Good And Evil (1): Views Of The Philosophers

Good And Evil (1): Views Of The Philosophers


This article is actually a translation by Mr Saeed Ahmad of a few lectures delivered by Imaam Amin Ahsan Islahi on this topic. (Editor)

`What is good and what is evil?'; Philosophers of all ages have thought over this question. Each reckoned that he had solved the question once and for all, yet within a few years the problem would re-emerge with new dimensions. In fact, most of the answers would be later found inadequate or unsatisfactory. Religious thinkers also joined in presenting a solution in this regard but only added confusion. The Qur'an also offers a solution to this question and an effort will be made to explain it later in this dissertation.

A few basic questions need to be answered in order to arrive at some satisfactory answer. They are:

(i) Are good and evil absolute or are they relative to the conditions associated with time and place? Do conditions surrounding a particular situation make an act good and at another time make it evil? Does an act appear to be good in the overall perspective, but when torn away from its environment appear to be evil?

(ii) Is the concept of good and evil imbued in the nature of man or has he been given divine guidance? If not, how are good and evil identified? If reason is the only guide, is there some criteria to determine what is good and what is evil?

(iii) If good and evil are independent, do they have the same creator? Or is God the Creator of good alone? If so, who has created evil?

(iv) If the knowledge of good and evil is instinctive, there should be uniformity of thought between various nations, religions and groups; but there are vast differences among them in almost every aspect. What are the reasons?

These questions have been thought over by philosophers and thinkers of all times. We shall now briefly discuss their views.

However, we shall mention only those philosophers whose views left a deep impact upon philosophical thought. Later on, we shall present the guidance provided by the Qur'an in this regard.

Views of Philosophers

HERACLITUS (535-475 BC): The Greek philosopher believed that good and evil are two notes in a symphony. He found that many things change into their opposites: for example, hard ice melts into water which is soft. This led him to believe that the combination of opposites resulted in a harmonious whole. In music harmony results from the combination of low and high notes, while in the universe harmony flows from the combination of opposites: good and evil.

DEMOCRITUS (460-370 BC): He believed that the goal of life is happiness. What is conducive to happiness is good, otherwise evil. According to him, happiness is an inner condition or state of tranquillity. He thought that one should not depend upon material things alone as these are transient and a lack of them causes unhappiness. Goodness, to him, was not only a matter of action but depends upon man's inner desire. A good man is not one who does good, but who always wants to do good.

Sophists Philosophy: The sophists confused the problem of good and evil. An important sophist, Pythogoras, considered man as the standard of all things, and so the standard of good and evil. Everybody has the right to determine for himself what is good and what is evil. Some other philosophers of this school such as Thrasymachus and Callicles went a step further and said that there are no moral laws, no all-inclusive principles of right and wrong. Good or evil are a matter of mere tradition and habit. Man is not bound by moral codes, he is free to live as he desires and to get what he wants by any means possible and to frame his own code of life. However, since the outcome was moral anarchy, pure individualism and selfishness, Callicles went as far as saying: `To hell with morality, this has been propounded by the weak to debilitate the power of the strong.'

SOCTRATES (470-390 BC): This great Greek Philosopher thought that the most important question before man is the determination of good and evil. According to him, knowledge of good and evil and its criteria are imbued in man and he can differentiate between the two if he desires so. With sustained thought and guidance of nature he is in a position to know what is good and what is evil. His well known saying `O man! Know thyself' also points to the fact that the basic principles of good and evil are innate in man and can be discovered by deliberation. Socrates was firmly of the view that there should be basic principles independent of individual desires and beliefs for measuring good and evil and right and wrong. According to him, the greatest good is knowledge and the treasure of knowledge is hidden in man and it can be discovered after thoughtful deliberation. Socrate's emphasis on self-realization was due to his belief that it is the innate knowledge which man cannot disregard. Knowledge alien to him does not have a significant impact on him. Self-realization brings real happiness. Other sources of happiness are not real. If someone acts contrary to his knowledge, it is only transitory just as a clean and holy person happens to soil himself but he does not live with it and cleanses himself at the earliest opportunity. Socrates said, `No man is voluntarily bad. He turns bad when he does not know what is good and what is evil. If he knew what is good, he was sure to choose it.'

