Is that a dumb question? We can point to all sorts of atrocities, so why would anyone think evil isn’t real?
And if evil isn’t real, then is goodness not real? Could only one but not both be real?
Relativism—contrary to popular opinion—isn’t the attitude that anything goes. No one believes that. I mean, no one. Even a psychopath who thinks it’s fine to torture and kill will draw the line somewhere. “You can’t do that to me!” That’s what a psycho can’t abide.
No. Relativism is the belief that there’s no absolute standard to settle moral disagreements.
What could go wrong? In real life, whose moral beliefs prevail comes down to who is more persuasive. Gandhi was persuasive. Mother Teresa was persuasive. But Stalin was persuasive too. Hell, Hitler persuaded millions. Relativism got problems.
The science of good and evil
Can science tell us what’s right and wrong? Well, science can tell us what people from different cultures and times think is right and wrong. But science is descriptive, not prescriptive.
Look at what almost everyone over time and across cultures has thought is right and wrong. What’s more interesting is what’s not on the list of evil: many cultures have thought slavery is fine, even good; murder, rape, theft, hate, and bigotry are all acceptable in many cultures in certain circumstances. Universal human rights are a recent, Western development.
Of babies and bathwater
So maybe relativists have a point after all.
Or maybe relativists are missing the point. Just because we can’t agree on right and wrong doesn’t mean that there’s no real standard.
What is goodness? That’s a hard question to answer.
And is evil a thing in itself, or is it the absence of goodness?
It’s monism versus dualism (or Manicheanism). Think of a straight line. One end is pure goodness, and the other end the lack of anything good—a void.
Now think of a big plus sign. The horizontal line is goodness or lack thereof. The vertical line is pure evil at one end with the absence of evil at the other. You get four quadrants. One is good with no evil. Another is evil but nothing good. The third is nihilism—no good, no evil. And the last quadrant is good and evil together.
These are just two models. There are more ways of thinking about it. But that’s too complicated and would make my hurt my brain.
Einstein and Augustine
Most Westerners (in my opinion) are at least partly Manichean. But not all. Here’s a fun fake quote:
Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God.
Einstein also said, “Don’t believe everything you see on the innernet.”
Now, St. Augustine did say something similar to the fake Einstein quote. In book VII of Confessions, Augustine argues that:
- You suffer harm when you’re deprived of something good.
- Don’t confuse what’s advantageous with what’s good.
- Destroying everything good about something means it no longer exists. But Creation is good, so there’s always some good hidden somewhere.
- The supreme good—God—is indestructible.
- Because God is goodness, the absence of God is destruction. So, “evil has no being”—evil is the absence (i.e. rejection) of God.
The analogy that light and heat are substances, but darkness and cold are just the absence of these things rather than separate substances, is more intuitive.
What are you yakking about?
Spoiler: I don’t have the answers. No one does.
We could say that there is no answer (relativism), that I know the answer and you don’t, or that life is like watching the shadows in Plato’s cave while trying to guess the details of the people and objects casting the shadows. Another analogy is seeing through a glass, darkly.
And that’s the best I can do.