Thursday, January 29, 2009

When People Do Things: The Ethics of Actions

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.--Steven Weinberg

Interesting guy. Guess for his statement to be true, you have to go in for the Socratic thing, "To be is to do." So, in Weinberg's construct, if you do evil, you're evil, if you do good, you're good. That's a little harsh, I think. In fact, I could even argue that if you're starving, it's evil not to steal. If your child's life depends on some expensive medication you can't afford, is it "good" to let them die, or "evil" to steal what you need?

Of course, Sartre's point was, "To do is to be" -- or, and I'm taking some liberties here, existence is based on action. Each action, then, defines your existence to that extent. In that respect, a bad action is just a small component of your existence, not a defining one. So, a bad action doesn't make you all bad? OK, again, I could argue that George Bush was wrong to argue his Manichean Paranoia, that he could do evil means to reach good ends. Torturing people is evil, no matter why you do it.

Which leads me to one of my favorite quotes, by Kurt Vonnegut, who I miss deeply:
"To be is to do"--Socrates.
"To do is to be"--Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do"--Frank Sinatra.


Mort said...

I think your logic is correct though it makes my head hurt.

Weimberg’s premise, which you deconstruct, is, I believe, wrong to begin with. I’m not at all sure there are good and bad people, just people going through their lives doing whatever some of which will be judged by some to be bad and some of which will be judged good. The only important judge, however, is the doer.

Weinberg’s point that for good people to do evil things there must be religion can be supported if for no other reason than it is religions that come up with the notion of evil.

Scott Supak said...

I tend to agree... The idea of classifying people as evil seems inherently religious. The idea of saying that sometimes people do evil things certainly seems more secular.

But perhaps calling someone "good" is also inherently religious? Are people really one thing or another? Aren't we more a conglomeration of all things, good and bad, that can be strongly influenced by circumstances.

Mort said...

I think you are right on both counts. “Good” is a judgment, purely subjective, and often used in religion in spite of the admonition to “judge not”. We are who we are or as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam.” It is up each of us individually to figure out who we are. That’s the crux of my most recent book. It may be that religion and much more of our education leads us away from that effort. It takes some free mind space such as I get when gardening to wander around in one’s mind looking for one’s self.