Why bad things are so often good.

December 14, 2007 | By | 19 Replies More

I’m pondering an idea which is certainly not original, though it is an idea powerful enough to make a mockery of any moral system that looks to the consequences of actions to characterize the moral quality of those actions. 

Here’s the thought:  Every so often something really bad happens to me.  I’m in an auto accident.  I lose my job.  My marriage fails.  My children ignore me.   Something expensive breaks.  Someone I care about dies. My attempts to impress someone important go completely unnoticed.  I spend endless hours on a project and it does not turn out the way I had hoped.

Each of these things are the types of things we would easily categorized as “bad.”  They are so obviously bad that we can predict that our friends, upon hearing of these things, will console us.  But are “bad” things really bad?

After all, while I’m healing from that auto accident, an incredibly important thought occurs to me and I change my life for the “better.”  Even though I’ve lost a job I cherished, I then find another job which I like even better.  After my marriage fails, I make some changes in my life and I encounter a new love.  When my children ignore me, I learned to pay more attention to them and then I benefit from an improved parent-child relationship.  That thing that broke is something I didn’t need in my life anyway.  The death of my close friend inspires me to be a better person.  When that person I was trying to impress ignores me, I realize that I should have been spending my time doing other sorts of things anyway.

On countless occasions, a “disaster” turns out to be a great excuse to do something we should have done anyway. When one door closes shut, three other doors open wide.  And I’m not talking only about tiny disappointments.  I’m talking about major disasters.  The sorts of things that you are absolutely certain are horrible. But in the long run, they often aren’t. Fifteen years later (far enough removed that you don’t feel the intense mental or physical pain that you felt in the past), you realize that that “bad” thing was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to you, even though you hated it at the time and you were certain that it was ruining your life.  You did something really stupid, for instance, but you learned a big lesson and never again screwed up in that way again.

Someone might object that natural disasters, all genocides and at least some wars are absolutely bad, given the horror, the permanency of death and the lasting pain. That is certainly true from the perspective of many individuals. Such events, however, are often catalysts for widespread change that prevents future events of even greater magnitude. Perhaps a hurricane provokes officials to implement a new warning and rescue system. Perhaps the horror of a genocide causes society to reevaluate bigotted attitudes and helps stave off future genocides of even greater magnitude. Wars always provoke episodes of heroism within the insanity of the violence and they do sometimes cause the defeat of a malignant regime (e.g., the defeat of Hitler in WWII). There is the possibility that even a senseless war will teach long term lessons that might avoid future senseless wars (though this often doesn’t happen). 

The other side of the coin consists of acts which seem “good,” that result in widespread horror.  I would put rampant consumerism in that category.  How can people argue that having lots of “nice” things isn’t good.  What if the long term result is parents working too many hours and not knowing their own children, or citizens scrambling around acquiring comforts and amusements to the extent that they become mentally dulled, apathetic about their government or morally obtuse?

Utilitarianism holds that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome—that the ends justify the means and we should strive to act in such a way as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  As though we can calculate outcomes beyond our immediate frame of reference.  As though we have any idea about the long-term utility of short-term acts and omissions.  How many things have we been wrong about in our lives?  We don’t have time to count them, of course.  Yes, we often do remember some outcomes that we did predict, although we are subject to the confirmation bias when we do that.  And we are often hopelessly ignorant of all of the consequences of those “good” acts.  The only way to really know is to wait for a long period of time and then reevaluate.  Then again, if you wait another decade you might change your mind again.

Does this failure to foresee the the long-term effects of our actions mean that we should just throw our fate to the wind?  Does that mean that we don’t need to try hard to plan?  Of course not.  Planning often does work, at least in the short run.  And some choices actually do have predictable long-term detriment.  For instance, getting in a serious accident can result in chronic unrelenting pain, so it’s a good idea to pay attention while driving and to make “good” choices.  Failing to hold the hand of your young child on the parking lot can result in the death of your child, from which many parents never come close to recovering.  By all means, try, even though we so often fly blind.  And often enough, “good” choices result in “good” outcomes both in the short run and the long run.  An example that comes to mind are widespread choices that are environmentally sustainable to avoid living our lives in a crapped up environment.  Some “good” acts are better bets than others to result in “good” long term results.

Then again, even unimaginably horrible events can result in happy outcomes.  A friend of mine contracted a horrible disease and slipped into a month-long coma.  To save his life, the doctors amputated both of his arms and both of his legs.  Fast-forward five years.  This friend is an incredibly happy and thoughtful fellow who inspires everyone around him with his post-sickness accomplishments (and those accomplishments are considerable).  Was his sickness a “good” thing? It’s not at all clear in the long term, though it seems heartless to suggest that it might have been a good thing.   In point of fact, questions like these expose the inherent vagueness of terms like “good” and “bad.” I avoid using these terms, if at all possible. 

