The Question of “Good” Versus “Evil”

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


The enduring war between “good” and “evil” has been at the heart of inquiry for moral philosophers and religious scholars for centuries. Though merely an epic space opera that hardly commands the impact of the Bible, “Star Wars” epitomizes that dilemma. In a galaxy far, far away, the Jedi are portrayed as a representation of good in conflict with the Sith, their evil counterparts, dark forces who could destroy the universe. Reveling in man’s lesser desires, the Sith breeds qualities like competition, jealousy, and tyranny.

The debate about what is moral continues to weigh heavily on our consciences. Socially acceptable behavior and our ability to fit in are closely tied with our knowledge and understanding of the moral status quo. But is it just a status quo or rock-and-mortar natural law? What if morality is ever changing and follows trends set by the people in charge? Then the good-versus-evil debate might be simply a psychological tactic for control. What we call morality could be considered a level of consciousness, a perspective from which to view the world. And yet the entire portrait remains a mystery. Beyond the concept of good versus evil, couldn’t there possibly be a brain state where morality is obsolete?

Contrary to what we tend to see in the evening news, which often depicts only lower-class individuals engaging in “immoral” behavior, a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences found that upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies, take valued goods from others, lie in a negotiation, cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize, and endorse unethical behavior at work. Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed. Low-income individuals are surely also in the crime scene, but their reasons might more likely be related to desperation and urgency. Be it greed or desperation, the crime is driven by emotional factors related to place in society. “I need to survive” and “I want a better house or a new car” might be the respective voices in their heads.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, proposed the existence of a tension between the needs of society and the individual. According to Freud, moral development proceeds when the individual’s selfish desires are repressed and replaced by the values of important socializing agents in one’s life (for instance, one’s parents or community). A proponent of behaviorism, psychologist B.F. Skinner similarly focused on socialization as the primary force behind moral development. Both Freud and Skinner spoke about external forces shaping our morality, the standards by which we view and act in the world. In this regard, the very behavior that we condemn as unethical is subconsciously glorified in the social superego because such behavior brings about “success” according to the status quo. These contradictory messages induce discord and stress in all of us.

What, then, is natural? Compassion relies on empathy, and compassionate behavior seems to increase when individuals tap into their empathetic feelings through activities like meditation. Empathy creates understanding, therefore dissolving the division between good and evil. Could it be that the most natural law of all sees no struggle between the individual and society, between our internal and external forces? The point might just well be to look beyond the good, the bad, and the ugly and get in touch with what makes us human.


Overriding the dualistic dimension of good and evil, compassion could be an important ingredient to a well-functioning humanity and our sanity.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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