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Philosophy: Good and Evil in Teachings of Buddha and Socrates

Philosophy: Good and Evil in Teachings of Buddha and Socrates

There is probably no man on earth, who would not try to understand the difference between good and evil. There is no philosopher in the history of human thought who would not comment on good and evil in his writings. There is no society, which would not identify its views on good and evil and would not force its people to do good and eliminate evil. Thus, good and evil are the fundamental categories of ethical reflection, while all other ethical ideas depend on its content.

One of the most common and complex problems of moral theories is to define the concepts of “good” and “evil,” unveil their content, and formulate a criterion for dividing the moral phenomena. There were many attempts in the history of ethics to answer the question: what is good and evil? Depending on the answer to this question, separate areas of ethical thought, different schools and concepts can be characterized and distinguished. Theological concepts are associated with good through the manifestations of the divine will, the omnipotence of the human mind (rational), and human nature (naturalistic), which is concerned with preservation and continuation of life.

Good and Evil in Buddhism

Two types of allegations in the Buddha’s teachings clearly contradict each other. On the one hand, the Buddhist ideal presupposes liberation from all desires and pleasures same as from the suffering. In fact, it is necessary to break through good and evil to reach nirvana. According to one of the Buddha teachings, he called Brahma, when he escaped the affection for good and evil and became passionless and pure. On the other hand, Buddha ties the reach nirvana employing an ethical course of action; especially he experiences the strongest, most consistent rejection of hatred and violence. He appeals to the golden rule, which is the core of morality: “Everyone is afraid of death – put yourself in the place of another. It is forbidden to kill, nor to compel murder” (Holder 21). Such contradiction suggests that there is a need to identify the relationship between these controversial judgments about morality.

The concepts of good and evil are connected with the intermediate status of a man in the world. A man is an imperfect being. The concept of evil expresses the negative relation of a man to his imperfection, and the concept of good is a key to becoming perfect. Buddhist non-violence requires a faultless creature. In fact, it is a condition of a man who has reached the goal. Non-violence, meaning the absolute prohibition of violence and hatred, does not discern the living creatures in terms of their moral qualities (Holder 56). It still applies to good and evil. For example, for the traveler who has reached the goal, the traveled distance is not a burden. Similarly, for the blessed person, there is no difference between good and evil. There are two different positions, including the position of a person who is still on his way, and the position of a person who has already finished the journey and stands quietly on top. For the first one, it is essential to know where to find good and evil, while this issue has lost its relevance for the second individual.

Although non-violence is an idea, which stands above the struggle between good and evil, it has the same nature as good. Moreover, it is good itself, and is not limited by the need to resist evil. It is the pure good, which is too noble to confront evil and simply rejects it (Holder 21). The Buddhist non-violence is higher than the opposition of good and evil but is lower than good itself. Non-violence is equal to both good and evil persons, although it shines with the light of goodness.

In its final regulatory conclusion, the Buddha’s teachings question the difference between good and evil to justify the validity of good. A start that includes only suffering has to suggest an end that results in good. Thus, the teaching is tightened with these very opposites, from which it has to escape. Suffering is also a part of evil. At the same time, good acts as a pleasure pole in the teachings of Buddha. Therefore, suffering is evil and opposes good, which is a pleasure.

Good and Evil According to Socrates

Socrates insisted on the epistemological explanation of evil. He offered the principle of the unity of knowledge and virtue. The knowledge of good and evil is a necessary and sufficient condition for righteous behavior. Lack of knowledge is the main reason for the inappropriate behavior.

Socrates’ evil theory is concretized in three paradoxical conclusions:
  • No one does evil voluntarily;
  • It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it;
  • It is better to commit the injustice deliberately than unintentionally.

The rationalist ethics of Socrates lies on the belief that human nature is not inclined to evil, and that all the doers of shameful and evil do it involuntarily. People are slaves of ignorance, which is the main vice. Concepts of ignorant souls are dark, indistinct and mixed with each other. Such soul is reckless, for it knows no measure of satisfaction from desires and passions. It is cowardly because it does not see the difference between real and imaginary danger. It is wicked because it does not understand the will of the gods. It is unfair because it does not accept the laws of the state.

