The Subjective Nature of Good and Bad

It was about ten years ago when I first realized that the words ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘evil’, and other such terms that evaluate quality were extremely subjective. It struck me unexpectedly, like something beyond myself poked the idea into my brain. I railed against it at first, then later it started to sink in.

Pick something at random and evaluate it qualitatively. I’m going to use bananas, but you can use whatever you like. It works with pretty much anything. So for me, I’m not a big fan of bananas. I like their flavour, but I hate nearly everything else about them. Most people like bananas. So are they good, even though I don’t really like them? Are they bad because I don’t like them?

Some of you are probably pointing out that bananas are a silly example, and that I should go with something that more people agree on. Love is good, right? And pain is bad, right? Well, now, that’s a conundrum. Love is pain. You can only really get hurt by people if you care about them. Moreover, the most intense emotional pain I’ve ever experienced has been from love, either through the actions of someone I loved or from something happening to them. So if love invariably involves pain, how can love be good and pain be bad?

It comes down to the same thing as bananas. We evaluate things by whether we enjoy them or not. Just because more people enjoy the intimate side of love and do not enjoy the pain associate with it doesn’t mean this is true of everyone. Some people enjoy pain, and some people are very uncomfortable with intimacy. So it’s all subjective.

Next was the interesting observation one of my best friends relayed to me: being comfortable leads to stagnation. Discomfort motivates us to adapt. So avoiding discomfort is maladaptive. Granted, we adapt in order to alleviate discomfort, but the mechanism is different. Rather than avoiding situations that precipitate the discomfort, we expose ourselves to them so much that we acclimate. In other words, our comfort zone expands. Avoidance leaves us with a very small comfort zone and a very long list of “bad” things. So my friend challenged me to try to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. This has been incredibly valuable to me in the last year or so.

Most recently was my sister walking me through an exercise to show me that all the traits I hate in myself are linked to traits I value. Some are exaggerations, like when assertiveness becomes stubbornness; some are misdirections, like when self-discipline turns into trying to control others.

My dad added to my understanding of this by highlighting that all the traits I hate in myself are a) behaviours and b) universal. That means we all do this stuff, and it isn’t defining of our character. Just because we don’t like it in ourselves doesn’t mean it’s bad, either. We are rarely so hard on others as we are on ourselves, which means we are ascribing different qualitative assessments to the traits depending on where we see them. This underscores the subjectivity of these assessments; if we ourselves give them different value in different situations, how can they have an intrinsic, objective state of “good” or “bad”?

I also eventually came to realize that there is no formula to follow for what is desirable in a person, whether a friend or a partner. What some people hate, others enjoy, and still others are indifferent about, such as analyzing experiences or playing board games. Some people enjoy associating with those who are outspoken, and others prefer the company of those who keep their opinions to themselves more. The examples are endless, really.

There are general trends of traits that are not especially desirable to anyone, such as being aggressive, judgemental, or controlling, but in addition to what I mentioned above (namely how these are misappropriations or exaggerations of desirable traits), these behaviours compel us to become better people. The reason this is the case is because of the simple truth that contrast breeds appreciation. In other words, we cannot appreciate something unless we have experienced its opposite. Joy is meaningless without experiencing sorrow; health is meaningless without experiencing sickness; wealth is meaningless without experiencing poverty; kindness is meaningless without experiencing cruelty. We cannot fully understand what the “positive” traits are until we understand the “negative” ones. They are on continuums, extreme poles on the same scale. You could also think of them as two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. So attempting to erase “bad” things from the world is asinine. It would take the “good” things with it.

So the next time someone does something that makes you mad, or the next time you do something that makes you feel guilty, perhaps you will look at what is at the other end of the spectrum, and remind yourself that the behaviour you just experienced is on that same continuum. And if you do, maybe observe how that makes you feel. And maybe you’ll be a little uncomfortable, in which case you’ll get a chance to expand your comfort zone.

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