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Is there good that is not based in knowledge and evil that is not based in ignorance?

Socrates said, "There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance," but lately I've wondered if this in fact true. As of now, I have not been able to come up with examples that truly discredit it, and it seems a very plausible and elegant description. So I'm curious what theTED communities thoughts are.

  • Apr 30 2013: It would very much depend on what we define as good and what we see as evil. In addition to that, there is a big difference between a good motive and a good result, and an evil motive and an evil result. Or the opposite.

    Someone may give millions to a hospital to build a new wing, but if the main motive is to have his name on the wing, the motive is selfish and thus evil. While of course the result is good.

    So, in my opinion, for an act to be good, it needs to be based in knowledge or it is an accident. An evil act cannot be based in ignorance because then there is no evil motive.

    That's why we believe that those who have not reached the age of rationality are all going to heaven.
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      Apr 30 2013: [My English speech/writing is still bad...]
      I believe your opinion is right in a way, Adriaan. (2 'A's? Nice.)

      Even if you are "good", the effect of your actions could be "evil", and Vice-versa.
      In the hospital case, most probably there is more "evil" ways to have your name in the new wing, like bribing the direction, or, "having the name on the wing" may be the excuse the person gives to him/herself subconsciously.

      There ARE pretty twisted (Either "good" and "evil") people in the world, most of them are that way because of traumas, education (not a bad education. An education that, in the process, imbued in them adverse feelings about a lot of things.) and even as "stacked" effects from it.

      People are neither "good" or "evil', they are the better they can do, normally "evil" people just act disregard the consequences of their own acts (It can be with a twisted idea about the consequences), for them and others.
      They are the better to be "Successful" (Thoughts like "to be successful you have to crush others"), to be "Happy" ("You can be happy only when you are successful").

      So, deem people like "evil" is evil by itself, and deem yourself as "good" is just arrogance.
      There's the feelings of people, their education, their influence. In the moment I understood that, I just stopped judging people as "good" and "evil" and started to judge "parts" of them (parts of their behavior, their emotions and et cetera) as "efficient" and "inefficient".
      • May 1 2013: Thanks Filipe, nice smile too :)
        I think you're right, it is not our 'job' to condemn anyone. Although we still have to judge whether someone can be our friend, or be a friend with out kids.

        Seems to me that being human means to always sway between good and evil, like a car on the road tries to stay in the propper lane. Come to think of it there may be many similarities between that road and our actions. But then too, as long as we're on the road to heaven, who cares about the details? :)
        Thanks for your response.
  • Apr 29 2013: Some studies done within the last two or three years supposedly hint that babies carry at birth some sort of context of a morality.
    If all goes well at birth, humans are born with their senses and instincts intact and at one with them.
    The only thing they lack is experience (knowledge) in learning how to use them and trust them.
    According to Robert Trivers, a leading evolutionary biologist, these young humans also carry the false and the true within them simultaneously, in order that they many learn how to recognize the true from the false.

    However, environment plays a huge role in how a human organism, brain, mind and so on, discerns this information for themselves, leading to how they then apply it.

    Isn't evil simply doing what you know or believe to be wrong?
    If you don't know then how could it be wrong?
    If you don't believe it, then how could it be wrong?
    Simply because someone else says it is?

    A young boy sees soldiers come into his village. His father tells him to go immediately onto a hillside and take care of the sheep there. He does. He watches these soldiers massacre his entire family and they do it with joy.

    This boy grows up to be a wanted and hunted war criminal for crimes against humanity stemming from the Croatian/Serbian war.

    He believed, nay knew, he was doing good. He was considered evil.
    He wasn't ignorant

    With the knowledge gained from what he saw, he knew exactly what to do and he did it.

