Can Good lead to Evil?

The question: “how to define an action as being “good” or” evil ?” - was of foremost importance for the British Legal System in the 1600s, .  In order to 'establish a judgment of guilt', judges needed a criterion to build upon an evaluation of the action under observation. In this mindset, the principle of Mens Rea (on establishing guilt) was formulated.  

Judges viewed 'action” as possessing physical as well as mental aspects.  Together with the physical aspect of action, the mental nature (of inner motivation behind the action) has to be considered, and this means that regarding an action as being evil (or guilt- based) was conditioned by having a proof of the intentionality to do harm.

A legal dictionary defines Mens Rea as the existence of “the element of …, wrongful purpose; a criminal intent”. (1)

From defining evil to defining good:  

This simple and meaningful criterion - on how to judge an action as “evil” through the intention to do harm - becomes also useful for us to aid in the definition of action as being “good”.  

Based on logical negation to the statement “evil is the intent to do harm” – we get: “good is the intent to remove harm”.  Everyone understands this. We call a someone like a doctor, a nurse or a medicine – as being “good”, because their action is based on removing harmful experience or suffering.

The concept of Goodness develops further to mean not just “removing harm" but also "imparting joy”, as referred to in Eastern philosophical perspectives:

          “… the word for compassion comprises two Chinese characters.  

          The first character corresponds to the Sanskrit word maitri, meaning “to give happiness.”

          The second corresponds to the Sanskrit karuna, meaning

          “to remove suffering. Taken together they describe the function of

          relieving living beings of suffering and giving them happiness.” (2)

What is "Good"?

Each person agrees with the judges  of the 17th century about their definition of "evil" as "intention to harm".  That was about a century before the birth of Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804), who influenced the Western philosophy with his concept of goodness.

It seems that Philosophy should have left the definition of “good” and “evil” to the Legal System, which was clear and straightforward. Western philosophy - on the other hand - offered a cloud of ambiguity regarding a definition of “what is good” - as the three following examples inform us:

Definition 1;

      In his book Principia Ethica, philosopher G.E. Moore (1873 – 1954) offers the following answer:

          “If I am asked 'what is good?' – my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the matter.  

          Or if I am asked, 'How is good to be defined?' – my answer is that it cannot be defined,

          and that's all I have to say about it.” (3)

Definition 2;

       In his book Belief in God, T. J. Mawson, Tutor in Philosophy at St. Peters Collage, University of Oxford, gives the following definition:

          “Goodness is a matter of behaving as one ought in one's relations with other people,

          and perfect goodness is a matter of doing the best thing that one can for them whenever there is a best

          and doing one of the best things that one can whenever two or more things are 'joint best' for them,

          i.e. are equally good and none is better”. (4)

The above-mentioned definition, however, has two problems.  The first is quite serious: when we say “Goodness is a matter of behaving as one ought”, we assume that what one is ought to do is - in the first place - assumed as being "good".  Any hierarchical system of authority dictates that "good" is what people "ought to do".  Extremists believe that what one "ought to do for God" - is supreme goodness.  The second problem in the abovementioned definition of good - is about circularity of the definition, because the three words “good", “better'"and “best” were all used – to refer to and to explain 'goodness'.

Definition 3;

      Regarding the subject of goodness, Kant is most quoted by the following statement:

          “It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it,

          that could be considered good without limitation except a good will”. (5)

In other words: “absolute good is good will”.  Kant's abovementioned statement shifted the definition of “good” to that of “good will”.  But to define something as good by using the same word of good - is a form of circularity - as we are informed:

       “Don't create a circular definition: don't, that is, define a word in    

      terms of itself, as in “Patriotism is the quality of being a patriot””. (6)

The criterion of goodness as "removing harm & generating pleasantness is" not found in Kantian ethics, which criterion for goodness is “fulfilling one's duty”:

          “I admit that I cannot associate any pleasantness with the conception of Duty, just because of its dignity.  

          For it involves unconditional obligation, which is directly contrary to pleasantness”. (7)

In other words, we have to “Just do it”, and finish our job - regardless.

Intention as the mental aspect of action

Kant's theory is an example of a deontological moral theory.  According to those theories, the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences.  What matters most is to fulfill our duty. (8)

There seems to be a misunderstanding in Kantian views about the link between causes and consequences. Cause (which is here the mental aspect of having "goodwill") is not enough for initiating an action. For any event to take place, the motivation for action (or cause) must meet conducive factors from the surroundings to engage in activity and make the intention turn into a reality of an event.  Therefore, to judge an action by its intention misses the impact of that action on the environment.  A judgement based on evaluating the intention and not the consequences - is incomplete.

We cannot control external environment, which may interfere and so can result in negative consequences, despite our good intention.  Our ignorance about the external factors, which affect our action – does not free us from responsibility for the consequences.  

Example:  The conservative view about climate change can be seen in Kantian perspective that the wave of goodwill for economic progress in the 20th century and earlier – is all what we account for, and the environment is to blame for the consequences of human activity on it.

_______________________________________________________  Author: Darshams


(1)     Mens Rea Legal Definition

(2)      Soka Gakkai International- USA, Nichiren Buddhism for daily life .org/study-resources/core-concepts/buddhist-compassion/

(3)     Principia Ethica,  G.E. Moore, 1902. Quoted in BBC Ethics Guide – _1.shtml

(4)     Belief in God, An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion, p.57 – 58.  T.J. Mawson, 2005.  Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-928495-5

(5)     The Good Will

(6)     How to write an extended definition; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

(7) Immanuel Kant, Full text of “Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and other works on the theory of ethics.

Online Library of Liberty

(8) Kantian Ethics: