November 9th, 2007


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Discussion (30)¬

  1. Cuprohastes says:

    Ed officially has the best definition I’ve ever heard.

  2. […] Digger, Usula Vernon (great artist, BTW) came up with the best explanation of  “good” and “evil” that I’ve, personally, ever heard. It just took me until about 2am this morning to remember […]

  3. Lica says:

    I always come back to read this page. One of the best definitions of evil and good.

  4. Jatopian says:

    I don’t know about that. I find that “making life better in small ways” is a nice reason.

  5. djkibykat says:

    Ursula Vernon has just given every parent the best explanation of good and evil ever. *is telling other parents about this page*

  6. Mverdo says:

    I’ll be explaining evilness a lot better thanks to you! Me and my kids will be verry gratefull!

  7. Saphroneth says:

    It sounds to me like these are all from his life… and that maybe Digger reminds Ed of his little one.

  8. Sparky Lurkdragon says:

    Another one chiming in that this is one of my favourite pages. I love poor old Ed so much.

  9. BunnyRock says:

    This is, if not the most, then one of the most beautiful things I have seen in a comic ever.

    Thank you.

    However being the sort of person who can never leave anything alone, I would say Ed’s definition is perfect as long as intent goes. To do a good act has no self serving intent, no need to justify your intentions, but what if the results are bad. You can know in your heart that something is wrong and that you will need a BIG reason to justify it, and do it anyway. I agree with Ed’s definition of evil in that if you need to defend something, even to yourself, you almost certainly know that it was evil…BUT that does not mean that the net results of it are not necessarily good. I hold that the taking of life under any situation is evil, but that the NET effect of many wars and ever some cynical political assassinations made the world a less evil place over all by removing evil men (and it tends to be men, I can’t think of one female mass-murdering dictator except Boudicca and she doesn’t really count as she was fighting Romans who were the world masters of war, slavery and genocide, but yet also in themselves a force for good). I think that evil is often necessary to prevent more evil. It doesn’t make what you do right, just slightly less wrong than doing nothing and permitting evil. You have to be analytical and cold calculating and EVIL to make the world a better place by stopping evil, which inevitably involves interfering in another’s free-will, and as a result GOOD is something that only exists on a personal level in little, isolated acts the make the world better in tiny immeasurable ways that will never make up for the evil even a good-soul will inevitably commit in order to prevent worse evil.

    This explains why I am a Christian. I don’t particularly LIKE organised religion; I just see the entire world as screwed unless we can get someone to forgive us for the evil things we are almost definitely going to do every day. Ed’s definition of evil is perfect; especially because when you apply it to your own life as there is no practical way you can avoid evil in that scenario, you just have to shrug your shoulders and TRY your best and hope like hell you wont be judged to harshly for it.

  10. jursamaj says:

    BunnyRock: I find your definition absurd. Less evil *is* more good. It may not be perfect good, but neither is the worse option perfect evil.

    And the more I think about it, the less Ed’s answer makes sense. All the “good” things he describes, people generally do for selfish reasons. Why did Digger name Ed? Because she wasn’t comfortable without a label for him: it was more about her than him. Why do people do nice things? Because it makes *them* feel good.

    Conversely, people can just as easily do evil without making any attempt to justify it.

    As stumbling as it was, Digger’s effort actually says something.

  11. Rista-liehna says:

    I think that Ed and Digger are both right.

    As Jursamaj said, there is often a reason to do good.* It’s entirely possible for great good to be done for selfish reasons–look at Ed’s example, the gift of a hug from a child. The child hugs for its own comfort, yet when it does so, its parents feel loved. Parents giving anonymous gifts to their children (saying it’s from ‘Santa Claus,’ for example), though, that is good done without a reason. If the parents put their own names on the card, the child would be more grateful, but the myth makes the child happy, so it is allowed to continue.

    Evil can also exist with or without a reason. Leaving aside insanity, which is a separate question, there are people who cause harm because they feel they’ve been wronged, and people who do so just because they feel like it. According to TV, even a specific group of evil people, such as serial killers, can include both types.

