Relativists will say that this notion of good and evil changes, that it alters according to the moods and motions of a culture. I believe their right, not only on a cultural limit, but also on a personal level. In fact, I would argue that no one has done an evil deed in their entire lives.
That troubling mystic Simone Weil wrote in Gravity and Grace: “We experience good only by doing it. We experience evil only by refusing to allow ourselves to do it, or, if we did it, by repenting of it.” As with so many of her gnomic sayings, I am not entirely sure what she meant by that. But I think it means that the aesthete’s and decadent’s life “beyond good and evil” is, in fact, a delusion; it is the embrace of evil as good. We experience good only by doing good, but we do not experience evil by doing evil, for in doing evil we make evil our good. The result is not life “beyond good and evil”; the result is the triumph of evil–a triumph more total because evil is not recognized as such. (As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Return, 25)
When we do evil, we are not doing it thinking it is evil. We have convinced ourselves it is good. We have converted evil into our own personal good. Evil is something we only see as something we could do or already have done. If it’s what we’re doing, we’re more likely to delude ourselves and call it good, for who wants to do evil knowingly?
In some ways, this goes a little beyond what St. Paul writes:
I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7.18-25)
It doesn’t seem that Paul makes the obvious explicit in this passage: we seldom do evil and, in the midst of the act, say, “This is wrong.” We always justify. We always find a kernel of goodness that seems somehow to make it all good, as if it were yeast. Yeast is always used as a metaphor for evil, though, not for good.
Why is that? Because evil is a parasite on the good, it can devour the good like cancer. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but only where there is good. Good seems to be created ex nihilo. The good takes effort because we are creating something, not mutating something.
As an atheist, I always cringed at thoughts like this. Through some mental flipping and re-arranging, I was able to explain how in fact good and evil can be relative and yet meaningful. I knew it defied logic, because good and evil are gradations, which require a standard for measurement. A standard can’t very likely be relative.
Writing this, I feel like a child discovering basic principles of logic. So obvious, yet I contorted my thinking for so long to conform to this or that line of thinking. Why not just let logic lead the way? It did a fine job for Aquinas.