Good and evil
In religion, ethics, and philosophy, "good and evil" is a very common dichotomy. In cultures with Manichaean and Abrahamic religious influence, evil is usually perceived as the dualistic antagonistic opposite of good, in which good should prevail and evil should be defeated. In cultures with Buddhist spiritual influence, both good and evil are perceived as part of an antagonistic duality that itself must be overcome through achieving Śūnyatā meaning emptiness in the sense of recognition of good and evil being two opposing principles but not a reality, emptying the duality of them, and achieving a oneness.
Origin of the concept 1
- Ancient world 1.1
- Classical world 1.2
- Medieval period 1.3
- Modern Ideas 1.4
- Theories of moral goodness 2
- Descriptive, meta-ethical, and normative fields 3
Theories of the intrinsically good 4
- Transcendental realism 4.1
- Perfectionism 4.2
Welfarist theories 4.3
- Subjective theories of well-being 4.3.1
- Objective theories of well-being 4.3.2
- Mid-range theories 4.3.3
Goodness and agency 5
- Society, life and ecology 5.1.1
- History and novelty 5.1.2
- Goodwill 5.1
- Goodness and morality in biology 6
- See also 7
- References 8
Origin of the concept
Every language has a word expressing good in the sense of "having the right or desirable quality" (ἀρετή) and bad in the sense "undesirable". A sense of moral judgment and a distinction "right and wrong, good and bad" are cultural universals.
In the eastern part of ancient Persia almost five thousand years ago a religious philosopher called Zoroaster simplified the pantheon of early Iranian gods into two opposing forces: Ahura Mazda (Illuminating Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu (Destructive Spirit) which were in conflict.
For the western world, this idea developed into a religion which spawned many sects, some of which embraced an extreme dualistic belief that the material world should be shunned and the spiritual world should be embraced. Gnostic ideas influenced many ancient religions which teach that gnosis (variously interpreted as enlightenment, salvation, emancipation or 'oneness with God') may be reached by practising philanthropy to the point of personal poverty, sexual abstinence (as far as possible for hearers, total for initiates) and diligently searching for wisdom by helping others.
In Western civilisation, the basic meanings of κακός and ἀγαθός are "bad, cowardly" and "good, brave, capable", and their absolute sense emerges only around 400 BC, with Pre-Socratic philosophy, in particular Democritus. Morality in this absolute sense solidifies in the dialogues of Plato, together with the emergence of monotheistic thought (notably in Euthyphro, which ponders the concept of piety (τὸ ὅσιον) as a moral absolute). The idea is further developed in Late Antiquity by Neoplatonists, Gnostics, and Church Fathers.
This development from the relative or habitual to the absolute is also evident in the terms ethics and morality both being derived from terms for "regional custom", Greek ήθος and Latin mores, respectively (see also siðr).
Medieval Christian philosophy was founded on the work of the Bishop Augustine of Hippo and theologian Thomas Aquinas who understood evil in terms of Biblical infallibility and Biblical inerrancy, interpreting evil as pleasures such as drinking and sexuality in excess.
Many medieval Christian theologians both broadened and narrowed the basic concept of Good and evil until it came to have several, sometimes complex definitions such as:
- a personal preference or subjective judgment regarding any issue which might be earn praise or punishment from the religious authorities
- religious obligation arising from Divine law leading to sainthood or damnation.
- a generally accepted cultural standard of behaviour which might enhance group survival or wealth
- natural law or behaviour which induces strong emotional reaction
- statute law imposing a legal duty
These basic ideas of a dichotomy has developed so that today:
- Good is a broad concept but it typically deals with an association with life, charity, continuity, happiness, love and justice.
- Evil is typically associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, discrimination designed to harm others, humiliation of people designed to diminish their psychological needs and dignity, destructiveness, and acts of unnecessary and/or indiscriminate violence.
- the dilemma of the human condition and humans' and their capacity to perform both good and evil activities.
