This chapter has to do with several diverse aspects of good and evil. The first topic is the doing of harm to oneself or to others. This is followed by discussions concerning virtues and abilities for conducting one’s life. Then consideration will be given to the question of the validity of assessments of worth. The last topic discussed will be emotion and its relation to values.
Self-Disablement and Harming Others
We have seen that the execution of a simple action is typically controlled by a feedback system. The acquisition of an ability may be seen then as a process of setting up and checking the operation of a feedback system. As noted earlier, a feedback system consists of receptors, which sense the condition to be corrected, effectors, which perform the corrective action, and a control mechanism, which receives information from the receptors, determines the discrepancy between the current condition and the goal, and sends signals to the effectors to reduce the discrepancy. The feedback system continues to operate until the goal has been reached and is reactivated whenever the condition needing correction recurs.
When an ability is first being acquired–that is, when the corresponding feedback systems are being set up to perform the given action–there is a certain amount of emotion generated. A large discrepancy between the current condition and the goal causes uneasiness and dissatisfaction. Failure causes even greater distress. Approaching the goal, reaching the goal, and achieving satisfactory performance, on the other hand, bring happiness.
In the normal course of events, as the ability is mastered the trauma recedes. Thereafter, it is only on occasions when the performance of the action is unusually urgent and a high level of anxiety is reached that any significant amount of emotion is involved.
However, if there are many repeated failures or many of emotions and seemingly would apply only to human beings and other species that have limbic systems (higher mammals), in fact, all species have some protection against repeated frustration and repeated anxiety, although the protection may be in the form of physical exhaustion.
The main point to be recognized, however, is that with human beings particularly the protective adjustment may be pathological. Human beings may avoid learning how to do something if they find the learning process unpleasant. They may engage in substitute activities that are enjoyable but which are not worthwhile. This kind of activity is called self-indulgence. It may consist of doing things that do not need to be done or, worse, doing things that are positively harmful. Using narcotics or drinking alcohol to whatever extent they bring impairment of one’s abilities fall in this category. Self-indulgence also includes doing frivolous things or wasting time or money. All these activities may be pathological in the sense that they are substitutes for more worthwhile, though usually more difficult, undertakings. They have the effect of subverting the person’s potential contribution to society. They constitute an objective definition of a destructive type of behavior. Admittedly, it is not always easy to distinguish between constructive and destructive actions. And constructiveness or destructiveness may not depend on a given action itself but rather on what follows after the given action. Actions must be seen in a context. Although these difficulties exist, there is a significant criterion here.
The same criteria–basically a subverting of one’s own capabilities–can be applied to groups of all sorts (such as businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, institutions, groups of friends, families) as well as to individuals. In all cases it involves taking what seems to be the easy road.
Such self-disablement is one general type of bad behavior. As noted near the end of the section on “Acting” (Cf pages 47 ff), we already have a concept of bad behavior or of misdeeds, for these must be the opposite of doing good. Doing harm is the reverse of doing good; that is, it is contributing to the destruction of abilities. Self-disablement is a destruction of any of one’s own abilities. It might seem that any impairment of the abilities of a larger group is also an injury to self or to one’s purposes, but this is not always the case.
Sometimes the larger group of which one is a part is doing harm rather than good, or doing more harm than good. Sadly, often it is not easy to tell. Moral responsibility involves making a serious effort to be informed, to develop one’s capacities for making judgments, and to exercise one’s best expediently made judgment in each decision. One’s ultimate concern needs to be the ability of humankind to continue to expand its abilities, or, on an even more cosmic level, with such an expansion beyond human capacities. To the extent that the larger group of which one is a part is recognizably doing harm one’s obligation is to work to change the group and to avoid contributing to the doing of harm oneself. Again, one needs to put one’s capacities to the best use.
The larger group, in its effort to do the most good (assuming that is its aim), needs to take appropriate but not overly zealous measures to protect itself from being undermined from within. In general, all groups have some means of rewarding good behavior and discouraging bad behavior. Governments have laws and institutions for enforcing the laws.
Groups also need means for maintaining internal peace and discouraging overly destructive intern strife. Reciprocally, individuals and groups need to develop
peace-making abilities to avoid being a party to mutually destructive contests.
Perhaps some version of a Just War Theory is applicable to battles between groups. It would seem however that primary emphasis needs to be placed on peace-making, and the key to that would seem to be possessing and displaying a complete willingness to help others and to combine one’s own abilities with theirs to serve larger purposes.
These considerations would apply to relations between cultures. It is good for the stability of each culture that most people within the culture accept its norms. Since each culture has contact with other cultures, each culture needs to have some peace-makers who work to reconcile differences and promote the combining of abilities between cultures rather than mutual disablement.
It may be worthwhile to take a longer view of interactions between cultures. The norms and values of each culture tend to get tested by that culture’s interactions with other cultures. Each culture tends to change as a result of such interactions. The assessments of worth that endure, that stand the test of time, come to be regarded as valid and reliable. The enduring assessments and enduring values emerge from the encounter. Cultures may interact peacefully, bringing about a combining of the abilities within each. Their interaction may be hostile and competitive. Or, there may be war. One culture may conquer the other and hold it captive. Whatever the course of interaction, each culture will tend to assimilate some features of the other. And it is the strengths of each culture rather than the weaknesses that tend to endure. To the extent that two cultures destroy each other through warfare there may be little left of either culture that can endure. If the greatest of the writings and works of art of a culture are preserved, it may be reborn within other cultures centuries later. Thus one way or another some of the strengths of each culture tend to endure and to influence other cultures.
These considerations would seem to carry implications for all interactions and also implications about death and leaving the best of oneself behind after death.
Another thought is that there could be circumstances in which terminating the life of a person or a group would seem to be a positive contribution to the expansion of the abilities of society as a whole. Suicide, euthanasia, and incapacitating injury or illness will be discussed in the section “Personal and Collective Loss” of Chapter 6 (pages 101 ff).