The Knowledge of Good and Evil

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Reply Mon 10 Mar, 2008 04:11 am
Adam and Eve are banished from paradise after eating the fruit from the 'Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil'. Distinguishing between good and evil is their crime.

From Thomas Merton's introduction to Chuang Tzu:

"...the hero of virtue and duty ultimately lands himself in the same ambiguities as the hedonist and utilitarian. Why? Because he aims at achieving "the good" as object."

Chuang Tzu criticizes "profit motive" - hedonism and utilitarianism - because they strive for what is constantly out of reach (much like John Rockefeller's quest for enough money, one dollar more) and look towards good in the future, and not good now, in the present moment.

Chuang Tzu's criticism is not limited to the means of philosophers from his time, but he also criticizes the ends they pursue. He criticizes the notions of happiness and unhappiness as ambiguous because they are set in the world of objects. According to Merton, this criticism is equally true of virtues, justice, and even of 'good and evil' or 'right and wrong'.

"When the whole world recognizes good as good, it becomes evil" - Lao Tzu

Some early morning ramblings for your consideration.
 
Aristoddler
 
Reply Mon 10 Mar, 2008 06:52 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
He criticized the thoughts of happy and unhappy as ambiguous because they're subjective, from what I understood...unless you're speaking of his disdain of materialism, but that was something he gained from following the teachings of Confucius, from what I understand.

I'm happy when I see a raging blizzard on the weather channel. My wife is unhappy for the same news. It's subjective.


I love ramblings.
 
de Silentio
 
Reply Mon 10 Mar, 2008 08:02 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
So where does Thomas Merton (or Chuang Tzo) leave us? What should we seek, if everything we seek is ultimately evil?

Something funny, this morning is the first time I heard of Thomas Merton, it was from a co-worker suggesting an author, then you make a post with a quote from him. Well, it's funny to me at least.
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Mon 10 Mar, 2008 09:47 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Where does Merton or Chuang Tzu suggest that everything is ultimately evil?

Quote:
I'm happy when I see a raging blizzard on the weather channel. My wife is unhappy for the same news. It's subjective.


So (to carry the example, nothing against your wife) why does your wife persist in being unhappy with such news?

As for Merton - I've enjoyed the book, and found it useful. I do have two concerns; Merton does not know Chinese, so his study of other translations (though, from various languages) is not supplemented with any familiarity with source documents, also, he is from a Christian monastic tradition, and despite appearing to me as wonderfully knowledgeable and understanding of Taoist and Zen tradition, I usually like to keep with scholars from the tradition of the book.
 
step314 phil
 
Reply Mon 10 Mar, 2008 11:12 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Didymos Thomas wrote:
Adam and Eve are banished from paradise after eating the fruit from the 'Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil'. Distinguishing between good and evil is their crime.



Religions tend to discourage thinking for oneself about what is good and evil, since so doing may lead followers to seek moral truths otherwise than from the priests, thereby causing reduced titheing, etc. Pelagianism is the one ancient heresy I feel strongly should not have been heresy. Christ said he came to save sinners, and that's what religion properly should be for as well--for people too screwed up to feel comfortable thinking otherwise than very traditionally, which is not everybody.
 
saiboimushi
 
Reply Tue 11 Mar, 2008 02:29 am
@step314 phil,
I think there may be some interesting similarities between Eastern philosophies and Christianity. Of course, it all depends on how one interprets things. The "knowledge" of good and evil, for example, can be interpreted as the opposite of Wisdom--as a kind of error or false belief, which produces and has produced every ill that flesh is heir to. The world of opposites may undermine itself, returning unto dust, for it is inherently self-opposed, a house divided against itself. Truth may exist beyond opposites, beyond good-and-evil, where all is only Good.

Furthermore, the notion of an anthropomorphic diety could actually contradict Christ's teachings, making Christ more of a Buddhist than a Jew. But, as I said, it is all a matter of interpretation.
 
de Silentio
 
Reply Tue 11 Mar, 2008 04:14 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Quote:
Where does Merton or Chuang Tzu suggest that everything is ultimately evil?


