Existential: What Is Good And What Is Bad?
A few years ago, I read a book by Amish Tripathi, The Immortals Of Meluha. I like that book, not for its storyline but because it got me thinking. The primary problem posed throughout the whole story is that of the good vs bad but towards the end, the problem transformed from who is good/bad to what is good/bad.
It’s a topic that attracts my attention when I read about some person who was behind some extraordinary events of the past. Vladimir Lenin, who is a hero for some and a maniac for others, did what he thought of as best for his people. Hitler and Pol Pot also had justification for their actions. Please don’t think of me as a Hitler worshipper or holocaust denier. The reason behind pointing out these names is that I want to look at extremes and observe something common in all these people, in fact, it applies to all of us.
That shared belief is that in their eyes, whatever they did is for the good. Looking closely, we can go one step further and say that nobody ever does something which they think is bad. Everybody has a proper justification for whatever they are doing or have done. Even when someone does something which seems bad, they justify their actions in their head beforehand or otherwise, they regret it later.
I find it very interesting because contrary to the belief that some people are good and some are evil, it turns out that everyone is good in their own eyes or they only do something which they justify with themselves as good.
This observation pushes us back to the question which is posed in The Immortals Of Meluha. What is good and what is bad? If everyone is good in their own eyes, then where does bad come from? In other words, what are the basis of morals?
Where does bad come from?
Let’s first dive into this question. As we saw before, if everyone is doing good in their own eyes, then where does bad come from?
If we reflect on this question, one thing which seems obvious is that this good and bad is not a linear thing, it cannot be understood through logic or algorithms. If something is good for someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is good for everyone. If something is good at a specific time or place, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be good at all times or places.
For instance, stealing is considered bad but if someone’s kid is dying of hunger and if that person stole a banana for feeding his kid, I don’t think most people want him to be punished under normal circumstances. Let’s take another example, killing is bad but if a soldier kills an enemy, no country in the world will treat him as a criminal. You can think of hundreds of such instances.
For these reasons, it is safe to say that this concept of good and bad is a very peculiar thing and we can also say that it is relative.
So, where does bad come from? Bad comes from someone’s good which is not good for someone else. It seems like bad comes from perspective. It doesn’t mean that people now have the moral right to do whatever they want because there is no permanent good or bad, it just means that the concept of good and bad is either limited or incomplete.
Some people might here say that there are some things which are eternally good and bad. I, as of now, think that everything can be either good or evil at the right place at the right time.
What is the basis of morals at present times?
The basis of morals in the present times in almost all the places of the world comes from the Abrahamic philosophy.
The history of the world after the 16th century, the invasions, the colonization, the development, the wars, globalization, and science are all influenced by the Abrahamic philosophies. Two religions based on it are the two biggest religions of the world. The fact is that in today's era of globalization if any country tries to have their own basis of morals apart from the Abrahamic ones, it will be declared as a rogue nation.
What is Abrahamic Philosophy?
According to Abrahamic philosophy, there is a third person (God) who is on the top of the hierarchy and who already told us what is good and what is bad. It seems good enough in ideal conditions but is bound to be discarded during unfavourable situations.
For example, let us take one of the commandments, You shall not steal. It sounds perfect in situations when everyone has enough but what will happen when a famine struck and it becomes a matter of life and death? People will steal. This is the case with most of the cornerstone of morals according to Abrahamic philosophy; it is dependent on time and place.
In such cases, people are bound to be evil, not because they want to but for the reason that someone somewhere thinks that they are evil.
What should be an ideal basis for morals?
As our present basis of morals is dependent on perspective and it is this attribute that leads to its failure, an ideal basis of morals must have to be independent of the perspective i.e. it has to be independent of time and space. It is only when something is independent of space and time should be called Truth and this truth should be the basis of morals.
Some people might say that there is nothing in our entire universe that is independent of space and time. Of course, there is. Laws of nature are independent of time and space. I understand that in some places in our universe, it seems like the universal laws themselves are broken. I don’t think it gets broken or discarded, it’s just that we don’t understand the laws well enough. If the opposite would be the case i.e. even the laws of the universe itself were relative, the universe wouldn’t have come into existence in the first place.
Some other people might say that let's make the physical laws the basis of our morals. It might have worked but the problem is that not everything is quantifiable. We cannot measure everything in digits, at least as of now; and it is this lack of universality which makes me think that physical laws are not even good enough to start with as the basis of morals.
Our present laws of morals are based on premises which itself doesn’t seem to be true because it was not able to cope with the scrutinies of logic. To have morals which absolute and not relative, we need a premise that does not change with time and space i.e. which remains independent of circumstances. As for exactly what this premise is or could be, I have to inherit the concepts of Indian philosophical systems, which again comes with the risk of my personal bias. That is why I left it to readers to think about some kind of absolute truth, either physical or metaphysical, which can act as an absolute moral compass.