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I've noticed that a lot of arguments for or against a God (especially the Christian God) assume that good and evil exist. Why is this?

I had always assumed there was a good and evil while I was a Christian, but now being an agnostic and delving into philosophy, I don't know if this is a correct assumption. Does anyone know a solid proof for the existence of a moral right (good) and a moral wrong (evil)? I may be asking an impossible question, but I think the burden of proof lies on the theist to prove morality even exists (absolutely).

PS: I know that there is an absolute right and wrong, but not necessarily good and evil. For example: 5+5 absolutely equals 10, but 10 is not morally superior to 5.

  • your purported knowledge of "right and wrong" is not confirmed by your arithmetical example because there is no need to associate the correctness of arithmetic with "right and wrong" (a phrase typically restricted to moral claims). This probably just means that we need to make a distinction between moral claims (claims about right/wrong) and claims about the "correctness" or validity of mathematical statements. I agree that we have no need to appeal to good/evil EVER...let alone for conceptualizing or confirming mathematical statements. – jeffreysbrother Jul 21 '17 at 18:14
  • @jeffreysbrother As far as I thought, right and wrong did not used to be used to describe anything related to morality. The definitions of right and wrong are to be either aligned or misaligned with reality itself. The definition of good and evil is "morally right" and "morally wrong", respectively. The distinction between moral truths vs normal truths has always been there, our society has just muddied the line between the two. Most people don't know that the word good means anything more than right, which is too bad. – CyberGenesis Jul 21 '17 at 18:22
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manichaeism – John Am Jul 21 '17 at 18:35
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    surely this has come up a 1000 times – user25714 Jul 21 '17 at 18:40
  • Proof by example. Someone I knew fed firecrackers to a frog: that was wrong. Someone encouraged another person to stay alive, saving their life: that was right. – David Bahry Jul 21 '17 at 18:46

12 Answers 12

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I'll focus on

I had always assumed there was a good and evil while I was a Christian, but now being an agnostic and delving into philosophy, I don't know if this is a correct assumption. Does anyone know a solid proof for the existence of a moral right (good) and a moral wrong (evil)? I may be asking an impossible question, but I think the burden of proof lies on the theist to prove morality even exists (absolutely).

User idiot an has already sort of given a brief overlook, but I want to make a few points hopefully more precise.

Firstly, the burden of proof isn't strictly a concept in philosophy. As a rule of thumb: whenever someone makes a claim that needs backing then an argument has to be made. When there's disagreement then there's no default position that can be asserted without argument. So moral anti-realism / nihilism / scepticism isn't a default, but would also have to be "proven" itself by providing an argumentative challenge.

Secondly: we should ignore the question of whether good and right, or bad and evil are the same things. This is another matter, but we're asking about whether there's morally right or wrong. For example we might think that something can be morally wrong but not necessarily evil, as evil seems to imply intention. But this doesn't have to be the case. So we bracket this issue.

Thirdly, there's the issue of terminology: what are we looking for when we want to find out whether morally right and wrong exist? This is a question of metaethics. But metaethics has many different aspects and disagreement between which aspects are even relevant in discussion. So we can ask semantically: how do moral propositions work and what are they refering to? Or metaphysically/epistemological: how can moral facts be known or defended? And so on.

"Moral realism" is mostly - but not only - a description of a semantic position. It at least holds that moral statements have a truth value, which can be true in some cases and refer to mind-independent facts. But this wouldn't work without it being possible to know moral facts, so this already plays into it. Also it's not clear what constitutes mind-independent facts.

Usually moral realism gets divided into non-naturalism and naturalism. Naturalism holds that moral facts derive from natural facts. But there are also subjectivist naturalist positions or positions. The difference depends heavily on the specific position. Non-naturalism holds that moral facts are abstract. Here the math example comes in handy as an analogy: mathematical facts seem to be abstract, moral facts might be thought of to be similar. At least non-naturalism thinks they can't be derived from natural facts alone.

To show an example of why the positions aren't clear. Some forms of moral constructivism (more on that here) hold that people have basic values. Those might or might not be similar; some hold that we as humans have the same basic values. Now any moral beliefs or acts that contradict those basic values are incorrect for us. Hence, in a way, we might think that there's objectively right and wrong. On the other hand it looks like an anti-realist position. But Scanlon for example considers himself to be moral realist, while Street thinks her position is sort of relativist.

Tl;dr: moral anti-realists or relativists in the usual sense make argumentative challenges for position that are "effectively realist", in that they permit judging other peoples moral belief to be right or wrong. There's an enourmous amount of literature, so ideally it would be best not to assume anything. From what is seems most professional philsophers are atheist and hold some sort of moral realism. But this does not mean there aren't defensible moral anti-realist or relativist accounts, but instead that moral realism shouldn't be dismissed without reading the arguments.