Sorry, my error, I don't know what thoughts were racing through my mind last night.
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Wed 12 Mar, 2008 08:12 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Quote:
Religions tend to discourage thinking for oneself about what is good and evil, since so doing may lead followers to seek moral truths otherwise than from the priests, thereby causing reduced titheing, etc. Pelagianism is the one ancient heresy I feel strongly should not have been heresy. Christ said he came to save sinners, and that's what religion properly should be for as well--for people too screwed up to feel comfortable thinking otherwise than very traditionally, which is not everybody.
Religious authorities, centrally organized groups, tend to promote the notions of good and evil so that they can white wash their political opponents as evil, themselves as good, which prevents people from seeing any truth in the matter - that their leaders are simply political fiends searching for more and more power.

If nothing is inherently evil, we cannot be justified in claims about evil Islamic extremeists. If nothing is inherently good, we cannot be justified in claims about the good and wonderful Church. The extremist might do something which seems to be evil, and the Chruch might do something that seems to be good - but if nothing is inherently good or evil, we know that these events are all circumstantial, and that both are capable of 'good' and 'evil'.

By eliminating notions of 'good-evil' we remove many broad assumptions about people, and groups of people. We begin to remember that people are people, just like you and me - even if the authority figure says they are evil and must be destroyed.

I don't know about you, but my preach always called it the "Tree of Knowledge". They never paid much attention to the "good and evil" part, nor the fact that once Adam and Eve began to distinguish from good and evil, then and only then, were they forced to leave paradise.

As for your comments about sin and the purpose of religion - sinners are not "people too screwed up to feel comfortable thinking otherwise than very traditionally", we are all sinners. Even wanted something that was not yours?

Religion is for everyone. Some people prefer traditional explanations from religion. Who cares? What is "traditional" varies a great deal from tradition to tradition. Traditional Zen teaching and traditional western Christian teaching are greatly separated.

Quote:
Sorry, my error, I don't know what thoughts were racing through my mind last night.
It's cool. The initial post represents my random thoughts - why not build the whole thread on them?

Do you think, personally, that Taoism leaves us with a world in which everything is ultimately evil?
 
step314 phil
 
Reply Wed 12 Mar, 2008 10:40 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Didymos Thomas wrote:

As for your comments about sin and the purpose of religion - sinners are not "people too screwed up to feel comfortable thinking otherwise than very traditionally", we are all sinners. Even wanted something that was not yours?


If it is in someone's nature to do something bad, preaching in an effort to stop it won't do any good, and there isn't really any point in fighting against that tendency in oneself, because if you were that way yesterday, you'll be that way tomorrow too, presumably. Religion is only effective at reforming sins that aren't natural; e.g., alcohol may cause one to behave selfishly--in such a case, religion can be useful by convincing the individual that he is behaving unnaturally, i.e., contrary to his innate tendencies. One can behave selfishly from error, but the best antidote for that is moral philosophy. True, there are bits and pieces of insight in most religions just as in myths, but essentially by definition a religion must be traditional, and the ones I know of are each of them replete with outdated highly unlikely notions. In fact, if a religion doesn't have much superstition in it, people are likely to consider it a philosophy, much as some people think Taoism should be considered a philosophy or a way of life rather than a religion.

If people don't distinguish between good and evil, there will be no justice and evil will have a free reign. Then people won't need to distinguish between good and evil because evil will have destroyed the good. I tend to think of morality, of what is good, as trying to make the world more beautiful, and goodness is what beauty is mainly. You can't be very good without wanting to advance what is good. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that people would at all evolve to be good if good people didn't love fellow good people more than bad people, as they couldn't if there were no distinction. I would suggest that the overall spirit of Taoism doesn't so much suggest that there should be no distinction between good and evil, but just that we should not be very purposive or obsessively urgent when we make these distinctions, the way many people feel (for example) when making disctinctions about controversial political issues. But that's what I don't like about Taoism. Sometimes it is appropriate to behave extremely purposively, namely when one is fighting addiction; sometimes one's hindquarters actually do get screwed. Wu wei, purposiveless action, is only appropriate when not fighting addiction. Some moral action should be taken with a will.

