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Are human beings inherently good or evil?


Actaeon

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Are we, as the movies would like us to believe, inherently noble creatures only turned to greed and malice by the trials of this world? Are we self interested sociopaths with only the threat of reprisal holding us in line? Or are we somewhere in between? A blank slate waiting to be turned one way or the other?

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Good and evil are both social constructs pertaining to cultural values and paradigms. Since they're fluid concepts with no true definition or even consensus, merely vague concepts referenced in different contexts in different locations and times, the only possible correct answer is Dikiyoba's.

 

I also don't believe in human nature; I'm more a fan of the tabula rasa belief in humanity.

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Originally Posted By: Sylae
I'm a Hobbes fan.

I'm a Calvin & Hobbes fan, but--yes--Hobbes was onto something when he spoke of the social contract. Humans are inherently social and will work together for the common good. You can quibble over their ability to achieve that common good, but most of them are trying.

"Sooner or later, all our games turn into Calvinball." --Calvin
"No rules. Just right." --Outback Steakhouse
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The good/evil dualism seems to be more of a religious concept than anything. I think it's difficult to talk about such things without discussing free will, which is a whole other headache in itself.

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Every concept is fluid, there is no consensus about anything, and no definitions are adequate. Every concept is to some degree vague, and means different things in different contexts. It is not just good and evil that are like this. It is important to recognize that these are not weaknesses only of a few concepts one knows well — or does not know well — but of all.

 

Recognizing this is good, but it's just as important to recognize that it's not the whole story. Somehow many concepts succeed surprisingly well in pointing at real things. The elephant seems very different when approached from different directions, but it really is one elephant, and the different stories that all the blind men tell do not really disagree. Much of the vagueness and fluidity and context-dependence of successful concepts reflects, not their disconnection from objective reality, but their connection to it.

 

So I think good and evil are meaningful concepts, despite being hard to define, but I don't think most humans are inherently one or the other to any great extent. I think we're rather simple creatures, much simpler than we seem to ourselves to be, and that our instincts are primitive, animal ones. So we are basically selfish, timid, and lazy. We're also easily willing to help other people out, when it doesn't cost too much, because we have social animal instincts about supporting the group so it will support us.

 

Beyond that I think humans are nonetheless capable of both gruesome evil and heroic virtue. Both of those take a lot of time and work to develop, and also the right opportunities. Neither comes inherently, except perhaps in rare cases.

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Both. Depending on circumstances, one side or the other may dominate.

 

I do vaguely agree with Hobbes re the social contract. Partly as a a matter of protecting those in whom good dominates from those in whom evil dominates, in general; and partly because this society's relatively advanced technology base complicates things a lot. Distance enables abstraction and objectification, and kills empathy; and ideally the law should compensate for that.

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I also don't believe in human nature; I'm more a fan of the tabula rasa belief in humanity.


See, while that idea certainly appeals to me more, I've come to think that it's really wishful thinking. I'd like to think that my consciousness and free will reign supreme and there are no inherencies in my actions or thoughts, but, well. That's, rather hubristically, giving humans too much credit. We are biological creatures, after all. And only relatively good at sorting out our environments.
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Originally Posted By: Among Others
See, while that idea certainly appeals to me more, I've come to think that it's really wishful thinking. I'd like to think that my consciousness and free will reign supreme and there are no inherencies in my actions or thoughts, but, well. That's, rather hubristically, giving humans too much credit. We are biological creatures, after all. And only relatively good at sorting out our environments.


I'm not so naive to think that we aren't biologically driven in certain manners, or that we are not affected in large part by stimuli in the environment. However, my statement towards tabula rasa was meant to be aimed more narrowly towards morality. People come into the world essentially neutral.
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And I think SoT's point about basic human psychology as a consequence of our evolutionary history stands. Morality is descriptive as well as prescriptive and proscriptive; we are how we behave, and some of our behavior is hard-wired. Some fairly complex behavior, even, if you look at the shocking psychological studies like the Milgram experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and the even less rigorous Yudkosky AI-box experiment. Or run the Prisone'rs Dilemma. There are many examples. Look at the honesty box and at various donation-supported works.

