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07 June 2007 @ 06:04 am
An Interesting Thought/Observation  

I just came across this and thought it interesting and, you know, a bit provocative. So I’m passing it along for us to ponder together:

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”  —Steven Weinberg, “A Designer Universe?” in The Best American Science Writing 2000, James Gleik (Editor), Jesse Cohen (Series Editor), The Ecco Press, New York, 2000.

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Marissa Lingenmrissa on June 7th, 2007 11:21 am (UTC)
I'm sure Weinberg would love to believe that; it'd let him off the hook as long as he believes himself to be a good person.
Fred A Levy Haskell: Fredcritter eyes onlyfredcritter on June 7th, 2007 12:22 pm (UTC)

Hmmmm. I suspect he does. Of course (and as you may be subtly pointing out) one of the problems is that we most of us like to think of ourselves as "good people." There's also the difficulty inherent in assuming there actually exist people who can be categorized as "good" and as "bad," as if those categories/aspects are objectively fundamental to a person's character.

On the other hand, while I believe the statement to be rather a bit over-broad, and it does leave out a lot of grey areas, I do think it points out something worth considering. What other causative factors might you propose to explain the instances when "good people do evil"? Or is that simply an oxymoron with no real applicability?

Marissa Lingenmrissa on June 7th, 2007 07:05 pm (UTC)
Further comments seem to be taking "good people doing evil" to mean "people who mean well doing evil." I think good people (=people whose behavior is mostly good) can sometimes slip and have a totally selfish moment that is in fact evil, that does not take the rest of the world into account and has bad results. And I don't think that religion is a unique factor in that type of good people doing evil.

I also think that Weinberg is giving ideologically motivated evil deed-doers too much credit. If you don't pay attention to the results of your actions, just to what you intend by them, you are not paying enough attention to still get to count as "good" indefinitely; certainly not past the first chunk of growing up. If you have a broken leg and I keep kicking it, it doesn't matter if I keep announcing that I intend to kick it back into place. It doesn't even matter that I honestly hold the deluded belief that this will work. It matters that I am kicking your broken leg, and it both hurts and harms, and I need to stop.

That doesn't mean that people can't do some stuff like that and still average out to being good people. It's just that there are things you can't keep doing and remain "good" indefinitely.
El Coyote Gordo: pastafariansupergee on June 7th, 2007 11:25 am (UTC)
One would have to use a definition of religion that includes godless ones such as Marxism.
Fred A Levy Haskell: Fredcritter eyes onlyfredcritter on June 7th, 2007 12:23 pm (UTC)

An excellent point. Thanks for bringing it up.

wcolsher on June 7th, 2007 12:43 pm (UTC)
I used to agree strongly with Weinberg's statement, but as I've gotten more involved with history, I've begun to qualify it: "that takes monotheistic religion". And even so, I suspect it is really deliberately provocative shorthand for:

To do evil we must first be convinced that we are absolutely right and the "other" absolutely wrong.

In the post-classical world, that sense of absolute rightness tends to be based in religion or in cults that resemble religion in all but name.
dd-bdd_b on June 7th, 2007 01:05 pm (UTC)
The key point is believing you know what's best for other people enough better than they do to justify forcing them to do what *you* think is right, it seems to me. I agree roughly about what groups are particularly prone to that. Is it coincidence that on the religious side it's monotheism? It could be "Abrahamic religions" instead; what other examples of monotheism do we have enough data on to be meaningful?

In other words, the problem is that if you become sufficiently non-libertarian, you're more likely to be a bad person :-).
Skylarkerskylarker on June 7th, 2007 03:27 pm (UTC)
I'm sure that monotheism isn't the only source of the kind of thinking that can lead good people into doing harm. Political thought seems to lead to a lot of evil, too, and it doesn't even require any kind of organized system for individuals to misunderstand a situation and act destructively on that count.
kip_wkip_w on June 7th, 2007 12:54 pm (UTC)
Heretic! Get 'im!
Skylarkerskylarker on June 7th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
The quotation is slightly misleading.

Religion can delude some good people into doing evil to others, but, unfortunately, it's not the only thing that can delude good people into doing evil.

Misunderstandings have many sources.
Daniel B. Holzman-Tweedholzman on June 7th, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)
Weinberg is full of it. Religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for a good person to do evil.
Larry Sandersonlsanderson on June 7th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)
Wot he said...
Weinberg is just tuning phrases... aphoristically speaking.
Beth Hansen-Buthwyrdpainter on June 8th, 2007 07:24 pm (UTC)
Oh that's so true, and so well said. Thanks for sharing this on Fred.