Thumbs up and thumbs down illustration drawing by Julie Lim

A conflicting question I’ve been asking myself for my entire existence is, “Is there absolute good and evil?” Is there some sense of moralism that guides the universe? Or is everything just relative and there’s no such thing as good and bad? And if that’s the case, what does that mean for law enforcement and the justice system?

Is there absolute good and evil?

Image: Chris McCandles from christophermccandless.info

This dude above, who called himself Alexander Supertramp, is the main character of a non-fiction book called Into The Wild in which he drops out of college and hitchhikes to Alaska to live off the wild, but dies within a couple of months due to poisonous berries. He’s an icon and a role model for thousands of people for embodying a romantic, free-spirited idealism.

Julie Lim

Image: Julie Lim’s family

But when I first read the book, I was enraged by his selfish nature. I was taught that your life is not fully your own because you have a duty to your family and your community. So I saw him as a naive, self-serving dud who broke his family’s heart because their son and brother just disappeared and died, from freaking berries!

Image: Chris McCandles from christophermccandless.info

Alright, but what about buying someone a cake and cozy socks for their birthday? That sounds super sweet and thoughtful, right? It’s seemingly harmless, right?? What a good person, right???

Image: Skool of Vegan

Well, not to the animals who got abused, tortured, and eventually killed to make those products. And not to mention the environmental degradation it took to manufacture and transport those items. So in their perspective, that’s a pretty darn evil act. Was their torture and death worth the birthday cake and pair of socks?

Eating children must be evil right??

Image: Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son

Ok, ok..but what about eating your own children? That has to be something we can all agree is “evil” right? I mean, you would have to be a complete monster to do that, right?!

 

Image: Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son

Or, you’re just a female crab who’s hungry because that’s something they just do if they need more nutrition. You might also be a female praying mantis because eating the male after mating is part of your ritual. Should all of them be convicted of a federal crime for these acts most humans would deem as pure wickedness?

Image: Brein in Actie

But, they were just born and hard wired to be like that. So maybe there are humans who are hard wired to act or think in a way that is deemed “evil” in the society they live in. Which really sucks, because they have no control over what DNA and neurons they are born with.

And on top of that, none of us choose what environment we want to grow up in. No one was given a choice on who their parents are or what community they’ll live in. So what if they grew up in what you perceive to be a violent, hateful upbringing? Hurt people hurt people; it’s something that was sadly ingrained in them. 

How does moral relativism affect the justice system?

Image: @emilianobar at Unsplash

Which makes me think about capital punishment. Is it fair that we punish people on acts that they don’t have real control over? Theoretically, if I had the same brain and upbringing as a prisoner’s, then I would presumably do the same exact thing and end up in the exact same position. Additionally, some people are in prison for acts that were legal in the past. For example, a duel to the death was legal in the US until 1859. And even after that, some states like New Jersey were less likely to convict you for dueling (that’s why Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr dueled there). But, if you tried that now, you can bet your sweet cheeks that you would be convicted of murder. Others were put in prison for acts that eventually became legal, like marijuana users. So the idea of morals and justice as guiding principles seems very fickle. And if it is, then it’s hard for me to trust any rules and enforcement. 

Image: The Manor

On a more personal level, cancel culture has been increasing in popularity. People unfollow and publicly condemn others they personally believe are “bad.” But maybe what your eyes see as black and white are blue and yellow to them. Everyone has a different set of values and perspectives. 

I try to empathize and would say, "Interesting, can you please explain to me why you think it's Ok to eat children?"

Image: Gracia Lam at The New York Times

So with all of this in mind, rather than condemning practices that are considered vices by you or general society, perhaps we should resort to understanding where they’re coming from. The human condition is diverse and subject to many different environments. So instead of responding with, “You are a deplorable and blasphemous human being!” I would say, “Interesting perspective. Can you please explain to me why you think it’s ok to eat your children?”

But Noah, I can see why you needed to build that boat.

Buuuut, then I hear of truly horrific events caused by truly sadistic people and it makes me question my stance on moral relativism because how can starting a sex trafficking ring with 5-year olds not absolutely evil?! So many news stories make me think, “Noah, I can see why you needed to build that boat.” (Shout out to the subreddit r/noahgettheboat). Also, if we’re already hard-wired in a certain way, then we don’t really have free-will in our reactions and responses. So maybe you can’t help but react viscerally. Maybe the lawmakers can’t help but push for certain regulations. Maybe we can’t control anything and the topic of moral relativism isn’t important if we have no free-will anyways..

Thanks for reading my stream of consciousness. Don’t know if it made sense, but I’m not getting paid or graded, so it’s pretty low stakes.