    I’ve probably said this badly. My point is that Ed and Digger are both right… some of the time. Their views seem contradictory, but good and evil are subjective; there are cases that fit both views, and a wide field in between.

    *Though I personally believe that Digger wasn’t only naming Ed for her own peace of mind. He said that his name had been eaten, and she could see that he was sad about that, so giving him a name was good for them both.

  12. Andrew says:

    The existence of a word for some concept does not mean that that concept is an objectively real thing. “Good” and “Evil” cannot be defined universally and unambiguously — each belief system has a somewhat different interpretation of these ideas. If you adhere closely to one faith in particular, you’ll likely disagree with my view, which is your prerogative. But in objective reality, there are only choices and consequences — judgments of those choices and consequences are subjective to the individual or culture, according to their beliefs and values.

    But even the word “choice” can be misleading. Action potentials travel along neural pathways established by genetic predisposition and past experiences; what we do is largely (if not entirely) determined by who we are and what we’ve learned. So I doubt there’s much room for “free will”, although quantum indeterminacy might give it a chance now and then…

    But Ed is right that there are always reasons why people make “evil” choices. However, there are also always reasons why people make “good” choices, even if they’re not aware of the reasons, in either case. The most impulsive whim or otherwise thoughtless act is still the result of an elaborate process of electrochemical cause and effect. That’s about as close as you can get to an objective definition of “reason.”

    Having said all that, I still really like both Digger’s and Ed’s perspectives on morality. The contrast really adds a depth and richness to their characterization that’s all too rare in most fictional works, let alone webcomics. Once again, Ursula, deep respect and appreciation….

  13. Mark Antony says:

    I don’t think Ed means that a good act necessarily is done for no reason. Rather, I think what he means is that the motivation behind a good act is more than just the reasons; that in some measure it is done because it is good. You can give all these reasons for why you hug your child, or save a life, but in some measure there is the fact that you did it because it was the right thing to do. That is not a reason, it’s a tautology. You do the right thing because that’s a good thing to do. Why do a good thing? Because it is right. That is why attempts to make laws that regulate moral character never work out. The words aren’t there.

  14. RyRi says:

    Couldn’t Digger have just told the shadowchild that evil is what puts shadows upon the heart? I think that would have been a definition that the shadowchild would have understood and used perfectly.

  15. Raidell says:

    Woo! Ethics debate! *grabs popcorn*

  16. Jesse says:

    *bookmarks this page for later reference*

  17. EgregiousCharles says:

    RyRi, I don’t think we’ve established that evil is what puts shadows upon the heart. That could be more related to guilt; some of the best people are those who feel guilty about every little thing they do wrong, and some of the worst people are convinced they’re always right and never feel guilty (see Jhalm and virtually every politician).

  18. capnq says:

    @RyRi: I don’t think Digger understands “shadows on the heart” well enough to use that analogy with Shadowchild. I doubt the analogy would even occur to Digger.

  19. Trogdog says:

    Wow. The essay page. Right, here it is folks, take it or leave it:

    “There is no good or evil, only nature.”

    You can debate it seven ways to Sunday, but it remains a perfectly valid* and logical idea. Keep in mind that nothing can be disproved, including good, evil, nature, or the statement as a whole. (In case you didn’t catch the irony, this makes the statement unprovable, which is why I called it an idea rather than a fact.) However, it could theoretically be proven to be illogical, or invalid. (Still with me?) Validity is more of an opinion really, so for sake of argument lets just say that it’s validity has been proven to be invalid. 😛 logic, however is a different story. The logic behind IDEAS like good and evil can be argued, as you have been doing in these posts. (Various types of logic can be applied: this is good because… this is evil because…) however ideas can only be proven illogical through a genuine paradox (the inexorable clashing of logics). E.g.- the burrito paradox. (One of my favorites. Look it up.) As there is nothing within the statement “There is no good or evil, only nature” that would cause a paradox, I submit to you that it is in fact a logical (if not valid) statement. This does not disprove the existence of good or evil, as nothing can, however I believe It gives it a much firmer foundation than the concept of good and evil, because they are open to interpretation and are thus matters of opinion. When all else fails, apply Occam’s razor. All your base are belong to us. You get two hundred experience points if you understood all of this. – Trogdog

    *Or not apparently…

  20. Murasaki says:

    Ya know…Ed has a very good point.
    Not having a reason to do good, is good.
    But what about doing evil, just because?
    For no reason at all??

