Share this :

This Part 2 of the Ethics Series  – What is Good and What is evil?

Part I can be read from here – Click Here

Note :- Not all names of philosophers to be remembered or used. The idea is to show the under current of thought and processes that shaped the idea of good and evil. So, a word of caution, don’t be over-whelmed by the reference to various philosophers.


The Ethical Views of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle:-

SOCRATES was stimulated by the Sophists but was unwilling to go all the way with them. He, too, was most interested in the problems related to living a good life. Thus a great deal of his teaching dealt with the meaning of right and wrong.

Arguing that ‘man is the measure of all things’, the Sophists were skeptical about the existence of the gods and taught a variety of subjects, including mathematics, grammar, physics, political philosophy, ancient history, music, and astronomy.

It was Socrates’ firm belief that there must be a basic principle of right and wrong, a measure which would apply far beyond the beliefs of any one individual. Thus, he asked time and again: What is the good? What is the highest good by which all else in the universe is measured? And his answer was that knowledge is the highest good.

If one knows what is right, he argued, he will do it “No man,” he said, “is voluntarily bad.* When one knows that a thing is good he will choose to do that thing. Therefore the most important endeavor of man is to discover what is good. Socrates spent his life trying to help men discover what is good. Thus, for him, a life which is always inquiring and trying to discover what is good is the best kind of life, the only life worth living.

PLATO took up the problem of good and evil where Socrates left it. For him, goodness is tied up with his theory of the nature of the universe. The world of sense, he taught, is unreal, fleeting, changing. This is evil. The real world of pure, unchanging ideas is the world of good. Man can know this real world only through his reason. Therefore, reason is the highest good for man. The end or goal of life is release of the soul from the body so that it can contemplate the true world of ideas.

But man may live a just life even though he is held down by the body and remains in a world of changing shadows of real things. This can be done, Plato believed, so long as the rational part of man rules his every action. Plato thought of man as consisting of three parts. The appetites are concerned with bodily functions and desires. The will, or spiritual part of man, is concerned with action, courage, bravery. And the reason is concerned with the highest and best in man. A man is living a good life when reason rules the will and the appetites, and when, as a result, he is wise, brave, and temperate.

Thus, a life of reason is the highest good for man, a life noted for wisdom, courage, and self-control. And, Plato taught, this kind of life will be the happy life. Happiness and goodness go together. However, one should not seek pleasure as the end of life. Pleasure comes when one has attained the good life, a life in which the highest, reason, rules the lower, will and appetites.

ARISTOTLE pointed out that every action of man has some end in view and that these ends seem to be an endless chain. One acts in order to get something, but this something is obtained in order to get something else, and so on. What, he asked, is the highest good, the good for which all else is done?

He reached an answer to this question by pointing out that the aim of everything in the universe is to realize itself to the fullest. Each thing is different from all others. It has certain talents, abilities. Thus, it is good when it has realized these talents and abilities to the fullest. Thus, self-realization is for Aristotle the highest good, the goal of all else that is done.

Now, the distinguishing feature of man is his reason. No other entity in the universe possesses reason. Man alone has this characteristic, ability. Therefore, the highest good of man is the complete realization of his reason. This, Aristotle believed, brings happiness. Pleasure accompanies the full realization of man’s reason; it is a natural result of such realization.

But, as Plato also taught, reason is only a part of man. He also has feelings, desires, appetites. Therefore, a good life is one in which all these factors are realized in perfect harmony, in which reason rules and the feelings and desires obey. The goal of human life is a rational attitude toward the feelings and desires.

What is this rational attitude? Aristotle taught that it consisted of the “golden mean.” For example, courage is to be thought of as a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. The good man is one who lives a life according to this golden mean, who does not go to extremes in action but balances one extreme over against another.

Thus, the good life for Aristotle is one in which man realizes to the fullest the supreme part of his nature, reason. Such a man will be noble, just, honest, considerate, and will give evidence of all the other virtues of life. And he will do these things because he desires to do them from the depths of his own being. He is not forced to act in this way by some authority outside of himself, but is driven to good actions by his own nature. As Aristotle wrote, “Virtue is a disposition, or habit, involving deliberate purpose or choice, consisting in a mean that is relative to ourselves, the mean being determined by reason, or as a prudent man would determine it”

Good and Evil According to the Epicureans and Stoics:-

What was for Plato and Aristotle a part of a whole philosophic system became for later philosophers the dominant problem. Both Plato and Aristotle thought of the good life as a natural and logical result of their entire philosophic theories. The Epicureans(disciple or student of the Greek philosopher Epicurus), however, made this problem central to their thinking.

