Good, Evil, and Motivation


We will examine two kinds of evil in class discussion and assignments: Natural Evil and Moral Evil.

Natural Evil is a privation, a lack of good where good ought to be.

An excellent example of natural evil (a lack of good where good ought to be) is the example of a stone and a man presented to me by Jesuit priest, philosopher, and theologian Fr. Peter Ryan, SJ at Mount St. Mary’s University:

Consider a stone. It cannot see. This lack of sight, however, is not an evil as a stone ought not to see. Sight is not part of what makes up a stone. This is how God created the stone.

Now consider a man. Sight is a natural good, which is part of the makeup of the human person. If the man cannot see, he is lacking this good; this is a natural evil. It is the lack of a good (sight) that ought to be there. Unlike the stone, man was created by God with sight as part of his being.

Moral Evil is a conscious choice to do what one ought not to do; an unethical act.

Every day men and women are faced with choices—some of them good and some of them evil. An evil (or immoral) choice is a decision to do what one should not do. For example: If a person sees an unlocked car with keys in the ignition, he is faced with some choices. He can choose to attempt to find the owner and let him know of the unsecured state of his vehicle, he can ignore the situation and continue on, or he can choose to steal the car. The question becomes one of what the man ought to do. The best, most morally correct option would be the first, if possible. It would be a good.

The second choice is indifferent; it is neither a good nor an evil. Though one could construe this option as an evil as it leaves the car in a position to be stolen, it does not, however, change the situation for better or worse. It is not a clear-cut choice between good or evil.

The third choice is clearly an evil. A person taking something that does not belong to him it causes harm and undue loss to another. It is an example of what one ought not to do, the choice of a moral evil.



Ignorance: Lack of knowledge or understanding.

Apparent Good: A motivation or reason for an action which seems to the actor to be morally acceptable, whether or not it actually is.

Actual Good: A morally acceptable motivation or reason for an action.

Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates believed that no one could perform an evil act purely for the sake of evil itself.  He believed man only does bad things out of ignorance of what is actually good or right. In other words, when a person commits a morally bad or evil act, that person does not understand what is actually morally good. Instead the person believes what he/she is doing is good, even though it might not be.

Modern philosophers, myself included, refer to this concept as the apparent good, a term coined by Aristotle. An apparent good is a motivation or reason which seems (or appears) to be good at a particular moment in time.

There are people who lack the ability to rationalize or reason the difference between right and wrong. Generally speaking, this is due to some kind of intellectual or mental deficiency, either genetic or caused by illness. When we discuss morality, we examine what a rational person would do.

Sometimes an apparent good is an actual good; sometimes it is not. Let’s take a look at two examples:

Example: Apparent Good as Actual Evil

Monica learns that her boyfriend David has been seeing another woman behind her back. Filled with anger, she seeks revenge. She is hurting and wants David to experience pain as well. She believes this will teach him a lesson and make her feel better. So, Monica breaks every window in David’s car with a tire iron.

This is an evil act, a moral evil. It is destruction of another person’s property that results in financial harm, significant inconvenience, and probably emotional harm. Monica, however, thought she was doing a good thing. Her apparent good was teaching David a lesson and making herself feel better. That was her motivation, her justification for her action. While her act was not morally good, her reasoning appeared to her to be good at the moment. That is apparent good.

Example: Apparent Good as Actual Good

Sometimes what appears to be good really is good. Lucy is walking down the street when the man in front of her pulls his phone out of his back pocket. Along with the phone comes a $20 bill which falls to the ground. Lucy hastens her pace, picks up the bill, and hands it to the man informing him he dropped it.

The apparent good in this scenario is returning a person’s lost property. In this case, it is also a moral good.

Socrates: All Desire is for the Good

“One of the premises of the argument just mentioned is that human beings only desire the good.  When a person does something for the sake of something else, it is always the thing for the sake of which he is acting that he wants.  All bad things or intermediate things are done not for themselves but for the sake of something else that is good.  When a tyrant puts someone to death, for instance, he does this because he thinks it is beneficial in some way.  Hence his action is directed towards the good because this is what he truly wants (Gorgias 467c-468b).

“A similar version of this argument is in the Meno, 77b-78b.  Those that desire bad things do not know that they are truly bad; otherwise, they would not desire them.  They do not naturally desire what is bad but rather desire those things that they believe to be good but that are in fact bad.  They desire good things even though they lack knowledge of what is actually good” (Ambury).

Catholic Dictionary: Apparent Good

“That which merely seems good; that which satisfies some appetite or desire sufficiently to become an object of choice. But it is not the true good because it is not morally right, since it does not conform to the purpose of man as a whole” (Hardon).

Works Cited

Ambury, James M. “Socrates.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.D.

Hardon, Fr. John. “Apparent Good.” Catholic Culture / Modern Catholic Dictionary. N.D.

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