Good and evil, right and wrong. In our post-modern world, it can feel like such objective characteristics have no place in society – “evil”, in particular, feels like too strong a phrase to attribute to anything or anyone in these relativist times. And yet it continues to beguile us in fiction and in real life, just as much as we respond to the struggle between heroes and villains in both real and imagined narratives. The question is, why? And is this deeply-held notion of “black-and-white” morality a necessity, or a mistake?
These are the central questions of our latest debates, where ethics is interrogated. In Dancing with the Devil featuring Cambridge Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, philosopher Rebecca Roache and Peter Dews, author of The Idea of Evil, the nature of evil is examined. While in The Good, The Bad and The Controversial, Spiked Online Editor Brendan O'Neill, NCH philosopher Naomi Goulder, journalist Sameer Rahim, and Coco de Mer founder Sam Roddick pick apart morality itself.
But if we’re talking about ethics, and the unethical in particular, then it’s just as worth looking at the light side of things as it is the dark. So what do our world-leading philosophers, writers, scientists, historians, and politicians have to say about being good? For their perspectives on the values of virtue, look no further.
1 ‘It’s rewarding to be good, not a chore’ – Mark Vernon | A former clergyman, now writer, teacher and psychotherapist. His latest book is The Idler Guide To Ancient Philosophy
"We tend to think that goodness is a moral judgment. She is a good child, someone might say. But the ancients treated goodness as a quality or virtue. It's supremely desirable because it's integral to our flourishing. Goodness tastes good, really good.
Why might that matter to us? Because it might help us come to feel that goodness is a joy, not an injunction; that it lifts us up, not leaves us guilty and wanting; that it is part of becoming all that we might become… in an age starved of trust and vision – of goodness as a self-evident good – Plato can feed us."
Read How to Be Good
2 ‘We may choose to ignore evil for an easy life’ – Margaret Heffernan | Entrepreneur, CEO and author. Her book Wilful Blindness was chosen as one of Financial Times’ business books of the decade.
"Albert Speer, Hitler’s favourite architect… famously could not remember what he had known of Hitler’s final solution. And this was not because he believed himself innocent – he pleaded guilty at Nuremberg – but because, even under intense and sustained interrogation by Gitta Sereny, he simply could not remember.
Many people believed Speer lied. But Sereny considered Speer’s experience. He did know, she thought – but only enough to ensure that he looked away. After all, she explained, you have to know it’s bad to make the choice to look in the other direction.
And although most of us don’t readily identify with Speer, we do adopt similar strategies. We may carefully ignore, minimise or trivialise information that would challenge our sense of well-being or security. The partners of child abusers frequently do so; partners in adulterous marriages frequently do the same: why is the wife always the last to know? Not because the information isn’t visible but because it is visible enough for us to look in the other direction."
Read Wilful Blindness
3 ‘It’s the intention behind an action that makes it good or not – which makes judgements tricky’ – Tom Sorell | Professor of Politics and Philosophy and Head of the Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group at Warwick University
"Suppose that I drag someone out of the line of fire because there are many witnesses and, unconsciously, I want to acquire a reputation for bravery. Although it is good to want to be, and to be, brave, treating life-saving merely as a means to a reputational gain is morally questionable, because it is insufficiently sensitive to the way in which loss of life is a complete end to a living person’s well-being. So the unconscious reason throws doubt on the morality of the behaviour of saving someone’s life."
Read Beyond Humanity
4 ‘We don’t need God to be good’ – Stephen Law | Philosopher of religion at the University of London. Books include The War for Children’s Minds and Believing Bullshit.
"It's often claimed that unless we believe in God we'll suppose 'everything is permitted' and so end up sliding to moral catastrophe. Yet, when we look across world’s developed democracies, we find that those that are most religious – including, of course, the United States (where 43% of citizens claim to attend church weekly) – have the highest rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease (STD), teen pregnancy and abortion. The least religious countries, such as Canada, Japan and Sweden, have the lowest rates.
Our basic morality appears to be a pretty much universal feature of human societies, religious or not. Indeed, some research suggests that children from religious families actually tend to be less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households. It's possible that religion may actually end up making us, not more moral, but less."
Read Belief and the Gods
5 ‘Wrongdoers can’t entirely be blamed for their actions' – Colin Tudge | Co-founder, College for Enlightened Agriculture; author, Consider the Birds and The Secret Life of Trees.
"In judging evil, we obviously must take account of behaviour but also of the underlying state of mind; and whether that state of mind is inveterate, or has been forced upon the wrongdoer. For example, many young people have turned to crime, including violent crime, not because they enjoyed causing pain but simply because they were born on the wrong side of the tracks, and saw no realistic alternative. Many a bad dog has simply been badly treated.
So there is no one-to-one relationship between unsocial behaviour and innate evil. Of course, too, if the evil is “innate” – if it has some genetic base, say – then we should not blame the wrongdoer either, because nobody can choose their genes."
6 ‘Conceptions of goodness have their limits’ – Linda Woodhead | Expert on contemporary religion, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University
"The Christian conception of altruism gives the oppressed no tools by which to better themselves. There are very well documented tendencies in Christianity for women to be anorexic, for example. Starving yourself to death was not that uncommon and was seen as a spiritual practice, because it’s a logical – if extreme – conclusion of altruism. You don’t even feed yourself.
Philosopher Simone Weil starved herself to death in the Second World War. Medieval mystics starved themselves to death. This is certainly not something we should be commending, but actually I kind of admire those women because they are taking the teaching to its logical extreme. If other people are starving then what right do you have to eat? So Simone Weil gave up her food to other people. There is a heroic logic to that, but I don’t think that’s really the basis for an everyday ethic."
Read Self and Selfless
Want more on morality? Try the debates below: