Almost every philosopher agrees on the need for a concept of evil. The varying degrees of behaviors that negatively affect us, others and the society as a whole, makes it necessary for a definite concept of evil to be defined and agreed upon. So far, such a notion or concept has not been fully defined because evil occurs in varying degrees and aspects (Jonason, Peter, Virgil Zeigler-Hill, and Ceylan Okan, 180). The ambiguity in determining which behavior is evil and which one is not contributes greatly to the inability to fully conceptualize evil, isolate it from other conventional actions, and fully define it in light of its antithesis; good. A definition of evil requires a converse definition of good as the tow go hand in hand. In this essay, we shall examine the contemporary concept and understanding of good and evil. The very basis of society is founded on the delineation between these two varying terms. What is good for one might be evil for the other (Nietzche, 70).
An example of this is in the manner in which contemporary society incarcerates petty offenders such as people with marijuana possession charges. The ramifications of such incarcerations are negative to their families and loved ones. One might view the society as evil in such a scenario whereas others might view the individual as the conveyor of evil. To fully analyze contemporary understanding of good and evil, it is proper to trace the development of an historical perspective which focus on the nature of good and evil, their origins and their place in human nature.
Plato (428-348 BC)
Plato believed that man was born with the capacity for both good and evil and this struggle existed in his soul in the period between his creation and descent into the world, but mankind forgot this state and had to relearn after birth. According to Plato, Good refers to everything that has beauty, truth and justice, whereas evil are basal desires which are selfish and materialistic. The transition from good to evil or vice versa is a bout remembering and habit whereby bad habits are due to inability to remember the consequences of evil, whereas good habits are as a result of meditation and learning on the pleasure of good behavior over evil.
Saint Augustine(354-430 BC)
Augustine took a more naturalist/theological view of good and evil stating that mankind is inherently good but adopted evil from an external source in what is referred to as the original sin. Adam’s sin has therefore been transmitted to all human beings who are born evil and only become good if they seek salvation. All the good acts that are in man prior to salvation are due to the belief that everything is good because God’s creation is good and perfect. Evil is there to emphasis the redeeming quality of good through salvation. Mankind has the power of free will which he can use to be good or evil as he so wishes.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 AD)
Mills represents the more evolved view of philosophical understanding of good and evil. Mill believed that the principles of good and evil are not innate and are consequences of the environment and the society mankind creates to govern itself. Concepts of god and evil change depending on social conditions and the rules society fashions to govern order. According to Mills if an act is good to the greatest majority then it is good. The concept of good and evil are therefore examined from a utilitarian viewpoint.
The Manichean dichotomy coincides with several other principles explaining the duality of good and evil and why God cannot extinguish evil if he is indeed all powerful. The principle states that the universe is a battlefield on a materialistic plane where good and evil constantly duel over the soul of mankind. On one hand there is God and on the other is the Prince of Darkness. The human body is evil whereas the soul is inherently good and for Manichean Dichotomy, righteous life is a pursuit of the soul in its bid to triumph over evil.
Contemporary Understanding of Good and Evil
As society becomes more advanced and open, the notions of good and evil previously held in the past have been debunked to some extent. TH belief that evil and good are the domain of the divine no longer holds sway in a society that has come to understand that human beings can be just as evil without the influence of supernatural beings. The horrors witnessed in Nazi Germany were sanctioned by some churches, just as much as the genocide in Rwanda was supported by some clergymen. Terrorist organizations are formed by religious leaders who are too aware of the nexus between good and evil but still commit atrocities believing them to be in service of good. A contemporary understanding of evil requires a more objective understanding of human nature, and a belief that humanity is solely responsible for whichever path it takes.
In the book ‘A chorus of stones’ by Susan Griffin, we understand the nature of war and the interplay between public suffering and private tragedy. The soldier acting under orders to commit atrocities in defense of an ideal is categorically examined as an actor in the conflict between good and evil and the reader is asked to make a distinction between that soldier who shoot unharmed civilians believing they represent evil, and an evil dictator who willing orders the killing of women and children. From the horrific stories of every mass murder and genocide there is always an ideal clocked in righteousness. Whether this ideal is understood by many or not, the fact remains that at its inception it looked like the right thing to do, all the way leading up to the horrific acts. In some societies, history is hidden to eliminate a history steeped in evil in order to protect the future gains. American history is an example f a doctored history, whereby the consequences of evil are celebrated. America would not exist as it is without the systematic genocide of millions of Native Americans. Based on this understanding a rethink of the nature of evil has to be undertaken. Evil is not some benign, malevolent force that exists outside humanity’s capacity for free will. Rather it is the consequence of actions which are detrimental to the welfare of everyone involved. These actions are the result of an exercise of free will by individuals who have an equal capacity for good and evil.
However, another school of thought arises which views, evil as a cancer that spreads and lies in wait until it is activated. In some sense, evil and good can look alike and it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two. Superficially, evil always looks more rewarding as it answers directly to an individual’s needs. A robber will commit a murder and steal in order to feed his young children or take care of a sick loved one. Evil always advocates for the principle of ‘the end justifying the means’ and towards this end it will clothe every evil with certain altruistic actions. In this case, evil is not an entity but a part of a duality which is active within each individual. In the movie, ‘A wrinkle in time,’ evil is presented as an entity that influences every individual and corrupts them into making the wrong choice. Even though evil is a malevolent force, it is inferior to an individual’s will and determination to do the right thing. The movie presents evil as fundamentally irrational because it does not have any end goal other than to corrupt that which is good. However, good is not the antithesis of evil, a position taken by love and will. Through love and determination evil can be expunged and the movie seems to advocate the belief that it is possible to live a world without evil. Al other aspects of evil have to be allowed into human existence through free will and choice. Once a choice has been made, then evil can take over and redirect human will whichever way it seems fit.
I believe, evil and good are human constructs to explain the differences in value systems. By finding a source inextricably delinked from human nature, philosophers avoided blame for humanity’s own mistakes instead of tackling the fact that good societies are founded by human ideals just as much as evil societies are founded by human vices. Understanding this distinction will go a long way in creating societies that are founded on positive ethics, humane ideals and a sober concept of good and evil.
- Jonason, Peter K., Virgil Zeigler-Hill, and Ceylan Okan. ‘Good v. evil: Predicting sinning with dark personality traits and moral foundations.’ Personality and individual differences 104 (2017): 180-185.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Essential Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. Chartwell Books, (2017):56-97.
- Peterson, Michael L. God and Evil: an introduction to the issues. Routledge, (2018): 76-88..