How do we know what is good and what is evil?

By Dr. Michael Hogan

Do evil people know they are evil, and do evil governments know they are evil, and do they care?

Maybe there is no such thing as being evil. What one person might consider absolute unspeakable evil, another person may see as completely righteous or even heroic.

Washington politicians describe actions as immoral or unethical, but these are only words used to denigrate the opinions and actions of their opponents, or to strengthen their own position.

Evil or not evil. Moral or immoral. What do those words mean? For governments, those words don’t mean anything, because governments don’t have a conscience. The recent use of poisonous gas in Syria is a good example. How about Agent Orange or napalm?

For individuals, morals may apply, but not for governments. Governments may have a Constitution, but the principles within them seem to change depending on the administration in power.

Did Adolph Hitler  think of himself as being evil, or did he consider himself a great statesman? To some, he was heroic. Crowds greeted him with cheers.

What are some proper synonyms for the words moral and immoral? In present day folklore I suppose they are supposed to mean right or wrong, but what is considered right or wrong, moral or immoral, legal or illegal, ethical or unethical is really only a temporary phenomenon.

Morality really pertains to legal or illegal, and even that is just a short-lived standard. It really pertains to what is acceptable or unacceptable at a particular time in a particular culture. It pertains to what is popular or unpopular at the time.  Slavery and even ethnic cleansing are considered unacceptable in this country, but in other countries they are just a way of life.

Beheading people is certainly not popular now in Western civilization, but it was  in years gone by. During the French Revolution the guillotine was a favorite method of execution, and  was used in France right into the 1970s.

Heretic and Infidel. The Catholic Church and ISIS. The Inquisition and Jihad. Similar opinions and similar actions performed in the service of God. Whether their actions were evil or good depends strictly on the time, place and government perspective.

The U.S. has had its less than stellar moments: slavery, Jim Crow Laws, Japanese internment camps, the Salem witch trials, assassination involvement in other countries, etc. Maybe refugee refusals, immigration policies, health decisions that abandon the poor, or other government decisions will be a future embarrassment for this country, but are they immoral? Even torture, nuclear warfare and chemical warfare are not considered immoral by everyone, even in our own government.

As long as an action doesn’t disrupt our society or our neighborhoods or our comfortable standard of living, and it’s not illegal, then it’s justified, and not immoral.

I suppose the moral of this opinion piece could be that moral people must prevent immoral governments from performing immoral deeds.

Dr. Michael Hogan is a retired radiologist and 45-year resident of Morgantown. One of his hobbies is writing. He writes a general interest column for The Dominion Post. Contact him at

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