I recently received a letter from a former student. She wondered: “can there be goodness without badness?” While most people non-reflexively answer this question in negatively, I do not. I’ve never found the arguments that there must be bad in order for there to be good, convincing. (A disclaimer—I’ve not thought about this in great detail.)
First of all this is a metaphysical question about the nature of reality. Behind it lies the idea is that there is some kind of balance or symmetry in reality. There’s light and shadow, knowledge and ignorance, sleeping and waking, life and death, yin and yang, etc. So for every attribute, we can probably talk about its opposite attribute. On the other hand is there an opposite of every thing? Of a tree? A person? A chair? Can there only be trees, people or chairs if there are not-trees, not-persons, not-chairs? You could say that the opposites of being and non-being underlie all these example. But can there only be being if there’s non-being? Thousands of years ago Parmenides claimed that there can’t be non-being. And if he’s right then the most basic opposites—being and nonbeing—are incoherent.
Also, consider that while shadows can’t exist without light, light can exist without shadow. While ignorance can’t exist without knowledge, knowledge can exist without ignorance. Moreover, we can easily imagine beings who don’t sleep or die or do evil. So while there is a lot to be said, I’m just not ready to say that reality is structured so that there has to be badness for there to be goodness.
This question could also be construed as an epistemological one. Can we know goodness without badness? If we lived in a perfect world, could we imagine what an imperfect one would be like? Again I don’t see why not. If I’ve only known good beings or thoughts or behaviors, why couldn’t I conceive of their opposites? To say I couldn’t is to suggest a limit on our imagination. So I see no good reason to say we can only know badness if there’s goodness.
I think the prevalence of this idea, at least in Western culture, derives from Christian theodicy. The argument that badness is somehow necessary is often used by religious apologists as an excuse for, and a defense of, the existence of evil in a world created by an omnibenevolent god. But surely their omnipotent god could have created a world with only good. Of course the religious apologist will reply that that isn’t the best world, that there must be badness to build our souls, or help us appreciate good, or let us exercise our free will, etc. But I don’t think that building our characters or the existence of free will—assuming it exists—are worth the price of evil. So, I agree with the near unanimous view of philosophers that a theodicy, full explanations of evil, isn’t possible and defenses of evil don’t work. Moreover, I’d much prefer to live in a reality without evil.
And what of the specific idea that there can’t be goodness without badness? I answer, why not? I can easily imagine such a world or that an omnipotent being could have made it.
Another reason I reject the “there has to be badness” idea is that it is used as an excuse for evil. The idea that evil is necessary limits us. We then accept that evil is necessary or inevitable when it is not. Death from the plague wasn’t inevitable, nor is slavery, torture, misogeny or racism. Any moral progress we’ve made was because we rejected the status quo. So I don’t accept any evil at all. Not pain, torture, anxiety, depression, alienation, loneliness, hatred, war, death … not any of it. I can imagine a world without all these things. I can imagine a heaven on earth.
And if we create a heaven on earth or in a simulated reality, and find that we no longer appreciate the goodness, then I suppose we can add some badness to help us remember how good we have it. Then that badness really would be good for us. (If goodness can’t exist without badness, then how is a supernatural heaven possible? Do the Gods have to give us an occasional electric shock to remind us of how good heaven is?) But to conclude like the religious apologists do that evil is just the privation of good (Augustine), or that this the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz), is just silly. Pain, suffering, loneliness, death, depression and all the rest are really bad, and this is not the best of all possible worlds.
So no I don’t see why there has to be badness for there to be goodness. There can be goodness only, which is what religious believers imagine their heaven to be like. Of course a supernatural heaven is a fantasy and we don’t have heaven here on earth either, but we can create one if we aren’t stopped by ideas that convince us that there must be badness.
“Some men see things as they are and ask why? Others dream things that never were, and ask why not?” ~ George Bernard Shaw