A mildly humorous attempt to answer some of the "big" questions.
|Have you ever said a word over and over again until it loses all meaning and becomes gibberish? If not, give it a try. I’ll wait.
There. Now, I encourage you to blabber like this is so you understand what I mean when I say that using a word a lot tends to dilute its meaning. Also because it amuses me to think of people sitting at their computer monitors spouting nonsense, but mostly the “understanding the dilution” thing. Actually, a better way of describing it would be that using a word a lot complicates its meaning. The more a word is used, and the broader its applications, and the harder it is to pin down exactly what its true definition is. For example, the most commonly used word in the English language is “I,” as in “I think about words far more than is healthy for any normal human being.” Here’s another fun exercise: try to explain what I means without using it or the word “me” in the explanation.
Makes you think for awhile, doesn’t it? Basic terms like that are always some of the hardest to define, because we’re so used to using them to define other words.
My point in asking you to do these things in an essay about good, evil, love, and life, is because those words are the most fundamentally difficult to define, partially because of the above reason. Heck, they even say the greatest question is to find “the meaning of life,” because looking it up in the dictionary doesn’t cut it for most people.
If my high school ethics class taught me anything, it’s that people have probably been debating about this sort of thing since around the time we realized there was more to life than eating, sleeping, and pooping, and probably will be debating it long after we’ve all become cyborgs interacting with each other through some Matrix-esk neural implant. Philosophers, preachers, politicians, and other intelligent groups of people not starting with “P” have been trying to find the answers since the beginning of time, so as a 19-year-old college dropout, I probably don’t have much of a chance at figuring it out either.
Still, I do have my own personal philosophy that seems to work pretty well for me, so I thought I’d share it with anyone nice enough to humor me for awhile. Why? Because I like philosophy, have a lot of free time on my hands, and the miracle of the the internet makes sure this essay will reach at least a few interested people. Truly a dangerous combination if ever there was one.
Now, to get into the real meat of this dissertation. After 19 years of existence, my personal conclusion on the whole matter is this: being “good” basically boils down to being selfless, and being “evil” basically boils down to being selfish. Note that I said “basically,” so before you start composing scathing arguments meant to boost your ego and hurt my feelings by proving that statement wrong, please note that there are a couple thousand more words to this essay devoted to clarifying and refining it. There are exceptions to the selfless/selfish rule, of course, but before I get into those, let me explain how I came to that conclusion.
Think of what it means to be a “good” person. Everyone has their own definition, but I’m going to try and list a few of the more common qualities: being kind, charitable, courageous, loving, patient, prudent, humble, faithful, and capable of forgiveness. Possessing any of those qualities tends to make the person pleasant to be around or willing to sacrifice for other people. They are the kind of people other people want to work or live with because they help those around them, or at least don’t make their lives any more difficult.
Now think of someone you would describe as “evil.” They probably are only looking out for themselves, don’t care if other people suffer for their actions, and are greedy, vengeful, hateful, or arrogant. They feel like they have a right to do and take whatever they want regardless of the consequences. In a word: selfish.
While evil and selfishness are linked to one another like sadistic Siamese twins, they aren’t inseparable. I think we can all agree that to be “evil,” things or actions have to damage others or deprive them of happiness, which means a person could be thoroughly selfish while also not being evil. Maybe someone cures a terminal disease to get rich off of selling the vaccinations, for example. Similarly, someone could be diabolically evil while being completely selfless, like a mass murder who was crazed enough to think the people he was killing were alien spies infiltrating our society to make the oncoming invasion that much easier. However, I think it’s safe to say that most evil actions get committed because one person or group wants to benefit at the expense of others.
So I guess that would be my first clarification: evil actions are harmful to others in some way, evil people are those that commit a lot of evil actions, for reasons that are usually selfish.
If someone or something isn’t branded as evil because it is inherently harmful, I’ve found that there are two other things that people seem to use as criteria: religion and sex. Sometimes both at the same time. This is the point where I have to say some things that are probably going to incense the more religious or morally upright people into wanting to stone me, so as a disclaimer, if you are one of those types of people, please don’t read any further. If you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you, and please don’t travel all the way to Michigan just to condemn my blasphemous beliefs and chuck rocks at me.
Alright, the full extent of my religious and/or spiritual viewpoint would best be summarized as “Agnostic Unitarian Universalist heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy,” but it’s the U.U. thing that’s important here. For those not familiar with Unitarianism and too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia, Unitarianism is kind of a hybrid philosophy/religion whose core tenant is that everyone has a right to their own search for ultimate truth, and every other religion and philosophy out there contains part of that truth. In other words, no religion/philosophy is completely right or completely wrong, so Unitarians generally don’t get too uptight about what someone believes as long as they’re words and actions prove they aren’t a colossal jerk. Also, one of the things we tend to attribute to colossal jerks is “shoving spiritual viewpoints down other people’s throats because that viewpoint is the only viewpoint out of the thousands on earth that is right.”
The irony is not lost on me that the two groups most likely to do that are fundamentalist monotheists and die-hard atheists. But I digress.
While I believe that you can find wisdom in just about anything (a good chunk of my life philosophy stems from the anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, for example), I also believe in being skeptical about taking things on faith. As you can imagine, this is one of the reasons me and Christianity never got along extraordinarily well. I don’t believe that something is right or wrong just because a book written millennia ago says so. I may be just a tad bitter on this point because, as a bisexual, I’ve gotten rather tired of people who believe in a God that cares so much about who we’re boinking that he sends people to burn for all eternity for it.
Before I infuriate the faithful anymore, all I’m saying here is that if you think something is wrong because your bible/Koran/whatever holy text says its wrong, and that’s that, fine. I believe in letting people follow whatever path they feel is right, even if I disagree with it. However, because I am not tied to any particular religion, justification of something’s “wrongness” needs to better than “because Allah/Jesus/Budda/other generic religious figure says it is.”
Speaking of justifying something’s wrongness, I have another brain exercise for you. Yes, another one, stop complaining. Interactive reading is good for you. Now, I want you to think of the most vile, evil, reprehensible act that you can. Now, assume someone is asking you why it’s wrong. After you explain why, they ask why that is bad. Continue ad infinitum and see how long it takes before you are forced to reply with “because it just is, okay!” A simplified example:
“Rape is bad.”
“Because someone can be physically abused and hurt in the process, not to mention the near-irreparable damage to the victims psyche, all because someone wanted some short-term physical pleasure.”
“Why is it bad when people get hurt physically and mentally?”
“Because it causes them pain that makes it difficult to do the things they want to do, and makes it harder for them to live a normal life.”
“Why is it bad that they can’t do things and live a normal life?”
“Because it just is, okay!”
All explanations of morality reach that point eventually. A person may be able to keep it going for quite awhile if they’re clever enough, but ask why enough times and it always falls apart- the person will no longer be able to provide an adequate explanation. It’s almost like people have an abstract, emotional idea of why things are right and wrong, but trying to justify the logic behind it with words never fully works. My philosophy is no different, of course, but the main reason I bring this up is it ties into that “people labeling things evil because it involves sex or religion” thing I mentioned earlier.
You see, sexual morality fascinates me because when discussing why certain sexual acts are wrong, the arguments tend to reach that “because it is” dead end a lot sooner than most others, yet people seem believe that said acts are “disgusting,” “wrong,” or even “evil,” with the kind of fervor that makes suicide bombers look wishy-washy. People just have a gut reaction to such things, one that is near-overpowering, and despite the justification they may provide, the fundamental truth is that they, personally, find it disgusting on an instinctual level. And usually, no amount of logic or reason is going to change their mind.
For those of you who think I’m talking exclusively about homosexuality and other such things, and are sitting there with a smug, self-righteous grin on your face because you know because you know you're far too enlightened to feel that way, I’m going to enjoy taking you down a peg far more than I really should. I mean, I can’t even see you and the thought of it makes me all tingly.
No matter how “enlightened” you may think you are, everyone has something that completely disgusts them, usually without a rational explanation. Maybe it’s the thought of old people having sex, or your parents having sex, or your old grandparents having sex, but for the purpose of this discussion I’m going to go for a more universal one: zoophilia , AKA bestiality, AKA people having sex with animals.
This is one of those things that seems to draw a collective “eeew” from pretty much everyone. As a furry, (AKA someone who is attracted to anthropomorphized animals) I can’t help but feel like this instinctual hatred of zoophilia and confusing furries and zoophiles is one of the reasons the fandom has such a negative connotation with most people, or at least why they find it so weird. So, because I’m the kind of person who analyzes to death things most people spend their whole lives not thinking about (I mean, I did write a twelve-thousand word essay on a fantastical fetish most people have never heard of) I thought of some hypothetical scenarios that I would be very interested in hearing people’s responses to, if the majority of people wouldn’t tear the survey to shreds the moment they laid eyes on it.
For example, there is actually a mental disease out there called clinical lycanthropy, where a person will honestly believe that they have become an animal. They will have episodes where for all intents and purposes, they have the mind of a animal, and can only be brought back to being fully human through intensive therapy. Being that I perpetually live neck-deep in the proverbial gutter, my mind immediately proposed the question of how ethical it would be to sleep with someone who suffers from this disease, mainly because it raises some interesting questions about the idea of consent in a sexual relationship.
The main argument against zoophilia is that because one party is an animal, it is impossible for the animal to properly consent, and therefore is considered rape. An understandable position to take, but ask yourself this: which would be more repulsive to you- two humans sleeping together while one of said humans has clinical lycanthropy, or a human and a real animal sleeping together, when the animal truly desires to engage in sexual activity? Using the aforementioned rationale, the lycanthropy-suffering human would be unable to properly consent, and logically be the more repulsive option, but I’m willing to bet that most people would be more creeped out by the thought of the latter.
Even if it isn’t possible for animals to consent in the “real” world, what about in fictional ones? Intelligent and/or talking animals are incredibly commonplace in stories, even in myths and folklore going back thousands of years. If the animal was just as intelligent as a human and could verbally consent, would that make it any less weird if, say, Mr. Ed managed to get a human girlfriend? What if a married man was magically turned into an animal, would it be unethical for him and his wife to still sleep together? Where do were-creatures who can switch back and forth between animal and human fall on the ethical spectrum? Would it be unethical for an intelligent animal to sleep with an unintelligent animal of the same species, especially if the intelligent one was or is human? Would sleeping with a centaur count as zoophilia if the sex-parts are on the horse half?
Now that I’ve sufficiently assailed your mind with disturbing hypothetical scenarios, I’ll tell you why I think it would be interesting to hear people’s reactions. My hypothesis is that while most people say the main reason they oppose zoophilia is the consent issue, when faced with situations where consent was no longer an issue, they would still find the situation to be morally wrong, or at the very least disgusting, because it repulses them on an instinctual level.
Now, I’m by no means trying to convince you that it isn’t disgusting, especially since if my theory is correct, I might as well try and convince a brick to hover a foot in the air. My goal is to make you think about a conventionally-held moral belief from a completely logical point of view, and sex-related issues are the one thing more than anything else where that becomes almost impossible. Just think about how long people have struggled just to get inter-ethnic and interracial relationships accepted, not to mention homosexual ones- there was a time when they were almost as universally vilified as bestiality is today. And more than likely, it was because of that same instinctual hatred that still burns today. When you understand that homophobes feel towards gays the same thing you feel towards zoophiles or whatever else repulses you, you will understand why it has been so frickin’ hard to get gay marriage legalized in a lot of places.
I’m getting off topic, so let’s get back to the original discussion: the nature of good and evil. My theory (that good is selflessness and evil is selfishness for those of you who forgot) is tied pretty heavily to the creed “if it harms none, do what ye will,” and so doesn’t take arbitrary religious and social taboos into account. The entire point of that ramble was basically just to drive the point home on why my theory doesn’t take such things into consideration: I’m too agnostic to believe something is evil because someone or something “holy” condemns it, and too utilitarian to think something is evil just because it’s disgusting.
So that brings us back to the theory itself. As stated previously, it doesn’t stand up to the “why?” test better than any other, but I’ll try and defend it as best as I can.
Anyone who has taken high school chemistry can tell you that people are made of the same thing everything else is: atoms. Yes, yes, I know they’re made of protons, electrons, neutrons and all those subatomic particles no one but physicists give a rat’s behind about, but I’m going to start with atoms because it’s what most people are familiar with. And because the amount of knowledge I have regarding subatomic particles would, ironically, be roughly the same size as they are.
So, atoms combine to form molecules, which combine to form organic compounds, which combine to form organelles, which work together to make cells, which work together to make tissues, which work together to make organs, which work together to make humans, which work together to make institutions, which work together to make cities, which work together to make counties, which work together to make states (or territories or whatever they call them outside of the U.S.), which work together to make countries, which work together (sort of) to make a global community. In other words, it appears that everything is on some level created by a lot of smaller things working together to make something more complex, whether that’s a society or a television.
This is interesting to me because complexity and power tend to go hand and hand. Power, used here, means “the ability to control or change ones environment”, and while complexity and power aren’t directly proportional to each other, making something more powerful does usually mean increasing its complexity- assuming that all the pieces that make up that something work together properly. Even though complexity is required for greater power, the problem with complexity is that it introduces ever-more ways for something to break down and no longer function at all.
Because this is where things start getting complicated, it’s probably best for me to slow down and provide some examples. Let’s look at an atom, one of the smallest, least complex things out there. Well, at least compared to everything else that is made up of atoms and energy interacting in ways even the smartest people don’t fully understand. An atom is completely inanimate. It has absolutely no control over its environment, and is therefore at the mercy of outside forces. Still, it takes some pretty incredible forces for it to be completely destroyed.
On the other hand, let’s look at countries. Made up of countless people, the combined forces of even a small country has a lot of power. It can control the environment to a great extent by directing all the resources under its control. However, as history has shown, there are a lot of things that can cause a country to break down. Political matters, economic matters, military matters, natural disasters, lack of resources, the list goes on and on.
For another example, look at the evolution of ranged weaponry. A sling, being just a strap of leather or other such material, will probably never let you down. You can drag it through the mud, rain, and sand, beat it with a rock, take it underwater, and still be able to kill someone with it if you know what you’re doing. You can’t treat an M16 that way- it requires constant maintenance to be fully usable. Despite having these advantages, however, there’s a reason that no one leaps into battle with slings anymore.
This power/complexity relationship forms the core of my reasoning on why we tend to view selfless people as being “good.” Humans, as social creatures, are naturally drawn to forming groups. As we’ve advanced, we constantly increase the scope and complexity of these groups. The groups have far more power than any individual human, just like humans have far more power than any of the trillions of cells making up our bodies. This idea of being a part of something greater than ourselves is a fundamental part of the human psyche, just as it is a part of our cells.
Humans possess the most unfathomably complex thing in the known universe: our brains. If trillions of cells, simple, simple cells, can make something as complex as a human, what could billions of human bodies and minds working in tandem create? We view selflessness as good because societies can accomplish the most when everyone works in perfect harmony with each other, much like all the cells do in our bodies. What would happen to a person if each of his component cells decided “hey, screw the rest of you guys, what about me?” The most literal example of that would be when someone contracts cancer. One group of cells multiplies out of control in a way that harms the body as a whole, instead of helping it.
The reason we don’t work in perfect harmony with each other is that we have a little thing called “ego,” a feeling of importance that leads us to try and get the best for ourselves even if it is at the expense of others. Have you ever noticed that pretty much every religion on the planet seems to preach humility as a core concept? I think it’s because ego is the cause of pretty much every problem on the planet when you get right down to it. War usually comes down to conquering and obtaining more resources at the expense of others. Conflicting beliefs is usually the only other reason, and that stems from people’s self-importance telling them that their beliefs are fundamentally “better” than everyone elses. Poverty could be severely alleviated if those who have things shared with those who don’t have them, but of course everyone wants to hold on to what they have.
