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This Part 3 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

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.


Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Leibnitz :-

Modern philosophy wrestles with the same problem, but has introduced many new elements in its attempt either to meet the original difficulty or to put the whole matter on a different level.

THOMAS HOBBES was concerned, as we have seen, with interpreting the entire universe on a materialistic basis. Motion was, for him, the fundamental factor in the universe. Thus, good and evil were for him matters of motion. When motion is successful it generates pleasure, and when it is unsuccessful pain results.

That which pleases a man is good, and that which causes pain or discomfort is evil. Thus, good and evil are, as Hobbes sees it, relative to the particular man. That which pleases one man may not please another. Consequently, there can be no absolute good or evil. Both depend upon the nature of the individual at the time, and as he changes good things may become evil and evil things good.

Hie relation of a philosopher s general view to his attitude toward the question of good and evil is well illustrated by DESCARTES. For him, God is perfect, and incapable of causing us to err. But we do fall into error and suffer from our mistakes. This is explained on the theory that the power which God has given man to distinguish the true from the false is not complete. Thus, man is often guilty of making judgments when he does not have enough understanding to Judge accurately. In such cases he may choose that which is wrong, evil, rather than the good. For Descartes, error lies not in God’s action but in ours. We make up our minds and act before we have sufficient evidence.

The theory of SPINOZA is much in the same vein. Error is lack of knowledge. Action without knowledge will produce results which are not desired, and pain will follow.

As he studied the individual, Spinoza came to the conclusion that the fundamental striving of everyone is to preserve himself. This striving is good. Thus, anything which tends to block this striving is bad, and everything which helps man to reach the goal of his striving is good.

But man’s striving must be rational Merely to strive is not enough; he must strive intelligently, realizing what he is doing and its consequences. The highest happiness of man lies in the perfect understanding of what he is doing, his striving. As we come to understand our own strivings we recognize that, since we are modes of God, our striving is in truth the striving of God, for we are God. The highest good of man is this complete realization. In it he sees that by loving himself he actually loves God. Spinoza calls this the “intellectual love of God.”

The basic philosophic theory of JOHN LOCKE gives rise to his theory of good and evil. Just as all our ideas come from the outside and are written on the mind as one might write on a blank sheet of paper, so our conceptions of what is good and what is evil are produced. The fact is, many people have the same experiences and come to the same conclusions. They agree that certain things are good and others are bad. Further, our parents have impressed upon us ideas of right and wrong from the first days of our lives. Later we come to believe that they are innate, inborn. For Locke, human conscience is nothing more than these ideas which we have had so long that they seem to be given by some divine power.

Further, Locke taught that pleasure and pain are native to man. Nature has made it so that we enjoy happiness and seek to avoid pain. Therefore, those things which bring happiness are called good, and those which bring pain are called evil.

But it is not always true that the same act will bring happiness to everyone. Consequently there are laws which we must obey under penalty of being unhappy if we refuse to obey.

Locke believed that three groups of laws existed. Divine laws are those set by God to determine duty and sin. If we break these laws we suffer greatly. Then, there are civil laws established by the group as a constituted civil unit. These determine crime and innocence. Disobedience is punishable by the group making the laws. The third group of laws are those of opinion or reputation. These are by far the greatest in number and are enforced by the mere fact that men cherish their reputations and do not desire the condemnation of their companions and friends

But, we learn what is good and bad by experience, by the experience of pain if we do evil and pleasure if we do good. Thus, Locke was in the ethical tradition of Hobbes and others who made morality largely a matter of enlightened self-interest: that is, one is good because being good pays the highest dividends in individual pleasure.

Thinkers who followed Locke sought to expand this position so as to include others, and to make morality dependent upon the happiness of others as well as upon the happiness of the individual.

RICHABD CUMBERLAND, founder of the Utilitarian school of thought, argued that man is not wholly selfish, but is basically sympathetic. Thus, the welfare of the group, of society, determines the good and the bad. LORD SHAFTESBURY taught that man is interested in the welfare of both himself and society and that good actions result when both of these interests are properly balanced. FRANCIS HUTCHESON, of this same general opinion, coined the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number/ and made it the criterion of a good act.

