I was taking a shower last night and I noticed this conditioner bottle of my wife’s. She likes this “Burt’s Bees” stuff. Not sure if it is made from the distilled guts of the world finest honey bees or what. In any case, the bottle was turned around backward and I noticed on the back it had this slogan: “Personal care products for the Greater Good”. It’s a nice slogan, but what does it mean exactly? Is the “greater good” making sure you’re not contaminating my airspace with your poor personal hygiene? I think that would probably be a pretty great good to aim for. However, I suspect, based on the little green leaf next to the slogan, that what they’re really suggesting is that the contents of their products are somehow environmentally friendly. What makes that the greater good though?
At the same time I’ve been hearing all this talk this week about the proposed SOPA and PIPA legislation. In general terms, this legislation essentially gives the government power to shut down web sites that are in any way, shape, or form connected to any sort of copyright infringement. Even simple things like DNS servers, which turn names (like mikesmindbarfs.wordpress.com) into IP addresses (like 126.96.36.199) could be held accountable for the wrong-doing of some unrelated site oversees (for a complete rundown on SOPA try this video). Outrage ensued over how “evil” this legislation was because of the innocent bystanders that would potentially become victims of the wrong-doing of others. Luckily there is new legislation on the table that only seeks to hold only actual willful copyright infringers liable for their actions. The new act is lovingly called OPEN.
What makes SOPA “evil” though, and what makes Burt’s Bee’s self-proclaimed responsible stewardship of the planet “good”. If some rich corporations can get richer by taking control of the country, why shouldn’t they? Survival of the fittest, right? Why isn’t that the “good” thing. Similarly, why isn’t the saving of the earth the “evil” thing. Perhaps extinction of all human life on the planet is the “good” thing. On a materialist view we’re no more special than a fly, so why shouldn’t we just be maggot food?
Of course, this sort of suggestion seems absolutely and universally preposterous doesn’t it? However, without some universal moral truth about what is good and what is evil, why can I not just decide for myself what constitutes good? If I think it is good to do whatever gains me the most power and money, regardless of who gets in my way, what is it to you? You might not think it is good, but that is just your version of good against mine.
Outspoken atheist, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, much to the dismay of some of his colleagues, admits there seems to be some sort of objective good and bad built into the universe. When pressed to explain such a thing Harris defines “good” as being whatever generally leads to the flourishing of sentient life, making “evil” be whatever leads to the suffering of sentient life. But why? Crocodiles were here before homo sapiens, so why shouldn’t “good” mean that we ought to feed human babies to crocodiles so they can flourish. Humans are just screwing up the planet anyway. Perhaps Burt’s Bees should put poison in their bottles to try to rid the planet of human life because that would be the even greater good. Why for that matter is animal life good at all? Why shouldn’t we work to exterminate all animal life, including ourselves, so that plant life can flourish? Maybe that’s really what is good.
It would seem clear to me that all mentally stable people have some basic sense of what constitutes good and what constitutes evil though. There is a such thing as objective good and objective bad. I just think some people have a harder time than others identifying how or why they have this objective truth built into them. Some people don’t want it, and they openly choose to defy, redefine, or otherwise bury parts of it, but they know at least on some level that there are lines that ought not be crossed.
Looking at legislation like SOPA, or any legislation, and evaluating it in terms of good or evil is definitely important. The more important life question to ask though, is not what legislation is good or evil, but what qualities makes it good or evil, followed by why are those qualities “good” or why are they “evil”. Without some objective foundational source of good and evil neither concept can exist. All that remains is being slaves to our own biologically driven selfishness. In that case Burt’s Bees might as well use the distilled guts of every last honey bee to make every last dime they can, and forget about anything called the “greater good”, because neither the honey bee’s life, nor yours or mine, have any intrinsic value.