True, Taoism tends to be against distinctions, but my impression is that it is only against distinctions mildly: mainly just if they are arbitrary, forced, or unnatural. E.g., the famous ideal butcher separates effortlessly, but he still separates.

If I remember right, when China was plagued with opium problems there arose a famous leader who was so fed up with the lazy indifference that he associated with Taoism that he called himself (in Chinese, of course) "purposive action" or "no purposiveless action", or some such thing (by changing the "wu" of "wu wei" to its opposite character?).
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Thu 13 Mar, 2008 02:13 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Quote:
If it is in someone's nature to do something bad, preaching in an effort to stop it won't do any good, and there isn't really any point in fighting against that tendency in oneself, because if you were that way yesterday, you'll be that way tomorrow too, presumably.
Is religion limited to the experience of being preached at?

Quote:
Religion is only effective at reforming sins that aren't natural
How do you differentiate between "natural" and "unnatural" sins?

Quote:
One can behave selfishly from error, but the best antidote for that is moral philosophy.
Philosophy is merely discourse. To practice a moral philosophy, on the other hand, is often a great part of religious life.

Quote:
True, there are bits and pieces of insight in most religions just as in myths, but essentially by definition a religion must be traditional, and the ones I know of are each of them replete with outdated highly unlikely notions.
What do you mean by "traditional". Traditional to who? Do you think that Zen practice is "traditional"? Do you think that Zen practice would be called traditional by a Catholic, for instance, living in the US?

Regarding unlikely notions - yes, often times, silly concepts survive and thrive under religious guise. However, I cannot help but wonder if this is something necessarily true of religion, or if we can imagine religion without such silly notions.

Quote:
In fact, if a religion doesn't have much superstition in it, people are likely to consider it a philosophy, much as some people think Taoism should be considered a philosophy or a way of life rather than a religion.
Is there necessarily a difference between religion and philosophy?
You mention Taoism. Well, Taoism is philosophy. The school grew up out of the I-Ching school of thought, and has certainly changed a great deal over time. Taoists might disagree as Empiricists might disagree.

Quote:
If people don't distinguish between good and evil, there will be no justice and evil will have a free reign.
What, then, is "good" and what then is "evil"? Is anything inherently good or evil?
If nothing is inherently evil, I do not see how "evil will have a free reign".

Quote:
You can't be very good without wanting to advance what is good.
And this, I think, is the heart of the criticism - treating "good" or "bad" or "evil" as objects to be pursued.

Quote:
Nor is it reasonable to suppose that people would at all evolve to be good if good people didn't love fellow good people more than bad people, as they couldn't if there were no distinction.
Which would be more accurate:
1. There are good and bad people
2. There are people that sometimes act poorly, and sometimes act well

Quote:
I would suggest that the overall spirit of Taoism doesn't so much suggest that there should be no distinction between good and evil, but just that we should not be very purposive or obsessively urgent when we make these distinctions, the way many people feel (for example) when making disctinctions about controversial political issues.But that's what I don't like about Taoism. Sometimes it is appropriate to behave extremely purposively, namely when one is fighting addiction; sometimes one's hindquarters actually do get screwed. Wu wei, purposiveless action, is only appropriate when not fighting addiction. Some moral action should be taken with a will.
Isn't addiction a purposeful action?

In the Confucian school, the Tao was constantly subdivided until Tao came to mean any abstract ethical doctrine. This Chuang Tzu criticizes - only addressing the manifest aspects of the Tao "that can be named". What of the Tao "that cannot be named"?
Chuang Tzu does not think that happiness can be found in some "profit motive". He also criticizes the "Superior Man" of virtue because they (namely the Confucian school, the philosophers nearest Chunag Tzu) treat "good" as some object - something to be obtained through some particular kind of action which results in happiness. This process places "good" and "happiness" outside of ourselves, into the world of objects, and therefore, "good" and "happiness" are forever out of reach because they are to be obtained in some distant moment as the product of our heroic actions, instead of being here in this moment.

Quote:
True, Taoism tends to be against distinctions, but my impression is that it is only against distinctions mildly: mainly just if they are arbitrary, forced, or unnatural. E.g., the famous ideal butcher separates effortlessly, but he still separates.
The butcher example, as far as I can tell, shows us something about action and the way we do things. Remember, "My cook has shown me how I ought to live my own life!"

"Great knowledge sees all in one. Small knowledge breaks down into the many."

Quote:
If I remember right, when China was plagued with opium problems there arose a famous leader who was so fed up with the lazy indifference that he associated with Taoism that he called himself (in Chinese, of course) "purposive action" or "no purposiveless action", or some such thing (by changing the "wu" of "wu wei" to its opposite character?).
Perhaps this is so. But I will remind you that 'Taoism' is a broad subject, sometimes absolute superstition, sometimes tantamount to academic philosophy. Especially in China, there is little distinction between traditional religion, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism because they all compliment each other, and are incorporated in to the same practices. Yet, somehow, Chuang Tzu manages to criticize Confucius. So they are obviously not the same.


Thanks for your comments. My education about Taoism is mostly limited to the materials I have found on my own. Do you mind me asking your background with the subject?
 
step314 phil
 
Reply Thu 13 Mar, 2008 08:15 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Quote:
Thanks for your comments. My education about Taoism is mostly limited to the materials I have found on my own. Do you mind me asking your background with the subject?


My experience with Taoism is pretty cursory, just bits and pieces that I've read mostly on the internet. It definitely seems like the central tendency of it is to deny anti-addiction defenses. What I think has a similar appeal is existentialism. I know even less about the latter, but it seems to me a post war reaction against the emotions appropriate to war time, with constant danger of violation. During war, people tend to feel the need to find approval from their fellow sufferers, and to reassure each other that they are still all right, and to view themselves in terms of these assurances. Similarly, people cheer and boo at football games, etc., and it can have a big effect on the players, especially if they are not very experienced. Yeah, people get molested all the time in the chaos of most wars, or at the least they feel like they might. But during peace time, when forcible sodomy isn't something that happens everyday all around you, people appropriately feel it safe and upstanding to look "existentially" into themselves for their understandings of their own true natures, without bothering to feel the need for reassurance from others as to whether these be pristine enough to accept or not. Just exposure to violence itself will cause people to wonder whether they are still OK.

Quote:
What, then, is "good" and what then is "evil"?


I mentioned what goodness is to me, namely love of beauty. To me, badness is just selfishness. Perhaps I should have said "bad" rather than "evil" (was I too purposive?). Evil as I think of it involves actually trying to advance badness. Since, how I look at things, goodness is more or less by definition the ideal that it is most beneficial to one's self to possess, evil is very self-destructive. Nevertheless, evil does happen, because bad people like to glorify their badness, to make it seem as though there is something good about it, and occasionally they try to prove this by going out of their way to destroy the good, and other times they mistake tendencies to make a show for tendencies not about making a show. E.g., a guy who beats up his women because he is selfish might make females think his violence is more about hatred of some phantom wicked tendency in woman than about controlling, because it makes him more look dangerous to cross; occasionally he comes to believe his lies or the lies of those similar to him, and he becomes evil serial killer.
 
de Silentio
 
Reply Thu 13 Mar, 2008 08:26 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Didymos Thomas wrote:

Do you think, personally, that Taoism leaves us with a world in which everything is ultimately evil?


I don't know that much about Toaism. I read the Toa of Pooh, and had a single class period discussion on Toaism, but other than that I don't know much.

From what I do know, it sounds like Toaism will ultimately lead to a person being a product of his society, rather it be good or evil. I conclude this from the notion of the Uncarved Block. The block may be uncarved, but it is impossible for a person to escape the influence of experience. To keep with the analogy, the uncarved block must become carved in some fasion at some point (the person must become something and develop certain predispositions towards the world, in other words).

