The nature of good and bad

This research topic submitted by Khara Scott-Bey, Paula Stewart ( on 2/26/98.

Topic statement: Does society or nature designate what's good or bad?
Our project will focus on the argument over whether the ideas of good and bad are culturally determined or naturally inherent. We believe that our society labels things as good or bad so that we can recognize factors in our environment that can be harmful and/or virtuous. We believe that it is in our nature, as humans, to organize our society by our moral language. We are coming into the project hopefully establishing this point right off the bat because what we really want to explore is the issue of whether the labels good and bad are cultural innovations or a part of human behavior that is so ingrained into our psyche that is natural. Our basic thesis is that good and bad is a label for the laws of which we would abide by naturally.

Theoretical context: Hobbes verses Aristotle
Why is there good and bad? The reason, it seems, that there is such a defined distinction between what's good and what is bad is that there is no other species in the world that is aware of itself more than people. We are, as Robin Fox says, "…obviously a part of nature and in particular (we are) part of the animal world; yet (we are) set apart from nature by the very fact of knowing (we are) a part of it." Because we are aware we have tried to separate ourselves from nature in an effort to define self. We do that by defining boundaries
There has yet to be a culture that had language and didn't have religion or a religion with out a language, the two go hand and hand as far as civilization is concerned. Religion takes the idea of labeling what's good and bad to the next step. Religion is a way for people to explain things that are beyond their control. The same way the designation of good and bad was supposed to order chaos is the same way religion put order to the unknown. The institutions of religion seem to have been the first effort of people to document what is good or bad. There is no doubt that before there was religion or language there were rules and things that were considered good or bad but once religion was established and the unspoken rules articulated, morality was placed on a different level. Now there was documentation of what was supposed to be right for everyone. Our argument is that these early documents or organized beliefs only restated what would be inherently bad things without such institutions. Aristotle would argue that because every culture has had a religion, religion must be a part of human nature and in so being it must be natural.
It is true that sometimes what's considered good or bad goes against the natural behavior of people but I would say that some of the sources that establish what is appropriate behavior have been warped and abused in a way that has evolved with the passage of time. Examples of this would be arbitrary laws that only succeed in restricting human behavior, in particularly things like the institution of marriage. It is argued, however, that in general when we say something is good or bad we are just labeling the things that we were born to know anyway regardless of the culture or time we live in. For example things like incest and murder are considered bad things in most circumstances cross culturally.
The two arguments of this dilemma will, for now, be labeled Hobbes verses Aristotle. Hobbes says that in order to obtain order in the chaotic system of nature we must make rules or a social contract, which would determine what is good and what is bad. This would mean that good and bad are functioning on a purely cultural basis.
The Aristotle led argument states that man is by nature a social animal. The basis of this argument is that society is a part of nature and it is completely natural for humans to have rules and because of this having distinctions between good and bad. By these designations people are not trying to control nature but expressing it. Robin Fox says that, "(We) are social animals and (we) will therefore live in a civil state."
It is hard to tell whether there is a good or bad (a.k.a. morality) is in the animal kingdom. If we look at our close relatives' chimps we see behaviors that appear to be guilt, punishment, and regret all of which assume some sort of value system. But with out the awareness and organization of "rules" as we have it is hard to discern.

In order to sufficiently explore the boundaries of our topic we have to look at both the sociological and sociobiological resources. It is hard to integrate the two fields because the two perspectives have not been very well explored in relation to one another.
In order to see what the commonly held beliefs of this community are we have decided to pass around a survey that will allow us to determine what types of things people consider good. Are these things in conflict with what evolution might select for? And is there a pattern that is easy to follow as to what is good and what is bad and how that is determined. The following questions will be on our survey:
2. Name one or more evil people/characters.
3. Name one or more good people/characters
4. What was the most evil thing you have ever done?
5. What was the most good you have ever done? Did it turn out to be good for just you or for another?
6. If you were alone in a room with a $100 dollar bill would you take it if there were no ramifications? Y/N
7. Do you have a belief system? Explain briefly.
8. Who taught you these beliefs?
9. About how old were you when you learned what was good and what was bad?
10. If you had to live in isolation with a person form a completely different culture for a year which of the following rules would be implied? No murder, No rape, Respect territory, No stealing, Reciprocal altruism
11. What are some other rules?
At the end of this survey we intend to have a better insight into where our beliefs come from and if in fact they are inherent.


Wright, G. H. Von (Georg Henrik). The varieties of goodness. Humanities Press: New York, London, 1963.

Schwartz, Barry, The battle for human nature : science, morality, and modern life 1st ed.
Norton: New York, 1986.

Rosenthal, Abigail L. A good look at evil. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1987.

Wilson, Edward Osborne On human nature. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1978.

Gregory, Michael S.. Silvers, Anita. Sociobiology and human nature 1st ed. Jossey-Bass:
San Francisco, 1978.

Lopreato, Joseph. Human nature & biocultural evolution Allen & Unwin: London, Boston,1984.

Fox, Robin. The search for society : quest for a biosocial science and morality Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, N.J., 1989.

Fetzer, James H., Sociobiology and epistemology D. Reidel Pub. Co.: Dordrecht, Boston, Hingham, MA,

Taylor, Richard, Good and evil: a new direction Macmillan: New York, 1970.

Suarez, Francisco, Disputationes metaphysicae Munchen Philosophia Verlag: Hamden, Wien, 1989.

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