The nature of being good has been given many treatments; one is that the good is based on the natural love, bonding, and affection that begins at the earliest stages of personal development; another is that goodness is a product of knowing truth. Differing views also exist as to why evil might arise. Many religious and philosophical traditions claim that evil behavior is an aberration that results from the imperfect human condition (e.g. "The Fall of Man"). Sometimes, evil is attributed to the existence of free will and human agency. Some argue that evil itself is ultimately based in an ignorance of truth (i.e., human value, sanctity, divinity). A variety of Enlightenment thinkers have alleged the opposite, by suggesting that evil is learned as a consequence of tyrannical social structures.
Theories of moral goodness
Philosophers inquire into what sorts of things are good, and what the word "good" really means in the abstract. As a philosophical concept, goodness might represent a hope that natural love be continuous, expansive, and all-inclusive. In a monotheistic religious context, it is by this hope that an important concept of God is derived —as an infinite projection of love, manifest as goodness in the lives of people. In other contexts, the good is viewed to be whatever produces the best consequences upon the lives of people, especially with regard to their states of well being.
- For other uses of good, see Good
In religion, ethics, and philosophy, goodness and evil, or simply good and evil, is the concept of all human desires and behaviors as conforming to a dualistic spectrum—wherein in one direction are aspects that are wisely reverent of life and continuity ("good"), and in the other are aspects that are vainly reverent of death and destruction ("evil").
Religious and philosophical views tend to agree that, while "good and evil" is a concept and therefore an abstraction, goodness is intrinsic to human nature and is ultimately based on the natural love, bonding, affection that people grow to feel for other people. Likewise, most religious and philosophical interpretations agree that evil is ultimately based in an ignorance of truth (i.e. human value, sanctity, divinity), and evil behavior itself is an aberration —one that defies any understanding save that the path to evil is one of confusion and excessive desire (greed). In physics and statistical thermodynamics, the property of goodness or order is often referred to as a state of low entropy.
As a philosophical abstraction, goodness represents a hope that natural love be continuous, expansive, and all-inclusive. In religious context, it is by this hope that an important concept of God is derived —as an infinite projection of love, manifest as goodness in the lives of people. The belief in such hope is often translated as "faith", and wisdom itself is largely defined within religious doctrine as a knowledge and understanding of innate goodness. The concepts of innocence, spiritual purity, and salvation are likewise related to a concept of being in, or returning to, a state of goodness—one that, according to various teachings of "enlightenment", approaches a state of holiness, righteousness, (or Godliness).
Descriptive, meta-ethical, and normative fields
It is possible to treat the essential theories of value by the use of a philosophical and academic approach. In properly analyzing theories of value, everyday beliefs are not only carefully catalogued and described, but also rigorously analyzed and judged.
There are at least two basic ways of presenting a theory of value, based on two different kinds of questions:
- What do people find good, and what do they despise?
- What really is good, and what really is bad?
The two questions are subtly different. One may answer the first question by researching the world by use of social science, and examining the preferences that people assert. However, one may answer the second question by use of reasoning, introspection, prescription, and generalization. The former kind of method of analysis is called "descriptive", because it attempts to describe what people actually view as good or evil; while the latter is called "normative", because it tries to actively prohibit evils and cherish goods. These descriptive and normative approaches can be complementary. For example, tracking the decline of the popularity of slavery across cultures is the work of descriptive ethics, while advising that slavery be avoided is normative.
Meta-ethics is the study of the fundamental questions concerning the nature and origins of the good and the evil, including inquiry into the nature of good and evil, as well as the meaning of evaluative language. In this respect, meta-ethics is not necessarily tied to investigations into how others see the good, or of asserting what is good.
Theories of the intrinsically good
A satisfying formulation of goodness is valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration, or prioritization. One could answer the ancient question, "How should we then live?" among many other important related questions. It has long been thought that this question can best be answered by examining what it is that necessarily makes a thing valuable, or in what the source of value consists.