 

They point at humans who are shockingly irrational, self-interested, and willing to backstab and cheat and climb to the top... but also surprisingly kind even to strangers, willing to put in work in surprising ways, and oddly moralizing. For all our faults, and they are many, we are good. And for all our inherent goodness, we stoop to appalling evil.

 

—Alorael, who thinks humans are mostly intuitive, and intuition is not a great guide. Not terrible, either, but humans are inherently, from birth, given to some crazy swings in behavior.

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Originally Posted By: Student of Trinity
Every concept is fluid, there is no consensus about anything, and no definitions are adequate. Every concept is to some degree vague, and means different things in different contexts. It is not just good and evil that are like this. It is important to recognize that these are not weaknesses only of a few concepts one knows well — or does not know well — but of all.


Yes, I am aware of this. Thus, all knowledge is suspect, as all knowledge is situated within a self-referential network of concepts and ideas (hmm, a neural network, perhaps) that ultimately are drawn from a sensory system that we understand to be possible to deceive (e.g. optical illusions) and therefore is intrinsically suspect. That said, some notions we have seem to be far less subjective than others; morality does not appear to be one of those.

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Recognizing this is good, but it's just as important to recognize that it's not the whole story. Somehow many concepts succeed surprisingly well in pointing at real things. The elephant seems very different when approached from different directions, but it really is one elephant, and the different stories that all the blind men tell do not really disagree. Much of the vagueness and fluidity and context-dependence of successful concepts reflects, not their disconnection from objective reality, but their connection to it.


Because a concept can mean a multitude of different things, it is more connected to reality? I do not follow; we aren't struggling to describe an elephant, here, but having difficulty due to our blindness. Morality doesn't physically exist. We are discussing a concept, something that by definition only exists in our minds, subjectively.

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So I think good and evil are meaningful concepts, despite being hard to define, but I don't think most humans are inherently one or the other to any great extent. I think we're rather simple creatures, much simpler than we seem to ourselves to be, and that our instincts are primitive, animal ones. So we are basically selfish, timid, and lazy. We're also easily willing to help other people out, when it doesn't cost too much, because we have social animal instincts about supporting the group so it will support us.

Beyond that I think humans are nonetheless capable of both gruesome evil and heroic virtue. Both of those take a lot of time and work to develop, and also the right opportunities. Neither comes inherently, except perhaps in rare cases.


I agree with you, as I have explained earlier, about the lack of inherent good or evil. Where I must disagree is your assertion that good and evil are meaningful concepts. As Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality shows, social ideas about good and evil have changed radically over time. Even a brief survey of different cultures reveals that we don't seem to have a set moral compass. Infanticide, cannibalism, murder, genocide, rape, racism, etc. have all been justified as morally permissible at times, even though our specific cultural setting would disapprove of all of these things. At the same time, there are moral arguments for pro-life, vegetarianism, pacifism, feminism, and anti-racism, which stand in direct opposition to my earlier examples. What is the utility, then, of morality when it can be employed to justify totally contradictory beliefs? At that point, to me, morality demonstrates with its fluidity also its lack of usefulness.
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I think with a good system of laws, human beings can be alright. There's always going to be one person or small set of people that are mostly good, and just the same the other way. I went to school with many of the so called nasty and naturally evil people and those are the people that will wind up on the news some day.

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Scrap good and evil, human beings at their core are animals and as all animals we are survivalistic. Whether that is good or evil is your own choice to define.

There is a definite preference in each man to preserve itself and those who are close to him, sometimes even at the expense of others. But at the same time it sometimes rises above its core programing and is able to show great feats of mercy and kindness, whether that is inherent or acquired is also a great matter of opinion.