The idea that evil is created only through ignorance is based on the identification or, at least, on the inseparable connection among moral and physical evil, injustice, misfortune, and retribution. Hardly anyone will dare to meet a misfortune without hoping for a favorable outcome. However, people do not know that people have to pay for all immoral deeds (in fact, life experience is a convincing evidence of the contrary). A man can only trust that it should be in such a way and that it is true. If he does not have such faith, then the knowledge will not keep him from committing evil deeds.

The essence of the moral teachings of Socrates is as follows. A conscious choice of a person depends on how the actual life corresponds to his/her own ideas about a decent life. A conscious choice is a knowledgeable choice. Difference between moral claims and happiness occurs the worst people are the happiest due to the misunderstanding of happiness. There is only one way to happiness, and this way is evidential knowledge (Sebell 24). The virtue is identical to knowledge in the sense that only the virtuous people can be considered knowledgeable. The morality depends on knowledge and vice versa. Human behavior cannot be reasonable if it is not based on knowledge. Therefore, as long as the virtue will be in confrontation with happiness, a person cannot claim that he is living a reasonable life.

The moral teaching of Socrates in a sense represents the flat utilitarianism: good is only useful. Good for one person may be bad for another. Thus, the good is relative and conditional. The beauty is virtuous and public, while moderation, humility, and obedience to the laws are the most useful virtues. Inverse qualities are exhibited as harmful. Thus, the content of “good knowledge” is of the empirical use (Sebell 79).


The moral concepts, good and evil, in religious and ethical teachings of the past were based on the degree of development and awareness of the human activity. Overall, despite the significant differences in their ethical meditations, moralists of different eras were unanimous in one thing, which is the pessimistic assessment of the real state of human relations. Every moralist and preacher stated that there was no real virtue in the world. The people’s desire of success and well-being had dangerously torn them away from their moral responsibilities towards each other. A man has to make an essential choice between virtue and happiness. However, the founders and followers of different ethical teachings believed and continue to believe that virtue was the only way to true bliss, and moral depravity of a man doomed him to fail. Moreover, they believe that there may be such a world order, which does not include the murdering of the righteous and enthroning of the villains. Each of them offers its own ethical and regulatory program, under which the harmony between the moral duties of a man and his selfishness may be claimed.

The concepts of good and evil were constructed in the course of development, transformation, understanding of the world by human himself. They are linked with personal and social values, which exist and depend on the subject’s culture. The world is divided into two opposite spheres, which are good and evil, positive and negative, commendable and blameworthy from a moral point of view. In fact, different interpretations of the nature of good and evil in ethics is a contradiction of human existence, the limited scope of the internal world of an individual, and history of the society, which is extended to the universal scale.

Despite the fact that Socrates and Buddha represent different approaches to the definition of good and evil, they still found a common idea between them. Namely, it is ignorance. Although the teachings of Socrates are ethical and Buddhism teachings are theological, they both claim that ignorance is the greatest human defect and should be necessarily avoided. Ignorance leads to hatred and hatred leads to evil. Therefore, it can be assumed that the concept of good and evil is a major key to the formation of an ethical and moral position of different approaches to characterizing human behavior.


Good and evil are the most common people’s representation of interpretation and evaluation of all existence, including the world order, social structure, human qualities, action motives and its results. Good is associated with expectations and aspirations of people, ideas of progress, freedom, and happiness. It may act as the goal of human activity, as a perfection that has been lost. Evil always has a negative connotation and represents the bad, undesirable, reprehensible, blameworthy, entailing a misfortune, suffering, sorrow, and unhappiness. Even primitive mythology did not limit their means of expression, portraying the role and place of good and evil in the world drama. For the class civilization with its worsening antagonisms, this issue has become even more valuable. The ideology of uniting different peoples and social groups was expected to give some clarification. For example, how does the ruling force of the world refer to a person, friendly or hostile? Who are “of their own kind” in this world and who are “strangers”? What must be fought and what must be supported? Hence, here comes a problem of the origin of good and evil, most importantly in religion and ethics.

At all times, philosophers and theologians have sought to understand the meaning of their existence, to penetrate the mystery of the world order, to determine moral guidelines that can point the way to harmony and grace, to justify the presence of pain, grief and other negative phenomena in the world. Many religious and philosophical systems had gone from dualism, when good and evil was conceived as kind of self-antagonistic forces, and monism, when these forces were seen as parts of a whole mechanism.

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