There are only two moral positions: it’s OK to hurt other people, or it’s not. None of us hold either position consistently; on the other hand, it might still be fair to divide people into good and evil—based not, please note, on some notion of how they “really are,” but on their external behavior at a given moment.

We can make this absolutist dichotomy more reasonable-sounding by calling it a scale instead. We can say that there is a whole gamut, a spectrum of people, or rather of people’s behavior: something like

evil > conservative > liberal > good

Evil is when people act as if hurting other people is perfectly fine. The conservative style is to behave as if it’s a good idea to hurt at least some people, at least some of the time, if you reckon you’ve got a good reason. Liberalism when you treat other people as generally precious and generally not to be harmed, except under certain circumstances and only if you are exceptionally confident of your reasons. (Of course no one can ever agree on which circumstances are appropriate, or which reasons sufficient.) And finally we have the good person, who does not hurt other people, period.

I repeat. Our scale measures behavior, not ideas or words. A good person is one who does not hurt others, not one who thinks or says that hurting others is wrong. If you can refrain from hurting other people, you can ignore the whole idea of right and wrong. Tell us you’re doing it because Jesus told you to, or because you despise people who complain; tell us that you don’t know why you’re doing it. If you’re being good, it does not matter why.

Of course, if you’re hurting people, that too is independent of any ideas you might have of what’s right or wrong. There may be ideas that can reassure you that although you’re doing something bad, it’s not as bad as people might think, because you have good reasons for it; you’d be doing something good if you could, because you’re basically a good person. Well, I’m here to remind you how seriously lame an excuse that is. The people you are hurting do not know or care why you are hurting them. Nor should they. Hurting is hurting and while you are doing it, you are wrong, because hurting is always wrong. In fact, hurting is wrong by definition. That’s what ‘hurting’ means. You can’t do it and be in the right. The upside is, you will be right as soon as you stop—at that very moment (but no sooner!).

An interesting aspect of our simplistic scale is that almost everyone tends to rate themselves a notch or two higher than they are. People who exhibit evil behavior tend to say that sometimes you have to harm other people, it can’t be helped—a conservative position. In practice, of course, they do it anytime they want to. Die-hard conservatives will tell you that it’s only OK to hurt other people under exceptional circumstances. However, their behavior implies that most circumstances qualify as exceptional. And many liberals will swear that harming people is never OK; what they seem to mean is almost never, which is a whole different thing, seems to me.

Only being good is being good. It doesn’t matter what you think in your mind. It doesn’t matter what you say. It doesn’t matter what books you read or what posters you have on your walls. Bad is never good. You can’t fake this or talk your way around it. It’s too high, you can’t get over it; you gotta come in at the door. Only good is good.