PLATO (428-348 BC): He thought that man is endowed with the knowledge of good and evil before coming to this world. This knowledge existed in his soul but during the period between his creation and his descent in this world, he forgot most of the things. These forgotten things can be recollected either by wise sermons or through meditation on nature. Experience also helps in recollection of the forgotten. All good and evil is innate in man. To Plato, the life of reason and good behaviour is a happy life. Good itself is happiness and the soul's paradise. It is its own reward.

ARISTOTLE (384-322 BC): He thought that reason is the greatest bounty of God, and called it the `Divine Spark'. If man uses his reason and other capabilities properly, he can attain self-realization after which he hardly needs any measure for good and evil. The position of self-realization is sufficient for his guidance. Aristotle also considered reason and nature to be sufficient for human guidance. He said that goodness is in harmony with nature and its principles have been set by reason which a wise man can easily find.

Epicurean and Stoic Philosophy: Epicureans thought that the goal of all human activity is pleasure and that happiness is the supreme good of all. But the focus should be on ultimate pleasure instead of immediate pleasure. An excellent meal is a pleasure to eat but its excessive consumption will bring discomfort. A temporary enjoyment cannot be called happiness because its ultimate result may not be good. Epicurus (341-270 BC) considered mental pleasure as the real one in contrast with physical pleasure. The intellectual field is the one where man should search for happiness. According to the stoics, man is a part of the universe and therefore he must live in harmony with the laws of nature: this is the greatest good.

PHILO (50-30 BC): In the early ages, religious movements in philosophy, of which Babylonians and Assyrians are well known, a sharp distinction was made between the principles of good and evil. Philo thought that the spiritual part of man, his mind or soul, is the seat of good, and his body, the material part, is the seat of evil. Consequently, when the soul is incorporated in the body it suffers a fall from divine perfection and becomes predisposed to evil. Thus the goal of man is freedom from matter and a return to God who is perfect goodness.

Saint Augustine(354-430 BC): The early Christian thinkers thought that God had given man a good nature, but he had turned away from God to the flesh ie, the body. The sin of Adam has been transmitted to all men as the original sin and will continue to harass him throughout his life unless he seeks salvation through the divine grace of God. For salvation, they invented the doctrine of `contempt for family-life' or Monasticism. For this they prescribed nerve-racking meditation to get rid of the sin of Adam through self-attrition. Saint Augustine, the greatest of the Christian thinkers, thought that God is all good, all perfection. He cannot be the creator of evil. `How then to account for evil in a world created by an all-good God?' To solve this problem, Saint Augustine said that everything in the universe is good; even that which appears to be evil is actually good inasmuch as it fitted into the whole pattern of the universe. Flowers of different colours are necessary to the beauty of a garden and every flower is good in its own place adding to the beauty of the garden. For example, in a painting, shadows and dark spots add to its beauty. An attractive and beautiful painting is made up of different colours. Similarly, the evil which is found in the world is there to make the whole good. It looks evil only when one sees the dark spots broken away from the whole picture but when seen in the picture they add to its beauty. If we fit evil in the whole system of the universe, it would look good and beautiful.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142 AD): In the middle ages, a Christian thinker, Peter Abelard, added a new dimension to the problem. He thought that an act itself is not good or bad but it is the intention of the doer that makes it good or bad. If a thief commits a theft intending it as something good, it is thereby good. God considers only the spirit in which an act is done. If one acts in terms of what he deems right but errs and does wrong, the act will remain good. According to him, goodness and morality are a matter of conscience and intention to do wrong. An evil done with good intention is not sinful.

Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274 AD): Another Christian thinker, Thomas Aquinas, also thought that the goodness or evil of a particular action depends upon the aim or purpose of the doer. But he did not share Abelard's view that a bad act if done with a good intention becomes good. According to him, good is that which is done with good intention and with the knowledge that the results would be good. He said that God has created all things including man for good. To achieve goodness is the highest good, and the greatest good for man is to realize God's purpose in the creation of man. The best way to attain goodness is to abandon worldly things and seek communion with God like a saint in a monastery devoting himself entirely to the service of God. For Aquinas, evil is the negation of good. Where there is no good, there is evil. For him, evil is the absence of good. All things created by a good-God aim at goodness. When an object fails to achieve good results, evil comes into being.

Meister Eckhart (1260-1327 AD): He propounded the mystic theory of good and evil. He says that a good and perfect life is not one of deeds but one of merging with God. Separation from God is evil. Therefore, to achieve real good, man must annihilate himself and unite with God. Thus Eckhart propounded the theory of pantheism.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 AD): He considered good and evil to be relative. According to him, they change not only with time but also with every individual; that which pleases man is good, and that which causes pain or discomfort is evil; also, that which pleases one may not please another. Therefore, there is no absolute good or evil.

Descartes (1596-1650 AD): He regarded God to be the perfect good who, therefore, could not be the creator of evil. The power gifted by God to man to distinguish truth from falsehood is not complete. Man goes astray due to the pressure of his desires and sentiments. Due to lack of accurate judgement, he fails to distinguish between good and evil, and treads the wrong path by mistake. Error lies not in God's action but in ours, and this is due to our poor judgement which is based on insufficient knowledge.

Spinoza (1632-1677 AD): He also considered good and evil to be relative. In fact, there is neither good nor evil in the universe nor is it necessary. Our knowledge about things is incomplete. Inspite of this, we want that every thing should be according to the demand of our reason, and when it happens otherwise it looks to be bad. What appears to our intellect to be evil is not so according to nature's law: it is evil according to the laws that relate to us. Similarly, everything that helps man to achieve the goal of his struggle is good and that tending to block this struggle is bad. According to him, an act can be good and bad at the same time and be devoid of the both as well. For example, a happy man enjoys music but a grieved and sorrowful man does not like it. For the dead it is neither good nor bad. To Spinoza good and evil, piety and guilt are prejudices and cannot be recognized as fundamental truths.

John Locke (1632-1704 AD): He held that the principles of good and evil are imbued in man's nature. Man finds and feels them as if nature had written them on his mind from the very beginning. Locke said that pleasure and pain are innate in man. It is in our nature that we enjoy happiness and seek to avoid pain. Therefore, things which bring happiness are good and those which cause pain are evil. As the same act will not bring happiness to everyone, there must be certain laws to keep others happy. Through experience we learn what is good and what is evil: by experiencing pain, if we do evil and pleasure, if we do good.

Richard Cumberland (1631-1718 AD): He was the first philosopher who propounded the utilitarian theory. He said that man is not totally selfish but is basically sympathetic towards his fellowmen. Thus, the welfare of the society is the criterion for good and evil. Lord Shaftsbury also shared his views.

Francis Hutcheson: He was also of the same general opinion and coined the phrase, `the greatest good for the greatest number' and made it the criterion of good.

Liebnitz (1646-1716 AD): He suggested that there are certain innate principles sufficient to determine what is good and what is evil. Because of passions and impulses man disobeys these principles and generates evil. One of these principles is that one should seek pleasure and avoid pain and it is this criterion which decides the question of good and evil. He also held that evil served to make good really good. It is like shadows in a painting that serve to bring the colours into bolder relief and greater beauty.

Immannual Kant (1724-1804 AD): He held that the principles of good and evil are well known since eternity and the moral laws are inborn in man's nature and intellect. One of these laws that serve as a criterion for distinguishing good from evil is that one should like for others what he likes for himself. According to Kant, the principle that an act is good if its result is good is wrong. Consequences of an act do not determine the characteristics of an act. If the act is performed with good intentions out of respect for moral laws it is thereby good. Kant said: `always do what every body would like to follow.'

Johann Fichte (1762-1814 AD): He followed the views of Kant. He said that the basic principles of good and evil are innate in man's nature. These are the criteria for good and evil. It is not sufficient to respect these laws, rather essential to put them into practice. Morality and goodness is not a state to be attained once only, but a constant struggle to act in every situation according to the requirements of moral laws.

Arthur Shopenhauer (1788-1860 AD): This German skeptical philosopher, said that man's will to live is his greatest and fundamental desire and the cause of all the struggle in the world. This is the root cause of all evil and suffering. A world where wild desires are struggling with each other, where the more powerful kill and devour the less powerful, is a world of evil; there is no goodness in it. If, however, one, through self-sacrifice, acts sympathetically with others and lives for them, happiness and peace shall prevail in this world.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873 AD): According to the modern philosophers, the principles of good and evil are not inborn, innate, but continue to change according to social conditions. They, therefore, propounded the theory of relative utility of good and evil. An act can be good in certain circumstances but can be evil in different circumstances. J.S. Mill who belonged to the utilitarian school said that the greatest good of the greatest number is the highest good and the criterion for good and evil. If an act is beneficial to the greatest number, it is good.

Jeremy Bentham (1874-1832 AD): He is also the follower of the utilitarian school of thought. He said that good and evil are determined on the basis of social benefits. For him, morality is relative for which there are no innate or inborn principles enjoined by God involving His pleasure or wrath.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903 AD): He dealt with the problem from the scientists point of view and made the evolution theory the basis of his thoughts. He held that man's conduct was developing and continued making adjustments. The most developed conduct which made living richer for the individual and for the society is the best. In other words, Spencer also believed in the relative theory of good and evil, also maintaining that the achievement of happiness is not the absolute good. The absolute good is to establish a society where man is able to live happily, individually as well as socially.

William James (1842-1910 AD) & John Dewey (1859-1952 AD): They represent the pragmatic school of thought. In their time democracy held a sway over contemporary thought. They attached great importance to the group benefits and the individual's rights. To them, individuals and groups are tied together and man's identity is due to his membership of a group. According to them, good is that which enriches the life of both the individual and the group. The social unit is the individual and a good act must hold his welfare uppermost along with the welfare of the society. The individual and social results of an act are the basis for good and evil.

Critical examination of philosophical views

The foregoing discussion summarizes the views of philosophers and thinkers who thought over the problem of good and evil and tried to answer the questions mentioned earlier. A critical examination of these views follows:

(i) Philosophy of relativeness: Philiosophers who uphold this philosophy are those who have exemplified good and evil with musical notes or dark and red shades of a picture. Heraclitus and St Augustine are in this category. For them, the high and low notes in a symphony or shades in a picture increase its attractiveness. Similarly good and evil are essential for the world's beauty and charm. Obviously these philosophers assumed good and evil as material things and this assumption misdirected their thoughts. Good and evil relate to morals. The question is not of good or bad things but that of moral good or evil. There is no question of good and evil in material things. Every thing has its own benefits; even garbage has its own value and is beneficial in its own place and so is the case with diamonds and ornaments. But are truth and falsehood, mercy and tyranny all alike or do falsehood, heresy, fraud, infidelity and banditry become good in certain circumstances? It is impossible to prove that these acts would become good or beneficial at any stage or time. At the most, these acts may, perforce, be ignored under certain conditions. For example, falsehood is always bad, but if you were asked by a tyrant, who intended to murder someone, about the whereabouts of his intended victim and you, knowing well, lied to him to save the wanted man, then such a lie may be excused as you did it under compulsion to save a life. Similarly, to escape the death of hunger one is allowed to eat prohibited edibles but this will not affect the prohibition and make these permissible for others. While it is possible to say about material things that the dirtiest of these can be beneficial to the crops as manure, the same cannot be said about immoral acts. These can be excused only under compulsion. Therefore, the views of the philosophers regarding this theory of relativeness of good and evil are absurd, or at the most mere poetical jargon.

(ii) Criterion of Intention: Similarly, the views of the philosophers who maintain that an act is neither good nor bad in itself but intention makes it so are equally incorrect. Mere intention cannot make a bad act good. At the most a bad act performed in good faith can be excused but it cannot be classified as a good act. Therefore, intention cannot be made the basis of determining good and evil. This view is without a rationale.

(iii) Criterion of Pleasure and Happiness: The philosophers who consider pleasure and happiness to be the criterion of good are also far from the truth. The criterion of pleasure and happiness is baseless. No single measure can be laid down for pleasure and happiness. The measures and standards differ from man to man. For example, likes and dislikes of the rich and the poor widely differ. Sometimes the objects of pleasure for the poor are discomfortable to the wealthy, a loud note of music may upset a civilized man but others may at the same time enjoy it. Also, there is lot of difference between the standards of enjoyment of human beings: some like playing hockey while others enjoy cricket and still others are least interested in any game. Therefore, if an act pleases one, it is essential that it will also please others as well; it may be discomfortable, inconvenient and despicable for others. The criterion of an act to be good when it is a source of pleasure and happiness for the majority also does not seem to be correct. For example, benefits of the television are most common but its harmful effects are equally widespread. Moreover, conditions of an era also affect the majority's viewpoint. In an age, an act may be a matter of pride for the majority but with the passage of time it may lose its charm and become abominable. For example, in primitive ages, slavery was a symbol of pride while now-a-days it is despicable. Also, the measures of pleasure and happiness differ from society to society. A society may enjoy eating frogs and serpents but to others this could be altogether unthinkable. In fact, pleasure and happiness relate more to man's inner self rather than to outward conditions. A deeper study would reveal that pleasure is not connected with the outward disposition of man. Rather it is more close to his mind and heart and inner self. If you offer good music to a sad person, he will not be able to enjoy it. Similarly, if you serve a sumptuous meal to a grieved person, he will not be attracted towards it. Only a person endowed with a peaceful disposition of mind will enjoy his meals, whether it may be simple food or fried fish or roasted chicken.