    So in fact, he wasn't evil. He knew what he was doing, he knew it was right and he completely believed it.
    Only the people judging him are evil in their ignorance of his life experience.
    I don't know the answer to your question.
    It still is making my head swirl.
    Oh, no. I'm not getting enough blood to my brain. Close to a stroke right now. Gotta go.
    • Apr 29 2013: Excellent bit about biology, it actually falls in line with some thoughts I had on other subjects but that's beside the point. I don't think evil is necessarily doing what you know to be wrong though. I think we would all agree that sociopaths will tend toward evil but they don't have a concept of right and wrong. If it's only wrong if you know it's wrong then a sociopath that lacks a sense of morality can't be considered to be doing wrong. Exactly whose ideas about morals are the best is a conversation for another day but I have yet to read a text on morality that says it's good to joyously slaughter people. Which brings me to your story about the boy. This could, in fact, be used as example of a situation in which Socrates was right. The classical definition of knowledge is justified true belief, so then ignorance would be any condition in which a person doesn't have justified true belief, including false belief, beliefs based on false evidence, and a complete lack of knowledge. The boy was actually ignorant because he had the false belief that he is justified in the slaughter of innocents because he made the incorrect assumption that if others do something to you it's justified to do that to others. The misdeeds of one cannot excuse the misdeeds of another, because if they do then nothing is wrong and morality doesn't exist, so there has to at some point be moral truth. Whether it's your motivation that makes it wrong or if certain actions are intrinsically wrong, it simply can't be that subjective. So if the boy developed this false belief that what he was doing was right then he would be ignorant and his evil deeds stem from his ignorance.
      • May 1 2013: Perhaps morality is more situationally created.
        I don't think I was saying the misdeeds of one excuse the (misdeeds - your word), deeds of another.
        There doesn't necessarily have to be moral truth that extends over a period of time.
        To arbitrarily determine that "this or that is intrinsically wrong" for someone else, is perhaps, quite wrong in itself, as it applies or doesn't apply to another individual.

        I mean, what if? morality really is subjective? Who is to really say what another should conclude about their experiences, feelings and beliefs?

        Where in history have humans been practicing objective morality?
        • May 1 2013: Moral Philosophers have been creating systems of objective morality for quite some time. Besides, what is a legal code other than an imposed objective morality? The Hippocratic oath is another example of the same. We have always had objective morality as long as we have had civilizations. It is always wrong to kill a child in cold blood, I can't imagine a single situation where that is excusable, again making it objective.
  • May 27 2013: Maybe, Socrates had a foresight of current political games played by somebody. When a politician is caught by his oppositions on some bad acts by his underlings, he immediately said I have no 'knowledge' of the bad act." So that infers he is not involved in these actions.
    This , of course, is completely an antithesis of my previous post. That's why I purposely separate them in two disconnected parts. :
  • May 27 2013: I would interpret Socrates word that he only meant that knowledge is good to the person who possesses the knowledge. It surely doesn't mean what he does with the others must be good. Conversely, An ignorant person is bad for himself, and has nothing to do with what he does to anyone other than himself. If my interpretation is wrong, then to heck with Socrates. As a fellow human being, I don't have to agree with everything he said.
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    May 2 2013: Good is survival

    Evil is contra survival
    • May 2 2013: Elaborate?
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        May 2 2013: An individual always seeks to survive above all else. This includes his family, group, animals etc. In other words it is not himself at another's expense.

        When he does not do the above he is doing the opposite which is evil.
        • May 2 2013: So then is it better to help another survive at your own expense? To be frank I think this theory of yours is over simplified.
  • Apr 29 2013: I define evil as knowing something is bad and doing it anyways. Like for example, a CEO at a large company decides to do some insider trading. He knows that it will adversely affect thousands of stockholders and maybe even wreck some poor old grandma's retirement. He does it anyway for personal gain. This has nothing to do with ignorance, only selfishness.
    • May 1 2013: Or is it based in his ignorant belief that his own benefit is more important than the well being of others?
      • May 1 2013: I guess you could say that, sure.
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    Apr 29 2013: Knowledge-based acts of evil are everywhere (bomb building knowledge in the hand of terrorists). Acts of goodness not based upon knowledge are everywhere (pulling a trapped, helpless victim from a burning car).
    • May 1 2013: Knowing how to build bombs is not evil in and of itself. I know how to build several different kinds of bombs but being a pretty radical pacifist I would never choose to harm another human being. In cases of the misuse of knowledge the particular belief that needs to be taken into account is the one that motivated the individual to commit the act. In the case of a terrorist it would be the false belief that their view point, or cause, or whatever they're fighting for justifies the deaths of innocents. This false belief is a form of ignorance.

      As for pulling a person out of a burning car, if you don't know the situation is dangerous would you feel any need to help them? When you see the trapped victim, you recognize that the situation is dangerous (which is a justified true belief and therefore knowledge) and that if the victim is left in the flames they will die (again this is knowledge).
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        May 1 2013: Points well-taken. I too am a fan of JTB. However, I specified the COMBINATION of bomb-building knowledge with terrorist sentiments. The end is evil while the enabler is knowledge, thus challenging the Socratic premise. The burning car illustrates the auto-response to a cry for help. What we call heroic is the response to help WITHOUT knowing all the relevant facts about what led up to the dilema. Helping (a good thing) without knowledge. I do not think a hero goes through all the thought processes you describe either consciously or subconsciously, they just ACT! Sorry Socrates.
        • May 1 2013: Yes, it is the combination of the knowledge and the ignorance that leads to the terrorist act, meaning if the ignorance was challenged and they gained greater knowledge the act would not occur, making it the ignorance that causes the knowledge to be used incorrectly. As for the burning car, the pieces of knowledge I stated that they have are not knowledge that they gain in that moment but rather knowledge they gained prior to the event. They then use their knowledge to recognize the person needs help. As I said before, if they did not know it was a dangerous situation they would not know the person needs help and so would not give their help. Yes, they may not have all the pertinent knowledge but they have enough to recognize that the person needs help.
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        May 1 2013: RE: "Yes, it is the combination. . . ". I fear you are imagining a human act which is 100% uninfluenced by knowledge, or by lack of knowledge. That cannot be. You support the generalization put forth by Socrates (which I am unable to verify as to source)? I have offered two examples that I believe discredit the idea. You are being faithful in your defense of the old Greek. I must depart before I commit Socratic Irony.
        • May 1 2013: No, there cannot be a human act that is completely uninfluenced by human knowledge, that was my point about your burning car scenario. What I'm positing is that it's not the knowledge a person has that leads to the evil, it's the ignorance they have. To clarify, I am not supporting this position based on faith, I raised this question in an attempt to find a scenario that actually disproves it, which as of yet I have not found.
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        May 1 2013: RE: "No there cannot be a human act. . . ". The knowledge contributing to the act of rescuing the victim from the burning car is in no way the CAUSE of the act of goodness. Socrates says an act of goodness can only come from knowledge. There is no specific knowledge which CAUSED our hypothetical hero to act heroically. Frankly, I think knowledge would motivate one more toward seeking one's own safety, to heck with the poor person trapped in the car which might explode at any moment. Acts of goodness are NOT motivated by processing information and choosing a course of action. Consider this as a scenario that disproves the sweeping generalization of the old, dead Greek. I'll wait. :-D
        • May 1 2013: There may be something to that. Knowledge equating to good would imply that greater knowledge would lead to greater good but it would seem that choosing to preserve yourself would not be an act of good. Of course, if we consider it from a utilitarian standpoint then it would actually be better to not save the person as if the car explodes while you are inside then you have twice as many deaths as you would have if you simply left them. Which means were more or less left with considering it in term of deontology. So then the question is do you have a duty to save a person in a burning car? If you do then Socrates' quote is not entirely correct, but if we're not duty bound to rescue people then it becomes unclear which is better; self sacrifice or self preservation. I'll have to take this one into consideration. Thank you.
  • Apr 28 2013: I do not agree with Socrates.

    If man were left on his own, could some of his action not be interpreted as good? If a man saw a baby deer entangled in a vine and chose to free the deer rather than kill and eat the deer, would that not be good not born of knowledge?

    If a man chose to kill another man to satisfy the curiosity or entertainment of watching him die, is that not evil not born of ignorance?

    I think knowledge misused to harm other men is an example of evil with knowledge.

    I think a mother's natural instinct to help her child is an example of good without knowledge.

    Where does faith and trust fall in this polarization? Got to believe both can be either good or bad.

    Good and evil are human opinions. One organism's good might be another's evil.

    I think examples of instinct driven non-learned behavior that are interpreted as either good or evil might be the counter-examples to this adage.

    I think examples of mis-use of knowledge or learned behaviors to exploit weakness for some reason that was not supported by the need to survive might be evil without ignorance.
    • Apr 28 2013: Isn't unlearned instinct still knowledge? Knowledge is simply justified true belief, if a mother believes it is right to protect her baby, is justified by evolution (natural selection wires animals to desire to care for their offspring, I see that as justification) and that is in fact true than she has knowledge that she should protect the child. As for your first example, does the man have absolutely no motivation in freeing the deer? Again, I have to kick it back to exactly what knowledge is. In this case the man sees the deer, notices it's trapped and that it's probably in pain, and based on this justification rationalizes that the deer should be freed, that again is justified true belief.

      The misuse of knowledge may have something against the argument but as of yet I haven't been able to find a particular example that actually fits. For example, nuclear weapons seem like they could be an example of evil knowledge, but it's not actually the knowledge itself that gives birth to the evil action, we have to look at what the motivations for using the bomb are. It seems most likely that the motivation for using a nuke is driven either by the ignorance of it's power, or by the false belief that such a horrific action could ever be justified. This is certainly a misuse of knowledge that leads to harm, but the evil is born from ignorance elsewhere.

      Faith and trust themselves are not good or bad things but the outcome of trusting someone is either that they do good things to you, in which case the belief you held that led to the trust is found to be true, or they exploit your ignorance and use the trust to do something evil to you. On the other hand, trust can lead you to do good things for people but you must have been motivated to place trust in the person. In fact, even the statement, "I can trust him," is either knowledge or ignorance and the same goes for its negation.
      • Apr 28 2013: I think unlearned instinct is NOT knowledge. It sort of depends on your definition though, so i have provided a definition for instinct and knowledge from the wiki. To clarify my initial response, I am trying to separate what is instinctive or innate, from what is learned, by isolating man.

        Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something, which can include facts, information, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It can be implicit (as with practical skill or expertise) or explicit (as with the theoretical understanding of a subject); it can be more or less formal or systematic.[1] In philosophy, the study of knowledge is called epistemology; the philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as "justified true belief." However, no single agreed upon definition of knowledge exists, though there are numerous theories to explain it.

        Knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, communication, association and reasoning; while knowledge is also said to be related to the capacity of acknowledgment in human beings (

        Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism toward a particular complex behavior. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern, in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus. Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors.
        • Apr 29 2013: Your description of instinct or innate behavior seems to imply no decision is made, like an OCD patient tapping something a certain number of times just because. A mother caring for her child, however, is different. The mother is aware that she's doing something good and if she is aware that she's doing something good then she must have knowledge that lead her to do that good thing.
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    • Apr 28 2013: It seems to me that using knowledge for evil isn't really basing the action in evil. The motivation is what makes something wrong, not the skill set involved.
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        Apr 30 2013: "The motivation makes the evil"?

        Pasting what I've said as reply to another person (and them talking a bit more):
        There ARE pretty twisted (Either "good" and "evil") people in the world, most of them are that way because of traumas, education (not a bad education. An education that, in the process, imbued in them adverse feelings about a lot of things.) and even as "stacked" effects from it.

        People are neither "good" or "evil', they are the better they can do, normally "evil" people just act disregard the consequences of their own acts (It can be with a twisted idea about the consequences), for them and others.
        They are the better to be "Successful" (Thoughts like "to be successful you have to crush others"), to be "Happy" ("You can be happy only when you are successful").

        So, deem people like "evil" is evil by itself, and deem yourself as "good" is just arrogance.
        There's the feelings of people, their education, their influence.

        Why would the "motivation" be evil if, in most cases, this motivation is a "result" of the influences that people suffer?
        Aren't they "good" (Assuming that the "good" you talk about is not the old selfish idea that deem people "unworthy" just because they think different.) in their own way?
        • May 1 2013: In this particular comment I stated it a bit too sweepingly, my bad. I meant that in the case of the misuse of knowledge it's not the knowledge itself that is evil but the actions which are likely motivated by ignorance.

          You're absolutely right that people aren't entirely good or evil, they will tend to do what they believe is the best thing to do. But if we believe in objective morality (which I do since in subjective morality there can be no wrong) then often times what a person believes is best is in truth one of the worst things they could be doing. So then they are behaving in an "evil" manner because of their own ignorance.
    • Apr 28 2013: As for the Solomon bit, I don't think he was talking about morals. He was talking about the uncertainties and hardships that come with knowledge, this isn't in any way applicable to good that is not based in knowledge. Thanks for commenting, by the way.
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        • Apr 29 2013: I thank you for your sincerity, you did help. And it's rare to find someone who so quickly admits they're wrong.