    Of course…most people do it for what they think, is a very good reason.
    Which is why the road to hell is apparentally paved with good intentions.

  21. Arrkhal says:

    Even when trying to overanalyze it, it still works out that, by the kind of morality that’s universal to all functioning human societies, “good” acts are always unreasonable. Someone runs into a burning building to save a child. Why? “To save a child” is no reason. No result is self-justifying. From a purely logical, not ethical, perspective, saving a life to save a life is just as unreasonable as killing someone so they’d die.

    Someone can do seemingly “good” deeds out of selfish reasons, but that tends to negate the “good” aspect of it. More of a “neutral,” or something.

    If the only reason you have is “it just had to be done,” it’s either good, or insanity (or both). The distinction tends to be in what your neighbors think.

  22. Jamie P. says:

    So this page made me tear up a little…something about how beautifully the philosophy is captured. Or maybe because I’m reading comics at 2 in the morning.

  23. Misley says:

    Sometimes when I space out, I find myself squishing bugs for no reason. I try to keep myself from doing this (poor buggies) but for somehow unconsciously I just do it. But maybe it’s like ripping up leaves from bushes, you know that sort of thing.

  24. Elkian says:

    I am gonna start crying

  25. Joseph says:

    I’ve always disliked this definition of good and evil; it strikes me as useless.

    Look at it this way: What if, instead of giving that list off the top of her head, Digger had given Shadowchild this definition? What would it conclude? This definition says nothing about whether hurting others is better or worse than keeping them from being hurt; both can be done for no reason, but both are usually done for highly specific reasons.

    People have reasons for almost everything they do, including stealing, eating breakfast, working at their job, warning their child not to play near the edge, and double-checking their math when explosives are involved.
    A child who stands up to a bully on behalf of the bully’s victim does so in order to make the world more like the way he or she imagines it. The same is true of the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution, those who started the Open Source movement, and Norman Borlaug (look him up).
    Are these things evil? If this definition was the one presented to Shadowchild, he would have said yes.

  26. Joseph says:

    Correction to the final sentence above: *it* would have said yes.

    (Separated into two posts for clarity.)
    Here’s my working definition of morality, and some descriptions of how it would be applied to the situations in the comic. I know it’s complicated, but bear with me.

    The most moral course of action is the one that minimizes the damage to/suffering of (and maximizes the happiness of) sentient beings, with greater preference given to beings with more sentience.

    In this case, “damage” and “suffering” cover everything from mild annoyance to death. Obviously, mild annoyance is largely irrelevant, and death is the worst possible option (except maybe in cases like Ed’s, where the individual in question considers their fate to be worse).

    Therefore, beating your mate, for any of the reasons Ed gave, is immoral – you may be annoyed, but your mate is suffering serious pain. It would be much better to express yourself in a way that causes less pain (such as peaceful discussion).
    One child standing up for another against a bully, on the other hand, is a good thing. The child who confronts the bully becomes another target of the bully (which is why children are often so reluctant to do this), and the bully is obviously displeased by such a situation. However, the bully’s victim becomes a lot happier as a result, negating both losses. (Note that the bully is not discounted from this consideration – just because he/she is doing something immoral doesn’t make it ok to ignore his/her feelings.)

    One final example: It is immoral to stop the hyenas in this story from killing rabbits, deer, and similar animals. Yes, the rabbits/deer die, but the hyenas are carnivores, and they would die otherwise. The lives of hyenas (especially highly intelligent ones such as these) are more important than the lives of rabbits and deer.
    On the other hand, their hunting and attempted killing of Digger was immoral. Digger is around as intelligent as they are, so her death would be as bad as theirs (whether or not they see it that way). Given that they don’t need to eat Digger in particular to survive, the most moral course of action would have been not to attempt to kill her. (And, as Digger later said, it was good of Shadowchild to come to her aid.)