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I absolutely agree with your skepticism. There are objectively right and wrong solutions, with respect to a formally defined problem. But the concepts of good and evil are subjective and often logically contradictive.

I would venture to say most everyone has a conscience, which drives them to act according to their own framework of morality. Most practically, this entails some complicated hierarchy of importance, with key factors including the self (personal needs and desires, like not dying), the inner circle (friends and family, how they perceive and interact with you), society (how everyone else is acting, and the urge to conform). Perhaps genetics play some key role in the creation of the conscience as well.

The part where it's a non-uniform complex is why one can say that good and evil do not empirically exist. They are social constructs loosely based around maintenance, wellbeing and propagation of life as we know it.

  • I agree, I would't necessarily say that the conscience is an actual "thing". It's more of an ideology that is generated by events around you, and your reaction to them. To say that I have a conscience is the same (imo) as saying I am driven by a sense of morality. Which again, is all subjective. Philosophy is weird, where things "exist" that actually don't (morals w/o objective morality, etc) – CyberGenesis Jul 21 '17 at 18:30
  • The simple moral realist response could be: those moral frameworks can just be wrong. Your position can be held and defended, but arguably this would need more initial argumentation. – Marc H. Jul 22 '17 at 8:45
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I think the burden of proof lies on the theist to prove morality even exists (absolutely).

Very many atheist philosophers are absolutists and deny relativism, which isn't the same as moral realism, nor its strongest version, error theory. You seem to be asking about relativism, yet are also perhaps asking about anti-realism or error theory.

Long story short: in moral relativism the practical obligation to be moral is tempered by the fact that we can rationally have different moral judgements. Read about it here.

Error theory, which says that nothing is good or evil, is niche.

  • After looking into all of those different stances on morality, I would say I'm probably on the side of error theory. I don't believe that morality actually exists as a real thing, only as an idea created by society. – CyberGenesis Jul 21 '17 at 19:29
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    To be more precise: error theory holds that there are no moral facts, hence moral statements that refer to them are always wrong. Mackie also sort of argues for normative ethical discourse to still be useful. @jthomasson Note that there's is a lot of discourse in meta-ethics including many objections against or defenses of the arguments for error theory. Moral naturalists also think that the argument from metaphysical queerness does not apply to their position, see f.e. Foot's Natural Goodness. Constructivists might try to posit this as well. – Marc H. Jul 22 '17 at 8:35
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What if I shot you dead and it's just a prank? My actions will have no significance at all from an objective point of view. However, shooting you is bad from your point of view, and letting you shoot me when I have the chance to shoot you is good from the same angle. Two actions but essentially the same action, i. e. shooting, are good at one time and bad at another time. How do I know though? I subject these actions into some contemplation and use my reasoning ability to label one action as good and the other bad. So at one point reason dictates that shooting for self-defense is good. Now will we still consider shooting for self-defense is good only in a subjective point of view? I will not, for I say 5+5=10 using my reasoning abilities and I can in the same way say that shooting for self-defense is good. It becomes "a rational point of view".

I agree with you when you say that there is no absolute right or wrong. But right and wrong should not be confused with good and bad. They are basically different. Right and wrong have a purely subjective edifice while good and bad have something to do with rationality which is universal. So there is nothing wrong in assuming the existence of good and bad.

As pointed out in comments and answers, I do believe that evolution has something to do with the idea of right and wrong. The idea is pragmatically important for the survival of the species as a whole. After all democracy is again purely subjective and law is law only by democracy (or at least it looks that way!).

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It's a lot easier to get people to do what they normally wouldn't if you convince them appropriately about whether one side was either good or evil. It's a very effective way to manipulate a populace, since a belief spreads with social interaction (humans are very socially active).

It's very cynical, but if you think about how many times in human history, a civilization or society were driven forward for "good", or to stop an opponent society's "evil" it's fairly reasonable to assume that "good and evil" is a small cross section in a wider topic of morality; it's an oversimplified paradigm which allows for control over a population. After all if every person in a society were able to express whether something is in between good and evil -- or maybe not even in the same scale --, it would be rather dissonant!