So in short man is a survivor, but a civilized one smile

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Originally Posted By: Goldenking

Because a concept can mean a multitude of different things, it is more connected to reality? I do not follow; we aren't struggling to describe an elephant, here, but having difficulty due to our blindness. Morality doesn't physically exist. We are discussing a concept, something that by definition only exists in our minds, subjectively.

No, what I said was that because concepts are connected to reality, they may mean multitudes of things. Also, the concept of elephants is just as much a thing that exists only in our minds, subjectively, as the concept of evil. The concept also somehow points to something real, like actual elephants. But so does the concept of evil.

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As Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality shows, social ideas about good and evil have changed radically over time. Even a brief survey of different cultures reveals that we don't seem to have a set moral compass. Infanticide, cannibalism, murder, genocide, rape, racism, etc. have all been justified as morally permissible at times, even though our specific cultural setting would disapprove of all of these things.

Nietzsche wasn't a very rigorous thinker. His notion of eternal recurrence, for example, shows a basic misunderstanding of infinity. That kind of 'brief survey of different cultures' is actually a pretty awful example of sociological cherry-picking and special pleading. At the wings of the bell curve you can find all sorts of things, but human moral judgements are and have been consistent to a very large degree.

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At the same time, there are moral arguments for pro-life, vegetarianism, pacifism, feminism, and anti-racism, which stand in direct opposition to my earlier examples. What is the utility, then, of morality when it can be employed to justify totally contradictory beliefs? At that point, to me, morality demonstrates with its fluidity also its lack of usefulness.

You seem to be equating usefulness with lack of controversy. I don't see how this follows. It would be nice if people only disagreed about unreal things, but unfortunately reality is complex and confusing, so we often disagree strongly about real things as well as imaginary ones.

Some of the things we disagree about are nonetheless extremely useful. For instance, it would be very nice to understand cancer, or high-temperature superconductivity; currently there are many competing theories. The enthusiasm with which people disagree about concepts is in fact a measure of how useful they find the concepts involved. People don't fight much about things for which they have no use.
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Originally Posted By: Student of Trinity
No, what I said was that because concepts are connected to reality, they may mean multitudes of things. Also, the concept of elephants is just as much a thing that exists only in our minds, subjectively, as the concept of evil. The concept also somehow points to something real, like actual elephants. But so does the concept of evil.


This is true, that elephants also exist solely as a concept within our mind. The difference between elephants and morality in this context is that one is a category of physical being and the other is a social abstraction. That is, we can detect what an elephant is with our senses, in the right circumstances. That cannot be said for morality.

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Nietzsche wasn't a very rigorous thinker. His notion of eternal recurrence, for example, shows a basic misunderstanding of infinity. That kind of 'brief survey of different cultures' is actually a pretty awful example of sociological cherry-picking and special pleading. At the wings of the bell curve you can find all sorts of things, but human moral judgements are and have been consistent to a very large degree.


His notion about the eternal recurrence is irrelevant. First of all, though I can't remember where I read it, but even just sensible analysis shows that the eternal recurrence is for use as a philosophical device, not a scientific assertion. It is a tool to measure the value of our life; could we bear to live this life forever? If not, adjust so it is possible.

But even if you discount Nietzsche as a person, you haven't refuted the point that our ideas about morality have changed over time and in different cultures, which the Genealogy shows. You call my examples extreme, but I'm dubious. Patriarchy, which is decried as immoral by the feminist movement, has been existent for a long time. War is murder deemed legal by the state; murder, too, has often had its detractors. Infanticide, too, has been pretty widely practiced in societies such as Japan and India - places with population pressure - while being deplored by the West. You can dismiss my examples as cherry-picking or as extreme, but I cannot follow any sort of rubric by which you take certain actions as normal and others as extreme.

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You seem to be equating usefulness with lack of controversy. I don't see how this follows. It would be nice if people only disagreed about unreal things, but unfortunately reality is complex and confusing, so we often disagree strongly about real things as well as imaginary ones.

Some of the things we disagree about are nonetheless extremely useful. For instance, it would be very nice to understand cancer, or high-temperature superconductivity; currently there are many competing theories. The enthusiasm with which people disagree about concepts is in fact a measure of how useful they find the concepts involved. People don't fight much about things for which they have no use.


