Chapter 3. Signs of Good and Evil

I have walked about casually with a camera, taking pictures of whatever one comes across that seems worth recording. This may sound like a simple task. In some sense it is. There is no thematic restriction. There is no need to look for a particular object of interest. One is free to roam about and collect whatever one encounters. However, fulfilling even a task like this employs some very complex processes, which may repay some reflection.

I am not thinking about how my eyes work, or how the camera’s technology is very advanced, which it is. I am referring instead to the thinking that occurs when we decide to take this picture, of this object, or of this event, or of this person…. In each of these decisions, there is always the judgment that this is worth recording. And, in deciding that this is worth recording, one would have also decided to choose to take a picture of this, rather than that, or its surrounding objects. Even if one directs one’s focus on some other surrounding object, there are still other objects which one omits. In other words, there is always some kind of selection. One discriminates the possibilities for making a picture and realizes some and neglects others.

This kind of discriminating selection presupposes a judgment of what is valuable and what is not. Put in another way, the selection is not random, but evaluative. When one selects this rather than that to direct one’s focus, one employs normative judgments of ‘worth’. This does not necessarily mean that what one omits to make a picture something, one judges it to be unworthy of recording. However, when one does make a picture of some object, then that object is recorded as something worth recording to the photographer. There may be different reasons why different objects are worth recording, even to the same photographer. There may therefore be different interpretations of what it means to say that something is worth recording. Some one thing may be worth recording because it is ‘significant’, another could be worth recording because it is ‘beautiful’, and yet another can be worth recording because it is ‘shocking’. These various reasons constitute the evaluative guide that helps the photographer select what he considers worth photographing.

By examining the kinds of objects which the photographer brings into focus, one can infer the evaluative judgments that guided his photographic choices. For example, if he consistently picks out aesthetically pleasing patterns, we could say he had an eye for beautiful things, and that he possibly values beauty as a quality in things. This suggests that a casual photographic task can disclose to others as well as oneself what one’s normative criteria for identifying what is worth recording. Such a normative criterion may constitute aspects of one’s more sophisticated ideas about what else in other endeavours may be choice-worthy. For instance, what guides our picture taking could also feature in our moral deliberations about what is worth doing and pursuing. In short, there can be overlaps between the normative criteria that helps the photographer select objects to put into focus and the normative criteria that shapes the photographer’s ethical judgments in his other morally relevant choices.

However, casual photography is not just an opportunity for disclosing the ethically relevant ideas that guide one’s photography as well as those which may guide one’s moral life. Photography done casually places us in a mode of thinking that shapes some of these normative ideas. In this mode, our ideas about what really matters and what is valuable can change. This suggests to me that leisurely photography can be done to modify our value systems, and not merely to disclose them.

When using the camera in a leisurely manner, one is not collecting evidence to establish the truth of something. One is not for instance, doing scientific imaging, of which the primary purpose it is to discern the truth of something under investigation, using the photographic medium as a tool to achieve the discernment of the truth. In this latter case, one’s thinking constantly revolves around the question, ‘is this or that truly the case?’, or ‘what is the truth about which we are observing—what really happened, what could be a true description of that which has occurred?’ By comparison, when photographing without such an investigative agenda (even if one is making a record of something to remember, and therefore, collecting a token if the truth about it having occurred) the truth of the object is not really the primary issue. Here we must remember that I am talking about doing photography leisurely, and not for instance, with the clear purpose of documenting a historical event so that there could be little dispute of such an event having ever occurred. The fact that something is before the lens and an image is made of it is made more than sufficient proof of its truth, and that having been established, one’s thought about the picture proceeds onwards to its other and greater significances. For example, one takes a picture of a ‘graduation’, and having quickly collected some evidence of this, one’s thoughts no more linger on the reality of the event; instead one then quickly begins to focus on other meanings that judge the graduation as something worth recording: an ‘achievement’, ‘making family proud’, a ‘better future’… In photography done leisurely, our interest shifts quickly from the fact of something, to the value of, point of, the good of…that something.

