By Categories: Editorials, Ethics

This Part 4 of the Ethics Series  – What is Good and What is evil?

Part I can be read from here – Click Here

Part II can be read from here – Click Here

Part III 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.

According to Mill, Bentham, and Spencer :-

Recent philosophic thought regarding the problem of good and evil has been concerned with man’s social relationships. It has been an ethics of the human group rather than that of divine laws.

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Consequently, it has taken on the tinge of relativity. Goodness and evil become qualities of acts relative to the situation In which they are performed

JOHN STUART MILL is a good representative of the Utilitarian school in his contention that the measure of good Is in terms of “the greatest good of the greatest number*.

One must ask of an act, Will it bring much good to a great number of individuals? This eliminates selfishness and makes the criterion of good the social consequences of die proposed act. Further, Mill holds that “goods* differ in quality and that the goods of the intellect are better than the goods of the senses.

JEREMY BENTHAM is very close to Mill In his thinking about good and evil. He too bases good upon the Utilitarian principle of “the greatest good of the greatest number* But he does not admit that goods differ in quality. His only criterion is the number of Individuals affected by the act Bentham Justifies this position on the basis of selfinterest, holding that to so act will actually bring the greatest good to the one acting.

In this modern treatment of the subject, good and bad are not written in the nature of the universe, but are determined by social factors. The emphasis to placed upon the consequences of one’s act in the experiences of others. The idea of a God setting down absolutely defined moral laws is gone. Also the idea that an evil act angers God while a good act makes Him happy is missing. Here is a relative morality, and the determiner of good and bad is the effect of the act upon the lives of other human individuals now living or to live in the future.

HERBERT SPENCER attacks the problem from the point of view of the scientist and seeks to discover a scientific basis for right and wrong in conduct at large. From the point of view of evolution, conduct is a developing, evolving thing, a matter of adjustment of acts to ends.

For him, the most highly developed conduct, and therefore the best, is that which makes living richer for the individual and for those among whom he lives and those who will come after him. The social group, for Spencer, is the ultimate end of morality.

Goodness is to be determined in those terms. But he distinguishes between conduct that is absolutely right and that which is relatively right. Absolutely right conduct is that which is immediately pleasurable and at the same time produces future happiness for the individual and the group. Relative right is productive of future happiness, but is not immediately pleasurable. The goal is, of course, absolute right.

The Ethical Views of James and Dewey :-

The social and individual consequences of activity are emphasized by philosophers of the Pragmatic school as criteria of good and evil. Both WILLIAM JAMES and JOHN DEWEY, especially Dewey, are emphatic at this point.

The good is that which serves the ends of the group and the individual in the group. A good act is one which considers the individual as an end in himself and not as a means. But, by so considering each individual, we consider the welfare of the group. The human individual, as a social unit, is the ultimate measure of good and evil. That which enriches his life must necessarily enrich the lives of all.

Here the individual and the group are tied together, since, it was argued by Dewey, individuality is a social product and no one has true individuality save as a member of the group.

Thus, a survey of the thinking of men down the ages about good and evil reveals two fundamental positions and many shades of both. On the one hand measures of good and evil are thought to be inherent in the nature of the universe.

Man is to discover them by coming to an understanding of the universe and its nature. Whether the universe speak to man with its own voice, or whether the voice be that of the Creator of the universe, the position is fundamentally the same.

Good and bad are absolute, having been established from the beginning of time, and apply in all situations and at all times. When the criteria have been discovered, either by rational searching of the universe or by revelation, they are forever true, never changing.

The other position is that good and bad are relative terms, and that the measures, the criteria, are to be discovered by a study of the particular situation involved. Time and place are determiners of good and evil. For a sick man, certain foods are evil, but for a well man they are good.

In a modern social group, preservation of the aged and weak is good, but in a primitive group which is beset by enemies and must be on the move to escape destruction, to preserve the aged and infirm is bad since it slows down the group and may result in disaster. This position looks at the consequences of the particular act in terms of the life of society and determines the ethical quality of the act in terms of the good of the whole.

Man’s thought on matters of ethics has taken these two lines throughout history, the absolute and the relative. And, among present-day thinkers both positions are to be discovered, although the relative point of view is the most pronounced. It is difficult for modern man, possessed of great respect for science and human reason, to find adequate ground for an absolute theory of right and wrong. All the evidence which commands his respect seems to point away from this to a relative position.

