Gustafson begins by explaining that our view of morality is linked to the idea of Good and Evil. Something immoral is something evil. It’s an “us vs. them” mindset. More specifically, it’s a civilized view of the world, and civilization is, but should not be, synonymous with good. Gustafson draws on examples of the “civilized” world such as Christianity and various governments to show how morality has been used to build hierarchical systems that ultimately allow the moral destruction of uncivilized peoples who may not engage in moral structures but who are nevertheless ethical. For example, Christianity was used by civilized nations as a way to make Native Americans become civilized, while at the same time, civilized nations used the excuse of morality to deride the Native Americans as savages resulting in genocide. Similarly, Nazi Germany used the idea of morality to bring about the holocaust. Gustafson argues that Nazi Germany was not a crazy or immoral country, but rather the holocaust was the direct and logical, if not ultimate, result of a nation that believed in morality.
Gustafson also makes the point that Christianity as a moral system is not the same as Christ’s teachings. He illustrates, using numerous biblical passages, how Christ was ethical and affirmed life. He also makes a powerful argument for the history of ancient Israel being an ethical nation surrounded by moral nations, as evidenced by it having God as its leader for much of its history, while it only succumbed to being moral when it changed to being governed by a monarchy.
In addition, Gustafson clarifies that in the Bible the use of “good” does not always mean right or orthodox but suitable. If something is not suitable for a situation, it does not mean it is by default evil. While this part of the argument may seem like a fine line, Gustafson also provides a simple appendix to distinguish between morality and ethics to make the argument easy to follow.
Food is at the center of Gustafson’s argument. Gustafson argues that ethical societies became moral societies when people no longer had to exist as hunters and gatherers, but people became able to store food; this agricultural revolution resulted in food becoming a “commodity,” which allowed for decisions to be made regarding who did and did not deserve food by using a moral code that established hierarchies to determine the value of people and all life forms. This thinking ultimately
resulted in “dominator” societies that felt justified in conquering other peoples, taking their belongings—not property per se since ethical societies such as Native Americans did not understand or believe in property—and ultimately in genocide.
Life is not hierarchical. Gustafson argues that one group of people is not superior to another, and even one life form is not superior to another. Life is symbiotic, and what we regard as lower life forms are necessary for the survival of higher life forms as we know from studying bacteria.
“Behind Good & Evil” by Scott W. Gustafson is one of the most thoughtful and interesting books I have read. It may well be the most important book I read this year. I hope it leads to people thinking twice before they use the word “moral” and understanding what “moral” actually means. I know it has made me think twice and reevaluate several situations and issues already and catch myself when I hear other people use the word “moral” to understand they are coming from a “dominator” and hierarchical way of thinking. This book will open up understanding among and between people and hopefully change and save lives by making us rethink why we label things as good or evil from a moral standpoint.
Behind Good & Evil: How to overcome the death-dealing character of morality
Infinity Publishing (2009)
Reviewed by Tyler R. Tichelaar for Reader Views (10/09)