Good and evil are still the moral categories through which we judge people’s actions. But these seemingly universal and inescapable moral concepts are anything but. They are the product of a European history and power structure that construed the perceived inferiority and weakness of the ‘other’ as evil. The universality of ‘good and evil’ is a mythology that was used to legitimate the atrocities of Western civilization. To move beyond the dichotomy of good and evil would be to strip away the pretense at the heart of modernity: that ethics is founded on the autonomous rational individual, rather than on power, argues Tommy Curry. Read the full interview below.
Good and evil are arguably still the main moral categories through which we judge people’s actions. Is this moral distinction useful, or is it overly reductive as a way of understanding human behaviour as either pure and good, or corrupt and evil?
Good and evil remain categories of morality because they indicate how the ordination of people, institutions, and leaders with power and being in possession of the good are distributed throughout a society. These categories indicate which entities are charged with protecting civilization and saving others from evil. Historically the idea of good and evil have been concepts that have married individuals to the will of groups and permitted individuals entrance into a social contract with states.
Intellectually, it is useful for historians and philosophers to understand how civilizations have constructed what is good and condemned what is taken to be evil during a specific time or within a particular culture or geography. Unfortunately, what is thought to be pure or good or corrupt and evil asks us to ultimately appeal to a utopian world whereby our judgements can be thought of abstractly—without the influence of our own personal interest and will. Good and evil tell us little about human behavior—only how human beings have traditionally judged behaviors that produce harm or benefit.
What do you see as the main role of these moral concepts today?
The labels of good and evil are heuristics of social conscience. They are markers of a particular society or community’s conceptual horizons of harm, injury, or dissent. These are highly contestable markers that are under persistent scrutiny but nonetheless often codified in law and socialized throughout the society through education, media, and peer expectation. However, the basic dichotomy between good and evil serves as the foundation if not the building blocks for how individuals engage their existential burdens of freedom and pleasure as well as how groups define themselves in relation to others.
The mythology of good and evil allows powerful groups and nations to construct weaker groups, nations, or races as inferior or evil—and thereby in need of remedy.
Is part of the problem with good and evil that we can’t seem to reach agreement over their meaning? Terrorists famously believe they are the good guys, fighting against evil. Even the Nazis believed they were on a moral crusade against corruption, managing to enlist the support of the Catholic Church. Do these concepts lose their meaning if one person’s good is another person’s evil?
Agreement is not really the problem. The categories of difference that allow one to believe the terrorist is evil supposes that the imperial force is either good or morally ambiguous enough that they are to be preferred to the terrorist which is of course bound up with the civilizational discourse of Orientalism and Islamophobia. Throughout the West, and really the world given the reach of globalization, we ascertain the morality of groups (e.g.: terrorists, Nazis, etc.) based on the horrors they commit.
The mythology of good and evil allows powerful groups and nations to construct weaker groups, nations, or races as inferior or evil—and thereby in need of remedy. What is unstated in these configurations is that the horrors powerful groups commit against peoples, nations, or races deemed to be evil are not thought to be so horrible because these atrocities were directed towards evil people in the name of the good.
Philosophers must think seriously about asking for the refutation of the good; or a recognition that what is acting in the name of the good is in fact evil. If Jewish people were not people in the same sense as Germans, or Blacks are not people in the same way as whites, then we are not really asking for agreement with the presumptions towards the inferior groups. What we are asking for is an abstract assimilation of Jews, Blacks, etc. into the manifold of humanity such that these groups are no longer outside the moral community but within it. The concepts of good and evil do not lose their meaning. It is simply the empirical case that good and evil have no meaning beyond how nations and institutions, like the Catholic Church, use those terms to enforce who or what is good or evil throughout society.
Universalism is a myth produced by Europe and Europeans to legitimize the horrors that have fueled and funded its civilization.
Nietzsche famously offered a history of how our modern ethical categories of good and evil came about around 2,000 years ago in his book Genealogy of Morality. Do you think that looking at how ethical concepts evolved is useful in helping us understand their present use and value?
Absolutely I do. I am a big fan of genealogy and history. Our ethics—or systems of evaluating and in many cases producing morality—depend in great deal on what we see both to be the nature of humanity and the perennial vices or downfalls of humans as well. I am interested in how the concept of the human we have is itself a product of a particular white European culture and produced by its capacity to be the good and remedy evil in the world.
