new age spirituality

Good, Bad, and the Avoidance of Extremes

What is good? What is bad? Do these terms have any real, fixed, and absolute meaning?

Moral Relativism

There is a position in philosophy known as moral relativism that suggests that morality, ie the concept of what is good and bad, is not fixed but depends on societal, and individual, fashion or taste. That may initially sound ridiculous to most of us only too ready to pass judgement on the various deeds reported in the daily news. But consider slavery and corporal punishment, once widely accepted as acceptable practice, now frowned upon and outlawed. Or what of abortion and homosexuality, previously considered sinful, now offered as legal rights.

Critics of moral relativism point to episodes such as the holocaust, the mass slaughter of millions for no reason other than their race and religion. Surely that was absolutely and unarguably wrong.

Let's suppose that good and bad do exist. If so, then both must exist or neither. As with the Chinese concept of yin and yang one only makes sense in relation to the other. Without bad there could be no good, and vice versa.

How might we define good and bad? Something is good if it contributes to the overall progress and well-being of the universe. Something is bad if it detracts from the universe's progress and well-being. But it is rarely possible to add value overall without subtracting somewhere locally. For example, I buy a nice new pair of shoes at a bargain price. I'm happy with the shoes, the trader is happy with his profit. But someone, somewhere is paid a pittance for making my nice new shoes, perhaps just enough to keep him/her alive that they may continue making a good profit and cheap bargain for others. So what's good for some isn't so for others.

A serial killer is caught and incarcerated. Society is that much safer, but for the killer his loss of liberty is bad.

Some examples

You see a new job advertised. It will be more interesting and better paid than your existing work. You apply for it, get an interview, and are offered the job. Isn't that all good? Well, hopefully it's more good than bad, but perhaps your new job will involve working longer hours, so you'll have less time with your family or for other leisure activities. Perhaps the job carries greater responsibility, thus causing you more stress. You may miss friends from you previous employment. In time you may find the new job less attractive than you'd anticipated.

Suppose you didn't get the job. You feel down, but just as nothing's all good, so nothing is all bad. The process of making a job application and attending an interview was good experience that will help next time you apply for a job. Maybe the job wasn't right for you because of the disadvantages mentioned above. And if you take a look at your existing situation you may realise it isn't so bad, you may even notice some plus points you would have lost if you'd changed.

Let's review something a bit more topical - and controversial. The Iraq war. This certainly stimulates high levels of moral feelings on all sides.

The pro-war militarist might say that the war freed the people of Iraq from tyranny and gave them the chance of freedom and democracy. The loss of innocent life, while regrettable, is justified by the destruction of so much potential terrorist threat to the West and elsewhere.

The Iraqi "freedom fighters" or "insurgents" (depending on your point of view!) see things differently. They see the invasion as an unwarranted, illegal, and immoral intrusion into Iraq's internal affairs. They might even admit things weren't perfect before the invasion, but would point to the high crime levels in the invading nations as disqualifying those nations from the moral high ground. They may see theirs as a sacred mission to protect their people from external corruption and view the occupation more as oil theft than liberation.

It is not the purpose of this discussion to judge who is right, if such judgement can be made at all. It hopefully illustrates that neither position is beyond question.

The Avoidance of Extremes

The moral, or take-home, of this consideration is that we should avoid categorizing experience into good and bad, black and white. We should avoid extremes of anger, despair and jubilation. "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same", said an enlightened Kipling. Instead let us savour our personal moments of satisfaction, but also to find strength in inevitable moments of setback.

We are born to experience, to learn, and that is all. Learning may come from good, but perversely is more likely to come from adversity. Don't fight the destiny you have chosen, embrace it, enjoy it, learn from it - but always maintain a sense of perspective. There is good and bad, but mostly neutral, in all things.

© 2005