Are There Different Types of Good and Evil?
There are different types of good and evil. The way to understand the types of good and evil differs by culture and text, but we can find general similarities by looking at major works and belief systems.
By looking at different cultures and works we can find different “archetypes” and “alignments” of heroes, villains, anti-heroes, anti-villains, and complex shades in-between.
Knowing these archetypes and alignments we can better understand good and evil as concepts in general, and the different types of good and evil as they manifest in complex ways in the human condition via personality, motivation, intent, and action.
We can also, from this starting point, consider how good and evil manifest in groups and collectives and how law and culture play a role in shaping behavior based on our common understanding of good and evil as a society.
This means that while some aspects of the argument are empirical dealing with the natural world, we’ll necessarily dive into more metaphysical concepts like ethics and morality as well.
Below explore all the points of the above argument by examining heavy topics like the vices and virtues, political and legal philosophy, and theodicy, but also by exploring fun topics like the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system, the levels of goodness as understood by the Greeks, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey and Jung’s mythological archetypes, Tarot, Astrology, and even comic books heroes and villains to keep this potentially “dark” topic on “the light side”.
NOTE: The main point of this page will be to introduce topics surrounding to the good and evil discussion to prove that there are indeed “different types of good and evil”, we won’t and can’t touch on everything here, so make sure to check out the links and videos!
The Problem of Evil: Crash Course Philosophy #13. A look at good and evil in theological terms, although it isn’t the only way to look at the topic (see the other curated videos below) it presents a good overview of the topic by the always thoughtful Crash Course.
TIP: The above isn’t to say specific people are wholly good or bad without change. People are complex and multi-faceted and can span any part of the good-evil spectrum, on any issue, at any point in time (complex and evolving fictional characters like Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Anakin Skywalker are good examples of this). Understanding good and evil is meant to be a guiding force, not a statement of absolutes. Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
TIP: For my money Good and Evil as a concept is described best by free-will. Nurture and civil law aside, people are free to be what they want, and thus some people will go toward good and others will go toward evil (both on aggregate and on a specific issue). Other theories are offered below.
PHILOSOPHY – Religion: Classical Theism 6 (Evil and Goodness in the World). A look at good and evil in theological terms.
TIP: Check out Good and Evil – The Animated Series. It is focused on biblical stories, but is interesting none-the-less.
The Way Different Cultures Understand Good and Evil
Dungeons and Dragons relates the gradients of good and evil to an alignment system (see below). Plato compared them to ethos (ideal ethics), Polis (the city-state, typically used in regard to the ideal city state by Greek philosophers), and areté (the ideal of moral virtue).
Religions, including Christianity, often elude to them as the virtues, vices, and sins. The Buddhists see the gradients as part of the pathway to enlightenment, where one makes strides toward goodness by relieving Karmic debt. The Taoists see good and evil as the abstraction of “oneness,” where they warn (paraphrasing), “know the evil, but stick to the good.”
These are just some of countless examples of the concept of “the shades of good and evil” being expressed by major works and belief systems. We will touch on each below, but first lets start by looking at heroes and villains in general.
Personifying the Aspects Good and Evil
By looking at past works we can find four basic good / evil archetypes: heroes (who do good), villains (who do bad), anti-heroes (a hero who is flawed) and even anti-villains (an antagonist who isn’t purely evil).
While some characters are complex, like Magneto from X-men who is sometimes an anti-villain and sometimes an anti-hero (due to him often allying with the X-men despite being a villain), and some are simple, like old Superman Comics where Superman is always “a super hero”, we can generally apply these basic four archetypes to any character to get a better understanding of them.
The Fool’s Journey, The Hero’s Journey, and the Hero With a Thousand Faces
Interestingly, we find that stories, characters, and themes appear over and over again in cultures.
For instance, the story of the Fool’s Journey in Tarot is striking similar to the story of Jesus, and to the movie the Matrix. Joesph Campbell described this phenomenon as “the story of the hero’s journey“. Accepting that Campbell’s theory is right we can consider the villain’s journey, the anti-hero’s journey, and the anti-villain’s journey as well. In all cases we are using the character at the center of a story to better understand the qualities of a given archetype.
The following two videos describe the personifications of good and evil as heroes and villains and the hero’s journey itself, and below we go into detail on the different levels of good and bad qualities found in humans and the different archetypes upon which these rest.