LEIBNITZ encountered the same difficulty as did many of his predecessors when he came to the problem of good and evil. In a universe of monads, how is evil possible? His answer was similar to that of earlier philosophers. This world, he taught, is “the best possible world,” but it is not perfect. God limited himself when he expressed himself in finite beings. These limits result in suffering and sin. Further, evil serves to make good really good. It is like the shadows in a picture, shadows which serve to bring the colors into bolder relief and greater beauty.

Further, in the human soul, he suggested, there are certain innate principles which, if followed logically, lead to criteria of good and bad. One of these principles is that we should seek pleasure and avoid pain. Reasoning from this principle, we can prove that certain acts are good and others are bad.

Often men do not obey these innate principles because of their passions and impulses, but this does not prove that they do not exist, Leibnitz held. All that this proves is that such men are ignorant of the principles.

The Ethical Philosophy of Kant :-

The basic problem of KANT was to discover the meaning of right and wrong, good and bad. He asked, How is duty to be defined, and what are the implications of the definition? In attacking the problem, Kant accepted as fundamental the principle, laid down by Rousseau, that the only absolutely good thing in the universe is the human will governed by respect for the moral law or the consciousness of duty. A moral act is one which is done out of respect for the moral law rather than for selfish gain or sympathy for others.

Thus, for Kant, consequences are not to be taken as determining the rightness or wrongness of an act. Whether the results of an act are productive of happiness or of pain is not the matter of greatest concern. If the actor performs the act with good intentions, out of respect for the moral law, it is thereby good.

This moral law, in the thinking of Kant, is inherent in reason itself. It is a priori, before experience, in the very nature of human thinking. Stated in a sentence, it reads: “Always act in such a way that the maxim determining your conduct might well become a universal law; act so that you can will that everybody shall follow the principle of your action.” In every instance, Kant believed, this rule, this “categorical imperative,” is a sure criterion of what is right and what is wrong. An act which you would be willing that anyone or everyone should perform would be a good act.

This law, if thoroughly understood, is in everyone. It may not be recognized in die terms stated, but anyone who stops to think will discover that human life is possible only on this moral basis. Should man attempt to act contrary to this principle, human association would be chaotic.

Another law, an implication of the categorical imperative, is stated by Kant: “Act so as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of another, in every case as an end and never as a means” Here the fundamental worth of every individual is affirmed. Our actions should not be such as to use individuals as means for our ends, but rather to serve others as ends in themselves.

Thus, for Kant, there is imbedded in the human reason itself a law which is so basic and fundamental that it directs all moral activity. It demands that everyone act at all times as though he were the ruling monarch of the universe and the principle of his action would automatically become the principle of the action of everyone. If each individual measures a proposed act by this categorical imperative, he will be able to say without question whether it is right or wrong.

The Views of Fichte and Schopenhauer :-

FICHTE based his entire philosophic theory upon Kant’s idea of a moral nature in man which has the right to make certain definite demands. Starting with the moral nature of man, he built a philosophy which would satisfy the demands of this nature.

This moral law, likewise, implies, Fichte taught, the existence of a moral world order in which man can trust having the moral law within himself, man is justified in assuming that the world is such that the demands of this law can be met.

Therefore, man must become intelligent, must know what is right and do it because it is right. The ignorant man cannot be good. Being free, not forced by some outside authority, man must know the moral law and its implications, and must at all times govern himself accordingly. Mere respect for the moral law is not enough. Man must act. Therefore morality, goodness, is not a state to be attained once and for all, a condition of eternal blessedness, but is a continuous struggle of the intelligent individual to act in every situation so as to meet the requirements of the moral law. Knowledge is a necessary part of morality for Fichte

SCHOPENHAUER begins with an affirmation of the will as fundamental to the universe. Kant’s thing-in-itself, die source of all our impressions, is will, Schopenhauer says. This will to be, will to live, is the cause of all the struggle in the world and thus of all evil and suffering.

A world where blind wills are struggling with each other to live, where the more powerful kill and devour the less powerful that they may live, is a world of evil. Will to live begets selfishness. Each individual will struggle to preserve himself despite what happens to others.

Thus, for Schopenhauer, sympathy or pity is basic to morality. To the degree that one has sympathy for others, he will act not for himself but for them, and thus be good. The way to this good life is through denial of the individual will; self-sacrifice brings happiness and peace. And this can be attained if we stop to realize that every individual is actually part of the whole, the universal will. The one against whom we struggle is actually part of the whole of which we are also members. When we reach this understanding, we will stop struggling and will develop sympathetic understanding.


To be continued in Part 4

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