for sure that our action is justified. This kind of utilitarian analysis which always claims to seek the “greatest good” has likely caused much more death and destruction than it has prevented. Such utilitarian arguments were put to great use in the 20th century to justify many atrocities.

These “greatest good” arguments are dangerous not only because the world is a complex adaptive system for which our interferences have unknown consequences, but also because these arguments can be wielded as tools by opportunists who simply claim that some action would be for the greater good. I don’t actually need to believe my proposed action would serve the good in the way that I claim, I only need to convince others that this is the case.

And if conditions are right, if the people want to believe the lie, then they will do much of the convincing themselves. And in fact, it is not even necessary that anyone at all really believe the lie. It must simply be convincing enough cover. As long as the lie can stand up to some scrutiny, and as long as the people can convincingly pretend to really believe it, then that is enough.

When weighing the good or evil of a philosophy you must always consider how easily this can be done — how could it be abused? The most dangerous philosophical tools are exactly those which seem most reasonable, but which permit some subtle manipulation. The ideas that we all recognize as dangerous, aren’t so dangerous because our immune system is primed against them. The devil comes well dressed and charismatic.

Archetypes of Evil, The Myth of Hitler & The Nazis

These poles of Good and Evil are permanent fixtures of the human psyche. They are there and we must fill them with something. Once we have our values and morality we populate the poles with the corresponding Good and Evil concepts and principles, but mostly we populate them with symbols, characters, and archetypes. Words and concepts are too flat, too inert, too static — they are not rich enough to represent the complexity of Good and Evil, nor are people animated or captured by rational and philosophical arguments (how many people read or care about philosophy?) — we need the living depth of symbols, characters, and archetypes.

These archetypal figures should be highly refined, sophisticated, and complex characters that capture the truest essence of Good and Evil. This is the domain of religion and myth. Religions spend eons distilling these concepts into their essences and representing them in vivid characters and stories — which themselves evolve over eons.

When we Westerns gave up on religion we swept these sophisticated archetypal figures out of our psyche. But those positions cannot remain empty. So, what sits there now? What are the religious or mythical figures of Good and Evil for the Western mind?

…in what myth does a man live nowadays? In the Christian myth, the answer might be. “Do you live in it?” I asked myself. To be honest, the answer was no. For me it is not what I live by…

Jung

The central — and perhaps sole — Western myth of evil is that of Hitler and the Nazis. Hitler has taken the place of Satan as the archetypal evil character in the secular Western psyche. He has transcended the realm of history and entered into the religious, mythical domain — like a secular anti-Christ.

What other figure could be said to occupy that spot? Hitler is the one secular representative of evil which every Western person knows. Not everyone knows about Stalin’s Dekulakisation, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward, or Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, or the various war crimes committed by the Japanese during WWII, but everyone in the West knows about Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust.

What names and figures do we invoke when we wish to describe “absolute” evil? We don’t invoke “Satan” anymore. People would laugh. We always invoke Hitler and the Nazis. These figures are furthest out on our collective Evil scale, there is nothing beyond them. They are historical figures, but also modern myth and archetype.

Incomplete Archetypes & Political Religion

But this is a bad idea. Our myth is shallow and incomplete. Hitler is a partial representation of evil, he represents the worst consequences of extreme nationalism, beliefs of racial superiority, and hatred for the out-group — Hitler stands alone in the Western pantheon as the god of Hate. But there are many other human emotions and tendencies which can lead to hellish outcomes, there are many other destructive emotions and beliefs that are similarly capable of memetic replication and mass destruction and death. Many gods are missing from our pantheon.

We also seem to have merged the religious and mythical domains with the political. As religion declined, the eternal battle for the human soul — between Good and Evil — had to move to a new battlefield, and of course it moved to the political landscape. It is fitting then that our archetype of evil is also a political figure. So, while we have a singular dominant archetype of evil in Hitler, we also have a singular concept of extreme political danger in the Nazis, and more broadly in far-right, or even moderate right wing politics.

We seem to think that the only political danger lies in going too far right. To move leftward is progress, the farther the better — how could progress be bad? How could you oppose progress? We learn nothing of Stalin, Mao and the others mentioned above. Even the highly educated are ignorant. The highly educated are often the most ignorant. They’ve been most thoroughly indoctrinated, and are most confident in their views. They’re also well trained in rhetoric which is good defense against counter arguments, and may also be used on one’s self.

Because our sense of evil is defined by Hitler and the Nazis, and because that story is such a central myth for Western people, our cultural immune system is hyper primed against that kind of occurence. At the same time we are completely and willfully blind to any similar dangers coming from the political left. A cultural immune system that is hyper guarded against the dangers of the right, but completely blind to dangers on the left, faces a much greater threat from the left then, as it is simply the more likely failure mode.

The Road of Death

My fundamental motivation is that I love mankind. We’re a brilliant, strange, beautiful, and heroic species. We’ve overcome so much. We’ve suffered so much

I want for us to flourish and thrive and reach new heights. I don’t want for us to simply be comfortable and safe at the cost of our potential. What an insult that would be to all those who came before us. Zoo animals are comfortable and safe and it costs them their spirit. Mankind, like the animals, is meant to be wild and free.

To call the taming of an animal its “improvement” is in our ears almost a joke. Whoever knows what goes on in menageries is doubtful whether the beasts in them are “improved”. They are weakened, they are made less harmful, they become sickly beasts through the depressive emotion of fear, through pain, through injuries, through hunger. – It is no different with the tamed human being…

Nietzsche

Mankind pays for his safety with his soul. We seem quite willing to make the trade. We think safety, niceness, and comfort should be pursued above all else, and without end. But every virtue has a dark side. Safety and comfort in excess makes us weak, it makes us spiritually sick – we lose our energy, our creativity, our beauty, our vitality. Then we lose our self-respect and self-confidence. Finally we come to hate ourselves and our lot, and then we find ourselves in hell.

We take the safe road but it costs us our soul, and we realize, eventually, after much suffering, that there never was a safe road anyway.

We may think there is a safe road. But that would be the road of death. Then nothing happens any longer – at any rate, not the right things. Anyone who takes the safe road is as good as dead.

Jung

Mankind the Zoo Animal

What is our image for mankind? What do we strive toward?

We’ve been conditioned, programmed, and propagandized all our lives to such a degree that we no longer think clearly, or think at all, when it comes to these questions. Instead we recite state-approved Good Opinion, as if it’s Truth. We don’t see ourselves clearly.

When it comes to the other animals, however, we don’t have these prejudices. Here we can see by contrast just how contorted we’ve become.

Which animals do we admire? Which animal would you want to be, if you could be any? You might choose an apex predator: lion, tiger, eagle, wolf. Or maybe a more social animal: elephant, dolphin, orca, horse. All of these animals are elegant, strong, beautiful (except for elephants), and free – that’s why we admire them. No one chooses to be a dog, even though everyone loves dogs. They are pets. We love them, but we don’t admire them.

What animal does mankind most resemble today? Maybe we’re most like zoo animals. Once elegant and strong, now weak and sad. Mankind is the once great, free, and fierce animal now weak, tired, and tamed in his cage.

tiger