TIP: As you’ll see below there aren’t just 4 types (or “4 elements“) each type gets split into subtypes. This can be understood different ways depending on what theory we use, but in all cases from the Greeks, to Gygax, to the Theologians, these are simply models to help us better understand the human condition.
What makes a hero? – Matthew Winkler. What is the hero’s journey? What makes a hero? What makes a villain? Who is Joesph Campbell? Is the hero good or bad? Are villains always bad?
An anti-hero of one’s own – Tim Adams. What is an anti-hero?
FACT: In Star Wars the Jedi and the Sith personify good and evil respectively. We can find many different archetypes within the Star Wars universe with many gradients of good and evil, redemption, and even a notable fall from grace toward the dark side.
Blank Slates: Jung’s Archetypes and the Astrological Archetypes
Before we move onto the different levels of good and evil lets quickly discuss Jung, another aspect of Campbell, and the Tarot to provide a transition between Campbell and the other theories.
Jung gives us different types of “blank slates” who can become types of heroes or villains on their journey (a being with neutral motivations who can become a type of hero or villain through their actions.
You can learn about one take on them here: The 12 Common Archetypes By Carl Golden, but i’ll summarize the concept. Jung drew from the Tarot, Astrology, and mythology and beliefs systems and created a number of archetypes like the hero, the fool, the sage, the magician. Each has different driving motives and qualities, and each can become a hero or villain. Joseph Campbell calls them the hero with a thousand faces, the Greeks called them Gods, they relate to the astrological signs, and their story is told via the Tarot.
In simple terms, when we discuss the types of good and evil below, realize that these are manifesting in different “blank slate” archetypes, adding complexity to the overarching topic.
Introduction to Carl Jung – The Psyche, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Jung.
How to Understand the Different Levels of Good and Evil
Before we get into any sort of philosophical discussion on good and evil as a fundamental dichotomy underpinning human condition, or how free-will and desires relate to virtues, vices, sin, ethics, and morality, or what Kierkegaard thought it about it, lets start by understanding the levels of good and evil through role playing games, Greek philosophy, and comic books to keep things inclusive, non-theological, and interesting.
We will start by examining Good and Evil according to the greeks, and then compare this to the ever popular alignment system for Dungeons & Dragons alignment system.
The Levels of Good and Evil: As Expressed by the Greeks
Every great Greek author, from Homer to Plato, to Aristotle understood and wrote about morality, virtue, ethics, and “goodness”. Often religion wasn’t mentioned, and when it was, their understanding of worship was much different than ours today.
The Greeks understood good and evil as an innate feature of the human condition dependent on no God or state. Aristotle saw the job of elders, schools, and states to guide the people toward goodness and enlightenment. These ethics can be seen in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
The levels of good and evil as understood by Aristotle (and other earlier Greeks) were very roughly (on order of evil to good):
- Doing bad for bad. Evil with malicious intention.
- Living amorally for sensual pleasure and temporary physical things like money. Evil with amoral intention.
- Doing bad even though you know better. Being evil, but only in self-interest as needed.
- Doing good even though you want to be bad. Being evil, but doing good (for example to avoid being punished by the state or your peers).
- Many gray areas in the middle of good and bad.
- Doing good, but because you are supposed to. Being good, but out of conditioning rather than virtue (for instance, being good because the state and church told you to.)
- Doing good, for good, not driven by temporary pleasure, the state, or the church, but instead driven by “a higher goodness and virtue”.
Here you can see that when we say different “levels” of good and evil we mean different gradients of good and evil where the most good is a virtuous good and the most evil is evil for evil’s sake. This will relate to the D&D system below.
These concepts are explained in more detail in the following video:
PHILOSOPHY – The Good Life: Aristotle [HD].
FACT: Epicurus, another famous Greek, who lived after Aristotle described the purpose of life as attaining (and assisting others in achieving) a happy, free, and tranquil life free from pain and fear. He equated pleasure with good and suffering with fear. This didn’t refer to base-level self-interested pleasure seeking, but more to the healing of the sick (and thus administering pleasure and relieving pain) as being “goodness”. Thus was the mentality of the great Greek thinkers.
The Levels of Good and Evil: As Expressed By the Alignment System in Dungeons and Dragons
When Gary Gygax and David Arneson invented Dungeons and Dragons, they wanted people to be able to play a role of a character with which they could connect. To accomplish this, they created levels of good and evil, where characters were driven by higher and lower factors pertaining to ethics, morality, virtue, and order.
