I took a philosophy class a number of years ago where one of the assignments was to write an essay on good and evil: whether or not they exist, what they might look like, which one is stronger, and the like. I drew on ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and argued that for the most part, good and evil are irrelevant categories in the lives of most people, who instead use other criteria to make decisions. I also pointed out that many ‘good’ and ‘evil’ things are so deeply embedded into our culture that their existence and use is taken for granted. I recall that I used prisons and slaughterhouses as examples of structural evils that people might, nonetheless, have a hard time giving up.

The instructor wrote that my paper was well-reasoned, but that he found the conclusions I drew depressing. I had no real problem accepting my conclusions (after all, I had concluded them), but I guess I can see how some people might find them a little grim. Recall the debate between Obama and McCain at that church during the 2008 election. We are trained to think in terms of good and evil, even when those categories are not real or useful. Nobody wants to think that they wittingly participate in evil every day, or how rarely they do anything that could be considered truly ‘good’ in a larger sense.

Personally, I find this all a bit freeing. We (mostly) are not beyond good and evil, but below it. It feels a bit wistful being lighter than air. I’ll close with an Irish folk song (with translation):

You can find it here.

What is that to anyone?

I went to the fair and sold my cow
For five pounds of change and a golden yellow guinea.
If I drink the money and give away the gold
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?
If I go to the branchy forest to collect berries or nuts
To take apples from the branches or to herd cattle
If I lie for an hour beneath trees to make myself comfortable
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?
If I take myself to a night-time visit and dancing and fun
To a fair or races, and each gathering of the sort
If there are convivial people, and I am convivial with them
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?
People say that I am worthless and hopeless
Without goods, without profit, without stock (of cattle) or wealth
But if I am content with my little place to live in
Oh what is that to anyone to whom it doesn’t pertain?
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