If we take a narrow view on good and evil, for practical applications (e.g. criminology, law), would it be correct to change the terms of "good" and "evil" with the supposedly more accurate and specific terms of "cooperative behaviour" and "radically selfish behaviour"?

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    No. Sometimes non-cooperative is "good", when a group is doing something stupid, and often what's "good" is orthogonal to selfishness and cooperation, e.g. when expertise is needed. A loose approval label like "good" can not be reduced to something so narrow even for practical applications, or rather especially for them, given their versatility.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 12:17
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    I am not sure the concepts of good and evil are found in criminology or the law.
    – armand
    Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 12:44
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    That change of terms may be handy and useful "locally." But it does not work philosophically or theologically. In those cases we seek, if not universal, then very broad, possibly ahistorical, standards by which to judge independently of circumstances. For example, peer pressure and cooperating with peers (honor among thieves) is often understood to be a source of evil. The classic example is the "Confessions," in which St. Augustine describes stealing pears with friends not because he wanted pears, but for the mutual thrill with peers. Commented Dec 4, 2020 at 14:47

3 Answers 3


That is precisely the Hegelian perspective: evil is total self-centeredness and egotism.

From The Science of Logic

Remark: The unity of the One and the Many

§ 356

Self-subsistence pushed to the point of the one as a being-for-self is abstract, formal, and destroys itself. It is the supreme, most stubborn error, which takes itself for the highest truth, manifesting in more concrete forms as abstract freedom, pure ego and, further, as Evil. ...

See also Hegel’s Moral Concept of Evil (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

The central aim of this article is to set out the essential elements of Hegel’s conception of evil. I demonstrate that Hegel understands evil primarily as a moral phenomenon. In particular, he identifies evil as a pernicious subjectivism and hypocrisy that undermines the social and institutional conditions for ethical action. ...

Incidentally, in Godhead and the Nothing Thomas Altizer writes

... when philosophy first deeply engages the question of evil in German Idealism, this is precisely the point at which philosophy fully becomes theology


Neither the term 'good' nor the term 'evil' has a substantive referent in law or philosophy. At the simplest level, people undertake acts and these acts are later evaluated by others using terms like 'good' and 'evil', sure. But the nature of human psychology is such that people only undertake acts that they consider to be 'good': the direct, inner-illocutionary outcome (what they say they want to themselves) has value to them. But these acts are often evaluate by others on an entirely different metric: the perlocutionary or alocutionary outcomes (what is implied, unspoken, unforeseen, ignored...). To use the paradigmatic example, even Hitler and his supporters thought that the acts of the Nazi regime were 'good'. They are judged by others as 'evil' because the outcomes they never discussed (and likely dismissed in their minds as irrelevant) — i.e., the deaths of millions — are viewed by others as salient and offensive.

This is the heart of that old phrase that 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'. If all we think about are our intentions then we will always appear to ourselves as flawless saints, because our intentions are always good. But the people we trample on the path to our ideals most certainly have a different opinion of us.

Law in its proper sense is a resource for those who get trampled. Law isn't meant to decide who is good and who is bad; law merely determines whether someone got harmed in a manner that was contextually unjustified and destructive to the community as a general principle, and institutes punishments and reparations where needed. The phrase 'they are evil' has no evidentiary basis, and cannot be used by the prosecution or defense as part of the actual legal case (though it is often enough used in summaries as an emotional incitement).

Philosophy is more esoteric. While 'cooperative' and 'selfish' might seem like a reasonable reduction of 'good' and 'evil', that is a drastic over-simplification. Philosophy reaches for a distention between 'universality' (literally, a 'common turn') and what I'll call 'idio-versality' (constructed as a 'peculiar turn'). Universality points to something beyond simple cooperative behavior: an idealized virtue, a Kantian category, a moral dictate, a reasoned analytic... Likewise, 'idio-versality' is not mere selfishness, but points at an inconsistent application of rules, reasoning, moral imperatives, etc. A community may insist on a peculiarly idiosyncratic application of rules of standards for reasons that are not at all selfish, the way that people in the Southern US states before the civil war (and to an ever-diminishing extent through the Jim Crow era and up to modern times) defended slavery as a social good. An individual might stand up against such a community on the thrust of a universal principle, even though the results might (apparently selfishly) help themselves. Being selfish on behalf of everyone is often considered a virtue, while being proactive and cooperative in the interests of one group set against others often process vile outcomes.