  27. The Procrastinator says:

    Why, BunnyRock, why? Why did you have to set off the ethics debate?

    Personally, I usually go for “love you neighbour as you love yourself”, with the caveat of “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing the right thing”.

  28. BunnyRock says:

    @The Procrastinator: How could I not? all the ingredients were all there and waiting!

    and @: jursamaj… no, I’d not necessarily agree that the prevention of evil necessarily is the same thing as *good*. That seems to presume that the universe is inherently morally good. If you prevent something happening in a system, the system defeats to its default state. So if the default state of the universe is evil or amoral, preventing an act of evil does not make it Good, at best, it will make the universe more amoral, at worse, creates a different variety of evil. Removing a black tablecloth from a grey table does not make it white, less black, certainly, but still a depressing shade of grey. And if the table is grey, it follows any life that evolved in the table is grey also.

    I’ve never gone along with the idea of an inherently “good” universe, because if the universe was inherently good, The universe would prevent me from doing evil things. If i picked up an axe and went to attack my neighbour with it, No giant hand reaches down from the sky to take the axe away, no sudden never system-shut down would stop me swinging it. The idea of the universe as a good place is a fallacy. At best it is amoral. I am free to do both good and evil, and was born as such (I’ll try to keep religious arguments out of this, so I’ll not mention original sin even though i believe in it), and born innocent of concepts of good or evil. Freedom and innocence are the default state of the universe, and freedom and innocence are amoral. Since what acts are considered good and evil are determined by the society in which you live, it followed that on this amoral formless mass groups impose their own order via ideas of good and evil, and indeed it is necessary for groups to do so in order to work-together and progress. In order to work together as a group, individuals must give up some of their freedoms I.E. I willingly give up my freedom to become an axe-murderer, in order to be accepted as “Good” by society (that’s by no means the ONLY reason I don’t go round murdering people, but I can’t deny the fact I’ve been conditioned to think of doing so as “bad” is the main reason). This is my big problem with Nietzsche: the Ubermench above and beyond the herd instinct of lesser men is not something to be worked towards, it’s what we could all degrade into unless we choose to be mediocre and worry about societies petty and arbitrary rules which DESPITE being petty and arbitrary in nearly all cases, are needed for social cohesion. The herd-instinct and the surrender of freedom is a necessary evil, no wait, its not, it’s a necessary amorality. It’s sad to say that Thomas Hobbes got it exactly right: this is a cruel, unforgiving universe and to survive we have to surrender freedoms to a social contract, and in any large-scare society entropy and chaos theory which Hobbes was ignorant of) will ensure that no matter how good the ideas its based on, the contract we let rule us (law, government, organised religion) must, by definition, be flawed. I agree with Ed’s reasoning as it allows NO ROOM for significant acts of good of a large scare. To use the Pragmatic Doctrine and the original meaning of “Pragmatism” (where “pragmatic” means “A belief that the morality of an act or intent and its end result ARE ONE AND THE SAME which rejects any abstract concept of morality or intent (i.e. there is to do harm accidentally by trying and failing to do good and to do harm deliberately are morally indistinguishable and drawing any distinction between them is counterproductive at best)) then is modern society any “better” that primitive society? Has our technology and rule of law made us better people that we were in the Palaeolithic or the bronze age or ancient Rome? Or has it just let us be amoral more efficiently? Do you honestly for a moment think that preventing an act of evil will, in the long term, make things better? That it will make a difference in 50,000 years? Of course not. Good exists. I believe in it passionately, and I fight for it day by day. But it is fleeting and week and forgotten quickly, and when the entropy sets in and the stars but out it will have made little difference to the big picture.

