In religion, ethics, philosophy, and psychology “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, 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.

Evil, in a general context, is the absence or opposite of that which is described as being good. Often, evil is used to denote profound immorality.

In certain religious contexts, evil has been described as a supernatural force. Definitions of evil vary, as does the analysis of its motives.

However, elements that are commonly associated with evil involve unbalanced behavior involving expediency, selfishness, ignorance, or neglect.

The modern philosophical questions regarding good and evil are subsumed into three major areas of study: meta-ethics concerning the nature of good and evil, normative ethics concerning how we ought to behave, and applied ethics concerning particular moral issues.

Ancient world

In the eastern part of ancient Persia almost three 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.

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 practicing 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.

Similarly, in ancient Egypt, there were the concepts of Ma’at, the principle of justice, order, and cohesion, and Isfet, the principle of chaos, disorder, and decay, with the former being the power and principles which society sought to embody where the latter was such that undermined society.

This correspondence can also be seen reflected in ancient Mesopotamian religion as well in the conflict between Marduk and Tiamat.

Classical world

In Western civilization, the basic meanings of kakos and agathos 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 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.

Medieval period

Medieval theology was largely shaped by St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas. According to the classical definition of St. Augustine of Hippo, sin is “a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law of God.

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 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 behavior which might enhance group survival or wealth
  • natural law or behavior which induces a strong emotional reaction
  • statute law imposing a legal duty

Modern ideas

Today the basic dichotomy often breaks down along these lines:

  • Good is a broad concept often associated with life, charity, continuity, happiness, love, or justice.
  • Evil is often associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, discrimination designed to harm others, the humiliation of people designed to diminish their psychological needs and dignity, destructiveness, and acts of unnecessary or indiscriminate violence.

The modern English word evil and its cognates such as the German Übel and Dutch euvel are widely considered to come from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed form of *ubilaz, comparable to the Hittite huwapp- ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European form *wap- and suffixed zero-grade form *up-elo-. Other later Germanic forms include Middle English evel, ifel, ufel, Old Frisian evel (adjective and noun), Old Saxon ubil, Old High German ubil, and Gothic ubils.

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 the 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 a free will and human agency. Some argue that evil itself is ultimately based on 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.

Bahá’í Faith

The Bahá’í Faith asserts that evil is non-existent and that it is a concept for the lacking of good, just as cold is the state of no heat, darkness is the state of no light, forgetfulness the lacking of memory, ignorance the lacking of knowledge. All of these are states of lacking and have no real existence.

Thus, evil does not exist, and is relative to man. `Abdu’l-Bahá, son of the founder of the religion, in Some Answered Questions states:

“Nevertheless a doubt occurs to the mind—that is, scorpions and serpents are poisonous. Are they good or evil, for they are existing beings? Yes, a scorpion is evil in relation to man; a serpent is evil in relation to man; but in relation to themselves they are not evil, for their poison is their weapon, and by their sting they defend themselves.”

Thus, evil is more of an intellectual concept than a true reality. Since God is good, and upon creating creation he confirmed it by saying it is Good (Genesis 1:31) evil cannot have a true reality.

Christianity

Evil according to a Christian worldview is any action, thought or attitude that is contrary to the character or will of God.

This is shown through the law given in both the Old and New Testament. Therefore, evil in a Christian world view is contrasted by and in conflict with God’s character or God’s will.

This evil shows itself through deviation from the character or will of God. Similarly, good according to a Christian worldview is any action, thought or attitude that is consistent with the character or the will of God, for God is good the ultimate goodness.

Christian theology draws its concept of evil from the Old and New Testaments. The Christian Bible exercises “the dominant influence upon ideas about God and evil in the Western world.

In the Old Testament, evil is understood to be an opposition to God as well as something unsuitable or inferior such as the leader of the fallen angels Satan.

In the New Testament, the Greek word poneros is used to indicate unsuitability, while kakos is used to refer to opposition to God in the human realm.

Officially, the Catholic Church extracts its understanding of evil from its canonical antiquity and the Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who in Summa Theologica defines evil as the absence or privation of good.

French-American theologian Henri Blocher describes evil, when viewed as a theological concept, as an “unjustifiable reality. In common parlance, evil is ‘something’ that occurs in an experience that ought not to be.

Christian Science believes that evil arises from a misunderstanding of the goodness of nature, which is understood as being inherently perfect if viewed from the correct (spiritual) perspective.

Misunderstanding God’s reality leads to incorrect choices, which are termed evil. This has led to the rejection of any separate power being the source of evil, or of God as being the source of evil; instead, the appearance of evil is the result of a mistaken concept of good.

Christian Scientists argue that even the evilest person does not pursue evil for its own sake, but from the mistaken viewpoint that he or she will achieve some kind of good thereby.

Islam

There is no concept of absolute evil in Islam, as a fundamental universal principle that is independent of and equal with good in a dualistic sense.

Within Islam, it is considered essential to believe that all comes from Allah, whether it is perceived as good or bad by individuals; and things that are perceived as evil or bad are either natural events (natural disasters or illnesses) or caused by humanity’s free will to disobey Allah’s orders.