  • 'Substantive referent'.. You can't say they aren't defined. You can say there is not widespread agreement, or that the definitions are fuzzy, or incoherent, maybe. But surely so is a simple word like chair? Good answer otherwise.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 15:05
  • @CriglCragl: The essence of this question is wondering how good/evil should be defined, so yes, I can say they aren't effectively defined. You and I might have a disagreement about whether something is a chair — e.g., is a 'bean-bag chair' really a chair of any sort? — but we have very solid referents for what a 'typical' chair is to give that disagreement some ballast. But good and evil are inherently subjective (only generalizable through some form of transcendent depersonalization). Where do we go with that? Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 16:04
  • And people will say, Hitler, Stalin. "always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings." -Wittgenstein. Subjectiveness doesn't untether these words from specific contexts & history of use. Family-resemblance type defining & language-as-use avoid any need for implied transcendent meanings.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 0:13
  • @CriglCragl: Careful with Wittgenstein... His notion of a 'family resemblance' is an anchored heuristic: a relationship centered on an archetypical or paradigmatic exemplar that gives substance and focus to an otherwise purely conventional relationship. We can fruitfully debate chair-membership because the concept 'chai' has a structural/functional embededness in pragmatic human use. Abstract concepts like 'good' and 'evil' have no such simple structural/functional embededness. Or at least, to get to something like that we need to move beyond mere practice to ideals. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 2:08
  • people give Hitler & Stalin
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 12:21

This just doesn't work. Was Stalin's evil derived from selfishness? It would be shallow to believe so. Undoubtedly he saw his own power as paramount, but it was the continuation of the revolution and defeat of Hitler, that this was in service to. Many evils have been done, most I'd say and the most grievous, in the name of, alleged, service to others, as Hitler's pursuit of lebensraum claimed to be.

Defining evil is something of a recreational problem in philosophy. The problem of evil is perhaps the foremost and defining theological problem of Christianity, with many theodicies, a term coined by Leibniz but applied retrospectively to the 'vindications of god' of Augustine & others. God may have mysterious ways, but this framing of evil explicitly focuses on the bad that we cannot see or imagine good to come from, or none that could justify it. The tradition of anti-theodicy, arises from this analysis applied to the holocaust.

Applied to any being's motivation, to act in a way that no good can come from is a perplexing thing to account for. Take selfishness, a selfish person would presumably be in the best to have a big family - selfishness in the service of others. Society's ladders to wealth in any case demand services to others. Greek tragedies frequent focus on monarchs in a position of unchecked power & no requirement to serve, like Midas & Sisyphus, feature supernatural torments that correspond to internal torments of not being of service.

Because of how we frame motivation, it always has to be in service of some perceived good, whatever we consider worthwhile or meaningful we consider by that to be good. It can contradict the interests or framing of others, but that cannot make it absolutely evil - some good is being sought.

So I would say the motivation for true evil has to come from outside a person and their concerns. Once we understand memes and self-replicating information, we can see how this might happen. Dawkins attempts to make this case about religion, that it is a parasitic meme-complex in service to itself not to it's host-humans - that cannot account for how widespread & persistent religion is though. We can look at idea-complexes though: witch-panics, antisemitism, misogyny, from the perspective of serving their 'own' interests as replicators, rather than those of their possessors or hosts.

I really liked this analysis of antiwar films, which identifies evil as overwhelmingly resulting from denial of death and misguided pursuit of immortality through hero narratives. This chimes for me with the idea of parasitic meme complexes - albeit ones that gave us many great monuments.

Perhaps the positive side of religion might be framed as channeling this unconscious or semi-conscious direction towards intimations of immortality, into positive ends, and by awareness of this we might go further, and have the foremost among us aspire to leave something better than ruins in the desert.

"Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"


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