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Good and evil

The notions of “good” and “evil” are intimately linked to the notions of “life” and “death”. Is’nt life our supreme good ? In olden days, when human activities were simpler, edible mushrooms had to be picked, that was “good”, while poisonous ones were “evil”. You had to kill the bear rather than be devoured by it. These notions of “good” and “evil” were clear, although subjective. Killing Pyrenean or Alpine bears is the very example of what must no longer be done today if one is striving for the common good.

In the Middle Ages, monks would clear the land left and right. They would cut down trees to prepare the soil and cultivate it. What they did was “good.” Today, critics abound against the Brazilian deforestation which upset the rainfall regime. The ensuing droughts starve the small Northeast farmers. Clearing the land is “bad.”

Are the notions of “good” and “evil” fluctuating, or subject to temporary fashions? Actually, these notions also depend on which referential system we choose. When we judge situations subjectively, in relation to ourselves, when the bear is seen as a threat to our life or property, we kill it. On the other hand, when we judge situations objectively, in relation to  an unbalanced nature, the concern for bringing balance back  demands that we protect the bear. Therein lies the entire difference between a “subjective” or self-referring system and an “objective” one.

 A subjective referential system generates tensions between individuals and even between nations. It encourages a spirit of competition whereas an objective referential system favours cooperation.

However, there are situations wherein the individual must take care of himself to survive and to maintain his autonomy as long as possible, so as to avoid being a burden to Others. The choice of an objective or subjective referential system depends on the context and, in some cases, “Freedom of conscience” – albeit subjective – assumes its full meaning for individuals.

On the other hand, a national or international institution whose declared objective is a form of common good needs to define for itself an objective ethical system.  It needs not concern itself with its own reproduction. Its own survival should depend solely on its ability to promote the common good for which it has been set up.

In human and international relations, failure to respect the principles of “equal right to be”, of “reciprocity”,proportionality”, and “responsibility”, leads us from symmetry to dissymmetry. It is a natural slope which creates tensions. These increase as we move away from symmetry; thus, suffering, hate, injustice, even violence, increase in the same proportion. It is the beginning of evil.

Generally I observe that “good” flourishes around symmetry, while “evil” grows up on the way to asymmetry. Eventually evil spits up its venom into the asymmetry of relations and force ratios. When the baker kneads bread to meet the needs of its customers, when the doctor treats his patients or when the gardener waters his flowers, all reduce the asymmetry between supply and demand. It is a basic moral act that allows millions of stakeholders to earn their living in the most honourable way.

The market asymmetry is the basis of all economic activities, the purpose being to reduce the imbalances. The greater the asymmetry of markets (imbalances between supply and demand) the greater the opportunities for gains and risks of losses. So let’s not be surprised at the enormous power of attraction of the asymmetry, this paradise of businessmen in search of adrenaline.

In most cases, businessmen satisfy demands and reduce asymmetry. But there are cases where speculators exacerbate imbalances by creating artificial needs or monopolizing commodities to remove them from the market creating profits at the expense of other market players.

Occasionally I like to tease my friends asking them which of these tools “freedom” or “cunning” is the most “ethical” (good) or unethical (evil). The trap is easy. Freedom is always praised and cunning condemned. Yet in order to beat evil one has to act cunningly! Obviously both tools must be contained with ethical norms. However the individual must remain the sole judge with his freedom of conscience because an open and predictable, albeit “moral” behaviour could expose the individual to predators.

It is important to make the difference between a struggling individual who is trying to survive and raise a family in a highly competitive environment and an institution which enjoys some kind of monopoly and whose main task is to promote the common good for which it has been establishedIn this case institutions should not need to be cunning or tricky and they should certainly not abuse their freedom!

Suffering and shame allow people to become aware of an asymmetry, and therefore enable them to react. Institutions on the other hand do not know these feelings and thus cannot react. Hence it is important to provide them with a reliable ethical system.

Doing good is first and foremost choosing a coherent referential system, and then deciding to reduce tensions by moving towards symmetry, even if one never reaches it.

A certain well-being immediately results from this tension-reducing impulse. This well-being appears as soon as the tendency towards dissymmetry is reversed, which marks the rebirth of hope to recover balance, peace, justice, health, happiness and pride.

As with truth, the principle of non-contradiction applies. One cannot do good here by doing evil elsewhere in the name of efficiency. That would be contradictory.