    And that’s the most optimistic thing you will ever hear, and I’ll tell you why. If the universe is a big, cold, amoral place where nothing we do matters, which it clearly is, then there is no reason to be afraid anymore. Evil is as screwed in the face of the never-ending amorality as good. Once you realise that nothing you do will stop the stars going out, or that Malthusian collapse I’m sure is only one generation in the future, or humanities inevitable extinction, then there’s nothing to loose and you may as well do what you can to make the world better in those tiny, tiny little insignificant ways. Pet the dog. Give candy to orphans. The orphans will die anyway in seventy-odd years and the puppy in twenty, but in the mean time who cares, have fun! And in that there is the big secret: in the fight between good, evil and amoral, amoral will always win. However because amoral is so huge, good can use it to beat evil in the tiny, little day to day struggles. Good will not knowingly and willingly work for evil, Evil will work for whoever helps it achieve its aims, as will, amoral, so good is far better at getting Evil and amoral people working for it for less-than-good reasons that evil is. Sure, previewing evil will never work, and the system is amoral and broken as hell, but if you can get a few tinny, meaningless acts of good in, and trick the amoral people into thinking they are moral( thank god for Rousseau, the best “lies to children” ever created. The idea that everyone is born a blank slate with a slight predilection to goodness is of course nonsense, people are born blank slates with a slight predilection to remain blank slates despite all good or evil try to do about it, but if you can sincerely believe that people are pre-inclined to good at some point early in your life, when you learn it’s not true you can move one in a mental state better able to try to get them to act like they are despite the fact they are clearly not and will never be) I am not a good person. Good people, In my sad opinion, do not exist. If they did they would be unable to conceptualise either amorality or Evil. No offence, you’re all “pretty” good people I’m sure, but I’m no longer sure if good and evil can, in the absolute, exit except in very small acts of kindness or spite as the world is so chaotic any bigger attempts at either just end up as amoral regardless of intent. But we’re not any of us really evil people, because they don’t really exist either, and generally we try our best and in those small, tinny, meaningless acts of good, and I think I’m doing quite well. Besides: Although I promised not to bring religion into it, I’m still a Christian. In secular terms, I KNOW Hobbes what right and can live with that and have fun with my tiny, pointless acts of kindness, and in spiritual terms, I’m not obliged to think people are capable of truly good, they NAILED their GOD to a TREE! I nailed MY god to a tree! Humanity are sodding psychos! I don’t need to believe people are good, I just have to believe that outside of this amoral universe is someone willing to like us despite the fact we’re all amoral loonies incapable of either true good or true evil, and who is perhaps, when we check out of our amoral entropy-riddled universe, willing to show us how good is done.

    *checks watch* Yep.3 AM on a Saturday night and I’m ranting about Hobbes, Rousseau and Malthusian collapses. Life of the party me.

    I’d like to add a second explanation of my moral beliefs of the above one “Stuff happens, what the Hell. Try not to screw it up. Mines a pint.”

  29. larry g says:

    Hehehe, and some of my friends are puzzled as to why I LOVE Digger!
    Thanks all, for this discussion.
    Make mine a pint too

  30. Ellemerr says:

    I like Ed’s thoughts, but the way I see it, they fit very well on animals, while humans have it tricky because we’re screwed up. Sounds to me like Ed is talking about instinct – things without reason are instinct, and instinct is “good”, usually in that it’s a mechanic to help you stay alive longer. If you need to reason your way through an action, however, it is not instinctual, and if “reason = good” then it logically follows that “not reason = not good = ‘bad’ “. It’s simple, it’s animalistic, and it’s awfully difficult for humans to follow because our instincts are screwed up with logic and thinking and religion and not to mention ethics and morals.

    But of course, a real animal, relying entirely on instinct, would probably never care about “good” and “bad” or try to explain the differences between them. And good for them, I say! Sometimes, I’m jealous.

    When it really comes down to it, though, I agree with BunnyRock in that there is no real “good” and “evil” and the world and people in it are not by default more one or the other. For one thing, “good” and “evil” can change based on point of view, and for another, all people are a little bit of both no matter how hard they might try to tip the scales.

    Still, though, that’s no reason to not try to make a better world. “Those who don’t ask don’t want, and those who don’t want don’t get”, eh? And most people want a lot of happiness… one way or the other. Right? Right. Yes.