Could you say a bit more on this last point? Are you saying that the fact that western morality was developed by white people is somehow relevant to the content of that morality?
It is not that morality was made by white people that is of primary relevance, rather it is that the ethical systems thought to resolve moral quandaries were authored by nations and civilizations committed to the idea that some “human beings” stand outside the moral communities their ethical systems constructed.
The greatest atrocities in the West from the 1800s forward were committed against people thought to be outside of the civilizational trajectory of Europe. Africans and Jews, even other European groups such as the Roma and Irish, were considered immoral. Racism and the enslavement of Blacks in the mid-1800s was thought to be a necessary act against the devil’s race of snake worshippers. This ethnological trope was fictive—an invention, but nonetheless deemed scientific. Good and evil requires mythology. The good is just as fantastical as evil throughout the West.
What is up for consideration is not the existence of what is good or evil, but rather how violence and death are required for the existence of both to be actualized in the world. Those who are not evil, are not human, while those who are good are thought to be superior and gifted the power to eliminate or enslave those who are inferior. The content of morality—how it is actualized—seems to be a flaw in its design so to speak, or as I mentioned above, perhaps it is more so a flaw in the version of the human who acts as the architect of our ethical and moral systems.
One of Nietzsche’s criticisms of the modern morality of good and evil was its universal pretense, the idea that it applied to everyone and all possible forms of action, independently of context. You have also argued against the appeal to universal values, like equality, especially when it comes to thinking about how to improve the condition of black people in the US. What’s wrong with universal values?
The failure of universalist values is not the recognition of their ineffectiveness to establish universal norms of behavior, but rather as Aimé Cesaire explains to us in Discourse on Colonialism understanding that the pretense of universalism is that it is a product of civilization and reason, and by effect separate from those who are primitive, savage, and Black. Fascism and Nazism are merely the products of Europe turned inward towards other whites and not the Blacks of Africa.
Universalism is a myth produced by Europe and Europeans to legitimize the horrors that have fueled and funded its civilization. As Cesaire said back in the mid-20th century, “Europe is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it have proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics.” Europe fails because the non-European is the savage and the “evil” the world requires the good whites to extinguish for the sake of humanity.
This is why the notion of equality is plagued as well. It demands the oppressed to assimilate into the concept of the human that was produced through genocide, enslavement, and dehumanization. Equality demands those who have been defined as sub-persons, as lesser beings who are fundamentally unequal to whites, to be like white people just enough to not be exterminated or enslaved—or treated like the non-whites they are. There are always those who are outside the moral scope of Europe, and this is a deliberate product to modernity’s universalist trend.
The late Derrick Bell has shown that the rule of law is merely a tool utilized by powerful white groups to criminalize and limit the civil rights of racial minorities.
Have we not witnessed the constant expansion though, of the group of humans that have full moral status? In Ancient Greece and Rome only free male citizens enjoyed full moral status – slaves and women did not. Would you disagree that today things are significantly different? Modern liberal democracies, compared to the Athenian democracy, recognize, at least in principle, the equal moral and legal status of all citizens.
Yes, we have witnessed the constant expansion of groups of humans that have full moral status, as well as the reciprocal expansion of groups who are negated and deprived of human standing and moral status in our own time. The presumed gift of modernity—the autonomous rational individual—simultaneously presumes the society and culture left behind as savage. What of those beings outside of civil society—outside of Hegel’s history—are they full moral beings? Of course, they are not.
But we then say, in the 20th century (the century of the most atrocious genocides witnessed) that we can resolve the conflicts of difference and the perennial war between good and evil through the assimilation and incorporation of lesser moral beings within empires and nations. Those groups deemed to be different and a threat to modern liberal democracies are lethally exterminated, imprisoned, segregated, or deported.
Are our modern democracies in the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, or elsewhere really so different from the ancient world? Or do we rationalize the deaths and sub-personhood of those deemed evil as necessary for the preservation of modern liberal democracies and the nation itself? Dr. Huey P. Newton suggested this was in fact the problem of American democracy since citizens allowed the government the power to decide which dissidents should be killed to preserve the freedom of the white majority. The late Charles Mills has shown that social contract theories have failed to protect non-whites in liberal democratic states just as the late Derrick Bell has shown the rule of law is merely a tool utilized by powerful white groups to criminalize and limit the civil rights of racial minorities.