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Your question accurately identifies the extensive interrelatedness of the terms "good" and "evil" with the conception of an overarching religious deity (as you mention in particular, the Christian God). There is a historical genealogy associated with the linguistic and social concepts of "good" and "evil" with respect to religion (and non-religion, as it were) and in contradistinction to notions of "good" and "bad", and at this point in the answer I definitely recommend that you familiarize yourself with Friedrich Nietzsche, who has provided lengthy, entertaining, and insightful analysis on this topic. Specifically, refer to "On the Genealogy of Morality" in its entirety for his individual approach to this question, or perhaps just Essay 1 if you want a limited but still lucid perspective. But, I think that your line of questioning is highly relevant to his works, if you have not encountered him yet.

From a more general understanding, however, I am unsure as to the scope of your question. Do you wish to say that 'people' rely on "good" and "evil" as necessary and sufficient precursor concepts before discussing some sort of God? Or that those two are derivative concepts that more likely exist in the concept space of religion? If the former is so, that itself is a tenuous statement, particularly when you state that you believed in such concepts while you were a Christian. You seem to clarify when you comment that your agnosticism has diminished your belief in the necessity of "good" and "evil" as existing separate from the notion of a God, which suggests that you are approaching a body of evidence that can somehow disprove or discredit the existence of Christian morality, which can be understood separately from attempting to understand the existence of a God. But to attempt to more directly answer your question, it is reasonable to say that no, there does not exist a readily understood and accepted body of proof for or against 'objective' morality. But even such a statement as the former is, in itself, problematic and somewhat philosophical. Essentially, I highly suggest that you read Nietzsche on this matter for a more landed perspective and as beginning source of investigation.

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Why are you more sure about 5+5 = 10 than, say, "killing innocent people for fun is bad"? I don't think you can prove existence for something like that the way you want. It's not like you can point to a physical object.

Why do you need a proof? Any proof is going to rely on other unfounded assertions. So I'm not sure what you think an absolute proof would be as each statement of the proof cannot be absolute. You will eventually reach statements you have to take as true on faith.

I don't need anything fancy to show what morality is and that it has a meaning for people. Say, if I ask someone how they feel about people who bully in the work place, or people who torture animals for fun, etc, I can guarantee most people will have strong feelings about how bad those actions are morally. That's just to say that words like "bad" and "good" have meaning in a language.

I think a question like "does goodness exist", in the philosophical metaphysical sense, is a question a bit like "what time is it on the sun" (to borrow from Wittgenstein) in that it seems to present a puzzle to us, but when we look closer we see that the expectation that there would be a suitable meaningful answer is mistaken.

  • Why am I more sure of 5+5? Because if I take 5 sticks and add in 5 more, I end up with 10 of them. Mathematics is simply using our language to describe the reality we live in, as well as cause and effect (like physics). From the evolutionary perspective, a subjective morality makes sense, because of survival instinct. I guess a better way to ask my initial question to a theist would be this: "Why should I believe you when you claim that good and evil exist, and have any bearing on reality?" – CyberGenesis Jul 21 '17 at 18:38
  • That's probably a better way of putting it, and that is where I'd be inclined to say that if you don't agree with me already about good and bad being useful concepts, then there is no way I can logically compel you to believe the same (in the same way you can't force someone to believe that 5+5=10, you can try explain it but they could still refuse to believe you - you should check out Lewis Carroll's dialogue on this between the tortoise and Achilles in relation to modus ponens). Also, I wouldn't try arguing for good and bad existing, because I don't think that question is meaningful – Franz Jul 22 '17 at 7:05
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Although I am a Christian, I agree with the observation that people in general do assume this. I think one reason could be that in basing our understanding of logic on grammar, predicate logic was the prevailing system of logic till at least towards the end of the 19th century, when the prevailing model of logic began to shift towards a model based on mathematics - propositional logic (my understanding from Stephen Mulhall on this program BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time - The Continental-Analytic Split). In ordinary language, one could argue that "good" and "evil" as predicates are integral parts of how we speak and think about things. So maybe we automatically extrapolate from the integral nature of these terms in how we speak and thing about things, to metaphysics.

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One might argue that we're genetically programmed to believe in good and evil, whether they actually exist or not.

When an animal sees a predator, it typically reacts in fear. The predator is regarded as a bad thing, which, in the human mind, may become "evil."

Conversely, most "higher" animals are programmed to care for their young, which are by default regarded as "good," not evil.

I wish I could remember the video I watched in which a guy says something like "Ethics are facts about the well-being of creatures."

That statement really resonated with me. "Good," in the broadest sense, can be interpreted as doing something that will somehow benefit another person or living thing.

Of course, there's a hierarchy involved; we're more concerned with doing good to family members than to strangers, and most of us would help another human before we help an elephant, which in turn outranks a leech.

In summary, one might argue that good and evil do exist, even if they're difficult to quantify or even define. Or, to put it another way, you could define good and evil in a way that makes their existence more tangible.