Nietzsche spoke to the importance of “bad things” in that they create who we are.  He argued that to fully appreciate our lives, we need to embrace all that has happened to us, all the things we would characterize as “good” or “bad.”

The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

[from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann transl.]

Perhaps terms like “good” or “bad” force life into a frame that is too judgmental and short-sighted.  Perhaps they tempt us to think in terms of short-sighted morality rather than long-term ecology.  

Is it a good thing for me to avoid using terms such as “good” or “bad”?  I don’t know.  Ask me again in ten years.  Perhaps, in ten years, I’ll defer that question for another ten years after that.


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Category: Good and Evil, Language, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. A terrifyingly wonderful gift | Dangerous Intersection | October 13, 2010
  1. Vicki Baker says:

    Faust:…who are you, then?

    Mephistopheles:I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erich, I believe you meant materialism and not consumerism. This is a common mistake, as the dominent characteristic of materialism is conspicuous consumption. This is buying expensive items to show off your wealth to society at large and to your neighbors specifically. This is buying a Lamborghini Murcielago when a Honda CRX would be more sensible.

    Consumerism is marked more by trying to get the most value for your money. This may mean buying something used, or last years style at a discount, or even buying not-so-famous brands. Consumerism is the true basis of competition.

    All that aside, the current crop of eager young faces entering the workforce includes a large number of Uber-materialistic brats. Some companies are hiring activities directors who are tasked with the job of keeping these employees happy by insuring a fun and playful working environment. Kind of like a daycare for 20 year-olds.

    These are the ones that seem amazed when someone doesn't own or even want to own a cellphone. To them, the though of going even one day without irradiating one sode of their brain with near microwave frequencies is the worst of hardships. They tend to define themselves in very egocentric terms, and by what they own, not who they are.

  3. Mary says:

    Well written, Erich. I love the complexity of life when the terms "good" and "bad" are not applied. If, as Nietzsche writes, I had to do it all over again, I'd give this life a few go-arounds.

  4. "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed the the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren."

    God uses all {past, present, future} choices of all of us {he foreknew all}to bring all of us to his purpose. Some of us do not yet appreciate what God is doing, I believe, because of the very reasons you describe. The distractions which keep us from considering Christ {our future/his purpose} are becoming manifest to individuals at an accelerating pace, despite the efforts of religionists to keep us separated.

  5. So then Larry, by your reckoning, nothing we do has any effect on the outcome of things since everything has already been figured out by god. "He foresaw all to bring all of us to his purpose." That means that prayer is useless because god has a plan and he's sticking to it. Did I understand you correctly?

  6. I am confirming Erich's assertion that we are "pondering an idea which is certainly not original". I also agree that moral systems based on circumstances are rather shoddy. My "reckoning" is irrelevant to the outcome if it does not conform to what God decided to do from before the foundation of the world.

    Prayer that is in harmony with God's will is answered with confirmation. Why would we expect that our desires should be granted without an awareness of their impact upon our brethren {ie. the plan}? Would you set aside an expensive hand-made gift, especially designed for your child and give him something his foolish companions had convinced him he wanted, which, if it did not actually harm him, would be discarded in hours? Far too many prayers are worse than useless, being based on ignorance.

  7. Larry, that's a good analogy but I've heard that one before too. Please answer this…Why pray? What does it DO? What is prayer's "purpose"? Seems pointless to me.

  8. Maybe thinking of it as a business would be useful. Sonship is about coming of age. Learning your father's trade {human spiritual development} and becoming an apprentice. Some time after your spiritual teenager years, when you have learned the hard way that you don't know squat, you start thinking about some of the stuff the old man used to tell you and you suddenly realize there just might be more to know than you have already learned. Eventually, you get interested and begin taking on more responsibility as you begin to understand, appreciate and agree with the founder's vision {purpose}. Prayer would then be likened to mentoring.

  9. Great analogy, Larry! Let me put it another way…freshman college students are usually full of optimism, enthusiasm and individuality but quickly they learn that they only way to get through college with a good GPA is to figure out what the professor wants. Once you've learned to parrot the prof and regurgitate his answers into the blue book, you'll do well.

    That's what your model of prayer seems like to me.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Larry – you've described the first steps of an unhealthy codependency. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1497 Your analogy assumes, of course, that there IS an invisible sentient Being out there who created the universe and who cares about you.

  11. Erich, to get back to the original subject of this post…

    I too have noticed that there is nothing in this life that is all good or all bad. The Yin/Yang symbol sums it up perfectly. Every thing/person/act/event has both good and bad in it. Within the good there is the seed of bad. Within the bad there is the seed of good. I'm sure we can all come up with many examples of this from our own lives.

    And yet…I can’t help but notice in your thesis a similarity to something that I have heard many believers say many times.

