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deciding on good and evil

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."      Genesis 2:16


When people do evil in Jersey they need to be judged and, if found guilty, receive appropriate punishment for their misdeeds. An interesting situation exists in Jersey about who decides whether a person is guilty or not.


If an evil deed - an offence - has been formulated and stated in a Law made by the States of Jersey then the Jurats of the Royal Court decide. But if the evil deed has never been recorded in a States Law but is an offence under the long established customary law of the island, a jury must decide. 


If you were guilty, which would you prefer - to be assessed by Jurats or to be assessed by a jury? And if you were innocent, which then? But, whether guilty or not guilty, it is reassuring to know that what actually constitutes a criminal offence - that is, what is evil and what isn't - is pretty well established by society as a whole, either through the customary law or through States Laws.


A very interesting thing arises when one factors into all this the quotation above from the first book in the Christian (and Jewish) Bible. Take a look.


The picture is of newly-created man being told by his creator that the fruit of only one tree was prohibited. And that, if the prohibited fruit was eaten, the man would, for starters, know good and evil. And, if he knew that, he would die.


To "know good and evil" must mean that the man would then have "moral autonomy" - the man would then decide for himself what was good and what was evil. To any man, this would be attractive. If I, alone, have the authority and autonomy to decide what's evil then I can decide that something that I want to do is not evil. Interesting that, if that is my decision (as a morally autonomous person) neither Jurats nor jury can touch me when I do it. No wonder the man decided to eat the prohibited fruit.


In Jersey, a decision about what constitutes evil is taken democratically - by a majority vote of States members who themselves have received a majority vote of islanders. But the weakness remains—men and women allow themselves to do what they want to do. Majority public opinion might see something as good and not evil solely because it benefits the majority of voters despite the fact that the thing is detrimental to the minority or to those without a vote (including because they live elsewhere). An example of the latter is internet gambling. It could be decided to be good by the majority in Jersey (being “profitable”) - but it would be damagingly evil to many whom we shall never meet.


But there's worse. A man may well decide to carry out a particular evil for his own good and only much later find out that the opposite is really the case. Examples are alcohol, smoking, promiscuity, drugs, lies, fraud... the list is endless. Indeed, men and women daily do evil - even murder - for their own good—and reap death a while later.


"Moral autonomy" then has come at a terrible price for each of us. The first man, according to Genesis, chose to do one prohibited action—for his own good. What the action actually was (stealing an apple?) was of far less importance than the decision to do evil for his own good, in particular so as to have sole authority to decide in future what was right or wrong.


Each of us continues to assert that moral “autonomy” (for our good). And to die bit by bit through the decisions we then make. 

‘Without justice, what are kingdoms but great banditries?' (Augustine of Hippo, Church Father, 354-430)
‘The most stupendous blunder a man ever made was to think that anything could be made out of sinning.' (Frederick P Wood)
Richard Syvret

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