A philosopher walked into a magic shop.

"Ugh," said Phil. The philosopher leaned his spear against the hatstand and slumped onto a fluffy cushioned chair.

"Can I get you something to drink? How about Essence of Essence?" said Wiz, the shop owner. She handed Phil a bottle of perfectly invisible liquid. It was clearer than air.

Phil downed the bottle in a single chug.

"I don't know why you do this to yourself. Dungeon crawling. You should be debating the nature of reality. Not scrounging for trinkets in a dark tunnel," said Wiz.

"I would if I could but for some reason people pay more for ancient artifacts of incredible power than for lessons on epistemics," said Phil, "Except for the Court Philosopher. He rakes in the dough. But the rest of us? Not so much."

"Strange," said Wiz.

"Would you like to pay for a lesson on epistemics?" said Phil.

"No thanks," said Wiz.

"Not so strange then," said Phil. Phil took a deep breath. Wiz's shop was passively safe in the sense that nothing would kill you if you didn't poke it first. Which was a step up from Phil's previous week.

"Well," said Wiz.

"Well what?" said Phil.

"Aren't you going to ask me what new inventions I have for you?" said Wiz.

"Oh yeah!" said Phil. He jumped out of the chair. Wiz's inventions always had fascinating metaphysical implications.

The door to the giant room-sized safe/storeroom in the back of Wiz's shop had no keyhole. Wiz just touched it with her hand and the safe opened. The safe was full of boxes and crates and barrels and magical creatures. An imp screeched and banged on the bars of its cage. Various bladed weapons were hung from the ceiling. Wiz removed a haladie dagger and left the storeroom. The door closed behind her.

"This," said Wiz, "is my Dagger of Detect Evil."

Phil was too stunned to say a word.

Wiz smiled the grin of a satisfied engineer.

"It's a what?" said Phil.

Wiz's smile faltered slightly. "It's a Dagger of Detect Evil. You stab an enemy with it and then the dagger will measure whether the enemy was evil. If the enemy was evil then the dagger glows red. Otherwise the Dagger does not glow."

"Let me make sure I heard you correctly," said Phil, "I stab an enemy with it. After I have stabbed an enemy, the dagger will tell me if the enemy was evil."

"Yes," said Wiz.

"That makes no sense!" said Phil.

"Why not?" said Wiz.

"Because evil is not a material phenomenon," said Phil.

"So? I deal with immaterial phenomena all the time," said Wiz, "Just yesterday I visited the astral plane."

"I need to sit down again," said Phil. He sat back in the fluffy chair. This time Phil did not drink. He leaned away from the dagger as if it was poisoned. "I'm not using the word 'material' the way you wizards do, to refer to baseline reality. I'm using 'material' to refer to anything that can be measured or interacted with. The astral plane therefore constitutes a material realm."

"You use words in impractical ways, but I think I understand," said Wiz, "What's your point?"

"That dagger cannot exist," said Phil. "I don't mean it's physically impossible or magically impossible. It's ontologically impossible."

"Nonsense," said Wiz, "The fact that I created this object means that it can exist. Because it does exist. If creating a Dagger of Detect Evil was impossible then I couldn't have created a Dagger of Detect Evil."

Phil held his face in his hands. "You don't understand at all. Evil is a subjective phenomenon. This device represents an objective measurement of a subjective quantity."

"So?" said Wiz.

"Look," said Phil. He looked straight into Wiz's eyes, "What is evil?"

"It's the essence of whatever causes this dagger to glow red," said Wiz.

"Is that definition intersubjectively consistent?" said Phil.

"What?" said Wiz.

"I mean if two people stab the same goblin with a Dagger of Detect Evil will both experiments produce the same result?" said Phil.

"Of course they will," said Wiz, "Otherwise this dagger wouldn't be very useful."

"But people disagree about what evil is," said Phil.

"Then some of those people must be wrong," said Wiz.

"Not necessarily. Perhaps we are talking about two different things. Maybe it's like when we use the word 'material'. Maybe when I use the word 'evil' I'm referring to something immaterial whereas when you use the word 'evil' you're referring to something material. If that's the case then perhaps neither is righter than the other. We are just using words differently," said Phil.

"Does that mean you don't want to buy the dagger?" said Wiz.

"Nonsense," said Phil, "I'll buy two. I would like to prove to the Court Philosopher that I'm right and he's wrong."

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19 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:01 AM

The most amusing thing about this is that you don't find out whether the entity was "evil" until after you've already stabbed it. "Oh, sorry, apparently you're a good guy but now you're dead, oops."

Shortly after the Dagger of Detect Evil became available to the public, Wiz's sales of the Dagger of Glowing Red skyrocketed.

I thought the joke was that the characters didn't even stop to consider this point.

Maybe you don't have to stab the entity to death?

walks into the magic shop

Hello, I'd like to commission a Sword of Carving at the Joints.

Okay, but no testing it on yourself, or anyone else you don't want dead. You'd be lucky to lose only a finger, or a hand.

Sure, I'll be careful. I only need it for my expedition to the Platonic Realm anyway.

Standard plot twist would be that it doesn't glow on any victim.

Assuming (for maximum inconvenience), it only works on living things, and only after they're stabbed to death, this is hilarious in that we can't even confirm whether it's consistent on the same target.  How would anyone show it's not fully random with each stabbing?

Ooh, maybe EVIL is random.  Some bad acts are driven by confusion or circumstance, and some good acts are driven by bad intent.  But the interior spark of evilness, a type of qualia that's not directly measurable or definable, is randomly experienced at different times by any given agent, and has no impact on the actions of any individual.

Really, though, it's fiction.  It means whatever the author wants, disconnected from our universe.


You assume they're dead. (It gives you a past measurement - no guarantee someone won't become evil later.)

