Good Vs Evil: History of Both Concepts and Their Role in Humanity

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Table of Contents

  • Our Perceptions Of The Concepts Of Good And Evil
  • Our Capacity For Good And Evil
  • Role Of The Environment On Our Capacity For Evil:
  • Role Of An Individual In Acknowledging The Evil Within Them:
  • Conclusion

15th March 2019. This date represents one of the most horrific travesties to have befallen humanity in the contemporary world. The Christchurch Massacre, as it has since been termed, was characterized by inhumanity, stemming from pure evil. Innocent lives were destroyed, relationships were disintegrated, and entire nations were left devastated. After learning of such travesties, many thoughts ebb and flow within our minds. What causes people to be consumed by evil? The concepts of good and evil have forever occupied the human mind. Simply put, people have always been obsessed with these distinct terms, hoping to unravel the many mysteries that they behold. However, all we can be certain about, is that it is the duty of all people, to discover who they really are. Essentially, self-knowledge can allow us to understand our capacities for both good and evil, and how these are influenced by our social conditions. Humanity must be enlightened with virtue, in order to mitigate the spreading darkness that is our evil.

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Our Perceptions Of The Concepts Of Good And Evil

The concepts of good and evil have existed since the dawn of humanity. Since the earliest of times, our perceptions of what constitutes good and evil, have been based on religious beliefs. The so-called “Original Sin”, which is cited in the major religions, is believed to be humanity’s initiation into the realms of good and evil. Specifically, the “Original Sin” relates to Adam and Eve’s transgression in Eden, which effectively contributed to their being banished to Earth. Although major religions like Islam, Christianity, and Judaism consider the “Original Sin” to represent humanity’s initial exposure to morality, the notions of good and evil have always been subject to interpretation. Religions have played a significant role in assigning labels to various actions and thoughts, thereby consolidating the normative ethical framework of deontology. Specifically, religions have sought to establish a firm distinction between all that is good, and all that is evil. Many religions have been based around certain doctrines and principles, which have been engrained in their sacred texts. Ironically, the prevalence of religion, has somewhat obscured our perceptions of right and wrong. However, it is clear that religions have striven to lead their followers, to lives of virtue, peace, and compassion. Although our modern understanding of good and evil, has been influenced significantly by religion, other factors have also played a significant role in furthering these concepts. Intersubjectivity, a notion coined by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, describes “the interchange of thoughts and feelings”, between people. Due to the ultrasocial nature of human beings, intersubjectivity has played a pivotal role in determining our perceptions of the notions of good and evil. As The Manitoban points out, “evil is a socially constructed concept, different for each culture and society”. Thus, our understanding of good and evil, ultimately stems from our beliefs, practices, and experiences. For example, in Islamic and Buddhist theologies, the consumption of alcohol and other intoxicating liquors is considered an immoral act, stemming from one’s inclination towards evil. The reasons cited for the prohibition of alcohol, are centered around its psychotropic properties, which may lead to disorder. Comparatively, in Christianity and Judaism, alcohol forms a significant aspect of many religious ceremonies and traditions. As a result, we must ponder over the concept of moral relativism, which pertains to viewing all moral principles with impartiality. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, moral relativism is a theory that states how there are no “universal” or “absolute” moral principles. Thus, our belief of what constitutes right or wrong, effectively determines the morality of our actions. However, this prompts us to ask why discrepancies in our perceptions of good and evil, exist at all?

In essence, this may simply be due to evolution, and how it has thrust upon humans the need to survive. In places where survival is a major priority, people are less likely to have definite views of exactly what constitutes good and evil, and may be less concerned with adhering to morals. Interestingly, such a notion is explored in the classic novel, Lord of the Flies, written by William Golding. The novel is centered around a revolutionary social experiment, in which a group of adolescent boys, are stranded upon a remote island. Over time, these boys undergo dramatic reforms, as their moral compasses gradually disintegrate. Eventually, these boys reach a certain stage, where their sole aspiration is that of survival, a phase that has many implications. Their desperation is expressed, when the boys form their own tribes, and are steadfast on killing those from opposing factions. Golding’s novel accentuates how our perceptions of the binary of good and evil, stem from the nature of our respective environments. Similarly, Sam Raimi’s fascinating film, A Simple Plan, also explores how an individual’s need to survive, may contribute to the disintegration of their morality. His film focuses on Hank Mitchell, a law-abiding citizen, who eventually falls into the abyss of evil, after discovering a stash of millions of dollars, the so-called “American dream”, in the forest. After stumbling across this money, Hank’s views of what determines morality, are significantly reformed. In order to alleviate himself of the moral burdens of his wrongdoings, Hank deludes himself into believing that he is acting only out of necessity. In doing so, Hank reveals his reluctance to confront the evil within himself, effectively ruining his life. All in all, the notions of good and evil are engrained within our societies, gradually seeping into our minds, and molding our perceptions. Although we can assign these terms to describe various phenomena, these terms cannot be assigned to us. Simply put, we cannot use these terms to label people, as doing so would be the same as devising charactonyms.

Our Capacity For Good And Evil

Humanity always been fascinated with the opposing forces of good and evil, which play a major role in determining our morality. Although we can apply these terms to a plethora of situations, we simply cannot assign them to humans. As The Atlantic claims the “concepts of good and bad” are not “black-and-white” categories, simply because they do not possess any definite features. In fact, it is more appropriate to regard good and evil as the unachievable endpoints of a continuous moral spectrum, with subtle shades of greys in between. Thus, it is impossible for us to assume that any individual is inherently moral or immoral, as such a view implies that people cannot undergo moral shifts. Hence, no individual can be described as innately good or evil, although these characteristics may subside within us. Interestingly, a study conducted by the Yale Infant Cognition Centre, claims that people are inherently good, at least at the very beginning of their lives. During the study, a group of infants viewed various scenarios, in which an assigned “good” character, interacted with an “evil” character. By examining fluctuations in neural signals, researchers validated that most infants expressed a preference for the “good” character. This study shows, that in very beginnings of our lives, we are inherently good, and have an unblemished morality. However, as people mature, they start travelling in the opposite direction of this so-called moral continuum, as the force of evil aggravates them. Simply put, their innate capacity for evil, plays a significant role in their divergence from a life of good. Depending on the magnitude of this evil, and the restraint of the individual, one may be able to cling to a life of enlightenment, whilst others could be thrust into one of darkness and despair.

It is important to note that all individuals have a capacity for evil, although this may arise only in certain circumstances. In the masterful Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad clearly explores how all individuals are susceptible to the evil contained within themselves. His novella focuses on the life of an experienced sailor, Marlow, who has been tasked with returning Kurtz, a delusional self-proclaimed demigod, to England. Throughout the story, we learn of Kurtz’s gradual progression from an enlightened man, into one consumed by the darkness of his very soul. Kurtz’s unfortunate experiences kindle several thoughts within our mind. What causes people to forsake good? What draws people towards evil? As Marlow later comments “Evidently the appetite for more ivory had got the better” of Kurtz, contributing to his eventual fall. Marlow’s statement provides us with much insight into the nature of evil, and how it subsides in the depths of all souls. It showcases how all individuals must contend with their inner evil, by adhering to a life of virtue. Through Kurtz’s depiction and timely demise, we learn that even the most successful or people, can be led astray onto the path of evil. Similarly, A Simple Plan also explores how ostensibly moral people, like the protagonistic Hank, can be engulfed by evil. Initially, Hank is considered a virtuous individual, who is profoundly concerned for those around him. However, he too soon falls victim to the overwhelming lure of evil, resorting to deception, betrayal, and murder. Although all of these are uncharacteristic of Hank, we are led to believe that evil can have incorrigible effects on all individuals. Overall, all people have an innate capacity for evil, although we must acknowledge that their propensity for it, may differ.

Role Of The Environment On Our Capacity For Evil:

All individuals have the ability to perform evil, although our willingness to do so, significantly differs. Various factors play a crucial role in impelling individuals to lose control of the evil that exists within themselves. Specifically, genetic characteristics, childhood upbringings, and experiences, can all lead to a manifestation of our inner evil. However, all individuals, regardless of their exposure to ideal circumstances, can fall into an abyss of evil. Simply put, certain happenings could prompt individuals to forsake a life of virtue, almost instantaneously. Nonetheless, we cannot assume that all individuals are equally capable of performing ang engaging in evil. Furthermore, according to esteemed psychoanalyst Brian Masters, our propensity for evil stems from various compounding issues. Masters claims that evil is the product of several unfavorable cumulative experiences. In essence, his research suggests that an individual’s progression towards evil, stems from a constant stream of traumatizing experiences. Susan Fiske, a research at Princeton University, extends upon Masters’ research, by analyzing the very origins of innate evil. She states that people are more likely to engage in malicious actions, if they have grown up in a culture entrenched in overwhelming discrimination and stigmatization. Essentially, Fiske’s research implies that the innate evil within us like a seed, that requires proper nurturing of its wrath, before destroying our lives.