What I'm trying to do in conflating usefulness and lack of controversy is to say that, since morality can be bent to justify all sorts of things, why bother? It clearly is not too discriminating, then; perhaps we should eliminate it as a concept we use, and exist as amoral agents?

Why do we bother with morality? And, perhaps more importantly, why should we?
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Originally Posted By: Goldenking

Why do we bother with morality? And, perhaps more importantly, why should we?


Morale fibre is an essential for the fabric that makes up a society. It gives a common ground that gives some form of bonding.
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And because most of us have had inculcated in us the desire to do good. We may fall short of that, but we want to be good. And more of us want to appear to do good. Shame and praise are powerful motivators! So with that goal it's important to know what good is. That's what morality and ethics are all about.

 

—Alorael, who faces choices all the time. He doesn't consider what the most morally upright option, is, though. Not because he's lazy or because the moral weight of wearing one shirt of another is negligible. No, he doesn't think through it because he has, in fact, been convinced that repeated intellectual considerations of ethics are, in fact, unethical.

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The Lion and the Mouse

 

A Judge was awakened by the noise of a lawyer prosecuting a Thief. Rising in wrath he was about to sentence the Thief to life imprisonment when the latter said:

 

“I beg that you will set me free, and I will some day requite your kindness.”

 

Pleased and flattered to be bribed, although by nothing but an empty promise, the Judge let him go. Soon afterward he found that it was more than an empty promise, for, having become a Thief, he was himself set free by the other, who had become a Judge.

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The CEO of a large corporation was judged corrupt and incompetent by the board of directors, and his termination date was set. During his brief time remaining in office, the CEO called up all his firm's accounts outstanding, and negotiated new payment schedules on terms highly favorable to the other companies, at the expense of the corporation he was about to leave. His retirement was then made comfortable by sweet consulting deals with all those other companies whom he had benefited in his last days as CEO.

 

Apart from trivial cosmetic changes, this is one of Jesus's parables. He held up the corrupt CEO as an example to be followed.

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Originally Posted By: Goldenking
[W]e can detect what an elephant is with our senses, in the right circumstances. That cannot be said for morality.

Seeing and recognizing an elephant is a profoundly difficult task. Somehow our brains achieve it, but it is very difficult to explain exactly what the achievement is. Are you sure that, in saying that elephants are very different from morality, you are not just relying on a naive picture of how perception works?

About sociological surveys of morality: the problem is that morality is an enormous subject. All kinds of acts are classified as right or wrong in different ways or degrees. So it is easy to pick a bunch of cultures and then cull out of them a few particular acts that are viewed differently. This will seem shocking, but it overlooks the vast majority of things that different cultures do view similarly. This is cherry-picking.

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What I'm trying to do in conflating usefulness and lack of controversy is to say that, since morality can be bent to justify all sorts of things, why bother? It clearly is not too discriminating, then; perhaps we should eliminate it as a concept we use, and exist as amoral agents?

I think that this argument exploits the vastness of morality as a subject to give an unfair impression of how flexible it is. What if you picked at random a particular issue that comes up in practice, rather than deliberately selecting for controversy out of all the world and time? Imagine trying to justify a course of action to a bunch of random people off the street, when their initial reaction is that what you are doing is seriously wrong. It is easy to start blustering out an excuse, but is it really so easy to justify oneself convincingly? Switch to a different street, from a different part of the world; would that really help so much?

To reject morality on the basis of non-utility is, in the first place, to beg the question, because the point of good and evil is that utility isn't everything. Of course you can just refuse to accept this, but that's not an argument. In the worst case, it may even just amount to deciding that you want your brother's cookie, so you'll take it, regardless of right and wrong.