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Not necessarily going to help much here but I think we would need to do some more unpacking in order to determine what we think "good" or "evil" is before we discuss any assumption that one or other exists.

For instance, teasing out at the original question:

I had always assumed there was a good and evil while I was a Christian, but now being an agnostic and delving into philosophy, I don't know if this is a correct assumption. Does anyone know a solid proof for the existence of a moral right (good) and a moral wrong (evil)? I may be asking an impossible question, but I think the burden of proof lies on the theist to prove morality even exists (absolutely).

PS: I know that there is an absolute right and wrong, but not necessarily good and evil. For example: 5+5 absolutely equals 10, but 10 is not morally superior to 5.

  • There seems to be an assumption that (at least some) examples of moral rights are good and (at least some) examples of moral wrongs are evil. However good / evil might only be descriptive or emotional labels that are applied in certain circumstances - they might not have an independently supported existence

  • The PS mixes the notion of absolute right and absolute (moral) right. Lets assume that 5+5 formally equals 10 and that this is sufficient to establish this as an absolute truth. There is no notion of morality in this equation and so there's no reason to contemplate that 10 might be morally superior to 5 - so the "fact" that it isn't doesn't really help us.

I suspect we could start by discussing a working definition of "good" and "evil" rather than shifting directly to moral rights and wrongs?

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"Good" and "evil" are nothing but the most subjective value judgements humans attribute to certain thoughts, feelings and emotions, for the sake of giving a sense of direction to their own lives and being able to judge others.

There is nothing in this universe that is objectively "good" and nothing that is objectively "evil". The sensation that there exists some form of universal, absolute morality that allows us to make such distinctions objectively is an illusion. That's why no two cultures agree completely on what exactly constitutes as "good" and "evil".

Nevertheless, this illusion of "good" and "evil" is necessary for most people to make sense of their own lives and the lives of others. So are many other illusions. It would be foolish to assume that we can or should ignore something just because it is an illusion. Reality is more complex than that.

To quote Terry Pratchett's Hogfather:

S : What would've happened if you hadn't saved him?

D : Yes. The sun would not have risen.

S : Then what would've happened?

D : A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.

S : Alright, I'm not stupid. You're saying that humans need fantasies to make life bearable.

D : No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

S : With tooth fairies, Hogfathers... Yes.

D : As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

S : So we can believe the big ones?

D : Yes. Justice, mercy, duty, that sort of thing.

S : But they're not the same at all.

D : You think so? Then, take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some... some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

S : But people have got to believe that, or what's the point?

D : You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?

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Right and wrong are not absolute. They are subjective. Right for one person could be wrong for another person. Right and wrong are not mutually exclusive either. Just like christianity and agnosticism aren't mutually exclusive.

  • I might as well claim that they are absolute, that there are moral facts and that some people hold wrong moral opinions. How are they not exclusive? I could also just assert: they are exclusive; if something is morally wrong then it can't be morally right at the same time. – Marc H. Jul 22 '17 at 21:56
  • That's not how logic works. In the scientific method one is never asked to prove a negative. If you claim it's absolute then the burden of proof lies on you. The fact is if these things were absolute then the world would be a much simpler place. There would be no war if there was an answer to the question "which side is wrong?" Agnosticism is understanding that you can't know for sure. Christianity is believing and acting accordingly. Any sane reasonably intelligent Christian is also agnostic. – I wrestled a bear once. Jul 22 '17 at 22:09
  • Oh dear... Logic is not the same as epistemology. If we take Popper then science only disproves. Morality is not a scientific matter. When there's disagreement in philosophy then every position has to be argued for. If we assume that there are moral facts then that doesn't mean that 1) everyone acts morally and 2) everyone knows those facts. I'll restate: how could something be morally right and morally wrong at the same time? – Marc H. Jul 22 '17 at 22:45
  • lol.. The root of the word "epistemology" comes from the same root as the word "logic".. epistemology is precisely logic. You clearly don't understand Popper's work if you genuinely think he was trying to assert that science "only disproves." Popper asserted that something cannot be proven by science, he never said anything even remotely relevant to your argument that morality is absolute. If anything, morality itself is unfalsifiable. What about the poor mother who can't afford to feed her children so she steals a can of soup. She is both right and wrong. – I wrestled a bear once. Jul 22 '17 at 23:03
  • by the way, if it's not a scientific matter then it cannot be absolute. that's exactly what popper's work is about. that's exactly what my point was. so what was yours, exactly? – I wrestled a bear once. Jul 22 '17 at 23:11

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