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Good, Evil and the Law

The concepts of Good and Evil are much quoted, especially in current discussions over the apparent decline of morality, but do they have any meaning? Can actions or individuals be classified as Good, Evil or neutral?

In the Christian faith the origins of Evil go back to the original sin, where Eve succumbed to temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. From then on man had the capacity for both Good and Evil and the power to choose between the two.

The question of Good and Evil only arises if we have freedom of the will (i.e. the ability to determine our own destiny), otherwise our actions and judgments are beyond our control. Since God has seen fit to grant us free-will, why shouldn't we be guided by Crowley's edict of "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" (although his milder devotees add "but harm none"). But if we have free will and the ability to manipulate physical reality, this does suggest the existence of God, the ultimate manipulator. And if there's a God, isn't he likely to want us to choose Good over Evil?

Goodness means more than merely being Law-abiding. In the simplest terms a Good act is one resulting in a net contribution to the universe e.g. an act of charity or self-sacrifice. Likewise an Evil act is one which takes something, or violates the rights of others. There are complications; doing something for the benefit of others often brings reward (e.g. an entertainer may bring pleasure to millions but can be well paid for doing so) but does that detract from its Goodness? Is it still Evil to take the liberty or life of a convicted criminal according to the Laws of society, or to kill in self defence, or for your country in time of war?

The purpose of life on earth may be considered as threefold. Firstly to gain maximum satisfaction during this finite existence, secondly to achieve significance by maximizing our impact on the universe through positive use of the will in a constructive manner and lastly to learn and grow through the light of experience. Every action leaves a slight but permanent mark on the universe, changing forever that which would otherwise have occurred. Similarly, every experience leaves a slight but permanent mark on the man, giving rise to traces of influence in all his future actions.

The concept of Karma suggests that every soul has an account kept of all the Good and Evil deeds it performs during its earthly existence. Over the course of time this account must balance, although this may take many incarnations. According to this view both the rich and powerful and the poor and weak are either settling debts of the past, or will suffer reversed fortunes in the future. Such ideas are at odds with the view that the purpose of existence is to edge ever closer to perfection, which implies that over time the constructive acts must outweigh the destructive ones.

The natural state of affairs, as found in the natural world, is NO Law; in human terms - anarchy. Nature is certainly cruel, as witnessed by any television wildlife programme, but it is ultimately successful in cultivating an ever more sophisticated and durable collection of life forms.

If there were no Laws in society we could do as we pleased and take what we wanted so long as we were strong enough to turn desire into action. Such a system of survival of the fittest is the key to Darwin's theory of Natural Selection and works well enough in the animal Kingdom.

So the strongest and cleverest would control the fruits of the world; but would they gain satisfaction from their power knowing that a cleverer or stronger man may come along at any time to dispossess them? And what of the defeated? Would they be motivated to work within a system inherently stacked against them? Probably no more than they had to. Progress would be hugely retarded. Therefore as man began to develop the concepts of society and cooperation in the name of progress and the common Good, a code of conduct, i.e."Law", became necessary to curtail his unique capacity for sin.

A starting point in any attempt to define the role of Law is with the concept of utilitarianism, i.e. that it should promote the greatest Good for the greatest number. Law should seek to satisfy objectives such as protecting individual freedom, protecting the planet and environment, promoting equality of opportunity and eliminating unnecessary suffering.

The actual method of Law making depends on the kind of society under consideration. In the case of governance by hereditary monarchy or unelected dictatorship the power is concentrated in the hands of an individual. In such cases Law exists to protect the privileged position of the ruler and its lackeys but is usually accompanied by the principle of noblesse oblige to deter revolution.

In the preferable case of democracy the Law reflects the wishes of the majority. Political parties decide policies and publish manifestos, the public debates them and votes for the one it considers most attractive and the proposals contained within begin the process toward becoming Law. The boundary of Law is not static, it is in a constant state of flux. If one disagrees with the Law and one can argue one's case successfully one can cause the Law to change. Neither is there any absolute definition of what should / should not constitute the Law. That is why there are many political parties and many shades of opinion within each.

Each individual carries its own concept of morality. The collective will of individuals in a given group (society) at a given time forms a consensus from which, in a democracy, the Law is derived.

The existence of Laws protecting an individual's right to enjoy the rewards of his efforts has contributed enormously to man's progress. Such is the justification for Laws protecting the person and property of individuals and the reason why our Laws have become more sophisticated as we have supposedly become more civilized. But do man's Laws mark the boundary of Evil? In some cases, e.g. murder, violence or theft they do; but what about libel, or pub licensing regulations?

Given that Laws do serve a utilitarian purpose in discouraging Evil, what powers of retribution should the Law have against offenders? To be effective society must have in its armoury measures which at least equal the crimes committed. For instance as a deterrent to murder the death penalty should, in the most extreme cases, be available; but as a maximum rather than a mandatory punishment.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind ... You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus Christ

Love is the Law, love under will. Aleister Crowley

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