On Good and Evil

The holiday of Shavuot celebrating the Sinaitic Epiphany is called in Mishnah atzeret, the culmination of Passover (just as Shemini Atzeret is the culmination of Sukkot). Indeed, it is the only Jewish holiday which is not tied to a specific date in the calendar but is always celebrated on the 50th day from Passover. Passover is called zeman heruteinu, “the holiday of our freedom.” If Shavuot is the culmination of Passover, what is the connection between the giving of the Torah and freedom? Moreover, the Torah contains multiple laws which restrict the life of a Jew by many DOs and DON’Ts. We can’t drive or use a computer on Shabbat; we can’t eat food that is not kosher, etc. How is this freedom?

As I wrote in my essay on Shavuot, 613 Degrees of Freedom, each degree of freedom entails the freedom to choose between two available alternatives. It is easy to see this in the physical world – the freedom of movement in three dimensions entails the freedom to go right or left, forward or backward, up or down. The freedom to choose between alternative job offers is another example. In the moral dimension, freedom of choice is the freedom to choose between doing good or doing evil.

What is good and evil, or good and bad? Clearly, they are on the opposite ends of every moral dilemma.  How can we determine which choice is good and which is evil? There are as many perspectives on this question as people you ask. What is good for one may not be good for another.

As Descartes said long ago, most arguments would disappear if we were to give definitions to what we are arguing about. Can we find a good definition for good and bad? I suggest we start with an easier task of defining a relative good and a relative bad.

Say you are sailing from Boston to Miami along the Eastern coast of the United States. Therefore, a Northern wind – the tailwind from your perspective – is good for you as it helps you to get to your destination. For someone else sailing in the opposite direction, from Miami to Boston, the same wind is not so good, because it prevents or, at least, delays him from getting to his destination.  It is apparent from this simple example that it is easy to define good and bad relative to a goal: everything that helps you to reach your goal is good (relative to this goal), and, vice versa, everything that prevents you from reaching your goal is bad (relative to this goal). This simple definition can help clarify much of the confusion in debates about morality, as we often confuse the general notions of good and bad with what is good or bad for me (i.e., relative to my personal goals).

In a world of scarce resources, there is always competition for these resources. Many scenarios, therefore, can be classified as a “zero-sum game” – for every winner, there is a loser. A society where everyone insists that what is good for me is good and, therefore, I should be allowed to do it, cannot function. In each civilized society, there has evolved a legal system to ensure that members of society compete for scarce resources fairly.

The debate, however, rages on. Take a thorny issue such as abortion. Those women who proclaim, “My body – my choice” essentially take the position, if it’s good for me, it must be moral.  However, is it good for the embryo? People on the other side of the debate say, killing an unborn child is immoral, because it is not good for the child. Who is right? Such questions cannot be resolved within the framework of relative morality based on definitions of relative good and bad, where the answer always depends on the individual’s perspective.

The only way to resolve such questions is within the framework of absolute morality if such a system could be found and agreed upon. How do we progress from a relative morality – what’s good for me? – to a universal morality – what’s good for everyone?

We defined relative good and bad as relative to a goal. If my specific goal (say, to get from Boston to Miami) were shared by several other people (those who are on the same boat), our definition of good and bad relative to a goal would be shared among the group that shares the same goal. If there were a goal that was universally shared by all people, the relative definition of good and bad relative to such a universally shared goal would become absolute.

All people who believe in God share the same goal, serving the Creator. His will, unequivocally and indisputably revealed to all people at Mt. Sinai, define such service and, therefore, absolute morality – what promotes the will of God is good, and what is contrary to the will of God is bad (or evil).

This is precisely what God did on Mt. Sinai some three and a half thousand years ago. He revealed His will to millions of people who came out of Egypt and gathered around Mt. Sinai, who “saw and heard” the words of God. By doing so, God gave us the universal and absolute moral system which defines good and bad in the absolute sense. It is this moral system that gives us freedom of choice, the ultimate freedom to do good or the opposite.

It is in this sense that Shavuot is the culmination of the holiday of Passover, called zeman heruteinu, “the holiday of our freedom.” If on Passover, we celebrate physical freedom, the freedom from slavery, on Shavuot, we celebrate moral freedom – the freedom to serve God by doing good and the freedom to do good by serving God.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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