The controversial Abu Ghraib tortures of 2003, in which American soldiers abused Iraqi war prisoners, clearly showcases the role of the environment, in one’s capacity for evil. In essence, the American soldiers performed unspeakable acts of torture on the unfortunate captives, subjecting them to insufferable sexual, physical, and verbal abuse. The American media simply played down these wrongdoings, with then US President George W. Bush, claiming that they were “isolated incidents” and not “indicative of U.S policy”. However, the apparent mitigation of the incident, merely represent America’s reluctance to acknowledge the disparity entrenched in their culture. Such a notion is supported by the Huffington Post, according to which “solders, while legally adults, are very often” at a “very impressionable age”. As a result, the actions of the American soldiers, were reflective of the values engrained in their culture. Why did they resort to inhumane torture, where incarceration would have sufficed? These soldiers most likely grew up in an environment where Iraqi people were constantly stigmatized, due to the ongoing war. As a result, the American soldiers were most likely desensitized towards the Iraqi prisoners, showing no regard for their humanity. From this, we can obviously deduce that our capacities for malicious actions, exist along a continuum.

Some instances of evil are undoubtedly a response to unwarranted and undesirable social conditions. Certain situations can kindle the embers of evil, and rage fires, within even the calmest of souls. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness validates this notion, through Marlow’s experiences in the Congo Basin. Although Marlow contests his initial perceptions of the natives as savages, the gravity of the situation eventually burdens him. He is gradually swayed by the norms of the Europeans, and their inherent hatred of the African natives. Although Marlow reveals that even he can succumb to evil, he manages to suppress his inner struggles. His steadfastness clearly shows how evil is a byproduct of social conditions, as much as it is a force acting within us. However, we cannot simply claim that society is answerable for our evils, as we are answerable the evils of our society.

Role Of An Individual In Acknowledging The Evil Within Them:

All individuals have absolute authority over their actions, and hence their morality. Moral authority, a philosophical concept based around conforming to the truth, relates to how people should acknowledge responsibility for all of their actions, whether they lead to good or evil. Such a notion is entrenched in the branch of deontology, known as Kantian Ethics, which critically analyzes the implications of the concept of moral authority. The basic principle of Kantian Ethics is that 'a rational being must always regard himself as giving laws either as a member or as a sovereign in a kingdom of ends which is rendered possible by freedom of will”. Essentially, this means that all individuals should consider the implications of their actions, prior to undertaking them. Simply put, all people should strive to act in a universally acceptable and appropriate manner, and as if they were being constantly scrutinized. In doing so, individuals would be able to suppress their innate evil, or at least subdue its onset. The Categorical Imperative, another of Kant’s principles, furthers this notion by stating that we should only engage in moral actions, and that only we have the ability to force ourselves to do so. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, the Brothers Karamazov, examines the responsibility that all individuals have in recognizing and dominating their inner evil. In the novel, a young man, Dmitry Karamazov, reveals his abhorrence for his father, Fyodor Pavlovich. He claims that the latter has treated him with negligence and dishonesty, alienating him from his family. Dmitry allows this hatred to gnaw at him, occupying his mind incessantly. Eventually, Dmitry’s overwhelming repugnance, impels him towards parricide – the murder of his father. Although Dmitry’s decision stems from various underlying factors, over which he has no control, we must remain impartial when analyzing the morality of his situation. Despite his tormented condition, Dmitry still had a capacity for reason and rationality, which could have governed his actions. However, he chose to allow the evil subsiding with him, to gradually spread from the darkness of his soul, eventually consuming him. Dmitry could have fortified himself from the corrupting nature of his evil, by simply displaying restraint. After all, only he had absolute authority over his actions and thoughts. Hence, all individuals bear responsibility for acknowledging the evil within them.


Good and evil have occupied our minds since the dawn of humanity. They have allowed us to understand the nature of our morality, by enabling us to classify various phenomena into discrete categories. However, it is important to note that we cannot apply these terms to human beings, as good and evil are not simply black and white. Simply put, they are the endpoints of a continuous moral spectrum, with subtle shades of grey existing in between. Nonetheless, all individuals have a capacity for both good and evil, with our circumstances determining the extent to which each of these manifest. However, our actions and thoughts stem from our innate morality, as much as they do from our social conditions. Thus, it is our responsibility to enter the realm of self-discovery, and understand the true nature of our morality. We must strive towards a path of virtue, by avoiding the lure of evil. If our innate evil overpowers our inherent goodness, we must contend with it. Even if we are unable to impede its overwhelming corruption of our minds, we must, at the very least, exercise self-discipline and restraint. As Marlow himself states, we must search for “some knowledge” of ourselves, in order to avoid the beating of “our hearts” in the inexorable darkness of evil. Ultimately, we must strive to cultivate a sense of virtue within ourselves, by learning from the pitfalls of our past.

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