In the second place, though, I'm really not sure that morality isn't useful. Maybe it is. The tit-for-tat strategy, in Prisoner's Dilemma, is a really good one. Everybody does better when everybody co-operates, and eye-for-eye justice works well to enforce co-operation. I suspect that a moral group will defeat a group of amoral agents. That's probably why we have what morality we do.
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Didn't read everything, so I'm not sure if it's been said...

 

Good and evil being 'undefinable': Human beings are inherently selfish as are most other mammals. Socialization often demands we be less selfish, but then again there is the payoff of being accepted by the group. The group offers protection, fellowship, mating opportunities and shared resources so being less selfish in the immediate circumstances is to our long term benefit.

 

The human's level of cognitive ability allows us to choose to be genuinely generous, but first instinct is to gather, keep, hoard, and protect one's own.

 

I do subscribe to a certain definition of good and evil (no surprise there). Instinctively being selfish would fall more on the 'evil' side of that definition. When the standard of good in my definition is to "love your enemies and bless the one who curses you, and do what is beautiful to the one who hates you, and pray over those who take you by force and persecute you." falling more on the 'evil' side is very easy.

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Originally Posted By: Student of Trinity
Apart from trivial cosmetic changes, this is one of Jesus's parables. He held up the corrupt CEO as an example to be followed.


I agree and disagree. tongue

He presented it as an example of someone who was unrighteous, but practical. His disciples were encouraged to be practical, but not in an unrighteous way. He makes application immediately after the illustration. They were to use their earthly possessions to advance kingdom interests to make friends with God.
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Right. But it's a refreshingly down-to-earth kind of other-worldliness: given the premise, just do what's smart. You may as well squander everything material like a drunken pirate, since none of it's really yours anyway, but if you're clever, you'll use it to wangle something that lasts. It's the kind of attitude I can imagine a real God, who can make unlimited material things at a whim, might actually take.

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\

I do subscribe to a certain definition of good and evil (no surprise there). Instinctively being selfish would fall more on the 'evil' side of that definition. When the standard of good in my definition is to "love your enemies and bless the one who curses you, and do what is beautiful to the one who hates you, and pray over those who take you by force and persecute you." falling more on the 'evil' side is very easy.

 

In some ways it's unavoidable, unless you want to live in an isolated commune somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Modern society is built on incredible, incomprehensible levels of suffering. The buzzword these days is to be "aware"; but "aware" doesn't fill empty stomachs or cure illnesses.

 

Nonetheless... Yes, I agree with you. People tend to think that they're "good" by default because they don't directly commit bad acts. It's easy to avoid committing murder. But to be party to something evil is another matter. It is extremely easy to stand by and do nothing when evil is done, or to let one's self enjoy the fruits of someone else's suffering, or to have a moment of fun at someone else's expense, or...

 

I'm not sure where you folks variously stand on religion. Me, I'm an atheist. I feel very strongly that there is no reward for good nor punishment for evil, beyond what human societies dole out.

 

That is not a very comforting belief. I look at our governments and institutions, and it seems to me that they have no real concept of justice. I look at our social norms, and see horrible things considered perfectly ordinary. I look at what passes for morality, and I see pride, ignorance, and hatred. It seems to me that the world is in an ugly way. I try to walk the narrow road, and I don't always know whether I've veered from it, or how far.

 

I think that empathy, applied universally, can be a way out. But "applied universally" is the hard part. We're born with blind spots, raised with blind spots, and indoctrinated with blind spots. Overcoming those blinds spots is hard. Being able to admit that one has done real evil, even out of ignorance, is hard. Being, and staying, a decent person... Is hard. Even if not murdering your neighbor is easy.

 

... And I think I'm done for now. I hope I've imparted some wisdom, objective thought, and maybe even inspiration, because boy howdy, I'm lacking all three of those.

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Yes.

 

+1.

 

Question presumes a dichotomy that does not exist, because "being" good or evil misleadingly implies doing good precludes doing evil & vice versa.

 

Also an inherent system of morals may simply belong to the same class of fictional concepts as an inherent language. Without even an inherent definition of good and evil, an inherent tendency towards either couldn't exist as a meaningful concept.