Before everyone thinks I’m advocated a totalitarian communist society as the most ideal world, I should explain the other half of my philosophy. You see, while ego may be the root of most our problems as a species, it is not evil. In fact, it is integral to what makes a person, and by extension a society, capable of accomplishing so much.
Aaaaaand this is where it gets really confusing. See, the reason a harmonious world society would be so incredible would be because each of its components (IE people) is so mind-warpingly complicated and powerful to begin with. The reason we are complicated is because of ego. It makes each of us unique. It guides what skills we pick up, and which we leave to other people. People tend to be interested in skills they’re best at, and best at the skills they are interested in. Skill and interest reinforce each other, and interest would not be possible without the ego.
In simpler terms, have you ever noticed that the people who are really good at what they do tend to absolutely love doing it? Have you ever tried to pick up a skill that you absolutely despised doing? I’m not saying it’s impossible to be good at something you hate, or love something you’re terrible at, but when people find they have both natural talent and an interest at something, the combination is absolutely magical. When someone finds something that fits that description, it lets them contribute to the world in their own unique way while loving every moment of it. They find harmony, a sense of purpose. Having no ego would deprive people of that opportunity, because having no will would mean no will to grow and learn what’s needed to reach one’s fullest potential. Full potential can only be reached with constant self-education fueled by an earnest desire to excel at something one is interested in.
If everybody was the same, had the same talents and the same interests and the same beliefs, even if they worked in harmony perfectly the result wouldn’t be nearly as incredible as if each of the contributors were unique, because the result wouldn’t be as complex. Look at ant or bee societies, for example. Obviously, even a human society made of a single type of person would be more complicated than an ant colony because of our intelligence, but the principle is the same.
Going back to the body metaphor, (yes I use it a lot, it’s the simplest way explain this stuff, sue me) the reason we work is that we have a ton of different kind of cells that each perform a unique function. We have skin cells, brain cells, red blood cells, white blood cells, nerve cells, muscle cells, and all the cells that make up each of the separate organs that I’m too lazy to type out. Each of them has a purpose that it and only it can do because of what it is. On the same level, society needs all kinds of people to work. Just like your body needs both brain cells and rectum cells, the fact that a job is distasteful doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary.
This is why there are so many movies that focus on a protagonist fighting against all sorts of familial or societal odds in order to be themselves and do what they love. In a weird way, because of them acting selfishly to do what’s right for them, they end up helping everybody.
Have you ever had to deal with a teacher, store clerk, or really anyone who hates their job? Not a lot of fun. Finding your full potential and finding that perfect mix of interest and talent doesn’t just make you happy, it makes everyone who has to interact with you happy. Not just because you’re more cheerful than you would be in a job you hate, but because you perform your job better when you enjoy it. Instead of communism, this would be better described as an idealized form of capitalism where every person, employer or employee, loves what they do for a living.
Once again, without the ego this wouldn’t be possible, and it leads to a deeper kind of harmony than could be achieved if people didn’t have one. If someone was purely selfless, they can be pushed into a position where they can no longer reach their potential and contribute to society as much as they could. An ego is needed to help guide people to finding their perfect niche, no matter how small. Some people are great politicians, some people make works of art, and other people do all the stuff that actually keeps society running, however boring their jobs may be. I mean, even if they are the ones that tend to be considered the “great people” of the world, can you imagine a world full of nothing but politicians and artists? Yeesh.
So if I had to give a summarized treatise on what the meaning of life is, I’d say this: to achieve the delicate balance between reaching one’s fullest potential and contributing to the world in a manner that helps others do the same. This is where it gets tricky, because only you know what your fullest potential is. It’s like balancing on a tightrope with selfishness on one side and altruism on the other. Other people may be able to give you advice, but you can’t tell someone how to walk on a tightrope- you’ll only figure it out by walking it yourself and adjusting your balance along the way.
This ideal society idea is only one half of the “logic” behind my philosophy. The other part? Love. Love is pretty much universally considered good, right? Even if it makes people do really, really stupid things sometimes, most people would agree that love is almost synonymous with goodness. Why would that be? Allow me to explain my thoughts on the matter. Yes, I’m going to try and explain love. Wish me luck.