One attempt to define goodness describes it as a property of the world with transcendental realism. According to this claim, to talk about the good is to talk about something real that exists in the object itself, independent of the perception of it. Plato advocated this view, in his expression that there is such a thing as an eternal realm of forms or ideas, and that the greatest of the ideas and the essence of being was goodness, or The good. The good was defined by many ancient Greeks and other ancient philosophers as a perfect and eternal idea, or blueprint. The good is the right relation between all that exists, and this exists in the mind of the Divine, or some heavenly realm. The good is the harmony of a just political community, love, friendship, the ordered human soul of virtues, and the right relation to the Divine and to Nature. The characters in Plato's dialogues mention the many virtues of a philosopher, or a lover of wisdom.
A theist is a person who believes that gods exist (monotheism or polytheism). A theist may, therefore, claim that the universe has a purpose and value according to the will of such creator(s) that lies partially beyond human understanding. For instance, Thomas Aquinas—a proponent of this view—believed he had proven the existence of God, and the right relations that humans ought to have to the divine first cause.
Monotheists might also hope for infinite universal love. Such hope is often translated as "faith", and wisdom itself is largely defined within some religious doctrines as a knowledge and understanding of innate goodness. The concepts of innocence, spiritual purity, and salvation are likewise related to a concept of being in, or returning to, a state of goodness—one that, according to various teachings of "enlightenment", approaches a state of holiness (or Godliness).\
Aristotle believed that virtues consisted of realization of potentials unique to humanity, such as the use of reason. This type of view, called perfectionism, has been recently defended in modern form by Thomas Hurka.
An entirely different form of perfectionism has arisen in response to rapid technological change. Some techno-optimists, especially transhumanists, avow a form of perfectionism in which the capacity to determine good and trade off fundamental values, is expressed not by humans but by software, genetic engineering of humans, artificial intelligence. Skeptics assert that rather than perfect goodness, it would be only the appearance of perfect goodness, reinforced by persuasion technology and probably brute force of violent technological escalation, which would cause people to accept such rulers or rules authored by them.
Welfarist theories of value say things that are good are such because of their positive effects on human well-being.
Subjective theories of well-being
It is difficult to figure out where an immaterial trait such as "goodness" could reside in the world. A counterproposal is to locate values inside people. Some philosophers go so far as to say that if some state of affairs does not tend to arouse a desirable subjective state in self-aware beings, then it cannot be good.
Most philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which they call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods. Failing to distinguish the two leads to a subject-object problem in which it is not clear who is evaluating what object.
Some theories describe no higher collective value than that of maximizing pleasure for individual(s). Some even define goodness and intrinsic value as the experience of pleasure, and bad as the experience of pain. This view is called hedonism, a monistic theory of value. It has two main varieties: simple, and Epicurean.
Simple hedonism is the view that physical pleasure is the ultimate good. However, the ancient philosopher Epicurus used the word 'pleasure' in a more general sense that encompassed a range of states from bliss to contentment to relief. Contrary to popular caricature, he valued pleasures of the mind to bodily pleasures, and advocated moderation as the surest path to happiness.
Jeremy Bentham's book The Principles of Morals and Legislation prioritized goods by considering pleasure, pain and consequences. This theory had a wide effect on public affairs, up to and including the present day. A similar system was later named Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. More broadly, utilitarian theories are examples of Consequentialism. All utilitarian theories are based upon the maxim of utility, which states that good is whatever provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It follows from this principle that what brings happiness to the greatest number of people, is good.
A benefit of tracing good to pleasure and pain is that both are easily understandable, both in oneself and to an extent in others. For the hedonist, the explanation for helping behaviour may come in the form of empathy—the ability of a being to "feel" another's pain. People tend to value the lives of gorillas more than those of mosquitoes because the gorilla lives and feels, making it easier to empathize with them. This idea is carried forward in the ethical relationship view and has given rise to the animal rights movement and parts of the peace movement. The impact of sympathy on human behaviour is compatible with Enlightenment views, including David Hume's stances that the idea of a self with unique identity is illusory, and that morality ultimately comes down to sympathy and fellow feeling for others, or the exercise of approval underlying moral judgments.
