What is "Good" and "Bad"?

This age-old question, which has always been closely intertwined with religion, is now, in the age of terrorism on the one hand and the search for a global ethic on the other, being asked with renewed vigour by many, including me. Terrorists see themselves as idealists and martyrs for a cause which they unquestionably regard as good, while a transculturally acceptable definition of good and evil (for instance in the sense of "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you") obviously fails because of insoluble contradictions.

The good of one is often the evil of another, and vice versa.

At first sight, the question may seem to be relatively easy to answer - good is simply what benefits me and "does me good", and evil and bad is everything to the contrary. But the closer you look at it, the more it becomes tricky: What is good for me may be bad and harmful for another person, perhaps even for people close to me. And this is true not only in competitive situations such as in business, in sports, or even in the family, but also on any collective level up to entire peoples and civilizations: What is good for the Israelis (for example, the ever-increasing "land seizure" and colonization of the West Bank) is evil and miserable for the Palestinians, and what is good for them (for example, the establishment of their own state and the prevention of any further colonization) is bad for the Israelis. Or even more blatantly: killing "evil" Christians by assassination is obviously very good and even heroic and wonderful for the extreme Islamists, and killing these Islamists is therefore good for the Christians… In short: the good of one is only too often the evil of another, and vice versa.

Contradictions over contradictions

Since time immemorial, "evil" has commonly been attributed to what is radically different and strange - for example devils, or Satan. However, the Christian religion inconsistently and confusingly says that the Devil himself is originally a part of God, a “fallen angel”. But if God were truly omnipotent and good, he should be able to prevent such a mischief. Yet religion claims, with an additional sophistry, that he allows this to happen on the one hand to put man to the test (whom he himself created so imperfect - why?), and on the other hand to punish him for his sins (and ultimately for the first fall from grace, the access to forbidden knowledge, i.e. sexuality). Contradiction over contradiction! Or rather: whole cascades of contradictory projections into the religious and divine of our own fundamental ambiguity about good and evil.

There is no doubt, however, that in practice we cannot do without a reasonably clear concept of good and evil. No family and no group, and even less so a whole society, can survive without a reasonably stable concept of values and morals as the basis of every system of justice. But which law should apply today, in the age of globalization? For example: national or international law (a question which is currently being hotly debated also in Switzerland), Western and Judeo-Christian law (inspired by the 10 comandments, the Sermon of the Mount, the fundamental human rights), or Sharia law? And what about the concepts of good and evil in communist or neo-capitalist totalitarian but at the same time traditionally Confucian states like North Korea or China?
What is the so-called evil?

Scientists and thinkers like Konrad Lorenz, Sigmund Freud or Erich Fromm have claimed that the "so-called evil" is not something foreign and different, but something innate to man as an instinct of aggression and destruction.¹ Fromm distinguishes, however, between a benign (reactive-defensive) and a malignant (destructive-gruesome) aggression. And Hannah Ahrendt believes (especially on the basis of her investigation of Nazi criminals such as Adolf Eichmann) that there is an absolute evil in man (which she describes impressively but nevertheless purely subjectively as "that which causes us speechless horror, when we can say nothing else but: “This should never have happened"), but not an absolute good.² Her concept of the "banality of evil" (also founded in her investigations on National Socialism) is also relevant, as well as an entry in her diary from 1953, according to which radical evil always arises when a radical good is wanted (which sounds like a counterpart to Goethe's figure of Mephistopheles as "part of that force that always wants the evil and always creates the good”).

Good and bad in evolution

From the evolutionary perspective, which once again seems to make the most sense to me, aggressiveness is vital for survival, so in principle it is certainly "good", because its original and central function is to protect one's own territory, nest and offspring against an enemy. Or, at a higher level, the ability to preserve one's identity, to distance oneself and, if necessary, to say "no" and "to here and no further". Exactly this vital survival advantage has led to the development and inheritance of aggressive ways of feeling, thinking and behaving in the course of evolution. In excess, however, i.e. beyond these meaningful limits, anger and aggression appear unquestionably as "evil".

In the case of animals hovever, and in nature in general, it is difficult to speak of good or evil, although we projectively perceive nature sometimes as cruel and sometimes as all-good. To modern man, who no longer understands natural events as divine punishments or rewards, nature appears indifferent even when - as in the case of great earthquakes or other natural disasters - it causes enormous damage with thousands of deaths. Nor are animals "evil," even if they are aggressive and kill and eat each other.