The task before us is in how we understand the expansion of the alleged good (e.g.: citizens, free individuals, recognized groups, democracy, etc.) against what is said to be the ever-growing threat of evil (e.g.: Blacks, Islam, terrorism, immigration, communism, etc.). It is the division of social realities into binaries of good and evil that give the philosopher much to consider in reflecting upon our own time.
The question of what is good or bad depends on the power and will of the group(s) in power to protect their own position and interests.
Racism and the equality delusion Read more If we were to reject the universal moral value systems of good and evil, what are the alternatives? How can we make sense of moral code that isn’t universal?
How do we make sense of the irrational or the anti-human? To reject universalism requires us to seriously investigate and learn from groups of people excluded from the universalist purview of the West. Other groups do not have the luxury or delusion of believing that moral acts will be adopted as regulative ideas for others. It is only those who are in positions of power and hold the ability to enforce their beliefs upon others through violence that suggest there are not any other approaches to thinking of morality absent the notions of good and evil.
Can morality be separated from the political conditions it exists in?
This is a fascinating question that truly haunts how philosophers and social theorists profess their political ideology as the ethics of the day. How one thinks about what is right or wrong not only applies to the actions of individuals but extends to the very nature of what groups and other social entities are. While I can say that the oppression of Black people and Muslims are wrong, perhaps white Americans or British peoples believe the destruction of white people or white culture are just as wrong. The question of what is good or bad depends on the power and will of the group(s) in power to protect their own position and interests. So the political conditions which are often the expression of the dominant group(s) who hold power in a society ultimately dictate what can be thought of as good or bad.
To move beyond the dichotomy of good and evil would allow individuals to see the world stripped of pretense.
What would be the benefits, political and otherwise, of a moral code beyond good and evil?
To move beyond the dichotomy of good and evil would allow individuals to see the world stripped of pretense. The reality of our social existence is anchored by the ability the society or our epoch has in getting us to comply with the concepts that ground this particular time. Our thinking and more importantly our acceptance of the borders and limits of thought breeds complacency and compliance. To then ask what the benefit of a moral code beyond good and evil is requires us to think of the peculiar consciousness of reality that could comprehend the world beyond these concepts.
If one escapes the binary of good and evil then one would also see the failure of Western universalism and the illusion of Western civilization, and the myth of reason serving as the basis of ethics. To move beyond good and evil ruptures the delusion of the universal claim to truth thought to be found in ethics and the freedom of modernity’s construction of MAN.
Would we lose anything by leaving behind us this moral code of good and evil? Is there a degree to which these absolute values help regulate social behaviour, but also help individuals aspire to certain ideals, or is there no positive role they can play?
This is a fascinating question that ultimately deals with the philosophical anthropology motivating our conceptual schemas. Within the Western tradition for example Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed that "the natural man is complete in himself; he is the numerical unit, the absolute whole, who is related only to himself or his fellow-man." For Rousseau, the question of regulating behavior or the rational constraint that a system of ethics provides to individuals is but the curse of civilization. Because civilized man "is but a fractional unit that is dependent on its denominator, and whose value consists in its relation to the whole, which is the social organization,” the acts of the individual removed from nature depends on the metrics for actions and being (e.g.: citizen, individual, person, etc.) dictated by that particular society.
These ideas are useful insofar as they produce ideas or a particular conscience that regulates how individuals act, or perceive, others around them. However, it is also this tendency to produce beliefs about those outside a group or society that enable dehumanization, mass murder, and racist oppression. Rousseau suggests in nature how one treats others is an extension of the very being natural man has towards the world he engages through touch, feel, and sense. Morality is merely the projection of himself into the world as a reciprocal expectation of others. It is civilization that creates the universalist impulse which demonizes those of nature as primitive and in need of colonization, extermination, or religious conversion.
What are the chances we’ll see a new moral code develop in the near future, and what’s the way this might happen? How do societies move from one moral system to another?
Moral codes appear as a result of the concrete and material shifts of time. There is an ending of days that often accompany the falling of moral regimes. Massive societal upheavals and death often signal the need for conceptual regimes and orientations to change. Without these ruptures, without the dissolution of the conceptual schemas that support social organization, moral codes have no need to change or shift.