A view adopted by James Griffin attempts to find a subjective alternative to hedonism as an intrinsic value. He argues that the satisfaction of one's informed desires constitutes well-being, whether or not these desires actually bring the agent happiness. Moreover, these preferences must be life-relevant, that is, contribute to the success of a person's life overall.
Desire satisfaction may occur without the agent's awareness of the satisfaction of the desire. For example, if a man wishes for his legal will to be enacted after his death, and it is, then his desire has been satisfied even though he will never experience or know of it.
Meher Baba proposed that it is not the satisfaction of desires that motivates the agent but rather "a desire to be free from the limitation of all desires. Those experiences and actions which increase the fetters of desire are bad, and those experiences and actions which tend to emancipate the mind from limiting desires are good." It is through good actions, then, that the agent becomes free from selfish desires and achieves a state of well-being: "The good is the main link between selfishness thriving and dying. Selfishness, which in the beginning is the father of evil tendencies, becomes through good deeds the hero of its own defeat. When the evil tendencies are completely replaced by good tendencies, selfishness is transformed into selflessness, i.e., individual selfishness loses itself in universal interest."
Objective theories of well-being
- See the separate analysis of wealth.
The idea that the ultimate good exists and is not orderable but is globally measurable is reflected in various ways in economic (classical economics, green economics, welfare economics, gross national happiness) and scientific (positive psychology, the science of morality) well-being measuring theories, all of which focus on various ways of assessing progress towards that goal, a so-called genuine progress indicator. Modern economics thus reflects very ancient philosophy, but a calculation or quantitative or other process based on cardinality and statistics replaces the simple ordering of values.
For example, in both economics and in folk wisdom, the value of something seems to rise so long as it is relatively scarce. However, if it becomes too scarce, it leads often to a conflict, and can reduce collective value.
In the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and in its critique by Karl Marx, human labour is seen as the ultimate source of all new economic value. This is an objective theory of value (see value theory), which attributes value to real production-costs, and ultimately expenditures of human labour-time (see also law of value). It contrasts with marginal utility theory, which argues that the value of labour depends on subjective preferences by consumers, which may however also be objectively studied.
The economic value of labour may be assessed technically in terms of its use-value or utility or commercially in terms of its exchange-value, price or production cost (see also labour power. But its value may also be socially assessed in terms of its contribution to the wealth and well-being of a society.
In non-market societies, labour may be valued primarily in terms of skill, time, and output, as well as moral or social criteria and legal obligations. In market societies, labour is valued economically primarily through the labour market. The price of labour may then be set by supply and demand, by strike action or legislation, or by legal or professional entry-requirements into occupations.
Conceptual metaphor theories argue against both subjective and objective conceptions of value and meaning, and focus on the relationships between body and other essential elements of human life. In effect, conceptual metaphor theories treat ethics as an ontology problem and the issue of how to work-out values as a negotiation of these metaphors, not the application of some abstraction or a strict standoff between parties who have no way to understand each other's views.
Goodness and agency
John Rawls' book A Theory of Justice prioritized social arrangements and goods based on their contribution to justice. Rawls defined justice as fairness, especially in distributing social goods, defined fairness in terms of procedures, and attempted to prove that just institutions and lives are good, if rational individuals' goods are considered fairly. Rawls's crucial invention was the original position, a procedure in which one tries to make objective moral decisions by refusing to let personal facts about oneself enter one's moral calculations.
One problem with the thinkings of Rawls is that it is overly procedural. Procedurally fair processes of the type used by Rawls may not leave enough room for judgment, and therefore, reduce the totality of goodness. For example, if two people are found to own an orange, the standard fair procedure is to cut it in two and give half to each. However, if one wants to eat it while the other wants the rind to flavor a cake, cutting it in two is clearly less good than giving the peel to the baker and feeding the core to the eater.
Applying procedural fairness to an entire society therefore seems certain to create recognizable inefficiencies , and therefore be unfair, and (by the equivalence of justice with fairness) unjust.
