Define This

The adolescent daughter of friends of ours has an annoying habit. To almost anything said to her, she aggressively retorts, “Define __”. For instance, when I saw her last week, I innocuously greeted her with “Hello Denise, how are things with you?” “Define things” she snapped back. There was, of course, no good answer.

One of the reasons that fields such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have progressed at such a blistering pace over the past century or two is that everything is meticulously defined and so each generation, as it were, can build on what was established previously. If an electronics engineer says to his colleague, “Let’s match the impedance in the two circuits” he’ll never hear the response: “Define impedance”. If he did, he’d have to waste the next few minutes establishing a common language before moving on to complete the project. No, in these fields, all definitions are clear, commonly held, and largely unchanging so communication and cooperation upon which all human progress depends, occurs seamlessly.

By contrast, in politics, philosophy, psychology, art, and even in law, as well as in all academic play-spaces with the word “studies” after them, (gender studies, social studies, racial studies, etc.) definitions are more plastic than chewing gum. Not only does this make collaboration and advance almost impossible but it engenders a climate of fear. When Denise starts college next year studying sociology, she’ll fit right in.

What about morality? Were I to say to Denise, “I hope you’ll grow up to be a very good person.” She might well challenge me with “Define good”. And you know what? This time, I agree with her. Good does need a definition, as does evil.

Wehrmacht officer, Colonel Hans von Luck who shot French and English soldiers defending France in May 1940 as he detailed in his gripping autobiography, Panzer Commander, was being a good German. Palestinian terrorists who raped women and disemboweled them on Black Sabbath 2023 were apparently being good Moslem jihadists. (Evidently, many students at the prestigious university that Denise is planning on attending agree that there was nothing reprehensible about the jihadists.) Anyone objecting to large men competing athletically and martially against petite women is apparently evil. Exercising the death penalty and executing a criminal found guilty of brutal murders is also apparently evil, but taking the life of a baby in the womb is good. Participating in a destructive mob’s street riot during covid is good, but keeping a church open during the same period is evil. These are all real-life examples from recent news reports and editorials. Clearly, Denise has a point. For America or any other country to exist as one nation rather than as two warring tribes occupying the same real estate, the concepts of good and evil do need definition and agreement.

What is more, it is not only countries and societies that need commonly agreed-upon definitions of what is good and what is evil. Marriages need it just as urgently. Every couple needs to agree on clearly articulated moral values, specifying exactly how they will define good and evil. Without that, entering into marriage is sheer folly.

Businesses survive on definitions. Thirty years ago, McDonald’s established exactly what “supersize” means. Customers of coffee shop chains have learned just how “grande” is defined. But it is not only quantities that must be defined. Just as important is it to establish how the corporation defines morality. What exactly is good behavior and what is evil?

Consider how many employees of fast-food outlets and coffee shops have been fired for publicly embarrassing the corporate owners and costing the chains significant sums. Employees have shamefully polluted customers’ food in vile fashion. (Their careful creation of a video record for Tiktok of their heinous behavior, allowing them to be identified, says much about intelligence.) Other employees have mistreated law enforcement customers while others have abused customers with different political views. And for a cherry on the top, clients whom I have advised and who run many of these kinds of customer-service-centric businesses confide in me that employee theft is almost out of control. They devoutly wish they could hire only employees who share their definitions of good and evil. So Denise is right; we do need to define good and evil. I doubt we’d agree on the definition.

Here is how I define good and evil:

See, I set before you this day life and good, death and evil.
(Deuteronomy 30:15)

The following four verses proceed to define good and evil. Coming as they do, very close to the conclusion of the Five Books of Moses, these verses refer back to everything God has taught in the preceding roughly eighty-thousand words. There lies the foundation of good and evil and therein lies the reason for why freedom, prosperity, tranquility, law, and family-life flourished mainly in Judeo-Christian Bible-based societies. Without an agreed-upon definition of good and evil, one has no society, no progress and no hope.


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