Generally, Good characters are driven by altruism, Evil characters are motivated by self-interest, and Neutral characters are in between. Evil destroys while good protects. But, these are only general rules, just like in real life.
Gygax and Arneson didn’t just consider “good”, “neutral”, and evil, they created a “two axes” alignment system that considered “lawful“, “neutral“, and “chaotic” as well (for a total of 9 types; although this differs by D&D edition).
Lawful characters respect honor, tradition, and law. Chaotic characters favor disorder, rebellion, and freedom from rules. Neutral characters fall somewhere in between.
Gygax and Arneson knew that humans were complex, and their actions weren’t black and white, they understood that a Cleric could do great evil in the name of good, or that an amoral thief could be a hero.
By creating these levels of good and evil, Gygax and Arneson created very “human” roles that players could be absorbed in, and players could understand each other through. This system of good and evil types is known as “the alignment system” or “the Nine Alignments”. TIP: see an awesome description of the alignments here (we draw from this).
There is no one way to understand alignments, but we could express them as roughly:
- Lawful good. A good character who follows virtue, honor, and compassion. The Crusaders (soldiers in general) are Lawful good.
- Neutral good. A good character who does the best they can, but without bias for or against an order. A gun for hire who takes “good” contracts is Neutral good.
- Chaotic good. A good character who performs beneficial acts regardless of the rules. Robin Hood or the main character from V for Vendetta are examples of chaotic good.
- Lawful neutral. A neutral character who follows the law. A judge is lawful neutral.
- Neutral. A neutral character is simply amoral, could be good or bad, either indifferent to good and evil or naive. The fool is neutral, and Pinocchio is neutral.
- Chaotic neutral. A neutral character who follows their whims and self-interest, but amorally, thus can do good or evil when it suits them. A CEO bidding for a military contract based on the bottom line more than on ethics.
- Lawful evil. An evil character who follows an order of evil. A general in Hitler’s Nazi army, a storm trooper.
- Neutral evil. An evil character who acts out of self-interest, committing evil for the sake of evil, not for a church or state. A hitman without a code.
- Chaotic evil. An evil character who is driven by greed, hatred, and chaos. One who is evil without a set of external or internal guidelines to govern the evil. A demon or devil.
All branches of philosophy aside, culture presents a good starting point for discussing good and evil (source).
TIP: A character’s perception of themselves and how they are perceived by others is two different things. I can think i’m lawful good solider, but end up being a lawful evil storm trooper. People are not simple in real life, and frame of reference matters. I strongly suggest the excellent video series below for a more in-depth view.
D&D Alignment Done Right: Segment #1 The Chart. A look at D&D Alignment in detail. There is a rule-book, but people get to understand D&D in their way. This video is opinionated but well done.
TIP: In Dungeons and Dragons no good or evil alignment is without fault. If we could borrow a qualifier from the Greeks and add in “virtue” (areté, the ideal of goodness and virtue), then perhaps the highest order of beings would be a lawful neutral character (erring on the side of good) who is virtuous. In D&D, these qualifiers would be defined by the role-player in the characters backstory, in the gods they worshiped, and through the actions of their character.
TIP: In real life a Paladin can be a “useful idiot” for evil and a chaotic evil villain can be a hired gun for good. The reality is not black and white and requires forgiveness, understanding, and critical thinking.
TIP: Here is a good resource to understand alignments of good and evil by an image.
Are there different types of good and evil? Comic books and other works strongly hint to the answer being yes. Some rights reserved: RyC – Behind The Lens on flickr.com.
FACT: In the Marvel and DC Universes there are many gradients of good and evil, this is true of all stories from the heroes journey, to the Iliad, to the biblical stories. This is no accident. If we can’t understand the difference between Professor X, Magneto, Kingpin, Thanos, Wolverine, and Cyclops in terms of good and evil, either we don’t read comics, or we need to take a step back and do some critical thinking. With that in mind, here is a look at 25 Marvel villains and 25 Marvel heroes so you can compare and contrast.
Top 25 Marvel Villains. Not every villain is the same type of evil, and not every hero is the same good. This is why we have archetypes like the anti-hero.
Top 25 Marvel Superheroes. Not every hero is the same good.
Why Care About the Different Levels of Good and Evil?