However, procedural processes are not always necessarily damning in this way. Immanuel Kant, a great influence for Rawls, similarly applies a lot of procedural practice within the practical application of The Categorical Imperative, however, this is indeed not based solely on 'fairness'. Even though an example like the one above regarding the orange would not be something that required the practical application of The Categorical Imperative, it is important to draw distinction between Kant and Rawls, and note that Kant's Theory would not necessarily lead to the same problems Rawls' does — i.e., the cutting in half of the orange. Kant's Theory promotes acting out of Duty — acting for the Summum Bonum for him, The Good Will - and in fact encourages Judgement, too. What this would mean is that the outcome of the Orange's distribution would not be such a simple process for Kant as the reason why it would be wanted by both parties would necessarily have to be a part of the Judgement process, thus eliminating the problem that Rawls' account suffers here.
Society, life and ecology
Many views value unity as a good: to go beyond eudaimonia by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole. Some elements of Confucianism are an example of this, encouraging the view that people ought to conform as individuals to demands of a peaceful and ordered society.
According to the naturalistic view, the flourishing of society is not, or not the only, intrinsically good thing. Defenses of this notion are often formulated by reference to biology, and observations that living things compete more with their own kind than with other kinds. Rather, what is of intrinsic good is the flourishing of all sentient life, extending to those animals that have some level of similar sentience, such as Great Ape personhood. Others go farther, declaring that life itself is of intrinsic value.
By another approach, one achieves peace and agreement by focusing, not on one's peers (who may be rivals or competitors), but on the common environment. The reasoning: As living beings it is clearly and objectively good that we are surrounded by an ecosystem that supports life. Indeed, if we weren't, we could neither discuss that good nor even recognize it. The anthropic principle in cosmology recognizes this view.
Under materialism or even embodiment values, or in any system that recognizes the validity of ecology as a scientific study of limits and potentials, an ecosystem is a fundamental good. To all who investigate, it seems that goodness, or value, exists within an ecosystem, Earth. Creatures within that ecosystem and wholly dependent on it, evaluate good relative to what else could be achieved there. In other words, good is situated in a particular place and one does not dismiss everything that is not available there (such as very low gravity or absolutely abundant sugar candy) as "not good enough", one works within its constraints. Transcending them and learning to be satisfied with them, is thus another sort of value, perhaps called satisfaction.
Values and the people that hold them seem necessarily subordinate to the ecosystem. If this is so, then what kind of being could validly apply the word "good" to an ecosystem as a whole? Who would have the power to assess and judge an ecosystem as good or bad? By what criteria? And by what criteria would ecosystems be modified, especially larger ones such as the atmosphere (climate change) or oceans (extinction) or forests (deforestation)?
"Remaining on Earth" as the most basic value. While green ethicists have been most forthright about it, and have developed theories of Gaia philosophy, biophilia, bioregionalism that reflect it, the questions are now universally recognized as central in determining value, e.g. the economic "value of Earth" to humans as a whole, or the "value of life" that is neither whole-Earth nor human. Many have come to the conclusion that without assuming ecosystem continuation as a universal good, with attendant virtues like biodiversity and ecological wisdom it is impossible to justify such operational requirements as sustainability of human activity on Earth.
One response is that humans are not necessarily confined to Earth, and could use it and move on. A counter-argument is that only a tiny fraction of humans could do this—and they would be self-selected by ability to do technological escalation on others (for instance, the ability to create large spacecraft to flee the planet in, and simultaneously fend off others who seek to prevent them). Another counter-argument is that extraterrestrial life would encounter the fleeing humans and destroy them as a locust species. A third is that if there are no other worlds fit to support life (and no extraterrestrials who compete with humans to occupy them) it is both futile to flee, and foolish to imagine that it would take less energy and skill to protect the Earth as a habitat than it would take to construct some new habitat.
Accordingly, remaining on Earth, as a living being surrounded by a working ecosystem, is a fair statement of the most basic values and goodness to any being we are able to communicate with. A moral system without this axiom seems simply not actionable.
