What is good (and evil)?

Today's post is all about what good means.😇 Normally, one would take evil into account as well, but since this blog is ought to be about positive subjects, the evil has only little room here. 😉

When a friend does something good to you, let's say gives you a gift, how do you know it is a good deed? Why is it a good deed and is it universally good?🤔Whether something is good or not is part of the social layer of the reality (see more here). As Nietzsche nicely put it: moral is only in our judgment – actions aren't good or evil per se.

Your friend giving you a gift is only some objects moving in a physical space – nothing more. 🎁 Thus it cannot be deemed good. But we people, however, can give it a moral interpretation. This leads to two interesting questions: is moral something only humans are capable of and are there innate moral rules?

There is evidence that even infants have some sort of understanding of morality.👶 However, their moral judgments change over time as kids get older. This suggests that morality has both biological, innate, roots and social, learned, roots. In case you didn’t know, in psychology there’s an ongoing debate about “nature vs. nurture”. This means to what extent our behavior is biological “preprogramed” and to what extent socially learned. Morality is definitely one of those topics that seem to be both innate and learned.

But if morality is something innate, it must have some use for us as a species, right? At least, it will serve as heuristics in our decision making. Heuristics are so called mental short-cuts of the brain – they make our thinking process faster and easier. When we have a ready moral code that we can follow instead of evaluating every situation in life from scratch, our thinking becomes faster. Secondly, the fact that moral is also something learned is beneficial when we are talking about a group of people. It’s easier for a group to function if its members share similar understanding about what is right and wrong. 🙂

What comes to morality in animals, there's research (see the video) suggesting that there are species who indeed are capable of moral judgments, such as chimpanzees. 🐵 However, this doesn’t mean that all animals have morality or that the morality manifests in a similar way in all animals capable of it. After all, there are a plenty of different animal species in the world. And quite frankly I have always found it quite funny that we create this dichotomy of humans and animals as though all the animals fell under the same homogeneous "non-human” category. 😃

There is some innateness to our morality but that’s not the whole story since, according to Kohlberg (as in this book), people can be on different stages of moral reasoning. This means that not only we judge things differently, we can also reach to our judgments by very different means. I’m going to explain the five stages of moral judgment, but it’s important to bare in mind that the final judgment – that of whether something is good or not – doesn’t depend on the stage you are in. Also these stages are seen as part of the development of one’s moral reasoning, so the higher your level is, the more developed your moral judgment skills are. At least, that’s the theory. 🤓

Stages of Moral Judgement

The first stage is called heteronomous morality. In this stage, a person bases his moral judgments on how to avoid possible negative consequences. The point of view is strictly egocentric – how to behave in a way that doesn’t cause bad things to happen to me? These people are obedient to the authority or want to ensure that they won’t be punished.

The second stage is morality of self-interest and fair trade. At this stage, a person is still quite egocentric in his moral judgments. Here the judgment is limited to the view of the one taking a decision. Different things that are at stake in the decision tend to be evaluated equally, thus a person’s life and money are seen as assets of equal value.

The third stage is known as morality of good relationships. In the two earlier stages the moral judgments are evaluated only from the point of view of reciprocity. At this stage motives and good intentions are important in the moral judgment. Whether something is good or bad, is evaluated based on personal relations of a small social group such as family and friends. The point of view is no longer egocentric but it’s not too wide either, as it’s only limited to a close social group.

The fourth stage is that of social system and conscience. Now a moral judgment is also motivated from the point of view of the society and its laws. This however doesn’t mean that a person would think that laws have to be followed no matter what, but that laws and the responsibilities, rights and limitations that come with them are taken into account.

However, being ‘a good citizen’ isn’t always a good think to do. Especially if laws are based on principles that citizens aren’t willing to follow according to their understanding of what is good. The fifth stage is called morality of social contract and legality or individual rights. Moral judgments are made based on human rights or what would, in long term, be the best rule that would result in maximized good for everyone. 😇


This was a brief introduction to what good means. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this. There are many more posts to come related to the social reality! ☺️

In case you are interested in this theme, I recommend you to read the following book: The Social Psychology of Morality: Exploring the Causes of Good and Evil