This post is part of the series Good and Evil
Other posts in this series:
In my last post I described how it was possible to both know that something is wrong and yet do it anyway. This is possible even considering the fact that it is impossible to choose what is evil because it is evil. In order to close up some loose ends in the argument it is necessary to explain what the difference is between good acts that can be improved and evil acts. The difference between a good act that can be improved and an evil one is that evil acts fail to have their ultimate intentions carried out consistently.
The first thing we must do is distinguish between good acts that can be improved and acts that can be improved by that person in that situation. The first example is just a case where two good acts can be compared and one is better than the other. For example, a shaman in a tribal village may give a person with stomach pains a plant to chew on that numbs his pain. If a modern doctor were in that same situation he might diagnose the sick person as having appendicitis and operate. The doctor’s act was better than the shaman’s. However, the shaman could not have done any better because he does not know anything about modern medicine. If the modern doctor did the same thing as the shaman, then he did something that he could have done better. If it were morally permissible for the doctor to give a painkiller instead operating then operating would be a supererogatory act (heroic act). I will be referring to the first kind of acts rather than heroic acts.
The second thing we must do is distinguish the ultimate intention of an act from the proximate intention. Suppose someone chooses to steal some candy from the local store. He stole them because it was the easiest way to satisfy his hunger at the time. He satisfies his hunger because he needs to eat. So the ultimate intention of stealing candy is preserving his life. The proximate intentions are stealing the candy and satisfying his hunger. We know that we have reached the ultimate intention (one of them) when the intention is intrinsically good (good because of what it is). The proximate intentions may be evil or merely instrumentally good.
When an act is evil, the ultimate intention fails to be carried out consistently. In the case of the person who steals from the store, they are despising the owner of the things in the store. Since that person is human, just as we are, the thief is despising their own humanity. Therefore, they are despising their own life. Since stealing a candy is not that evil, he is not despising his own life that much. Nonetheless, his ultimate intention to preserve he own life is undercut by his means of carrying it out. The act is good insofar as it preserves his life, but evil insofar as it does not preserve his life. So this is consistent with my earlier analysis of good and evil.
When an act is good, but could be improved, the ultimate intention is still carried out. However, the intention could be carried out in a superior manner. So the shaman and the doctor both intend to do their best to heal the sick. But the doctor’s knowledge is superior and he is better able to heal the sick than the shaman. Since both of their intentions are the same, and they consistently carry these intentions out, both individuals do what is good.