Defining Good and Evil in a Non-Religious Context

What is good?  What is evil?  Are they fixed things that exist outside of any societal categorization?  Certainly many religions have strong views on the subject, and in my personal Christian religion I suppose that “good” can be boiled down to doing what God wants, and evil would be the opposite.  But if you strip religion away from it, what things and actions can be considered good or evil?  How can you define it societally?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as the election looms ever closer, because we are supposed to have a separation of church and state in this country, and yet religion seems to play an ever increasing role in the debates and the whole political process.  I have heard people I know say that they vote for “whoever loves Jesus more,” (although how they possibly know that I have no idea…) but if religious ideas of good and evil were removed, what does that leave us?

Well, when you’re talking about society, you are talking about how you interact with other people, so although you might argue that you can do good or evil unto yourself, I’m going to focus here on how one interacts with other people.  As a society, and as a culture, we have stories and traditions handed down to us that dictate behavior.  The societal rules, if you will.  And if they don’t necessarily delineate good and evil, they generally at least tell us about good and bad, or right and wrong, and I think that’s as close as we’re going to get here, so I’m going to go with that.

Who are the heroes of our stories, and why are they heroes?  What do they do that makes them “good” in our eyes?  Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, which makes him a thief and a criminal, and yet he is still a hero, so it’s obviously not adherence to local laws that makes someone “good.”  Spider-Man is a hero, and his mantra of “with great power comes great responsibility” guides his heroic actions, even as his personal life frequently crumbles around him, so it’s not personal success that makes someone “good” either.  It seems to me that what makes people “good” in our society is the fact that they are selfless.  Their actions are motivated by a desire to help others, and not themselves.  They make sacrifices and put themselves in harm’s way, all out of a need to give, rather than take.

The villains, on the other hand, are motivated by selfishness.  They put themselves first, and their actions serve no others.  They are motivated by revenge, fear, and hatred.  They want to consolidate their own power and keep power from others, and the worst of them will hurt anyone in their way.  Darth Vader, Captain Hook, Russell from Survivor, Syndrome from The Incredibles, and countless other mustache-twirling characters have been standing in the way of “good” for years, even when they didn’t know it.  Can’t you just hear this cliched movie climax?  “Everything I did, I did it for you!”  “No, you did it for you!”  And then somebody gets shot.  But the point is, motivation is everything.

The Punisher is a psychopathic mercenary who goes around murdering people, and yet he is a hero, because he only kills bad guys and tries to protect people from crime.  While his acts may be “evil” from a religious, moral, or judicial standpoint, he is still on the side of good and we can root for him because he is doing it selflessly.  Back in the 80’s there was a big Marvel Comics crossover event called “Secret Wars,” in which many of the heroes were drawn into space to fight against the villains by a supreme cosmic being who was trying to understand humanity.  One of the confusing things to the heroes was the fact that the super-villain Magneto was placed into the “good” side, despite being viewed as a villain by everyone else.  The rationale given was that his motivations lined up more with the heroes than the villains.  Yes, he was a global terrorist fighting for the mutant species by killing tons of humans, but he wasn’t doing it for himself.  He honestly believed that he was doing it to help his kind survive.  Nothing he did was for himself, therefore he was a hero.

Now, most of us are part villain and part hero.  You have to take care of yourself, while still thinking about the needs of those around you, but the lines seem pretty clearly drawn the more I look at them.  Good can be equated with selflessness, and evil is pretty much synonymous with selfishness.  Religion echoes a lot of this too, of course, but with an emphasis on God as well.  But no matter how I think about it, I know that when I do something only for myself, it will never feel as good as when I do something for someone else.  Society has given me all the clues I need to lead a happy and fulfilling life.  I just don’t always do it.

You see, society has also sent me a lot of signals telling me to only think about myself.  It tells me that I am the most important one in the universe, and that I should spend my time and resources accordingly.  But then I think about who is telling me these things.  Not my friends and family.  Not culture and literature and centuries of history and society.  No, the media and the big corporations are telling me this.  And they are telling me this so that they can make money.  There is a running theme throughout our societal mythology as well, in which the “villains” often take the shape of big corporations, or corrupt politicians.  This is not limited to one political party, so don’t get all uppity.  And it is not true of all companies for sure.  Henry Ford could be called an American Hero, but not because he revolutionized the auto industry and was successful, but because he made sure that all of his workers would be able to afford the cars that they were building.  He put his employees first, and will go down in history as a great man.  We could use a few more people like him around today.

So as I continue to immerse myself in media and modern society, what I have to remember is, listen to the people who have my best interests in mind, and keep everyone else’s best interests in my own mind.  If I only cared about myself, and making sure I got as much as possible, I would certainly live, and vote, in a far different manner than if I felt that it was more important for everyone else to have what they needed.  I think that there are still heroes and villains among us, and you can tell them by their actions and their intentions.  You may not be able to become a successful politician or CEO these days without lying and stealing a little, but as long as you’re doing it to help the biggest number of people, it’s okay.  Right?

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Posted in Comic Books, Evil, Good, Politics, Religion, Spider-Man.

2 Comments

  1. You mention doing something “to help the biggest number of people,” but that may be only part of the equation. I would argue that being good is being “ethical” and evil is being “unethical.”

    One way that ethical behavior in organizations has been defined (I can get you the reference if you’re interested) is on three basic principles: (1) it results in the greatest good for the largest number of people, (2) it respects basic human rights (such as rights of privacy, due process, consent, and free speech), and (3)it treat others (such as employees and customers) fairly and equitably.

    You can easily broaden those three principles outside of organizational behavior and into generalized human behavior. When all three principles are present, then a behavior is considered “ethical” (or good, or selfless); When none of the three are present, then it is considered “unethical” (or evil, or selfish). The real hard part is how to categorize good/evil when only one or two of the principles are met.

    For example, is Punisher really a hero? He may be behaving in a way that results in the greatest good for the largest number of people, and you could even argue that he is treating people fairly and equitably (the whole “eye for an eye” philosophy), but he may not be respecting basic human rights (i.e. due process).

    What about racial (or other discrimination)? By favoring the “majority,” you are by default serving the greatest number of people, but you are not treating people fairly or respecting human rights. Would this be considered ethical/good/selfless? Probably not.

    In addition, do people ever really act selflessly? I would like to think so, but like you mentioned: “I know that when I do something only for myself, it will never feel as good as when I do something for someone else.” So isn’t there a “selfish” motive in being selfless? We “selfishlessly” want to feel better about ourselves.

    It’s a very interesting question that you’ve raised! Sorry for the lengthy philosophical reply.

    • No, no, I love lengthy philosophical replies! I think you raise several good points, the last of which is that it’s true that helping others feels good, meaning that it gives us a good feeling, meaning that it is possibly selfish. But why does helping others make us feel good? The only solution I can come up with for that is full of religious implications, so I didn’t say anything about it in this article.

      Also, I love what you said about minorities, because there was something floating around in my brain about the cultural need to root for the underdog, but I couldn’t figure out how to say what I wanted to say on the subject, and it seemed like I had written too much already. But in terms of serving the greater “good,” it has to be taken into account somewhere that there is a great importance placed on helping those who are weaker. Women and children first, as they say. And I would include minorities in that category. If something is really good for 1,000,000 people, but totally screws over 100 people, our societal mythology tells us that this is “evil” as well.

      Also, to your point on The Punisher, certainly other heroes don’t view him as “good,” and are always trying to take him down, and he is certainly bad by many standards, but I think the reason that he has his own comic book and is grouped into the “hero” category, as opposed to say, Bullseye, is because of his motivations.

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