Defining Good and Bad

The problem with defining “good” and “bad” is that it necessarily separates. Or better yet, unnecessarily. The two concept reside down a continuum, but not diametrically opposed. The problem most have in trying to reconstruct this continuum is that they understand it to exist in a straight line, with a finite beginning and end (despite the actual definition of “continuum”). Even those who don’t regard it as having endpoints will still assume that “good” is somewhere towards the right, and “bad” is um… that way (as they point towards the left), with some sort of nebulous space floating around in the middle, serving no other purpose than to separate the two concepts.

At first I relied on my circular theories to try and figure it out. I new it wasn’t as clear cut as a straight line, too neat for its own good. I imagined a giant circle. But I had a problem with this since it implied that even though there is no absolute definition, at any given point on the circle there is either “good” or “bad,” and even as they lead to one another, they are separated through time. That is not right.

What originally got me thinking about this is one of the books I am teaching, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. I decided to teach it without having read it in about six or seven years. I remembered enough of it to see it slip seamlessly into my syllabus. Rereading it now, I am glad it did.

After reading a few chapters, I began seeing the two concepts of “good” and “bad” as coexisting, intermingling, and quite inseparable. The nebulous space I was first describing as the erroneous divider between the two, is really where they exist, in a state of nothingness, for the most part interchangeable. Depends who you ask.

And that is the first (and perhaps biggest) problem with attempting to understand what each is. In defining them, allocating an orthographic rendering, the idea of these concepts becomes immutable. Yet the concepts do not. Most definitions of “good” or “bad” are vague at best. You see the word, and have some sort of prescribed idea of what it should mean, but everyone creates their own definition. Circumstances shape definitions. Outcomes change definitions. Even the most minute slice of time can be defined as either “good” or “bad,” but the perspective will alter this definition.

Think of past governments, rules, and laws. Do any of them seem unjust today? Downright barbaric? Sure, democracy wasn’t prevalent everywhere, and people didn’t get to vote for their dictators or policies, but how many people questioned them? It is easy enough to judge them, before realizing that the future will judge you. What is deemed morally wrong in our society may be perfectly fine five hundred years from now. Time doesn’t even need to elapse. Cross the globe, and see how others are living , and what they find to be perfectly normal, moral, sanctioned behavior. Judge them if you will, but keep in mind, they will judge right back. And that is the point.

Try to define “good” and “bad,” and you will find as many definitions as there are ways of translating these words. The mere act of trying to define them negates their real existence. As you are looking at them, one in terms of the other, you can’t help but for form the dichotomy in your mind. I have done it plenty.

But in trying to search for the truth of these words, it must be remembered that there is no false.

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