    Although I agree with what you wrote, at times it almost sounds like the intellectual atheists version of “God works in mysterious ways.” Maybe trying to find that “good out of bad” thing is a basic human need which we satisfy however we can. Believers count on “God’s Plan” to reassure them in the face of misfortune. Nonbelievers use science and reason to figure out a way to salvage some good from the bad…whether it be true or not.

    Doesn’t it seem like we are grasping for the same thing? How is our way any better than theirs? Ours is certainly more difficult!

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: You've got me thinking with your question . . . I'm not ignoring you.

  13. Erich: I had a feeling you were gestating a response. I also think that your latest post may have been indirectly inspired by my question. Or am I flattering myself?

  14. Vicki Baker says:

    Erich and Mike, isn't the moment-to-moment content of our consciousness an attempt to thread the information and sensations which reach our awareness into a more or less coherent, continuous narrative? We are influenced by the dominant narratives in our culture, and in turn if we are especially good at story-telling, we may enrich our culture's repertoire of storylines. Storylines may come from art, or science, or religion. – all those disciplines emerged out of the central need to create stories. Yes, I do think there is a reality separate from the stories, and the quality of the stories does matter.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: Flatter away! Some of the things we've been discussing (including your coment, above) are causing me to better appreciate the dangers of moral myopia — the willingness to over-categorize people and events, using simplistic language, within a short term time frame.

    What's really bizarre is how I vacillate between thinking A) that life is a lot simpler than it seems or B) that life is a lot more complex than it seems. How can it be that I can't even get that much straight?

    I'm still thinking . . .

  16. Erich: vesperiant's response to my anti-prayer post stopped me in my tracks and was leading me to consider finding more common ground with the "spiritual but not religious". Then your new post comes along and expresses that thought quite eloquently. It truly might be time to stop arguing about things that can't be proven anyway, focus on our similarities and keep an eye on the fundamentalists of BOTH extremes.

    As for understanding the complexity of life…I think that we humans are really much much stupider than we realize (or like to admit) and are simply too dumb to either see the simplicity of the universe or understand its complexity. So we find refuge in magical fairy tales or mathematical equations, both of which purport to answer all our questions…and never quite seem to pull it off.

  17. Vicki: As one who routinely tries to take the mess of life and put it in a straight line in order to tell a story, I can tell you that no matter how hard I try to be truthful, the story is never quite the reality, just a pale imitation of it.

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: I’m not coming up with anything coherent in response to your comments/question. How is our way better than theirs? Your question ironically throws us right back into that troublesome terminology (better equates to “good”).

    Why does bad so often lead to good (and vice versa)? Because, from our limited human perspective, we see the world as constantly unfolding—it is always revealing something new and unanticipated. That’s the nature of complex adaptive systems.

    But back to those labels of “good” and “bad.” “Good” and “bad” are often words of manipulation. It’s gotten to the point where I hesitate to use them at all. When a person says something is “good” it often means that that thing is that person’s personal preference. Yet that word (“good”) is so often pawned off as meaning something objective: “good” things are those things that are universally good. Why would we want a word that claims to have universal significance rather than expressing mere personal preference? Because, if used carefully, the expanded version of that word makes the person saying it powerful. I think George Lakoff had it right:

    “There is a major folk theory in our society according to which being objective is being fair, and human judgment is subject to error or likely to be biased. Consequently decisions concerning people should be made on ‘objective’ grounds as often as possible. It is the major way that people who make decisions avoid blame. If there are ‘objective’ criteria on which to base a decision, then one cannot be blamed for being biased, and consequently one cannot be criticized, demoted, fired, or sued.”

    [Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, Preface, p. xiv, (1987).]

    Words are fragile yet dangerous. They so often don’t convey but a tiny sliver of what they claim to carry. Yet, so often, people latch onto a misapplied or a vague word and run with full speed, with that word clutched in their arm, and they run like a football running back crashing into people, all of this aggression somehow justified by that vague word. “Gays are bad.” “God is good.”

    But there really are good things and bad things, at least to the extent that you can occasionally get 99% of people agreeing with you. Therefore, we can’t really throw away the words “good” or “bad.” As I discussed in the above post, though, clearly “bad” things often unfold into clearly “good” things. Hence, my intense ambivalence with these words. Hence, my temptation to simply declare that “Life just is, and nothing is truer than silence.” (see, for example, http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1766 ).

    So why do we use such fickle words? Is it the desire for control? Or the desire to convince ourselves that we aren’t entirely disoriented in a crazy universe? In short, is it an attempt to comfort ourselves by fooling ourselves that these words have meaning and that we do understand? If so, you are correct that the use of these words can be the atheist (but also the theist) equivalent of “God works in mysterious ways.” Simple words used as an effective salve for existentialitis.

    Sorry for the meandering comment. You hit me hard with your question. Maybe someday I'll actually have a coherent response.

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