Good and evil are moral categories and as such belong only to man. - But isn't man ultimately also nature, is he not also an animal, even if an emotionally and cognitively particularly differentiated one? And isn't "nature" (i.e. nature as a whole and thus also our own nature) at least "all-good" insofar as it is responsible for the fact that there is something at all and not nothing, and that this something (and in it also man) is further and further developed? In any case, nature as evolution is also something infinitely great and wonderful.

“Good” is perhaps, quite simply, that which promotes the evolution of life, both on an individual and on a general level. By looking closer at this seemingly obvious proposition, however, we get into the same contradictions as before: what is good (that is, life-promoting) for one living being may be very bad (that is, destructive) for another, and what moves the entire evolution in one direction may damage it in another direction. And who says that the current evolution in the broad sense - to which I also count the whole cultural and technical development of man - is really good and beneficial to life as a whole? Rather the opposite seems to be the case at the moment.

“Good" and "evil" from the perspective of affect logic

The problem becomes even more entangled when we look at it from the perspective of affect logic - my conceptualization of the interactions between feeling and thinking, and especially of the effects of emotions on thinking. Depending on our predominant feelings, all our cognitive functions (such as perception, memory, combinatorial thinking and decision making) are guided by a logic of fear, a logic of sadness, a logic of joy and love, or by a logic of hatred and rage. And depending on this, what we perceive as "good" or "evil" changes considerably: if we have positive feelings such as sympathy, joy or love towards a certain person, or toward a people or a culture, then everything that promises closeness, friendship and cooperation appears to be good, while everything to the contrary appears to be evil or bad. Exactly the opposite is true when we hate someone or something: it is good to set oneself apart from the hated object, possibly to attack and destroy it as well, and it is bad to approach it in any way, perhaps even to talk to it or to seek a certain cooperation with it. Observations or information that contradict our basic emotional attitude are faded out with preference. The big politics (at the moment e.g. the relations between Iran and the West, or the actions of the various protagonists in the Syria, Ukraine or Israel-Palestine conflict) provide striking examples of this. The result is blatantly contradictory definitions of "good" and "bad" depending on the emotional perspective (depending on who labels whom as a terrorist...). It is no different, however, on a smaller scale too, for instance in economic, family or partner conflicts.


So, what conclusion can be inferred from all this confusion about the concepts of good and evil? 

Obviously, good and evil are relative concepts that refer to certain cultures, contexts and situations and are completely indispensable there. Generalizations in the sense of a global ethic are, however, only possible to a very limited extent. At most, such generalizations may become able to assert themselves gradually in areas where globalization has actually taken place: to some extent perhaps in world trade, more and more hopefully also in relation to a worldwide climate policy, still far too little in relation to the supposedly universal human rights (which are, in reality, partly realized only in some highly developed Western states).

In global terms – if one dares to generalize despite the above objections - “good” would be what contributes to the coexistence of all with all and life in general, and “evil” or “bad” everything that harms it. Furthermore it turns out that man (every human being, I maintain, just as every animal close to man) is not simply good or bad, but can be both, depending on the situation. The ability of human beings to increase both to extremes unknown to animals is primarily due to the much greater degrees of freedom of the human brain. Or to put it more simply: man is, far more and unlike  the animal, capable of both the highest and the lowest actions.

What is gained from such generalizations? Little. And is the problem really solved?  Not at all. Clearly the concepts of good and evil, just like our religious concepts, are currently in crisis. Both are connected with the clash of different cultures as a result of globalization. Just one thing may seem certain, however: in all areas connected with religion it is high time for a "leap" to a higher level of understanding.

Luc Ciompi (born 1929), Swiss psychiatrist, Schizophrenia researcher, pioneer of integrative psychiatry and founder of Affect-Logic celebrates his 90th birthday. He lets us participate in his personal, scientific and ideological reflections. It shows, that even an old age can be a fascinating time full of unexpected highs and lows.


¹ Freud S. (1957). Instincts and their vicissitudes. Standard Edition (Vol. 14, pp. 109–140). London: Hogarth Press.  - .Lorenz K (2005: On ag-gression. Routledge, London. -  Fromm E. (1974) The anatomy of hu-mandestructiveness, in: Contemporary Sociology, Washington, Vol. 3 (Nov. 1974), pp. 513-515.

² Arendt H. (1992) Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the banality of evil Penguin Books

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