Geometry, Morality, and Suffering in the World

by Lenny Esposito

What’s the definition of a straight line? Anyone who’s taken high school geometry should be able to answer that question with ease. A straight line is simply the shortest distance between two points. The definition is descriptive and concise.

Now, what’s the definition of a crooked line? That’s a little more difficult. If I tell you that a line I’ve drawn is crooked, you could imagine many possibilities. The line could be comprised of several angles or it could have a soft radius. It could zigzag or simply fall away from the second point, never actually reaching it. We would say the Tower of Pisa is crooked even though the building’s sides are perpendicular to each other. It’s simply crooked in relation to the state of being vertical.

Because there are many ways lines may be considered crooked, it would be hard for you to tell just what kind of shape my crooked line actually is simply be me describing it to you as crooked. But there is one thing you would know: it is not the shortest distance between the two points I had in mind. A crooked line is not straight.

Morality is Like Geometry

When people talk about things like good and evil, they tend to assume such ideas are understood. Yet, just like the problem with straight lines and crooked lines above, it’s important to stop and think about what the concepts of good and evil entail. Evil is, as I’ve written elsewhere, a privation of good. It is where good is somehow damaged. Just like darkness isn’t a think unto itself, but the absence of light and cold isn’t a thing unto itself but the absence of heat, evil isn’t a thing unto itself, but the absence of good.

In other words, evil is to good as crooked is to straight. The only way someone can identify evil is to first understand what it means to be good and to know that the evil action (or inaction) falls short of that. There are many ways to be evil, but being good is a much narrower path, just as crooked is a broader category than straight.

Of course, this idea is not at all new with me. C.S. Lewis made it famous…