Gandhi and His Concept of Evil :-

Gandhi had very few possessions: a pair of glasses, two pairs of homemade sandals for different occasions, some books, a spinning wheel, and little else. Each item has a story and a lesson to teach us. The item that stands out the most, in this connection, is a small wooden statue of the three monkeys telling us to “See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil.” It represents the sophistication of his understanding of the human mind and what philosophers call “the problem of evil.”

Gandhi’s answer to the problem of “evil” was two-fold. First of all, to recognize the nature of the world is understand the nature of dualities. If we have “goodness” in the world, then we will have its opposite. Yet, we can move closer to “the good,” which for Gandhi was tied intimately with nonviolence and Truth, which is the greatest challenge we have as human beings.

Furthermore, Gandhi said that evil only existed so long as we gave our attention to it: our ears, our eyes, our words, our mind, etc. This certainly does not mean ignoring acts of cruelty and intentional harm; rather, it means resisting dehumanization, it means raising the humanity of the person who was so morally degraded as to commit an act of intentional cruelty. This is why, in spite of all of their actions, Gandhi never called the British “evil.” He wanted to water the seed of a different quality within them and within his movement.

Mahatma Gandhi. On October 22, 1925, Gandhi published a list he called the Seven Social Sins in his weekly newspaper Young India.

  • Politics without principles.
  • Wealth without work.
  • Pleasure without conscience.
  • Knowledge without character.
  • Commerce without morality.
  • Science without humanity.
  • Worship without sacrifice.

Arguing that the policy of an eye for an eye would soon leave the whole world blind in no time and warning that submission would only multiply evil, he sought to fight against Evil but to love the Evil doer.

He chose to separate the act from the actor and the deed from the doer. He fought one without hating the other. He argued that to fight evil with evil will only multiply evil. The evil must be fought by love and eliminated by converting the evil doer from the bottom of his heart. Punishment is only external and physical suffering would not change the inner mind and heart of the evil doer.

Punishment and retaliation will not reform the evil doer. So the only way to fight the evil is by non-violence because violence can never totally eliminate evil from the mind and heart of the evil doer. What is needed is the change of heart and that can be done by resisting all evil with love and nonviolence. Even the worst of man has a particle of good in him and we must appeal to that innate goodness so that evil is transformed in to good.

Passionately convinced about the innate goodness of Man, of every man even of the evil doers, Gandhi sought to separate the act from the man, the evil from the evil doers. He fought against evil without fear but also without hatred. The evil is to be totally eradicated even from the heart and mind of the evil doers. Gandhi always laid very great stress on change of heart and adopted an amazing technique.


What exactly is evil? Is it a force that is outside us and lures us or is it something that we create ourselves? Are we intrinsically good or bad? There are many philosophical questions the answers to which are wrought in debates. As far as Buddhism is concerned, it says that it is not people who are good or bad, morally wrong or right, but certain traits that that we create in ourselves. And, it is only us who can undo them.

“By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.”

THE CONCEPT OF “DEPENDENT ORIGINATION’: Buddha preached the concept of ‘dependent origination’ which essentially stands for the interconnectedness of everything and everyone. So, how can anyone by above another? Or, how can someone think of himself as self-righteous and someone else as intrinsically wrong? The teachings of Buddha are mind-opening and so here we take a look at what according to Buddhism are the three capital evils

GREED: Greed is all-encompassing as it includes the sins that are related to desiring anything in excess. It is related to money, yearning, lust, food and an inability to let go of things easily. Of the seven capital sins in Christianity, greed, gluttony and lust come under the evil of ‘greed’ alone as per Buddha

HATRED: Hatred is a very powerful emotion, sometimes called even more powerful than love. It is a destructive emotion that drives one to anger, fury and destruction, both physical and mental. Giving into hatred is like bending the knee to your own enemy. From the capital sins of Christianity, it can be related to the sins of wrath and envy.

IGNORANCE: This can be called the versatility of the tenets of Buddhism that it includes ignorance as one of its primary evils. Ignorance is basically about delusion, about yourself and others. It can drive one to pride, sloth and envy, the Christian sins, besides encompassing other emotions such as blindness and being delusional.


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