I am looking for discussions about good and evil in non-Abrahamic philosophies (meaning traditionally Eastern schools of thought, such as those from India and China). The reason being, good and evil are quite central topics in both the Bible and the Quran and have consequently been a great influence upon philosophers in the region where they are prevalent. So, I am interested in examining discussions of such concepts that lie outside such influences.

To phrase my question more succinctly: Did Eastern, non-Abrahamic philosophers come up with analogous concepts for good and evil?

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    Interesting. I think this would be best restricted to one region, though. I'll have to dig out my Confucius when I get home. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 8 '11 at 12:52
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    And the question is...? – Lennart Regebro Jun 8 '11 at 12:55
  • I'd recommending rephrasing to: "What actions are considered [evil || good] in [Indian || Chinese] moral philosophies, and how have they influenced philosophers in that region?" – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jun 8 '11 at 13:00
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    I know less than nothing about Eastern philosophy, but does the Yin and the Yang embody the struggle between good and evil (among other concepts)? There certainly doesn't have to be a Judeo-Christian basis for notions of good and evil. Lots of traditionally Eastern religious (for example, Sikh) have pronounced notions of good and evil. – Cody Gray Jun 8 '11 at 13:49
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    @Cody Gray: IMO, yin/yang:good/evil::animal:dog - i.e., good and evil could be considered to embody yin and yang, but yin and yang does not require good and evil, and as far as I know does not typically employ morality but rather balance. – Ben Hocking Jun 8 '11 at 17:39

An alternate manner of approaching this question is to drill into the idiosyncratic manner that Abrahamic religions, and subsequently Occidental thought, has dealt with the purported problem of "Good and Evil(g/e)"

The commonly understood conception of g/e, and the conception that is embedded in the texts of each religion has brought to bear a mentality that views g/e as independent entities. The Occident has a concept of g/e whereby persons embody one or the other. For instance, if one were to try to attempt an argument with a Westerner that Hitler was not, in fact evil (embodied, incarnate, etc), and rather that his actions were evil, then the argument would likely be met with hostility. The repulsion any sane person has for any genocide turns for explanation not first to mental stability, psychopathy, or any other empirical basis; sane people frequently turn first to evil. Evil, in particular, seems to have a sense of being simulataneously some possessing substance and an inexhaustible repository for actions. It is not precisely (in the g/e spectrum) an eleven or fifteen on some scale of 1-10 where 10 is bad; it has an unquantifiable measure to it.

The point here being, good and evil are not merits of a person when thinking of the "Good and Evil" in your question. The problem of evil is a metaphysical one for many Westerners. As much as a person I know angers me, I personally know no one who is evil. There are always exigencies to explain their behavior. When we reach out to affect a trend and understand something beyond our scope of experience (these are always harder to find out; i.e. you didn't know that your boss was a psychopath, but it sure does explain a lot), we are less prone to seek out the actual exigencies and more apt to generalize and appeal to some Deus Ex Machina... like evil.

  • THE TAKEAWAY, Buddhism does not particularly have some corporeal concept for "Evil"; neither does Hinduism, Shintoism, Taoism, Bon, Shintoism, nor does fetishism, totemism, or animism facilitate such a concept. They explanations for why bad things happen, and what isn't particularly ideal, but not in the Occidental formulation of "Good and Evil."
  • As a note, I refer to the Abrahamics as "idiosyncratic" because, in terms of religious innovation the represent one tree with three sub-trees and, in terms of religious innovation, represent a small subset – mfg Jun 8 '11 at 15:20
  • Although one also shared by the non-Abrahamic Zoroastrianism. It's rather a middle-eastern thing. – Lennart Regebro Jun 8 '11 at 18:47
  • Indian Philosophy 'advaita vedanta' is all about non dualism. – WinW Aug 2 '11 at 17:45
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    I agree with @LennartRegebro, we got Manicheanism from the East. It seems to go more with monotheism than with Western thought. The Greeks and Romans were not as much about evil when they had active pantheons, but when you chose one main God, e.g. Plato's Pan or the Heraclean Zeus, we got dualism, with or without Abrahamic religion. Where monotheism took root in the East, e.g. Mani in Persia, it was as evident. – jobermark Oct 22 '14 at 20:53
  • You could express clearly in the beginning (as in the other answer), so we won't take so long to know what's your view on it. – Rodrigo Aug 5 '16 at 11:13

I think the question is somewhat problematic in that there are many different views outside of the Abrahamic monotheisms which don't all sit well together as an "Eastern bloc." I cannot answer for the different views within Indian philosophy (and religion) at all. Moreover, I'm going to limit this answer to just Chinese philosophy.