Now, if I incorporate the only other thing I know about Toaism, that one should not worry or stress over problems (like Pooh), I think the block will be carved without any internal influence of the person. In other words, a person will become a product of their environment because they will not allow the level of cognitive dissonance that is needed to make decisions on how a person becomes who they are.

So, to answer your question directly: No, I don't think Toaism leaves us with an ultimately evil world because I don't know enough to make the conclusion that it will. That is probably evident from what I wrote.
 
Aedes
 
Reply Thu 13 Mar, 2008 09:43 pm
@step314 phil,
step314 wrote:
What I think has a similar appeal is existentialism. I know even less about the latter, but it seems to me a post war reaction against the emotions appropriate to war time, with constant danger of violation. During war, people tend to feel the need to find approval from their fellow sufferers, and to reassure each other that they are still all right, and to view themselves in terms of these assurances.
You're correct that modern existentialism arose out of a reaction to the apocalyptic notions that WWII brought Europe (though it was really started by 19th century philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche). But I don't think you've summarized it very accurately. I'll grant you that one angle to existentialism is finding meaning when life seems horribly unjust. But it's explored in far more detail in the actual traditions of these philosophers.

There are several notions within existentialism. One, championed by Sartre, is the clear distinction between one's existence and one's essence; wherein essence encompasses attributes that qualify your neutral existence, but are simply that -- attributes. This was largely a response to the Holocaust, and articulated extremely well by Sartre in Portrait of the Antisemite. We all have a tremendous freedom to define ourselves, and when we attribute bad or evil to someone else's essence, we're similarly restricting our own self-definition. Thus, the freedom that we have as neutral, existing beings, is undermined by prejudice (and assignment of good and evil).

Another major notion within existentialism is the source of meaning. And Camus was the champion of this. Basically, since life is short, and we can die at any time without warning, including prematurely, it's impossible to argue that anything in our life has meaning because it can always be interrupted. So how can we do anything? How can we face meaninglessness? What do we get up for every morning? This can be extremely invigorating for the strong person who finds meaning on his own, which is the positive spin on the existential crisis. But as Sartre explored in Nausea and as Camus explored in The Stranger, there is a horribly frightening emptiness in this as well. It led to Camus' great philosophy about suicide (in The Myth of Sisyphus).
 
saiboimushi
 
Reply Thu 13 Mar, 2008 11:26 pm
@Aedes,
On the issue of good and evil: I'm beginning to feel like the world, or at least our experience of the world, is a ridiculous enigma, a ghastly farce. When something makes us feel good, we say it's good. And then we change, we become something else that feels things differently. I think "good" is what we like, and I think we are sadly ignorant. That's why I've been so worried about knowledge. Because how do we know what Good is, or whether something is Good? The question, "How do we know?" is a curse, a pox.

Nietzsche points out that it is not Hamlet's excessive deliberation that prevents him from action, but rather his awareness that all action is blind. This is the essence of tragedy--that the world cannot be understood, and our actions, as a consequence, cannot have the effect that we intend or foresee, either for good or for evil.

That's why I love movie characters who are total sociopaths, like the dark killer in "No Country for Old Men," or the serial murderer in "Perfume." They seem to be more in touch with reality; they seem to know that we do not know. The reality of our ignorance they embody, and in doing this, they shame us.

Knowing she is about to die, one of the characters in "No Country" tells the dark killer, "You don't have to do this." As he sits in the corner of the room, he ponders her statement aloud: "Why do they always say that? Why do they always say, You don't have to do this?" The killer wonders why people think that any choices can be knowingly and willingly made, either for good or for evil.

And he's right to wonder.
 
Didymos Thomas
 
Reply Thu 13 Mar, 2008 11:43 pm
@saiboimushi,
But isn't there something good about charity, and something evil about random killing, if not killing in general?

And why is reckless brutality a sign of some deeper understanding? Allowing our tendencies to run wild, especially violent ones, only shames me in that members of my species often do just this when they clearly have the capacity to act otherwise. Or at least to not act at all.
 
saiboimushi
 
Reply Fri 14 Mar, 2008 12:04 am
@Didymos Thomas,
I certainly don't like the idea of murder, and I hope what I said didn't disturb anyone.