According to the Ahmadiyya understanding of Islam, evil does not have a positive existence in itself and is merely the lack of good, just as darkness is the result of lack of light.

Judaism

In Judaism, no individual can be defined as categorically, absolutely “good” or “evil.” Judaism recognizes human beings’ psychological complexity. God gave the Children of Israel the Torah as a guide to overcoming evil.

A common theme of medieval Jewish philosophy is that people who do good deeds will be rewarded in Olam Haba.

Judaism has two conflicting attitudes toward the existence of evil. In one interpretation, evil is not real, it is per se not part of God’s creation but comes into existence through man’s bad actions.

In the other interpretation, evil was created by God since God created everything and to suggest otherwise would be to engage in dualism, and is therefore antithetical to the core Jewish belief in monotheism.

Buddhism

The primal duality in Buddhism is between suffering and enlightenment, so the good vs. evil splitting has no direct analog in it.

One may infer however from the general teachings of the Buddha that the cataloged causes of suffering are what corresponds in this belief system to ‘evil‘.

Practically this can refer to the three selfish emotions—desire, hate, and delusion; and to their expression in physical and verbal actions.

Specifically, evil means whatever harm or obstructs the causes for happiness in this life, a better rebirth, liberation from samsara, and the true and complete enlightenment of a Buddha (samyaksambodhi).

“What is evil? Killing is evil, lying is evil, slandering is evil, abuse is evil, gossip is evil: envy is evil, hatred is evil, to cling to false doctrine is evil; all these things are evil. And what is the root of evil? Desire is the root of evil, the illusion is the root of evil.” Gautama Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.

Hinduism

In Hinduism the concept of Dharma or righteousness clearly divides the world into good and evil, and clearly explains that wars have to be waged sometimes to establish and protect Dharma, this war is called Dharmayuddha.

This division of good and evil is of major importance in both the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

However, the main emphasis in Hinduism is on bad action, rather than bad people. The Hindu holy text, the Bhagavad Gita, speaks of the balance of good and evil. When this balance goes off, divine incarnations come to help to restore this balance.

Sikhism

In adherence to the core principle of spiritual evolution, the Sikh idea of evil changes depending on one’s position on the path to liberation.

At the beginning stages of spiritual growth, may seem neatly separated. However, once one’s spirit evolves to the point where it seems most clearly, the idea of evil vanishes and the truth is revealed.

In his writings, Guru Arjan explains that, because God is the source of all things, what we believe to be evil must too come from God. And because God is ultimately a source of absolute good, nothing truly evil can originate from God.

Nevertheless, Sikhism, like many other religions, does incorporate a list of “vices” from which suffering, corruption, and abject negativity arise.

These are known as the Five Thieves, called such due to their propensity to cloud the mind and lead one astray from the prosecution of righteous action. These are:

  1. Moh, or Attachment
  2. Lobh, or Greed
  3. Karodh, or Wrath
  4. Kaam, or Lust
  5. Ahankar, or Egotism

One who gives in to the temptations of the Five Thieves is known as “Manmukh“, or someone who lives selfishly and without virtue.

Inversely, the Gurmukh, who thrive in their reverence toward divine knowledge, rise above vice via the practice of the high virtues of Sikhism. These are:

  • Sewa, or selfless service to others.
  • Nam Simran, or meditation upon the divine name.

Zoroastrianism

In the originally Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, the world is a battleground between the god Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd) and the malignant spirit Angra Mainyu (also called Ahriman).

The final resolution of the struggle between good and evil was supposed to occur on a day of Judgement, in which all beings that have lived will be led across a bridge of fire, and those who are evil will be cast down forever.

In Afghan belief, angels and saints are beings sent to help us achieve the path towards goodness.

Chinese moral philosophy

In Confucianism and Taoism, there is no direct analog to the way good and evil are opposed, although references to demonic influence are common in Chinese folk religion.

Confucianism’s primary concern is with correct social relationships and the behavior appropriate to the learned or superior man. Evil would thus correspond to wrong behavior.

Still, less does it map into Taoism, in spite of the centrality of dualism in that system, but the opposite of the basic virtues of Taoism (compassion, moderation, and humility) can be inferred to be the analog of evil in it.

Pyrrhonism

Pyrrhonism holds that good and evil do not exist by nature, meaning that do not exist within the things themselves. All judgments of good and evil are relative to the one doing the judging.

Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche, in a rejection of the Judeo-Christian morality, addresses this in two works, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals, where he essentially says that the natural functional non-good has been socially transformed into the religious concept of evil by the slave mentality of the weak and oppressed masses who resent their masters (the strong).

He also makes a critique of morality by saying that many who consider themselves to be moral are simply acting from cowardice (wanting to do evil but scared of the repercussions).

Carl Jung

Carl Jung, in his book Answer to Job and elsewhere, depicted evil as the dark side of the Devil.

People tend to believe evil is something external to them because they project their shadow onto others. Jung interpreted the story of Jesus as an account of God facing his own shadow.

Platonic idealism

One attempt to define goodness describes it as a property of the world with Platonic idealism.

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 the Supreme Being exists or 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).

Perfectionism

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 a brute force of violent technological escalation, which would cause people to accept such rulers or rules authored by them.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.