The Chinese language has had words for good and evil since far before any encounter with Western thought - 善 shan and 悪 e respectively.

Within Chinese philosophy, in the Confucian school, a central question is a dispute between Xunzi and Mengzi ("Mencius") about whether human beings are innately good or evil. Mencius takes the view that all humans have a root of goodness in them (2A2 for the four roots, 6A2, 6A6 for the claim they are good), i.e. the tendency if not stifled for people to wind up as good (read more at the SEP article Mencius). For Xunzi, human nature is evil and only made good by strict discipline (see Wm Theodore DeBary's translation).

The SEP article suggests that the Daoist text Zhuangzi is written by people who have read Mencius and consciously reject the four roots and the notion that goodness has a well and tidied definition. This can be interpreted as inspired as either a rejection of categories in general or a rejection that rejects the "Confucian" / general definition of these categories.

This particular interpretive issue reminds me of one faced by the interpreters of Nietzsche -- if you take Nietzsche to be against all morality, then the higher men parts don't make any sense; if you take him to be against just a type of supposedly Judeo-Christian slavish morality, then what's he's proposing is an alternative view that has its own concepts of good and evil (see SEP: Nietzsche's Moral and Political Philosophy). In other words "Beyond Good and Evil" is either no more rules or beyond good and evil as they define it. So then the question is whether the Daoists (or at least some of them) are merely rejecting the Confucian good/evil understanding or any understanding of good/evil. The inner chapters of the Zhuangzi seem to suggest they have ideals about how people should interact with nature which if memory serves get called "good" (51 different paragraphs according to ctext).

What about yin/yang? Doesn't that say there's light in darkness and darkness in light? One of the main original sources of this in Chinese thought is the I Ching (book of changes), which also contains a bunch of hexagram patterns and their interpretations. This text is not mentioned in the Analects, Mengzi, etc. It does feature prominently in Neo-Confucianism (starting from around 1100 CE) as part of their need to have a metaphysic to combat the one coming from Buddhist competitors at the time).

Moreover, even yin/yang does not clearly negate the idea of good / evil. Instead, it shifts it somewhat in a similar direction to the Zhuangzi. Rather than seeking a pure idealized good, it makes it so that the goal is to be in touch with this not inherently moral nature (here nature under the meaning of the world around us rather than essence).

There's some really interesting reading on whether this has anything like the Western notion of a "problem of evil" in Franklin Perkins book, Heaven and Earth are not Humane. The book looks at both Confucian and Daoist responses to the fact of evil in the world.

One part of your question that I didn't address in very much detail was the "dueling notion" part. A major impetus is that I'm not sure I understand what is being asked on that particular front. If the question is, does Chinese thought put good in conflict with evil? Then, my answer would be yes. Is there a high God who is at war with Satan and evil? Then, in general (with the possible exception of some interpretation of 天 tian), the answer is no.

Is there a world where we need to marshall resources to keep the good alive? Then, for the Confucian school, yes. For the Daoists, then sort of kind of, but with "good" needing to be understood in a very distinct light that should not be confused with say traditional morality or being a part of normalish Chinese society. Instead, it's a type of convergence with 道 Dao (whether understood as 然 zi (nature) or something distinct), that does not get confused with the "good" dictated by society.

  • I made a few comments about your answer. Please take a look below. – Rodrigo Aug 8 '16 at 4:51
  • One good point you make is with reference to "dueling notion" – virmaior Aug 8 '16 at 5:03

There is no ultimate good or evil in Eastern philosophy. There is only relative good and evil. "All undertakings are beset with imperfections, as fire with smoke" (Gita 18.48). In the symbol Yin and Yang, you will notice that there is the element of each in the other. Fire burns, when it is used for cooking we think it is good, when it burns our hand, we think it is bad, but fire is neither good or evil. Light shines on both the thief and the policeman, but the light is neither good or evil. Different societies in different places and times have considered different things good or evil. In one society to marry your first cousin is considered good, in another evil. God is neither good or evil. Good and evil exist only in the relative world of our perception. We can, however, use good to go be rid if evil and then to go beyond good. The early Persians were the original instigators of the concept of ultimate good God and evil God that developed more fully in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The evil god became the Devil. There is no devil in the eastern tradition, there is a minor mention in a early Hindu scripture, but was later rejected as the concept waas never developed further in any subsequent Hindu scriptures.

