I must stress my disclaimers here, especially: These thoughts are my own, if by nothing else, my adopting them because they make sense and sound right. Also, I am by no means an official representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Just a member with a few decades of experience on local/district (call it diocese or, stake, as we call it). Please feel free to comment, even if you haven’t read every single word here–this is, after all, 1,500 words. I love learning new stuff.
Also, if you run into any leftover spilling mistokes, please let me know and I’ll fix ’em.
There are many, who struggle to understand good and evil from a post-modern perspective. There is nothing really wrong in calling our age “post-modern”, by the way, because the epoch of philosophical and literary/artistic style that was dominant since sometime in the 16th or 17th century in Europe and North America was called “modern” (that is, either the epoch was modern, or the philosphical/literary/artistic style was modern, depending on how one looks at it). Just to get some potential source of misunderstanding cleared out of the way.
In the modern era, our definition of good and evil usually came from either the state or a state-affiliated church. There was very little else to be found, unless one went well of the beaten path. Even in the USA, where the governments were nominally forbidden to “establish a religion” (meaning, presumably, associating government with a particular religion, not so much allowing religion to exist–“freedom of religion” meant just that: to allow it to exist freely without state intervention), law and government institutions were permeated with religious influence. One could say that this is still the case, at least in comparison to Europe other than traditionally Catholic countries.
One of the answers has traditionally been, in European cultures, to go to religion. There have been other ways, and since religion is more divisive in post-modern culture (again, even in the most “religious” population, viz. among Americans, divisive, if still fairly popular among a majority), and we’d have to ask the question “which religion” in any case, we should look where we could come up with a definition of good and evil that most people of any value system would be able to sign up to.
Intrepidly we shall go far away and far back to look for early attempts to find an answer. Our most exotic one, and farthest away from the cultural sphere most familiar to most of our readers, is Kung Fu-tse (AKA Confucius). He lived in sixth- to fifth-century BC China, and came from a warrior line, but was more interested in ethics. He became a moral philosopher for the future emperors, and attracted a religious family, although one would be challenged to find a clear answer to whether his philosophy can be called religion, although it is often followed as though it were a religion. Things like burning incense on shrine of dead ancestors predate him, actually.
Kung Fu-tse did not actually have a clear system of teachings, but his thoughts can be found in aphorisms, which often must be interpreted. One of the most universally known may be this one:
Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked:
“Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied:
“How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?”
This is also known as the Golden Rule, which has been taught by Moses (e.g. in Lev 19:34), Jesus and Muhammad alike. We could discuss the practicability of this thought (there are some things that I’d like to point out), but let us go a bit further.
We will now come somewhat closer in distance (at least to me) and time, and look at Socrates, a Greek philosopher, who lived a couple of hundred years after Kung Fu-tse. He was famously sentenced to death in Athens for “corrupting the youth”. This he did by teaching them to ask questions–human nature truly does not change much, does it.
One of Socrates’ incisive questions was about piety: Are pious acts pious, because the gods love them, or do the gods love them because they are pious? Or, is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it’s right? For a typical Christian the obvious answer would be, “what difference does it make?” At least for Socrates, who apparently knew Homer’s stories, this did make perfect sense, because in the Greek mythology the Gods were quite susceptible to sudden rages and other antics.
One stumbling block in considering the question is to think either that God is a perfectly unchangeable being–and thus there would be no difference in the above question–or that one has to “hedge one’s bets” because one “never knows when God will come up with something” that one didn’t like. I know that I’m exaggerating, but at least the former is often heard, i.e. that God is a perfect, and thus completely unchangeable being. Just reading Genesis brings up an example of God “repenting” or regretting (which is the meaning in which it is used in Gen 6:8 where God is regretting creation the evil mankind).
Let us think further about what could be motivations for good or evil. As Jesus is familiarly recorded saying, “do unto others as you would have others do to you” (paraphrased from Matt 7:12), it is good if we can put ourselves in someone else’s position and realise that we are morally wrong not to give the same consideration to others that we expect for ourselves. Is this enough, however? I would say that it is not right if we all think it is enough that each person for her- or himself weighs this. Let us take an example from Kung Fu-tse: “When the stables were burnt down, on returning from court, Confucius said, ‘Was anyone hurt?’ He did not ask about the horses.”
As you see, he was of the opinion that human life was more important than property, viz. horses. This for his time was not at all self-evident. I would posit that it is not such for today, as there have been times when I’ve heard statements that seemed to give precedence to animals over humans (overpopulation being one concern for such). However, that would be an extreme position from almost anyone’s point of view.
Immanuel Kant proposed that if we can reason that something is good, then it becomes our duty. How, then, could we produce a morality based on reason? One question we could ask is whether anyone gets hurt, including ourselves. The last bit because, unlike many are likely to claim, our lives are seldom simply just our own, personally. We belong to our loved ones (if we have none, it may be an answer in itself), and the society has invested in schooling us with the hopes that we will be productive as members of it.
I would say that there are things that we could take self-evident as things which are inherently good, such as helping those who need it and agree to be helped, or supporting common good in society by participating in it instead of just taking from it. Things like moderation in everything (except in love, I don’t think one could ever love too much) or fairness (as in treating all humans as our equals) easily spring to mind, since much physical or emotional violence is done when these have been omitted.
However, something like happiness is, in my opinion, too nebulous as our basis, for we cannot know either what would make others happy, nor especially what would produce happiness in others. We might feel ourselves happiest as ascetics, and wonder how anyone could not wish to be one, but it would be too easy to come up with a Robin Hood-kind of definition for good. Stealing would seldom be good, I suggest. At least we should find widely accepted solutions for what produces happiness, if we advocate that.
In the Book of Mormon, when Alma was a new high priest, and no new king was found to be appointed follower for Mosiah, he (Mosiah) wanted that the people should appoint judges, and govern by the voice of the people, “because it is uncommon that the people” desire evil rather than good (Mosiah 29:25-27). Thus, we even have a scriptural basis for listing “common acceptance” as one way of telling what is good.
There are some things, however, that are tragically common despite bringing about an untold amount of tragedy. Divorce, for example, is lamentably common, and there is no getting around the fact that children do tend to suffer as a result. A parent must be very abusive not to be missed by a child, to the point where for most cases there is an argument for working extra hard for the sake of the children and staying together. Naturally, actual abuse situations are different, but if you wife nags you about the toilet seat, just learn to close it. It’s not that difficult.