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There Is No Such Thing As Good and Bad


Explanations > Values > There Is No Such Thing As Good and Bad

Social construction | Values-based  | Variability | So what?


That is rather a bold statement and perhaps one which could raise a few hackles. But then I guess it depends on how you define good and bad.

Social construction

The principles of good and bad are social constructions that are based on whether a person follows the same rules of what is good and bad in which I believe. Note that this is not a 'do as I do' rule. We very seldom think ourselves bad, readily making excuses for our slip-ups and weaknesses, while condemning others for doing the same thing.

To socialize a thing as good or bad, we need others to agree, so we can collaborate in judging, policing and storytelling. In this way we exalt the good and punish the bad, creating tales of heroes and villains who set examples of right and wrong and so embed good and bad into the cultural fabric of our societies. This is how good and bad happens. It is about shared values, not personality traits. People do good and bad things because we judge them as having done so.


The most common rules of 'good' are, unsurprisingly, values that are supportive of a harmonious society. In particular, they say we should not be selfish and not harm vulnerable others. Those who deliberately harm people are hence decried as bad, with the greater the vulnerability of the victim, the greater the evil, for example with deliberately causing pain to young children as a terrible crime. On the other hand, good is often defined as helping others, and especially when it is harmful to ourselves. Those who sacrifice themselves for the good of other people are hence acclaimed as heroes.

Good and bad do not exist in the forest when nobody is there. Nor do they exist without values and evaluation. Yet somehow, reflexively, we know that it is good to know what is good, and bad to not know what is bad.


Good and bad are not absolutes, even though dividing the world into good and bad can seem to make life easier. This dualism, making things black and white is a trap that many fall into and which is often used as a comfortable excuse not to think too hard about the messy reality of life.

Good and bad are dimensions on a scale and things can be more good, less bad or exist in a rather uncertain state where by some measures a thing is good, yet by another it may be seen as bad. Money is a typical example of this.

So what?

The title of this article is deliberately provocative. Of course there is good and evil. The point to remember is that even though we act as if they are absolutes, they do not exist independently of people (though religious beliefs may assert this as true). When you talk of good and bad, remember this. Even within a social group, what exactly is good and bad (and evil) are may vary depending on their emphasis on different values.

Rejecting good and bad can seem to lead one to a possibly selfish or anarchic state. A more useful position is to view things as being better or worse, more or less helpful, kind and so on. You can also view some things as ambivalent, with no clear indication of how good or bad it is, and where the best (albeit unsatisfactory) answer may be 'it depends'.

If you want to persuade, do not go against values and beware of describing things as good or bad. Far better is to leverage socially-shared values within your arguments.  Also, take note of people's needs for absolute black-and-white classifications. If this is so, then talking in good-vs-bad terms may be more persuasive.

See also

Vulnerability and Values


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