The idea of good and bad, of right and wrong, of just and evil existing within a fluid spectrum is one that is both popular and helpful, while at the same time demonized and immoral. This debate has occurred throughout history. William Shakespeare had Hamlet utter in the third act, “There is no good or bad, just thinking makes it so.” Marcus Aurelius told us that nothing is good or bad in itself, but only in our estimation of it, which we can change or take away at any time. This is all completely true, while seemingly being dangerously false at the same time. Relativism is a slippery slope where we soon lose the moral capacity to judge our own behavior (because nothing is good or bad in itself). Things all become a product of their situation, and any virtuous compass that we use to guide us (whether philosophy, religion, etc) all become obsolete in the face of relative actions.
So, it seems, if most things are only good or bad in relation to how we feel about them in the first place (if your spouse leaves you, the way you feel about them makes a difference to how impactful the situation is), maybe our issue is that we must create an idea of right or wrong, first as individuals, then as a society. We must establish a middle ground of morality between rigidity and flexibility where we can behave in a way that makes us and those around us better now, and makes us and those around us better in the future.
We, as a people, as humans, can, and maybe we should decide that some things, regardless of situation, are bad and some things are good. If this is too idealized and we could never fathom it, we must have the fortitude to then be willing to categorize situations that have occured in the past as good or bad. To do this would be to create a definition of what constitutes as each, as what constitutes as acceptable behavior and what actions we are unwilling to tolerate. If we could avoid relativism, if we could provide our people with a guideline, a compass of what is morally approachable, and what is morally revolting, we would avoid the nihilistic tendencies that seem to plague adolescents. But, is this possible? If we must judge, in order to reflect and learn, do we judge the intention, or the outcome?
I've made a lot of right decisions for the wrong reasons. I’ve spent too long focusing on the potential outcome and how I would end up looking after a choice, and never any time on why I was making it. I’ve fed lies into those around me to bolster me up on a pedestal, on some type of hierarchical scale that I made up in my mind. The decisions were the right decisions. I have no regrets over dropping out of college, leaving home, backing out of jobs I obtained. These were all the right decisions, but the why’s behind them were a little off per se.
Most things in life have a goal: to make us better. This preferred growth seems to be a motivational factor in almost every decision that we make. Either we think this choice will make us feel better, be better, or become better soon, in whatever way we as individuals define better. As the one making the choices outlined above, each decision was either meant to make me feel better by hiking me higher in other’s eyes, or by providing me distance from whatever stressor was plaguing me. So then the question is: if it makes us feel better, is it good? And does growth come from better or worse?
The short answer is not really. While the long answer is a little more complicated. What makes us feel better is not always good for us. Think unhealthy foods, unloving sex, or drugs. These all allow us to feel better in the short term, but expedience over meaning is not a recipe for success. So it seems that what makes us happy is not what makes us grow. This was a key point in Carl Jung’s work. While he and Joseph Campbell both worked hard on the hero’s journey and archetypal truths, Joseph Campbell held a “follow your bliss” attitude, stating that thing things that made us feel blissful led us on our hero’s journey. Comparatively, Jung believed that the things on our journeys that stood in our way were the things that made us heros. The monsters that Hercules faced, the dragons that threatened King Arthur, or the dark forest that stood between his knights and the holy grail.
Jung knew that what made us happy did not always make us better. So therefore happiness does not equal growth (some exceptions), but, in contrary, unhappiness and pain often do. The things that hurt us often lead to the biggest steps forward in our lives. The toughest fights bring a couple together, the largest dragons make us stronger, and the biggest obstacles force growth upon us. Therefore, if something is seemingly bad in our judgement, but then it forces us to grow, is it still bad? Or does the forcing of growth then make it good?
These are the tough questions we have to answer. Without these answers we face a moral dilemma every ten seconds whether we judge on intent, or outcome. Whether what we do is morally sound or devastatingly evil. Without these answers, we throw ourselves into a relative world of nihilism, where, “What’s the point?” seeps into our pores and poisons our thoughts.
So do we judge intent? Do situations have intent? If someone rear ends us, what was the intent behind it? Well, did they do it maliciously? Or was it an accident of negligence? While negligence is to be looked down upon, malicious intent is what makes our actions moral or immoral. If there was poor intent, then maybe it is to be deemed bad, where everything else is negligence or accidental. If the heavens pour down to flood, nature has no evil intent, and therefore it can’t be bad. Right?
I am not sure the answer here, exactly. If we have to judge events, which it feels we do, do we judge them based off of the outcome of their actions, or do we judge them based off ot the intent of the doer. If there is no intent, is it just as is then? Or are situations only good or bad in comparison to us, and is that blindly naive? If I lose a job, but someone else gets it, is it bad for me or good for them? Or, since there is no malicious intent, it is either? Or is it just is?
Without a proper categorization, events lead us to be able to make up how something should be seen based on our agendas, our misaligned world views, or our resentment. WIthout having a guideline to judge morality for good or evil, we can look passed the ethical qualms that people commit and just to the outcome of them, which is seen daily in our culture. We do not currently judge intent, but outcome, and the thousands of people who push morality to the side for moment to moment pleasure, the ones who aim for expediency over meaning, are not judged on their lack of morality in their choices, but in how their choices affect the greater scheme of the world. And maybe this is creating a system where we don’t value morality, but we value getting away with immoral behaviors. We don’t judge truth, but we value the way truth makes us feel. We aim for what makes us happy and what seems to have “people pleasing” outcomes and don’t question the moral intent behind it.
If the world is as complicated as something will ever be, and morality is right behind it, what do we judge in order to create guidelines, escape relativism, and fight nihilism?