Can Good Lead to Evil?


Published in the Philosophical Review, 2023


The question of how to categorize an action as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ was of foremost importance for the British Legal System in the 1600s. Establishing guilt required judges to have a criterion for evaluating observed actions. In this context, the foundational principle of Mens Rea, focusing on the intent behind actions, was formulated.

Actions were perceived by judges to have both physical and mental elements.

Alongside the physical aspect of a person’s conduct, the mental nature, reflecting the inner motivation behind the action, needed consideration. Labelling an action as evil (or guilt-laden) hinged upon proving the intentionality to cause harm.

Encapsulated this idea, Mens Rea, was defined as 

the element of… wrongful purpose; a criminal intent’. (Mens Rea, 2008).

From defining evil to defining good:   This criterion of judging evil through the intent to harm can guide our definition of the opposite, or how to label actions as ‘good.’   Applying logical negation to the statement ‘evil is the intent to do harm’ yields ‘good is the intent to remove harm.’   This notion is widely comprehensible. Professions (e.g., doctors, and nurses) are deemed ‘good’ because their actions aim to alleviate suffering. Given the simplicity of this solution, it is puzzling why philosophers did not align their views on good and evil with the clarity offered by legal authorities of that time, settling the matter without further dispute.

Instead, Western philosophy struggled with defining ‘good’, while the definition modelled on the legal system would have been clearer.  Thus, for example, consider the following three philosophical definitions highlighting this ambiguity.

- First, in G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, he defines good cryptically:

 ‘If I am asked ‘what is good?’ – my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the matter. Or if I am asked, ‘How is good to be defined?’ – my answer is that it cannot be defined, and that’s all I have to say about it’ (Moore, 1902, p. 7).

- Next, Mawson’s definition in his book “Belief in God” defines goodness as: 

‘... A matter of behaving as one ought in one’s relations with other people, and perfect goodness is a matter of doing the best thing that one can for them whenever there is a best and doing one of the best things that one can whenever two or more things are ‘joint best’ for them, i.e. are equally good and none is better’. (Mawson, 2005, pp. 57-58)

Here, Mawson attempts to link goodness with appropriate behaviour in relationships but encounters flaws by assuming an unquestionable definition of what one ‘ought to do’.  Furthermore, there is a circularity to the definition, with the words ‘good’, ‘better’ and ‘best’ all being used to refer to – and to explain – ‘goodness’.

- Meanwhile, Kant’s deontological perspective shifts the definition of ‘good’ to a ‘good will’, albeit, raising additional concerns about circular definitions (McCarty, 2015). Logic fails when one tries to define a word in terms of itself.

Eastern Philosophy definition of Good: Eastern philosophical views offer clearer definitions including the criteria of ‘removing harm’ and ‘imparting joy’.

Compassion involves giving happiness and alleviating suffering, leading to harmonious coexistence. In fact:

 ‘… the word for compassion comprises two Chinese characters. The first character corresponds to the Sanskrit word maitri, meaning ‘to give happiness’. The second corresponds to the Sanskrit word karuna, meaning ‘to remove suffering’. Taken together they describe the function of relieving living beings of suffering and giving them happiness”.  (Buddhist Compassion, 2012).

In the Buddhist theory of value, the value of Good is related to actions, which provide benefit and harmony, with particular actions leading to the wellbeing of self and others. Soka Buddhist literature defines: goodness:

“ … as that which moves us in the direction of harmonious coexistence, empathy and solidarity with others. The nature of evil, on the other hand, is to divide people from people, humanity from the rest of nature” (D. Ikeda)

Kant (2002) overlooks these more obvious criteria and replaces them with the notion of ‘fulfilling one’s duty’, and admits it ‘involves unconditional obligation, which is directly contrary to pleasantness’.

Kant’s deontological theory prioritizes intention over consequences, overlooking the influence of external factors on action outcomes. It neglects the interconnectedness of individuals with their environment and fails to consider the impact of actions on surroundings.

Deontology emerged, perhaps, from the observation that we generally cannot control the external environment, which may interfere, causing negative consequences, despite our good intention. Disregarding the external factors, which are involved in our action, does not free us from responsibility for the consequences.

In the legal system, there is a marked difference between a criminal action based on intention and another based on ignorance, nonetheless a criminal outcome of an action cannot be defined as ‘good’. The Kantian argument for judging an action as good based solely upon the intention of a goodwill could conceivably describe a suicide bomber’s action as ‘good’ – because his firm and sincere intention to serve God is “good” - regardless of the evil consequences.

This stance leads to ethical conundrums. Judging an action solely by intention overlooks its impact on the environment. A more holistic approach recognizes the interaction between individual action and its consequences. In the legal realm, differentiating between actions based on intention or on ignorance is crucial, indicating that good intentions alone do not absolve one from the responsibility of consequences.

Ultimately, historical evidence suggests that focusing solely on an individual’s intentions, as in deontological ethics, might not adequately address the broader impact of actions. The 17th-century judges’ emphasis on considering an action’s impact stands as a more comprehensive viewpoint.




-  Buddhist Compassion. (July 2012). Living Buddhism. 14-15. sgi-usa

-  Ikeda, D. (n.d.). Good & Evil. The New Human Revolution, 27().

-  Critique of practical reason. Hackett Publishing. Retrieved from

-  Mawson, T. J. (2005). Belief in God: An Introduction to Philosophy of Religion. (pp. 57-58). OUP. ISBN 978-0-19-928495-5

-  McCarty, R. (2015). The Good Will. Retrieved from

-  Mens Rea. (2008). West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2nd Edition. Retrieved from mens+rea

-  Moore, G. E. (1902). Principia Ethica. CUP.