The Meaning of Evil

As metaethics has raised its ugly head again I thought I would have another go at what I think is the key issue when people debate the “foundations” of ethics – which is simply what do we mean when we use moral language?

I know that for some people this seems frustrating – why get into a debate over semantics – what really matters is the ontological status of ethics – what are moral principles?  But if you don’t decide what you mean by moral terms like right, good, wrong and evil then how do you know you are talking about the same thing? At the very least it can do no harm to discuss meanings – and I have found that taking a linguistic approach actually causes the ontological issue to dissolve. There is nothing new about this. In the hey day of linguistic philosophy in the 1950s and 60s it would be taken for granted that this was the best approach.

Let’s be clear about what the issue is. If two people are disputing the foundations of ethics – say  an atheist materialist relativist and a Christian who believes that morality is grounded in the natural moral law – then they are disagreeing about the foundations of statements such as:

Experimenting on monkeys is evil

But are they disagreeing about the meaning of the word “evil”? Either they mean the same thing by “evil” or they don’t.  If they don’t, then their disagreement is actually not very interesting – of no more interest than a dispute as to whether the first day of the week is Sunday or Monday. It is a semantic discussion about what the word “evil” means to be resolved by reference to a good dictionary or by getting each of them to define their terms.

But I think we know that in fact they mean the same thing.  “Evil” is a common English word which most English speakers use without any hesitation about they mean or any concern that whoever they are talking to might mean something different. Surely we all mean the same thing? There is more to this dispute than semantics. 

Consider the case of the Christian.  He believes that morality has its foundations in the natural moral law – but if by “evil” he means “contrary to the natural moral law” then clearly he is talking about something different from all those people who don’t believe in the natural moral law.  He may be able to deduce something is evil because it is contrary to the natural moral law – but, if he means the same thing as the atheist, it cannot be what he means by “evil” .  Similarly the moral relativist believes that something is evil because it is contrary to the norms of a society.  But again, if he means the same thing as the Christian, that cannot be what he means by “evil”. 

So what do we all mean? This sounds like an easy question. Surely we know what we mean? And if we have difficulty articulating it why not turn to a good dictionary?  Actually the dictionary isn’t much help as “evil” is typically defined as something like “morally wrong” which only shifts the problem onto another moral term. We want a description of what moral terms mean that throws light on moral language – not one that just recycles it.

In fact it is often surprisingly difficult to articulate what well understood common words mean. Philosophers have pondered and disagreed about the meaning of such common words as “beautiful”, “intention”, “belief”,  “truth” and even “meaning”.  These are all words that are in every day use and present no problem to a fluent English speaker.

It is Ludwig Wittgenstein who provided the two most significant insights into solving this type of riddle and why it is so hard to define words when we know very well what they mean.

1) Family resemblances – words do not necessarily have precisely defined meanings – rather they can describe a related set of things none of which are necessary or sufficient – as he puts it they are like the strands in a rope – you need enough but you can’t pin down exactly which ones. As a consequence it is not always valid to argue from counterexamples. For example, someone might argue that competing is not part of the definition of a “game” because of the example of patience which is clearly a game. But this is not valid.  Competing is an important element of the concept of “game”.  It is neither necessary nor sufficient – but it is fruitless to point to any element that is necessary or sufficient.  You can only point to strands in the rope.

2) Meaning is use – the meaning of words is not necessarily something the word refers to.  This might be true of a proper name, but words are used in many ways and take their meaning from the entire context – as he puts it a way of life.  For example, you cannot define “checkmate” as referring to a set of positions on the chessboard – you need to understand the whole game of chess – what the opponents are trying to achieve – the rules about what piece can move where etc.

So how does this relate to moral language? We need to describe the way of life that is morality.  And we mustn’t be too picky about insisting on necessary and sufficient conditions.

Once you recognise these two things it becomes much easier to articulate the meaning of moral language.  You just need to describe moral activity – which you see about you all the time.  It is something that people of all sorts of beliefs and backgrounds do and we have little trouble recognising when it happens. So all we have to do is describe it. For example, suppose a stranger at a dinner party tells you that using monkeys for experiments is evil what are they actually doing?

I suggest two types of things   – they are asserting that experiments on monkeys have some of a loosely related set of properties (remember the strands in the rope)  – typically these include that a sentient being is  suffering and that the act is done intentionally by an adult who could have done otherwise.  But this is not a dispassionate description. It is also a call to action. They are expressing their strong desire, for  reasons that are not based on self-interest, that experiments on monkeys should not take place. Both these factors are present.  Many of the disputes over ethics come about because one side gives priority to one or other aspect.  A moral objectivist feels that the properties are of the act are the defining characteristic and then has to look around for reasons not to do things which have these properties – such as a God saying you mustn’t or a rule that you should always maximise human happiness.  An emotivist feels that the defining characteristic is the unselfish call to action.  But then find themselves in the awkward position of explaining why a call to action to exterminate Jews is not evil. It is a matter of empirical fact that, for unselfish reasons, human beings agree widely (but not totally) about a lot of factors which makes them passionately want to prevent some acts taking place and promote other acts taking place.  Our moral language is part of this way of life.

There is a still a major debate to be had over the justification of morals.  But this framework explains what this debate is all about.  People have overlapping but different relations between the properties and the call to action.  Some people find that contrary to moral law is a strong call to action.  Others are not moved by this but find suffering or unfairness to be strong calls to action. The debate is when people try to persuade others to respond to the same properties as they do.  They do this by emotional appeal (hear the monkeys scream), by appeals to inconsistency (you wouldn’t do it to a child – what’s the difference?), by appeals to rules (nothing should ever be the subject of experiment without consent) and no doubt many other methods.  But they are not defining what good and evil mean.  They are seeking to get others to feel the way they do.

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2 Responses to “The Meaning of Evil”


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