Why We Identify Good and Evil
Posted by Michael Dickens on July 16, 2010
I recently wrote about sustainable and unsustainable good, about why sometimes motives are more important than consequences — even though consequences are all that matter in the end. The gist of it was that a good will produces sustainable good, while a single good act coming from a bad will is not sustainable.
This train of thought may give rise to a meta-argument about why we even identify good and evil. In terms of consequences, a person cannot be considered good or evil; only an action can be. So why label a person in the first place?
It turns out that identifying a good will as good and an evil will as evil is actually an attempt to produce more good actions in the world. People obviously want to be considered “good”. Labeling the will to do good as a good thing in itself will serve to encourage good wills to arise. A good will, though not directly, almost always leads to good actions.
And even if people don’t want to be considered good, the “good” people will receive better treatment from their neighbors. A good will will be empowered, while a malicious will won’t. If a good will is identified and encouraged, benevolent deeds will inexorably arise.
Although by some definitions it’s impossible to call a person kind or cruel, identifying them as such can itself serve to maximize kindness and minimize cruelty. This is a moral situation in which things turn out better if we act as though we follow certain moral standards, when really we follow others. If we act as though a person can be good or be evil, then good acts — which are what we really care about — will increase.