"neither of is is" -> "neither of us is"

Fixed. Thanks.

Phil held his face inn his hands. -> in his hands

Fixed. Thanks.

Not fixed. Now it just says "neither of is".

Fixed for real this time. Thanks.

I'm amused that you kind of gave up and resorted to just saying "neither is". (This is not a criticism, I just find it amusing.)

These stories kind of remind me of a Lynch movie, where I'm pretty sure a major part of the point is to present puzzles for the audience, with almost none of them resolved in the text, so that people can try to make progress on the fun of solving puzzles.

As a genre, it would be like how Inception had that spinning coin at the end, except, for this genre, the movies or stories would be filled with the bare minimum of definite facts to set up the most possible spinning coins, each of which is a sort of a puzzle.

I kind of love this genre! 

(A pretty good example, not by Lynch, with way less magical realism, is Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, made in 2011 by Nicolas Winding Refn.)

I worry about spoiling your story. 

This is a risk I'm willing to take, because maybe your story was aiming... weirdly low? My model of LW involves the audience being pretty savvy.

With apologies to the art, it seemed potentially useful to maybe explain some objective things:

(A) lying is not subjective (and in the subjective-based-on-objective-complexity case, at least one party is confused on at least some level), and

(B) stealing physical property is not subjective (and in the complexity-caused-subjectivity case, that's what title insurers are paid to handle and mitigate).

I feel like I'm in danger here of saying something approximately as tedious as: 

Just to explaaaaain some aktually objective things: eleven is a prime number, and in Euclidean geometry parallel lines never intersect. And aaalso things like computers can handle the process of really truuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuly finding(!) and verifying quite large prime numbers, in practice, at quite low cost.


Another thing that is objective is: "(0) Someone being an official public health official, with formal court and cop backed powers of medical regulation, and then (1) failing to deliver actual public health, (2) while not being able to explain how viruses are physically existing things that properly-worn physical masks can filter out of the air before someone breathes the virus particles and gets infected by the physically existing virus (3) and then gets sick and transmits it to someone else (4) as predicted by the germ theory of disease".

It makes sense to me, though, that if the median voter was uncertain about the objective evil of lying or stealing, then maybe the median voter would also be unable to elect someone able to generate public health via the competent operation of a public health system. Like maybe the concept of such an outcome is just inconceivable, to enough people, that it is also inconceivable to the median voter?


When I was hunting around for a reasonably canonical theoretical explanation of some of the simpler answers here, I ran across an empirical result that surprised me somewhat.

Are moral truths objective or are they subjective? In other words, are moral truths (like “don’t cheat” and “don’t steal”) objectively true and thus true independently of what our society says? Or are they subjective and thus relative to what our society says?

I always poll my students and take a vote before diving into the arguments. Out of around 160 current students from last Fall in my Intro to Philosophy classes, about 95% of students answered the same way: they are subjective. And this is not atypical. The results for just about every poll I have taken over the last decade or so about this question have been similar.

One might be tempted to think that this is a generational phenomenon: perhaps it’s a millennial thing! But I’ve found it to be much more widespread.  During the summers, I often teach college philosophy courses to intellectually advanced junior high and high school students (to qualify for this program, students must test into the top 3% in the nation…these students are incredibly bright). About 95% of them answer the same way: morality is subjective. And I am currently teaching an Ethics course at a prison here in Southern California. I always designate the first week of the prison class to discuss the question of whether morality is objective or subjective. Once again, about 95% of inmates agree: morality is subjective. [Sauce. Emphases in original.]

With a "chance of being just kind of egregiously confused by abstractions involving right and wrong" among 95% of random college students and random prison inmates, it becomes a little harder to figure out your story. 

It made me think that maybe you're better calibrated than I am about normal elites, and made it slightly plausible (given apparent base rates) that... maybe you agree with them? 

If you agree with them... then this wouldn't actually be a puzzle story, in the puzzle story genre...

(If you had asked me about the thing people didn't understand, with the unacceptability of the existing public health system, it might be like... the idea of delegation or the related idea of deputation or how these relate to duty?

These topics actually are tricky in practice. I can easily imagine that 95% of the population has never studied or seen or participated in a culture of honor, and we only have a residue of the high points of the 1800s in very very old books, but... 

But maybe it is NOT a lack of understanding of honor or duty or deputation? Maybe the breakdown involves a lack of something even deeper? And maybe you noticed this before me?)

Maybe starting in 1914 or 1971 or some other date... maybe college students have begun, gradually then suddenly, to just literally not manage to get to past the bottom few rungs of Kohlberg's moral stages

Kohlberg himself avoided talking about anything higher than the official top of his scheme because he could barely find that many people who were at the top of it, empirically.

Are you actually aiming too low with this story? Is this really a juicy puzzle, even for a LW reader?

Heck... are you in unreflective (or reflective?!) agreement with Phil-and-the-current-95% here?

All this said, you'd be in good company if you refuse to answer.

Evil is a pattern of of behavior exhibited by agents.  In embedded agents, that pattern is absolutely represented by material.  As for what that pattern is, evil agents harm others for their own gain.  That seems to be the core of "evilness" in possibility space.  Whenever I try to think of the most evil actions I can, they tend to correlate with harming others (especially one's equals, or one's inner circle, who would expect mutual cooperation), for one's own gain.  Hamlet's uncle.  Domestic abusers.  Executives who ruin lives for profit.  Politicians who hand out public money in exchange for bribes.  Bullies who torment other children for fun.  It's a learnable script, which says "I can gain at others expense", whether that gain is power, control, money, or just pleasure.

If your philosopher thinks "evil" is immaterial, does he also think "epistemology" is immaterial?

(I apologize if this sounds argumentative, I've just heard "good and evil are social constructs" far too many times.)