Good and evil are concepts that transcend culture, creed, nationality, race, and even the ravages of time. Every complex mythology ever unearthed bears the mark of the struggle between evil and good. The concept predates all modern religions and far precedes the words we currently use to describe them. It is not terribly amazing that all religions claim to have the one true definition of these terms, but considering the all-encompassing nature of the concepts, it should be possible to develop a meaning not tied to religion or culture.
What do we mean when we say "good" and "evil"? A certain linguistic drift is evident based on a desire for association. Simply put, nobody wants to be considered evil, so evil has come to mean only the most horrible of the horrible. Everyone wants to be considered good, therefore "good" has come to cover all cases from the divine to the mediocre. For this piece, I am restricting the definition of "good" to only those definitions that are the polar opposite of "evil". Just to give my quotes key a rest, I'm going to call these Good and Evil.
Because of the linguistic drift, Evil is a much easier concept to nail down than Good. The things that we universally think of as evil are pretty well defined. Murder, robbery, kidnapping, slavery and torture, for instance. If you ask almost anyone on the street, they would happily line these things up in the department of Evil.
There are a broad selection of questionable evils. Sex for purposes other than procreation, for instance. Dancing, music, reading (heck, knowledge in general), disagreeing with those currently in charge, and almost anything to do with enjoying yourself has at one time or another come under fire as evil. If you try to consider all things that anyone has ever called evil, the definition takes on a quality similar to "carcinogenic", where you can't get up in the morning without condemning yourself to hell (especially not if you drink coffee). I should note at this point that this is not a form of linguistic drift, it is more of a dilution. When a person calls something evil, he is saying that this thing is the most horrible of horrible things, not that the definition of evil has changed to include a lesser meaning.
For the purposes of identifying the meaning of evil, we'll stick to those things that are universally accepted as evil, even when people consider them to be necessary evils. Killing, rape, kidnapping, imprisonment, bodily violence, theft, etc. Most of these things are evil for the obvious reason that they cause the victim to suffer, causing pain and anguish, but there is a further quality that very few people take time to consider. Murder is an excellent example of this. You can't really say that a quick and painless death causes suffering, pain or anguish. The characteristic of Murder that is important here is that it takes away a person's choices. Murder is a crime of limiting a person's freedom. So, for that matter, are kidnapping, imprisonment or slavery. Certaintly, an amount of physical pain might be caused in the process, but mostly it's evil because you limit a person's ability to act in their own interests.
Therefore, you can effectively define Evil as being that which causes suffering or limits freedoms. Conversely, Good is something that eases suffering or enhances freedoms. You can also toss in the concept of Good and Evil being at odds, in which case Good is something which hinders Evil, and Evil is something that hinders Good.
Obviously, the world isn't entirely black and white. Take murder. Murder in cold blood is obviously wrong. If the person you kill is trying to kill you or others, then the Good and Evil of the act are balanced and it become self defense. If that person you kill was planning on killing many people, then your act becomes Good, even heroic. For all acts we perform, it is necessary for us to perform this kind of karmic algebra to come to a proper decision about it's value.
This may seem pretty elementary to most people out there. Most of you do the karmic algebra thing automatically, without having to think about it. If it's actually laid out it words like this, however, the implications become more significant.
The most important place where this all needs to be thought out is the relm of lawmaking. It is not terribly uncommon for people to get the bright idea that limiting people's actions is a good thing. This is only true in the most harmful of circumstances. It must be remembered that the very act of limiting freedom is an act of evil. Every time we make a law to limit people's freedom, we must carefully judge that law to determine if the balance of freedom lost is worth the good gained. Each time we pass a law limiting peoples' freedom, we take away a little more of peoples' lives.