Good and Evil are interesting things.The Snake said that if we ate of the fruit, we would be like God and we would know the difference between good and evil. This seems like a funny thing to tell us, given that we must have already had some idea about the difference between good and evil because we'd been told not to eat from the tree.
Still, since that time, we've been trying to figure out good and evil. I'd like to think that the main project of moral philosophy or ethics is to try to find the best way to know and communicate the good, but sometimes I wonder if the reason we spend so much time wondering what good and evil are is because we already know what they are, but want to find a way to justify the particular kind of evil we enjoy.
I hope that's not the case though. There are a lot of ways that people have thought about how to decide what's right and wrong. I kind of like Aristotle's notion that what is right is what allows people to flourish and what is wrong is what inhibits human flourishing. Of course, it is possible to take this in some weird directions including eugenics. I also kind of like the Platonic/Stoic injunction that what is right is what reason dictates is right whereas what is wrong is what reason dictates is wrong. On the other hand, reason depends heavily on the premises on which it is based and as computer programmers used to say "Garbage in, garbage out.
Hume basically thought that we know what's right and wrong based on feelings, or moral sentiments. It disgusts us to see evil and so we don't like evil. Still, I'd say that we often really like things that are really bad.
I think that Kant's categorical imperative, that we basically know what is right and wrong the same way we know that a triangle has three sides even if we don't count them because that's what a triangle is, has some traction. Still, it is a struggle to find out what these moral axioms are and, in my opinion, leaves us with having to go with one of the other systems. It's not so easy.
Some people like, Mill and Bentham, have argued that whatever does the most good for the most people is what is ethical. That makes sense, except for how do you know if it's really good? You're back to using another system to find that.
So, I'm not saying it's easy.All of the men listed above have had a pretty profound impact on how I have formulated my ethical system and so while I just "wrote them off" above in a few terse sentences, that was more to show how slippery the subject is, not to say the thinking wasn't formidable.
But I feel like there's an ethical system that is just giving up and that's social relativism. The social relativists say whatever a given society says is okay is okay and whatever a given society says is not okay is not okay. It's not okay for people in the US to eat each other, but it we shouldn't go imposing those values on New Guinea. We can't really figure out what's right and wrong but we can go with what works for a given society in a given time and place.
Such a value system, or the lack thereof, works well for doing anthropology. It's not a terribly useful exercise to go to a far away country and write back home about all the things the other country is doing wrong. If you want to study them, you should try and figure out why they think those things they're doing wrong are right.
However, it doesn't provide much guidance on how to live one's life, especially in a diverse society. It's pretty easy to find people who will tell you what you're doing is okay. Then that becomes your society. Since that is your society and since you know good from evil based on your society, everything is okay, which it's not.
But it's gotten worseAs problematic as social relativism is, it has gotten worse. Lately, I've been hearing about an even smaller form of relativism: consent. This has been going on for a while. Basically, since you can find a group who is small enough to condone whatever you're doing and that is your society, if you can find them, it is okay. As long as what you're doing doesn't directly effect other groups ability to do what they want you should be able to do whatever you want. As long as everyone involved is consenting, everything is okay.
But where do these rights come from?I admit that I was taken in by this tiny relativism for quite a while. As a principled Western libertarian, I often said "my right to swing my hand ends at your face" and I still see that as true. But at some point I have to ask "why?" And if the answer is "because you didn't give consent to hit me." I can pretty quickly go from there into all the ways that you DID give consent.
You knew when you saw me that I was a hand swinger. I had a shirt on that said so, but you still came in swinging distance, so you agreed.
Some of the pro-consent crowd have altered their verbiage based on this to "affirmative consent." Maybe that makes it a little better, but if I "affirmatively consent" to have you pour chemicals in my eyes so I can be blind, that is still wrong. Why is it wrong. It inhibits human flourishing. It is unreasonable. It is repugnant. It violates directives. . . all those ethical reasons I put above. It is just plain wrong, even if I consent.
Yet, I do believe in our rights to life, liberty and property. That's why I'm libertarian, but I don't believe that these rights exist from the consent of the governed. I have to say that I think that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that those are among them. That same creator is the source of goodness. And then, it is up to us to find what is good. And it's not just what we can find someone to consent to.