The weight of good and evil

“The good tends always to outweigh the bad: it just takes longer to get itself organised.”
Alain de Botton (via twitter, Tuesday 9th August 2011)
Alain de Botton, a writer and philosopher living in London, wrote the above as riots were still breaking out around the UK last week.

He wrote it because following along behind the looters was a band of good citizens voluntarily organising themselves to sweep up the mess, repair the damage and raise funds to help those whose lives and livelihoods had been ruined.

I enjoy reading de Botton’s tweets; they’re well-crafted nuggets of thought and are often extremely perceptive. This one, though, has been buzzing round in my head ever since, and I haven’t quite been able to get a grip on it.

It seems odd to me, given the state of the world and the many seemingly insoluble problems in it that anyone would think that good was outweighing bad. How long do the people of Somalia have to wait before the good gets itself organised to end the famine? Is the good still organising itself to outweigh the bad committed by Anders Breivik in Norway? Although riot victims Ashraf Rossli and Siva Kandiah may feel that the outpouring of aid and good will towards them has outweighed the bad, they are in a tiny minority of individuals who happen to have caught the public eye.

de Botton’s tweet is interesting for some of the assumptions it reveals: Firstly, it assumes the existence of an objective ‘good’ and ‘bad’, something which many secular philosophers work hard to avoid concluding.

Secondly, he assigns to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ their own motivating force. He doesn’t say ‘good people’ will get themselves organised, but that good itself will. I realise he is speaking elliptically for the sake of the 140-character limit, but it appears he sees some kind of forces of good and bad lurking around prompting people to act. Where does this leave the autonomy argument, which again many philosophers would wish to preserve: there are no angels or demons, there is no evil in the world, people act according to their own rational motives.

Both of these points are ones I would agree with: I think there is a real, objective good, a benchmark against which we can judge whether an action is right or wrong, good or bad. I also think good and bad are real, independent entities in the world; the Bible talks about ‘the spiritual forces of evil’ and also about God working in Christians.

Where I disagree is with de Botton’s third assumption. It’s the word ‘outweighs’ that really gets me. The writer doesn’t envisage good triumphing over evil. Good doesn’t overcome bad in the end, it just outweighs it. Somehow, somewhere, he thinks, there is a huge balance sheet in which good things and bad things are tallied up and in the end the longer list will be on the ‘good’ side.

This is simply not the way the Bible portrays life, and not the way we think, normally, of justice. Has justice been served by Ashraf and Siva receiving donations to help them rebuild their lives? No. We still want the thieves and vandals to be caught and sentenced. Have the clean-up activities negated the destruction that was wrought? No. They have eased the pain a little, but no matter how many people sweep the streets of Brixton and Birmingham, they will never be able to make right the wrongs that were done.

The scales of justice aren’t to weigh whether we’ve done more good than bad, they are to determine the appropriate amount of recompense needed for the crimes we are guilty of.

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