However, most religious systems acknowledge an afterlife and improving this is seen as an even more basic good. In many other moral systems, also, remaining on Earth in a state that lacks honor or power over self is less desirable — consider seppuku in bushido, kamikazes or the role of suicide attacks in Jihadi rhetoric. In all these systems, remaining on Earth is perhaps no higher than a third-place value.
Radical values environmentalism can be seen as either a very old or a very new view: that the only intrinsically good thing is a flourishing ecosystem; individuals and societies are merely instrumentally valuable, good only as means to having a flourishing ecosystem. The Gaia philosophy is the most detailed expression of this overall thought but it strongly influenced Deep Ecology and the modern Green Parties.
It is often claimed that aboriginal peoples never lost this sort of view. Anthropological linguistics studies links between their languages and the ecosystems they lived in, which gave rise to their knowledge distinctions. Very often, environmental cognition and moral cognition were not distinguished in these languages. Offenses to nature were like those to other people, and Animism reinforced this by giving nature "personality" via myth. Anthropological theories of value explore these questions.
Most people in the world reject older situated ethics and localized religious views. However small-community-based and ecology-centric views have gained some popularity in recent years. In part, this has been attributed to the desire for ethical certainties. Such a deeply rooted definition of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritisation. Ones that relied only on local referents one could verify for oneself, creating more certainty and therefore less investment in protection, hedging and insuring against consequences of loss of the value.
History and novelty
An event is often seen as being of value simply because of its novelty in fashion and art. By contrast, cultural history and other antiques are sometimes seen as of value in and of themselves due to their age. Philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant spoke as much with the quote, "As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of the group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction" (The Lessons of History, 72).
Assessment of the value of old or historical artifacts takes into consideration, especially but not exclusively: the value placed on having a detailed knowledge of the past, the desire to have tangible ties to ancestral history, and/or the increased market value scarce items traditionally hold.
Creativity and innovation and invention are sometimes upheld as fundamentally good especially in Western industrial society — all imply newness, and even opportunity to profit from novelty. Bertrand Russell was notably pessimistic about creativity and thought that knowledge expanding faster than wisdom necessarily was fatal.
Goodness and morality in biology
The issue of good and evil in the human visuality, often associated with morality, is regarded by some biologists (notably Edward O. Wilson, Jeremy Griffith, David Sloan Wilson and Frans de Waal) as an important question to be addressed by the field of biology.
- Specific references
- Paul O. Ingram, Frederick John Streng. Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: Mutual Renewal and Transformation. University of Hawaii Press, 1986. P. 148-149.
- Donald Brown (1991) Human Universals. Philadelphia, Temple University Press (online summary).
- Boyce 1979, pp. 6–12.
- Charles H. Kahn, Democritus and the Origins of Moral Psychology, The American Journal of Philology (1985)
- Ervin Staub. Overcoming evil: genocide, violent conflict, and terrorism. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, Pp. 32.
- Baba, Meher. Discourses. 1. 1967. Sufism Reoriented. p. 93. ISBN 1-880619-09-1.
- Baba, Meher. Discourses. 1. 1967. Sufism Reoriented. p. 31. ISBN 1-880619-09-1.
- For discussion, see debates on monoculture and permaculture.
- General references
- Atkinson, Philip. Recognising Good And Evil from ourcivilisation.com
- Aristotle. "Nicomachean Ethics". 1998. USA: Oxford University Press. (1177a15)
- Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1988. Prometheus Books.
- Dewey, John. Theory of Valuation. 1948. University of Chicago Press.
- Durant, Ariel and W. Durant. The Lessons of History. 1997. MJF Books. (p72)
- Garcia, John David. The Moral Society — A Rational Alternative to Death. 2005. Whitmore Publishing.
- Griffin, James. Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance. 1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hume, David. A Treastise of Human Nature. 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Hurka, Thomas. Perfectionism. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. 1996. Cambridge University Press. Third section, -.
- Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or. 1992. Penguin Classics.
- Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. 1999. Belknap Press.
- Romero, Rhys. "Just Being a Student". 2009. Austin Student Press.