My position is that love is seeing another person or thing as an extension of yourself. Whether that's your favorite movie or food, your friends, your family, or your spouse, loving something means it’s important enough where it helps define you as a person. For example, say a person loves dolphins. Platonically, to clarify for all the gutter-minded folks out there. So they surround themselves with dolphin imagery, learn all they can about them, bring them up in conversation when they get a chance, work towards being a marine biologist, and so on. Anyone who interacts with them is, of course, going to associate them with dolphins. That person's love of dolphins has caused dolphins to become part of their identity.
This inseparability between the person and the thing they love is why people tend to get really, really passionate about any form of art they care about, whether that’s a movie, a band, a painting, a book, anything that they enjoy profusely. That piece of art is an expression of who they are. If someone insults that art, it isn’t just insulting a thing, it’s insulting an aspect of anyone who likes that thing. We feel the art is expressing a part of ourselves that we would express if we only had the talent. This is also why people who like something want other people to like it too- just like people like to talk about themselves, if a form of art is part of who they are, they’re going to want to share it as well.
But of course, saying you love a movie is quite different from saying you love another person, mainly in that such things can’t love us back- there’s no intimacy. Intimacy is the sharing of oneself with another person. On the mental/emotional/spiritual level, we do that by communicating our thoughts and experiences. On the physical level, we do it through touch. The parts of ourselves that are the most sensitive are the parts we reserve for the people we are most intimate with. Emotionally, that's the stuff we would be most afraid of receiving scorn for- our deepest fears and wildest fantasies, the things that form the core of who we are. Physically, it's the parts that are literally the most sensitive: the genitals, the anus, the breasts, and the mouth. These are the parts that can feel the most pleasure, but are also the most painful to have injured.
Romantic love, and I mean the kind most people would describe as "True Love," is the purest form of intimacy, because the partners share everything about themselves, mentally, emotionally, and physically with each other. Two people (or more, for those polyamorous folks out there) share so much of themselves with one another that the other person becomes essential to their identity. A teacher of mine once said that the concept of marriage is universal in human culture. It may take thousands of different forms, but the core concept is the same: two (or more) people become bonded together to form a family. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Rape is such a powerful concept because it is forced intimacy, a twisted mockery of what should be one of the most beautiful things imaginable. It is one being overwhelming another physically, a violation of one's identity so damaging the victims may never recover.
It isn’t hard to see why we associate romantic love and sex. We tend to want to be close to the people we love, and more than anything else to be close to the people we love romantically. Sex is about as close as you’re ever going to physically get to another person- quite literally, its one person going inside of another in some way.
This doesn’t just apply to objects- loving other people means the same thing. Its why loving another person means being willing to sacrifice for them, and helping them whenever possible. If a person you love isn’t happy, you won’t be happy. Which leads to an interesting side note on the difference between loving someone and liking someone. How many people out there have a family member that, despite wanting to throttle them on a daily basis, you would drop everything and come running if they were in trouble? However much you may wish the contrary, that person is a part of who you are, and seeing them in pain hurts you.
Family is the most likely source of this kind of dichotomy, but friendships and even romantic relationships can be the same way. It’s easier to explain how this sort of thing happens with family than anywhere. In American society, traditionally, one lives with family until becoming an adult at the age of 18. Spend 18 years with anyone and they’re going to influence who you are and what you do, especially those first 18 that seem to take so long to get through. It’s particularly strong with parents and their children because their kids are almost literally a part of them- more so for the mothers than the fathers, but the statement still stands.
The end goal of pretty much every religion is to have people extend that “love if not like” mentality to the entirety of the planet. Hence, the golden rule of morality, almost universally found in the holy texts of every faith on earth: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, expressed in Christianity as “love thy neighbor as thy self.”
Huh. I managed to write an essay that covers both fundamental existential quandaries and bestiality. I feel like that’s some kind of record. Not necessarily a good one, but still, a record. Congratulations for making it all the way to the end of this strange little essay, and I hope that it proved thought-provoking if nothing else.
Alright, you can start the scathing, feeling-hurting, ego-boosting criticisms now.