EPICURUS taught that the goal of all human activity is pleasure, that happiness is the supreme good for all. But, he cautioned, man should be careful when choosing pleasures. Some immediate pleasures eventually result in pain and suffering. Here is an excellent meal and it is a pleasure to eat it, I eat and eat far beyond reason. I enjoy it all immensely. But later I suffer with indigestion, gout, and other discomforts. Therefore, we need to be able to see way ahead to the consequences of all the pleasures which we enjoy. This will often mean that we will avoid certain immediate pleasures because their eventual consequences are bad.

Further, for Epicurus, mental pleasures are better than physical pleasures, and it is wise to choose pleasures of the intellectual life. 

Experience shows, he pointed out, that we obtain pleasure by satisfying desires or by being free from desires. Therefore, we should seek to get rid of desires by satisfying them completely. This brings freedom from pain, the pain of desire, and is therefore good.

The Stoics taught that man’s highest good lay in acting in harmony with the universe. Man, for them, is part of the universe, with a definite function to perform for the complete development of the whole universe. As the ruling power in the universe is reason, so reason should rule each man in his individual actions.

Further, man should submit to the rule of the laws of the universe; he should live according to nature. The good man is one who lives so that he fits into the scheme of nature, obeys its laws, and is determined in all he does by reason which is part of the universal reason.

Thus man must know the laws of the universe. If he knows the good, knows his place in the scheme of things, knows what is expected of him by nature, he will be good. And the result of such living is happiness. Happiness is not to be sought after nor is it to be gained by itself. We do good, live a virtuous life, and happiness inevitably follows.

The early Greek thinkers conceived goodness as a harmony within the universe. Evil for them was only imaginary, the result of a failure to see that apparent evil was actually part of a whole which is good, a discord which is harmony when heard in relation with the rest of the music.

The later Greeks were interested primarily in man’s relation with his fellows. Thus, goodness to them was a matter of the good life. The Stoics sought to reconcile these two positions, but leaned more in the direction of the early Greeks.

Stoicism, a school of thought that flourished in Greek and Roman antiquity. It was one of the loftiest and most sublime philosophies in the record of Western civilization. In urging participation in human affairs, Stoics have always believed that the goal of all inquiry is to provide a mode of conduct characterized by tranquillity of mind and certainty of moral worth.

The Position of the Greco-Religious Thinkers

With the rise of the definitely religious movement in philosophy a sharp distinction was made between the principles of good and evil. This is easily traceable to the Babylonian, Assyrian, and other religious traditions from which the religion of the Western world received much.

These early religions drew a sharp line between light and darkness, life and death, good and evil. Indeed, in many instances they conceived of special gods ruling each realm. Although some of the Greek thinkers relegated evil to matter, they were not as definite about the distinction as were the more religious thinkers

PHILO, for example, thought of God as perfect purity, in no way whatsoever in contact with matter. God was the source of all good, and matter the source of all evil. Like-wise, the spiritual part of man, his mind or soul, is the seat of good; and his body, which is thought of as matter, is the seat of evil.

Consequently, when the soul is incorporated in the body it suffers a fall from divine perfection and becomes predisposed to evil. Thus, the goal of man is freedom from the body and all its sin, and return to Cod and perfect goodness. The position of PLOTINUS was very similar. Matter is the source of evil and God the source of good.

The Ethical Views of the Early Christian Thinkers:-

Thus a definite dualism is to be seen throughout the Western religious tradition, a dualism borrowed in substance from the religions of the early East Christianity accepted this dualism and made it basic to its treatment of the whole problem of sin and redemption.

The Apologists taught that God had created man good, but he turned from God to the flesh, the body. By this, sin came into the world. The Christian interpretation of the story of Adam, the first man, is a picture in symbolic terms of the coming of sin, a sin which was then transmitted to all men as original sin.

Because man is man, a descendant of the first man, he is harassed by evil and must seek salvation through the divine grace of God. SAINT AUGUSTINE found that the presence of evil in the universe gave him no end of trouble.