Now that we know about the different ways to model the complexities of good and evil without getting all political and theological… we can get all political and theological.
In my opinion, aside from making role playing games more fun, there are many practical reasons to care about the different types of good and evil, the most practical being a matter of law and government.
Good and Evil in Law and Government
Firstly, natural and civil laws are at the heart of political philosophy and legal philosophy. If you think about it, you’ll realize that the ethereal fields of morality and ethics (which aren’t concrete empirical things) are at the center of the legal world. Thus we must explore “the first philosophy” (AKA metaphysics) even in the most realist of pursuits.
How can we have ethical and moral laws and tribunes and judges if we can’t tell right from wrong? If “right” is only following the law, then what do we do if the law is unjust, how do we create a law in the first place, and how do we define justice?
How can we rule justly when we can’t differentiate between Edward Snowden and violent terrorist who loathes the U.S.? How can we make accurate judgements if we can’t tell an anti-villain from a hero? How can we judge a villain if we can’t tell a fool from a sage? Do we judge based on character, intent, or action? These are only some of the questions that a careful examination of good and evil possess.
Good and Evil in Personal Morality and Understanding the Human Condition
The concepts of good and evil also matter in our own self development and personal understanding (as well as the understanding of others and their cultures).
The overarching message of almost all great works and belief systems is that good and evil all arise from the same source, and are an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. Most works also express the idea that all things considered, the path of goodness is the “higher path” (“the path of enlightenment”).
With this said, great works also express the gradients of good and evil (often through stories) as a way to caution us against demonizing in others what has the potential to exist in ourselves, or painting all non-goodness with a broad brush.
A core theme of belief systems is redemption, forgiveness, the concept of anti-heroes, and reluctant allies against greater evils.
There are lots of ways to express and understand the concept of good and evil, but almost all major works define good and evil as a dichotomy, and then go on to illustrate levels of goodness and evilness with examples.
TIP: This concept is closely related to “left versus right,” another overarching dichotomy.
Is God the Bestower of Good, Evil, and/or Will? Where Does Good and Evil Come From?
Lastly, lets end on a vital, but potentially off-putting topic: a theological understanding of good and evil. Specifically on the subject of Theodicy.
Culture aside, there is are deeper questions for theists and even atheists (that can be asked when we each are allowed to understand God in our own way), which include, “did God create good and evil” and “is there free-will”? If we broaden our minds to embrace this concept, knowing that we can understand “God” as “math and physics”, “the universe”, the Christian God, or the Taoist’s Tao, etc we begin to explore the branches of metaphysics called theology and ontology.
Did God create humans with free-will because natural liberty was necessary for humans to realize their full-potential for good (thus we must be free to be evil in order to be truly good)? Questions like this presents a rabbit hole to explore, but it isn’t our main topic here, but consider this simple list of theodicies:
- Everything is infinite and random. All that can exist does and must. Therefore there is good and evil.
- God is all-good (omnibenevolent) but not all-powerful (omnipotent). God couldn’t create “a perfect world”.
- This is the best of all possible worlds.
- Evil came into the world because of humanity’s original sin.
- Evil is a necessary evil, we only have the capacity for good because there is evil (essentially the Taoist version).
- The potential for good and evil is a test, we may very well be in a simulation after all. Is man better off with free-will?
- Good and evil are consequences of reincarnation and Karmic debt (the Buddhist version).
- Evil exists as a reminder to be good.
- We are all connected and evil is simply the uncomfortable feeling of hurting yourself (my theory, the rest are generally accepted theodicies from history).
I’ll just end by saying: Pascal told us that betting on God was a good bet for everyone (Pascal’s Wager), Kierkegaard’s spheres show us the ladder from the aesthetic world, to the ethical world, to the religious world (a ladder we can use regardless of our spiritual understanding), the Tao tells us good and evil are only abstractions of the truth, and others like Augustine and Aquinas tell us that God created a world that was only good and that it is man’s vice which creates evil. In words, it really doesn’t matter how you understand good and evil, but it does matter that we all find a way to understand it (even if only to better role play a character in D&D).
Where Do Good and Evil Come From? A philosophical video that touches on the concepts of good in evil in terms of morality and ethics, and civil and natural law. The video is good despite its bias (this quality and bias is true in general for the whole PragerU brand).
What is God Like?: Crash Course Philosophy #12.