(iv) Criterion of Utility: In the utilitarian theory, whatever benefits the individual and the society is good. But if the beneficial things are examined more closely, many of them may be found to be destructive. For example, the benefits of the Banking System cannot be disputed but the whole world is groaning under it as it has engulfed the society with the curse of `interest'. Similarly the benefits of scientific inventions are indisputable but at the same time science has invented highly destructive bombs and lethal weapons, and piled these up in such quantities that the whole world is on the brink of destruction. Even a small incident may bring about complete disaster. The theory of utility is therefore disputable and dangerous.

(v) Descartes Theory: Descartes described God to be all-good and at the same time thought that the intellect bestowed by God on man was insufficient to handle the problems of life. Due to man's failings evil comes into being. God placed man in a very difficult situation but did not give him sufficient wisdom to come up to the task. His physical desires and ambitions were too strong to be controlled by the wisdom gifted by God. Descartes glorified God by saying that He bestowed man with such sublime capabilities as intellect and wisdom and at the same time he blamed Him for not providing a sufficiently balanced mind to face the problems of life. Descartes perhaps failed to appreciate this self-contradiction in his reasoning.

(vi) Spinoza's Views: Spinoza's point of view that God is above good and evil which concern only the human beings, is revolting. This position is contrary to his own belief in pantheism. For him, God is not a person; the motion and energy in the overall system of the universe is God and we being all parts of the universe are also God. His saying `when we love ourselves we love God because we are God is well known.' Therefore, when he relates good and evil to man alone, this negates his own thinking.

(vii) The theory of Divine Intuition: Great philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, John Locke and Liebnitz, all of them, considered good and evil to be independent. The foundation, of both already exists in man's nature. Conception of moral laws is innate in man; There is a Divine Spark within him to guide him. Man often forgets the moral laws and needs to be remained. Self-realization is the real knowledge that guides man to the path of the highest good. If man realizes his own self, he treads the path of virtue and avoids evil and ultimately achieves perfection. The views of these philosophers appear to be founded on strong grounds and are nearer to the Qur'anic concept.

Existence of Evil: Consider the question, `if good and evil were independent, are their creators also independent?'. Most of the philosophers have not discussed this question. Those who thought good and evil to be relative, dumped the question itself. Polytheists consider gods of good and evil to be independent of each other. Christian thinkers known as Apologists also answered the question as the polytheists did. According to their representatives, Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, God is pure good and He cannot be the Creator of evil. The nature of man as created by Him is good but man being matter is attracted towards evil. The devil allures him to worldly pleasures and thus evil comes into being. These views expressed by these Christian thinkers suggest that the devil may be the creator of evil or at least a means of creation of evil. Who created the devil is a question that the Christian thinkers have not been able to answer. Also they could not justify the existence of the devil. If the devil was the source of evil and enjoyed the power to bedevil anyone into evil why did God create this evil when He Himself is perfect good?

ARE GOOD AND EVIL OF DIVINE COMMAND: A few Muslim theologians are of the view that Muslims obey moral laws because God and His Prophet (pbuh) have so ordained. Since the Prophet (pbuh) has said that falsehood, avarice, cruelty, injustice, and ostentation are bad traits, Muslims consider these bad. Similarly, the Prophet (pbuh) cherished truth, sympathy, justice and mercy as good traits and commanded these to be followed, therefore the Muslims consider them to be good. Had the Prophet (pbuh) declared falsehood to be good Muslims would have cherished it. These thinkers did not care to ponder that pronouncing some acts as good and others as bad has no rationale. Why is it in the nature of man to love truth, justice and mercy and hate falsehood, tyranny and such other evils? If there is nothing innate in man's nature, what did the Prophets endeavour to `remind' mankind? If good and evil emanate only from a divine order, there is no rationale for repeated exhortations in the Qur'an to use reason, intellect and wisdom. Had the arguments of these thinkers been true, God would have ordained mere obedience. On the contrary, God has exhorted man to ponder on his own self and the universe surrounding him so that by reasoning he can find the truth. Hence, the views of those who thought good and evil to be merely divinely ordained are not correct.

In the next episode, we shall present the Qur'anic viewpoint about the four basic questions mentioned earlier.

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