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Yes, Virginia, There Really is Good and Evil

I think this is a question that nags at all of us:

Do you think that a basic knowledge of good vs. evil is inherent in our psyche (in a sort of Jungian way)? Or is it something we learn? I guess a question I have always had since childhood is how do you know if what you are doing is actually good?


The Rabbis tell us (Eruvin 100b):

אמר רבי יוחנן אילמלא לא ניתנה תורה היינו למידין צניעות מחתול וגזל מנמלה ועריות מיונ
R' Yochanan says, had the Torah not been given, we could learn modesty from the cat, [not to] steal from the ant, and fidelity from the dove.

Why wouldn't we learn not to be modest from a dog, stealing from ravens, and infidelity from the cat? On first glance, then, it seems like we *do* have some inner moral compass. We may not be able say what is good and evil, but we recognize it when we see it. As is often the case, first impressions are misleading. First, the Torah *has* been given and it could very well be that we have lost the natural sensitivity for good and evil once that happened. It is well known that college students now (who have grown up with calculators and computers) have less "feel" for numbers than generations who grew up working through calculations by hand (or slide rule... I actually miss my slide rule).

Moreover, the world is in balance. Everything is kept in a strict balance to allow us to make real, free choices about good and evil. Once the Torah was given (so that the good or evil of every deed and thought was more apparent), the inclination and ability to rationalize one's actions, thoughts, and even feelings was also increased. How many people smoke and rationalize that the data doesn't apply to them, or the research is faulty, or the fun of smoking is worth the risk of lung cancer and heart disease? There is also rationalizing that the evil isn't so bad; again basically rationalizing that while there is evil in the action, when you add it all up there is a net good.

On the other hand, there are also things that are uniquely human. Those things good not be learned from observing the world. Anything involving speech, for example, could not be learned from observing animals. You can't learn about murder from observing animals, either. Obviously you can't learn from animals anything about Shabbos, prayer, modes of dress, etc.

So I believe we are left with a situation that, practically speaking, one cannot "feel" right and wrong; rather, it must be learned. That is, there must be an external standard of right and wrong. Lest you think that it is not such a big deal, as long as you get things "mostly" good, consider the situation in the world before Lister. Surgeries were done in non-sterile conditions because no one knew any better. Imagine trying to tell a surgeon from them about these invisible things that can cause death in his patients unless he takes certain precautions, like using chemicals to wash his hands and instruments; he would think you were nuts. Yet that is the reality; there really are invisible things that are deadly.

The answer to the question, then, is that we have to learn about good and evil. Good and evil are real; you can't just make them up. Not learning -- and remaining in ignorance -- is not an option; because the Torah has, in fact, been given. Our sensitivity to spirituality has, in fact, been deadened. We need to learn, and we have no excuses. If not now, when?

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