But to be honest, I don't feel that I know that murder is wrong. Hamlet kills a few people he probably shouldn't kill, and fails to kill the one person he probably should kill when the time seems right. And yet, there is no question that, like a madman with an axe, he leaves a gruesome trail of bodies in his wake.

What does that say about motive, will, intention, knowledge, good and evil? One doesn't need to fall tragically to sense that these concepts are perilously, ridiculously elusive. And one certainly doesn't have to be a drug lord's assassin--God forbid. :eek:
 
Rasputini
 
Reply Fri 4 Apr, 2008 01:43 pm
@Didymos Thomas,
Hey. Just to add to the Daoist stuff, and maybe give a little spin to the current topic, the concept of Yin and Yang is an interesting concept when discussing "Right" or "Wrong." As you all are aware the Yin and Yang is a circle, part black, part white with the opposite coloured dot in the largest part of each half. The layout of the Yin and Yang suggests that out of the peak of one side the seed of the other is born. This concept can be applied to nearly everything, so in our case I'll plug in good and evil. At the peak of good, which would be the fattest part on the white side, the seed of evil is born. Meaning at a certain point things are so GOOD that anything bellow that ultimate GOOD things begin to appear evil. It is then the smallest tail of the black side begins, marking the rise of evil. Like good, at a certain point BAD gets so bad that anything under that peak begins to appear good, thus the seed of good, and the begining of the white section. I think this is a really interesting way in looking at what is GOOD or EVIL. It makes everything relative to some other action.
So in relation to the previous points, and keeping with this idea: yes murder we aggree murder is bad, however, I think we can also aggree that there are degrees in which murder can be viewed. As a totally rediculous example, suppose some whacko was sneaking around injecting people with some drug that painlessly killed them off. Compare that to some whacko who tortures and mutilates their victims or whatever. Yes, both are considered EVIL, yet in regards to the Yin and Yang, one would be further towards the large portion of the side designated EVIL. I dont mean to suggest this as a way to justify any actions frowned upon by society, but it's an interesting point of view.
 
vajrasattva
 
Reply Sun 6 Apr, 2008 07:33 am
@Didymos Thomas,
What is good? What is evil? As far as I am concerned they are both matters of perspective. A saint could see himself as evil in relation to his past and present. Some Christians think non believers are evil and vice versa. This leads me to believe that evil is a result of ignorance and egocentricity. Because without ignorance one does not see evil and without egocentricity one does not assume that the ignorance belongs to someone else. Evil is a product of perception and thereby is and illusion due to the nature of perception. Perception has multiplicity and when something is seen from many stand points different interpretations arise. In the case of good and evil their is no general consensus nor as to what evil is and as such due to the ignorance and egocentricity of man we refuse ti see this lack of virtue in ourselves so naturally evil grows even though it only exist because you made it.
 
Rasputini
 
Reply Sun 6 Apr, 2008 11:22 am
@Didymos Thomas,
You're totally right. Good and Evil are completely man made concepts that reflect a person's personal views. However, as I've said in other treads, the ultimate root of good or evil is based on a positive or negative emotional connection to an action or result. An emotional connection being a relation to something (physical, concept, mental state etc) that produces either a positive or negative emotional reaction (no matter how insignificant the reaction is). Anthing that sparks a negative emotion, or contradicts a positive one then becomes evil and good is just the opposite. The degree to which something has a reaction determines how evil or good something is to that person. I keep posting this notion, so sorry to those who've already read it, but I truely believe it is the root of all meaning and mental perception, good and evil included.
 
vajrasattva
 
Reply Mon 7 Apr, 2008 05:47 am
@Didymos Thomas,
I agree but I also believe that mental states are subject to change what is evil one moment is not the next and vice versa. If not then we need a better definition of evil and of good. I'm down and excited if this is what we will do.
 
 

 
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