Because the leisurely use of the camera facilitates this shift, casual photography becomes at the same time a way to enter into a peculiar mode of thinking we could call, following the tradition, ‘practical thinking’, which is different from another that we can call ‘theoretical thinking’. The transition of interest marks the corresponding transition from one such mode of thinking to the other. Philosophical psychology has highlighted these two modes of thinking and their distinct interests. Aristotle, for example, talks of reasoning that is ‘theoretical’ compared to reasoning that is ‘practical’. When reasoning theoretically, one’s interest is in the truth of things. One aspires, in reasoning theoretically, to offer a factually accurate description of a reality. However, when one begins to enquire what one should do in the light of such a truth, one begins to think in the practical mode, and so reasons practically. When thinking in the theoretical mode, some logics peculiar to this mode of thinking guide one’s reasoning: ‘something cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect’, for instance, and hence, one judges contradictions to be unreasonable. Correspondingly, when thinking in the practical mode, some logics peculiar to this mode of thinking begins to guide one’s reasoning: “that which is good ought to be done and whatever is evil ought to be avoided; such-and-such is good, and its contrary is evil…”

The logic that guides thinking when we think in the practical mode also identifies to us what is “good”, and what is “evil”. By “good” and “evil” here, I do not mean what we like or dislike, or what we find useful for something else we value or damaging to something else we value; rather I mean that which is desirable in-itself, or undesirable in-itself. This being the case, casual photography becomes a valuable formative tool for our grasp of some very fundamental ideas about what is intrinsically good and evil just as it facilitates access to thinking in the practical mode. The need to enter into a mode of thinking that is practical rather than merely theoretical in order to grasp good and evil has not always been well understood. Some have attempted to derive a theory of good and evil through the study of certain facts about the human being, or facts about the natural world. However, such attempts turn out, on closer inspection, to be logically indefensible. Logicians point out that the attempt to derive an account of what “ought to be” from an account of what “is the case” violates the conservation of logic. Labelled the “naturalistic fallacy”, any such derivation concludes more than the premises allow. Rather than to deduce theoretically an account of good and evil, good and evil can be known when we think practically. Our knowledge of good and evil is therefore not deduced from any prior ideas. Rather they are “self-evident”. John Finnis’ Natural Law and Natural Rights is representative of this view.

Although these ideas about what is good and evil are “self-evident”, this does not mean that we grasp them without any prior ideas. They are not ‘intuitions’ we get from sitting contemplatively in an armchair. While we cannot deduce these moral ideas, we can certainly abduce them. When thinking in the practical mode, our experience of certain facts gives rise to those normative judgments about what is good and evil. This abductive process that gives rise to our knowledge of good and evil is really a semiosis. What happens is that our minds are being pointed to these moral ideas by the facts we experience: see, hear, smell, feel, taste. When we sense facts in the world, and when we do so thinking in the practical mode, certain states of affairs appeal to us as good, and others as evil. If we can analyze this process as a triad of the ‘sign-vehicle’, the ‘signified’, and the ‘interpretant’, then we could possibly identify these three terms respectively as the ‘experienced phenomena’, the ‘moral ideas about good and evil’, and finally, what medieval thinkers call ‘synderesis’.

Now, synderesis, which is that certain habitual capability (habitus) of the mind to yield our foundational moral judgments, operates as the interpretant within the semiotic triad of sign-signified-interpretant. As interpretant, it relates the experienced phenomena to the foundational moral ideas, pointing the sign-vehicle to the signified. Yet as interpretant, it needs to be activated by the sign-vehicle; without the sign-vehicle, synderesis does not of itself achieve the signification of foundational moral ideas. In this respect casual photography becomes all the more pedagogically useful for our formative grasp of good and evil. For: in doing photography we are compelled to go out and collect images, and not only are we put in the practical mode of thinking, we are also put in the touch with all that our senses can take in, especially what we can see. This becomes all the likelier when we use fixed focal lenses and have to be physically present to our subject matter, as one might do say, in range-finder photography. We are out in the streets in close encounter with signs—signs that activate synderesis, and therefore enable the grasp of good and evil. The casual photographer is, as it were, surrounded by signs of good and evil.


Jude Chua Soo Meng, “To Close a Generation Gap: Thomists and the New Natural Law Theory”, Quodlibet Journal, Vol 3 (2), 2001, online; available at:

Also revised and shortened as “Close Encounters with Good and Evil: Casual Photography and Practical Reasoning” in, powered by Focal Press.


Caught this from a distance while on a casual walk: someone it seems, having a quick urban mountain retreat. Here is an attractive moment of harmony with the surrounding, or perhaps of the appreciation of the aesthetics of the environment. I have almost forgotten what it means to be at peace, or to enjoy surrounding beauty.