God, for him, was all good, all perfection. And God created the universe out of nothing. If this be true, how could a good God, all powerful, create a universe in which there was evil? How account for evil in a world created by an all-good God?

To solve this problem, Augustine taught that everything in the universe is good. Even that which appears to be evil to us is actually good in that it fits into the whole pattern of the universe. Shadows, dark spots, are necessary to the beauty of a painting. If seen by themselves, broken away from the whole picture, they appear bad. But when seen in the picture they make possible the beauty of the whole.

Evil, then, is relative for Augustine, and is actually an absence of good just as darkness is absence of light. The evil which we find in the universe is put there by God to make the whole universe good. Further, for Augustine, the goal of all mankind is complete union with God and escape from the world.

Man should turn his back on the pleasures of this world which are thin and pale, and direct his attention wholly to God who is perfect goodness. This union with God is to be attained through love of God as opposed to love of the world.

The Views of the Medieval Christian Thinkers

The position of Augustine is also held very largely by the philosophers of Scholasticism. Believing in an all-good God who created everything, they had to explain apparent evil as actually a part of the good whole and thus actually good.

ABELABD added a new note when he taught that the rightness or wrongness of an act does not lie in the act itself but in the intention of the actor. If one steals from another, the act itself is neutral. If the thief intended it as something good, it was thereby good. “God,” he wrote, “considers not what is done, but in what spirit it is done; and the merit or praise of the agent lies not in the deed, but in the intention.’

If one acts in terms of what he thinks is right, if he believes he is doing good and seeks to do good, he may err, but he does not sin. Goodness, morality, then becomes a matter of conscience. The truly sinful man is one who acts with a desire to do wrong. He is sinful because he shows in his action a deliberate contempt for God.

THOMAS AQUINAS, in his theory of good and evil we find the philosophy of Aristotle joined with the basic principles of Christianity. God made everything, including man, for a purpose, and the highest good of all things is the realization of this purpose. As one realizes the purpose for which he was created, he reveals God’s goodness. Therefore, the highest good is the realization of oneself as God has ordained.

Further, the highest form of action is the contemplation of God. This may be done through reason or faith, but it reaches its height in what Aquinas called “intuition,” a coming to God which can be completed only in the world to come, in heaven.

Aquinas follows Augustine, also, in holding that the goodness or badness of a particular action depends upon the aim or purpose of the actor. An act may have good consequences, but it is not good unless the actor intended it to have these consequences and knew that they would result. However, Aquinas does not hold with Augustine that an evil act may be good if the actor intended it to be so. Intention will not make a bad act good, but it is the only thing that will make a good act truly good.

The best way to attain goodness is to abandon worldly goods and seek die life of God. Thus, the life of the saint in a monastery devoting himself entirely to service to God is ideal. Evil, for Aquinas, is privation, a lack of the good. All things, created by a good God, aim at goodness. When they fail, evil results

The mystic teachings of MEISTER ECKHART emphasize the unity of God and the individuality of man. Since God is the pure unity of the world, the universe, any individuality must be a breaking away from God and therefore evil Consequently, the good life is one which strives to return to the divine unity and become one with God. “Whoever would see God,” he writes, “must be dead to himself and buried in God, in the unrevealed desert Godhead, to become again what he was before he was *

The good life for Eckhart, then, is not one of deeds but one of being. We do not attain goodness by striving to do good. We reach that which is perfect goodness by losing ourselves in the unity of God.

Western religious movement, emphasized the great gulf between God and all that is less than God. Goodness is created by God and is to be found in adjustment to God’s plan or purpose. Evil is in some way attached to matter, the body, or the world. But God, being the sole Creator of the universe, would not create evil. Therefore, evil must not actually be evil, but must be part of the great good.

Western Religion has never been able to solve the problem of evil and sin. On the contrary, Eastern religions were more realistic in this matter. They did not make their gods the creators of the whole universe. Rather they had at least two gods, one the god of goodness and the other the god of evil.

God is thought of as the source of all good, and the Devil is the evil principle. But, to the question “Did God create the Devil?” there is no answer. A dualism of good and evil works well until the attempt is made to account for the creation of the universe; but that presents difficulties which have not been solved.


To Be continued in Part-III

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this :