A fascinating concept, when you think about it.
I personally have a view of the world that dictates that all things are subjective. I'm going to put out a map of this as best I can. You university types, keep in mind that I'm a mere idiot and that I have very limited access to literature on societies.
One of the things that MUST be pointed out is that this whole argument of this operates on my own beliefs, namely, my atheism. This is a purely atheistic argument, as it were.
Assumption 1: There is no god, or universal "force" such as Karma or somesuch idea.
Assumption 2: There is, therefore, no universal being or force to dictate a universal morality.
Assumption 3: There are no ethics that are set in stone.
Assumption 4: It is the individual and the society that dictates their own ethical code.
Assumption 5: Evil is therefore decided by the individual and the society.
I will adress this by assumption.
Assumption one states that there is no god or "force". I use the word force in the Jedi sense, or in the Karmic sense. From this point on I will use the word "god" for both gods and "forces".
This is my own personal belief, and the rest of the philosophy hinges on this point.
Assumption 2 states that without a god, there is no morality set in stone.
In most religions, the resident deity dictates what is right and wrong. To illustrate this, I'm going to come up with an imaginary god, whom I have named "Grubbles".
Grubbles has appeared to his first witness. Grubbles has stated to this witness that whatever this witness may have believed before is a load of shit and that Grubbles is the only god and creator/ruler of the universe. We shall assume for the sake of convenience that this witness accepts Grubbles's rather extreme claim and becomes his first believer.
After a time, this believer spreads Grubblesism, and they've developed a rather large following. However, the followers are doing things that make Grubbles unhappy; worshipping other gods along with Grubbles, murdering one another, having passionate and kinky sex on the altar, and worst of all, eating pork. So Grubbles calls up the first believer to give him some guidelines. We'll call them the 13 Friendly Suggestions.
These Friendly Suggestions become the basis of the Grubblesian morality, and the believers see it as an unbendable and universal set of laws to dictate life. (They have more, but we're not even going into Leviticus here.)
They therefore have this philosophy on morality:
Assumption 1: Grubbles is the one and only creator/ruler of the universe.
Assumption 2: His laws are therefore universal and unbendable.
Well, if we take Grubbles out of the equation, as my first assumption (There is no god) does, the Grubblesian's second assumption has no foundation and falls apart. In simpler terms, it's moot. This means that the things forbidden by Grubbles are in fact man-made and quite bendable by man.
Assumption 3 states that there is, without a universal god to dictate morality (which is universal by definition), NO MORALITY AT ALL. Using the example of Grubbles once more, when Grubbles is taken out of the equation the ethical codes and laws are man-made and (man and his societies) can change it all they want.
Assumption 4 is an easy step, in my mind, from assumption 3. If there is an ethical code, and it is not made by a god nor set in stone, it is logically made by the individual and the society that has adopted it.
The society will develop an ethical code to dictate what is acceptable and unnacceptable. The ethical code is often quite complex, with contradictions and paradoxes and whatnot, but it is often what keeps this particular society functioning (for better or for worse).
The individual makes his own ethics, which I believe is properly referred to as the conscience. This person's conscience dictates what is right, wrong, and flat out "evil" ("evil" being usually in the area of "wrong" but that could be disputed depending on the individual).
Assumption 5 directly adresses evil. According to the school of thought (as it were) using assumptions one through four, evil CAN NOT BE DEFINITIVELY IDENTIFIED. Evil is dictated by a society and an individual, so what one individual or society may see as being evil may be "good" in another's sight.
This logic can be used to refute a universal good to an extent, however there is an argument to the contrary.
There are people who believe that the concept of "compassion" is a universal concept, and universally seen as good. This is a very simple statement, isn't it?
Sadly, this is an incorrect statement. Compassion is not, in fact, a universal good.
Compassion is not always seen as good. In fact, there is an entire philosophy to the contrary! Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, states that compassion is detrimental to society.
"If any civilization is to survive," Rand once stated, "it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject."
While this quote deals specifically with "the morality of altruism", this quote does give a good feel for her philosophy. In her novels, she suggests that men must seek out what is purely in their own rational good. She sees selfishness as being the ideal. In fact, in her novel The Fountainhead her main character flirts with another character (in some rather unusual ways) and their relationship begins with rape. Rand stated, however, that "if it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation." Mind you, the novel explicitly describes both characters' enjoyment of the rape (the rapist and the rapee, as it were) and that it was a, er, statement of love (For lack of a better term). The rape was an act of selfish love. Fascinating, isn't it?
Keep in mind, I'm not denouncing this philosophy or trying to insult Ayn Rand or her novels (as a side note, The Fountainhead is actually one of my personal favorite novels. I was simply using the rape as an example of compassion's non-unversality [assuming universality is a word]). I'm simply stating that compassion is not a universal good.
I do, by the by, completely disagree with Ayn Rand's objectivism. In fact, our philosophies are almost completely different, although they do intersect at certain points. That's for a different essay.
Therefore, I conclude that there is no universal good or evil. One could even go so far as to say that there is no good or evil at all, that they are simply human inventions. Some food for thought.