Good versus evil Good versus evil


The term “Machiavellian” has become a byword for the most repugnant kind of leader. Deceitful, cruel, and devoid of any moral standards, the Machiavellian has been a figure of contempt for centuries. In the Machiavellian philosophy of evil, morality is treated as irrelevant or inapplicable. In the amoral Machiavellian system of beliefs, conventional norms of ‘evil’ are irrelevant and inapplicable. Other Western philosophers through history view evil differently. The concept of evil has been assigned many layers of meaning over the course of centuries. However, it begs the question: How is ‘evil’ stopped when definitions vary from it being non-existent according to Machiavellian philosophy to the real fear conveyed by moralists? Attempts to define good and evil in Western philosophy has haunted writers for centuries which has developed profoundly differing views in what is and is not evil.

Western Philosophy of Evil

Western Philosophy of Evil

An appropriate starting point in dissecting evil in Western philosophy is looking at the writings of the founder of the first institution of higher learning in the Western World: Plato. A Classical Greek philosopher, Plato is among the most influential philosophical thinkers. In The Republic, Plato states that what is not good for the cultivation of the soul is resultantly evil. Therefore, Plato spends much of his reflection on exploring the good in society in order to confirm what is evil. In The Republic, Plato presents a tripartite account of the soul. He considers the souls appetites [passions, emotions] to have the least ethical value. Our selfish and lustful urges are one form of evil because they compromise our rational and good nature. As a result, the rational portion of the soul – or the ‘good’ – should take precedence over the irrational and evil. In order to be of good character, the rational part of our soul needs to embody four key virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice. Any deviation from these virtues, in the form of behaviors such as recklessness, cowardice, excess, and prejudice, is viewed to be ‘evil.’ Unlike other Western philosophers, Plato did not assume that humans were inherently good or evil. We share elements of both. It is a matter of cultivating our soul to control our evils in a proper and healthy manner that makes us good.

Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle

Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle

The concept of evil has been interpreted by Western philosophers differently from Plato. The philosophy of Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan extends upon this relationship between moral restraint and its role in controlling evil in people. Unlike Plato, Hobbes believed the capacity for evil was always going to win out against good in a battle for our conscience. Humans were driven by three things that made the outcome between good and evil obvious: first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The concept of evil to Hobbes is subjective because evil is only viewed in terms of what is lost, while good is viewed as what we gained. “The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place,” he writes. For Hobbes, politics became a vehicle to maximize the chances of self-preservation by protecting people from the evils of other individuals. In particular, putting in place a Leviathan – or supreme body of power – to govern us and deciding what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is needed. As selfish beings, we will consent to these definitions because it is in our best interest for survival.

Thomas Hobbes The Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes - The Leviathan

A trend concerning the concept of evil in Western philosophy is the belief that unfettered human freedom is a gateway to evil itself. English philosopher, John Stuart Mill warns that the greatest evil is not within the individual, but collectively in any society. Understanding good and evil are only as legitimate as the society that experiences and defines them. In his text On Liberty, Mills warned that democracy could lead to a ‘tyranny of the majority’ where the minority’s culture and views would be crushed by the majority. For Mills, this is evil in its purest form because it’s horrifying in its result and for its flagrant hypocrisy under the banner of democracy. As a result, Mill champions that the only freedom worth having the name is “that of pursuing our own good so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” The sole end of any form of interference is to prevent harm to others – otherwise known as the harm principle. Any violation of this Harm Principle is evil.

Friedrich Nietzsche shook the attitudes of the Western philosophers towards evil up again by challenging notions of right and wrong. Morality, he asserted, was a defense mechanism for the weak. In the whole, many of these ideas of what it is to be ‘good’ are life-denying, while ‘evil’ behavior is life-affirming. For example, wealth and societal inequality is viewed as a form of evil in popular imagination. Yet, who is to deny that inequality is not a natural part of all biospheres, whether in all living and non-living entities? What is viewed as evil in Western philosophy, according to Nietzsche, is often amorally natural. Our system of ‘slave morality’ has concretized a particular idea of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that Western philosophers have accepted as the base of their philosophy. Nietzsche asserted that teal philosophical courage requires us to challenge the foundations of what ‘good’ and ‘evil.’

Philosophy of evil in the West remains controversial. To reduce what it is to be evil to simplistic generalizations is doing the ultimate disservice to the thinkers that have argued its significance for centuries.

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