  • Great answer. I think that the bias in the votes come from the bias in belief. The site is ruled by JC tradition, it seems. – Rodrigo Aug 5 '16 at 11:29

To answer the question:

Of course every mythology feels the need to explain the good/evil difference. As I see, most mythologies in the world explain it by bipolarity (e.g. the North and South in a magnet cannot be set apart, so the good and evil are both necessary parts of every individual -- of course not so balanced as the simpler magnetic analogy, but they can't be isolated as well). Monotheisms explain it by dualism (like Platonic reality/ideality, good and evil are isolated things, so one person may be 100% good, and another 100% evil. That's the basis of maniqueism, and also a root for the melodrama that stains most of our cultural production, instead of the richer Greek tradition of tragedy, as illustrated by Sophocles' Oedipus). You can read more about this distinction in Marc Halévy's Lecture du Tao: une sagesse qui nous attend... (2012).

Now some more detail, about the question itself and about virmaior's answer:

I doubt that "shan" alone may represent our word "good", as well as "e" alone our word "evil". That's because hao 好, liang 良, jia 佳, guai 乖, mei 美, jia 嘉, as well as lianghao 良好, youliang 优良, nashou 拿手, bulai 不赖... all mean "good". So the translation here is far from direct or simple. If "to know" may be translated by more than 10 different characters, then we're probably "out of words". Both Confucius' Analects and Orwell's 1984 have taught us about the importance of the right words, but the West doesn't seem to be listening (or reading).

Also, this methodology brings its own problems: guai 乖 is also "perverse", "contrary to reason", "abnormal". A similar problem in translation is chang 常, which may be translated as "common", "usual" and at the same time "eternal", "unchanging". This simple character interfered with centuries of Western translations of the Chinese texts (most translators, saturated with monotheism, choose the latter meaning of chang, although the former is more significant in the light of both the remaining text and the findings in animal behavior or physics).

That being said, primitive Daoism apparently agrees with Mengzi's vision in virmaior's 3rd paragraph. The Dao De Jing (57) says "I do nothing and the people are reformed of themselves. I love quietude and the people are righteous of themselves. I deal in no business and the people grow rich by themselves. I have no desires and the people are simple and honest by themselves." [Lin Yutang 1955 http://web.archive.org/web/20110514203735/http://home.pages.at/onkellotus/TTK/English_Yutang_TTK.html#Kap57] That's a great definition of "good" to me, though the character shan 善 is absent.

In a modern, scientific world-view, biology says that any social species will know how to tell good from evil. That's illustrated in Jane Goodall's book "Through a Window", when the group of Gombe chimpanzees isolates an old female who kills an infant.

This Daoist point of view is also exemplified in the movie K-PAX (2001), where Kevin Spacey's character replies to his restless, frustrated doctor, who is asking about his "other-worldly society", which is described as having no rules or government. The doctor asks "How do you know right from wrong?", to which the "alien" answers the obvious: "Every being in the Universe knows right from wrong, Mark." That's a great movie about Daoist thinking. Remembering that the society described by the "alien" is strikingly similar to those existent all over America, which were unmercifully destroyed by so-called Christians "devoted to good".

So, to conclude: yes, Eastern philosophies are well aware of the good/evil problem, but no, they don't posit this two concepts as "dueling", but are able to recognize their "complementarity", opposed to those who, trying to bring us "100% good" actually brought some of us "100% evil"...

  • Err, I don't think much of your answer is a comment on my answer, but it's interesting in its own light. So I will give two comments and then just leave things as they are. – virmaior Aug 8 '16 at 4:57
  • (1) I never in my answer assert shan and e to be the only words usable for good and evil in Chinese any more than I would assert "good" and "evil" are the only fits for ii and warui in Japanese or "bueno" and "malo" in Spanish. You seem to spend a lot of time on these sort of linguistic points in your answer, but that's basically a distraction. – virmaior Aug 8 '16 at 4:57
  • (2) I don't think the primitive Daoist Daodejing are trying to make the same point as Mengzi. I think they're each asserting their own idea of the good as being natural. Clearly, they have quite distinct visions of what is good (though less different perhaps than some of the interpretations people gave in say the 1890s or 1930s considering when the texts existed there weren't initially distinct schools). This is pretty common in all arguments that build on nature (thus the informal fallacy "naturalistic fallacy"). – virmaior Aug 8 '16 at 5:00
  • 1) In English there is "common sense". In Portuguese we have "bom senso" and "senso comum", which are two very different things. What I mean is that we may not have enough words in English or Portuguese to convey all Eastern wisdom (we probably don't). – Rodrigo Aug 8 '16 at 7:59
  • 2) Dao De Jing refers to a much older knowledge, and since Confucius respected the old ways, he was a lot Daoist himself. Thus, we may expect Mencius to be as well. Of course they'll phrase it in different words, and have different goals, but the source of their knowledge seems the same. Edward Wilson calls it "biophilia". I call scholars not understanding it the "anti-naturalistic fallacy". – Rodrigo Aug 8 '16 at 8:04

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