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The inherent language analogy is a good one. No-one is born with any specific language, but rather must learn it from environmental input.

 

Yet humans do seem to be born with an inherent instinct for learning language from environmental input. This instinct has a sort of hair-trigger behavior; linguistic behavior can be fixed by a really surprisingly small amount of environmental input. And since all human languages share an awful lot of common deep structures, it seems that language development converges rather rapidly into a set of possible linguistic structures that is much smaller than the set of all conceivable communication systems. So although there is no single inherent language, there is an enormous amount of more general linguistic behavior that does seem to be inherent in humans.

 

Why is this? Linguists are divided on the question, because there certainly isn't enough evidence to decide it, and there probably won't be until we either totally unravel the brain, or discover alien languages with which to compare ours. One possibility is that the human language instinct is largely arbitrary, but rigidly inherited. The evolutionary argument for this would be something to the effect that there are only very weak selection pressures favoring any one communication system over others, but that there is tremendous lock-in, because once any one system is in place, there are insurmountable difficulties of bio-engineering involved in changing the system.

 

Another possibility is that natural selection actually does naturally direct towards something quite a lot like the existing human language instinct, because the human language instinct is in some sense an optimal way to describe the real world. It might not be the only optimum, but its competitors are all very different. In other words, many of the features of human language may reflect genuine properties of reality in general, and not simply be locked in constraints from our particular neurological architecture.

 

The most plausible case would seem to be a combination of both. I suspect that a lot of features of human language really are just efficient adaptations to reality, and so we would expect to see them repeated, up to minor variations, in the language-analogs of any alien species that had evolved in anything like a similar environment to ours. But I expect some features are just locked-in legacies of hard-to-change architectural choices in our neural hardware — like the basic decision to go with sound as the linguistic medium, which means that the sign languages of deaf humans all have structures that were fundamentally optimized for speech.

 

(I don't know whether anyone has actually identified any ways in which a sign language seems to suffer from being constrained to vocal patterns, but it is true that all sign languages fit the standard linguistic categories of spoken languages. Sign languages are simply other languages, with no relation to the spoken languages in the countries in which they are signed. American Sign Language has nothing to do with English, for instance, but it differs from English just as German and Mandarin do. It just seems plausible to me that sign language in general might perhaps be different in a few ways if it had not been evolved by a species that mostly speaks.)

 

My take on morality is similar. The fine details of any culture's moral code are certainly learned from environment, and vary from place to place, but there is a broadly shared meta-morality among humans, that in large measure reflects a complex but objective reality.

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A little bit of topic drift:-

There was this Rajat Gupta verdict coming out , now while I don't know for a fact that he has been a good person, but most people seem to indicate so and I will assume that's true, what I was wondering is whether the past good deeds of a person should be considered and possibly cancel off something evil he did later or is it that these things should be looked in isolation from each other? Personally I'm a bit inclined towards the former but nowhere near sure enough to really trust myself on this issue, I was going to post this sooner but I thought i will wait for the judges verdict and see what they think and honestly to me they sort of appear confused as well, I will appreciate if you guys could come up with arguments concerning this.

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I think we can't start giving people free passes to do bad things just because they've done many good things in the past. At the same time, considering his philanthropy, I think the world will probably forgive him for it, and that's the benefit he reaps from being a good person, not that he gets to get away with committing a crime to the tune of millions of dollars.

 

He will be unlikely to be able to return to the position of business power he previously held, of course, but a man of his intelligence (and immense wealth) will probably find something worthwhile to do with his time when he gets out.

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The judge has already ruled, and I think the ruling was the right one. Character and past activity must be taken into account in the sentencing, but one cannot pre-pay crime, or effectively earn indulgences for good deeds. Even good people can do bad things and merit full punishment for those things.

 

—Alorael, who was impressed that the judge made the distinctions among punishing Mr. Gupta, deterring others, and the public display of a wrongdoer punished. If it were merely a matter of the punishment the man had earned the sentence might be different, but he is not a criminal in a vacuum.

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