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Good and Bad


Explanations > Decisions > Good and Bad

Definition | Judgment and decision | Discussion | So what


What, exactly is good and bad? We say things are good and bad but how do we decide this?


'Good' has many dictionary definitions such as 'Having desirable or positive qualities especially those suitable for a thing specified' or 'Deserving of esteem and respect', which can be summarized into two categories:

1. Fit for purpose

2. Morally admirable

Bad is defined as the opposite of good, so this means something assessed as such is unfit or morally reprehensible.


Fitness implies appropriateness, that something does what it should without waste or failure. It says that the thing or person is capable, that the job is done well. When something is fit for purpose we can things like 'that is a good joke' or 'she is a good doctor'.


When something is moral, we say an act is good or bad. We also may say that the person is good or bad, although this implies that a person who does one bad thing has permanently bad intent and will always do bad things, and vice versa.

This makes good and bad uniquely human. Animals do not have morals, so predatory and possibly cruel (in our view) acts are neither good nor bad. We cannot say, for example, that a lion which kills a terrified buffalo is bad (although from a fitness viewpoint, the act is bad for the buffalo and good for the lion).

Judgment and decision

Deciding whether something is good or bad is an evaluation, a decision. The concept of good and bad is important in our decision-making and we use our notions of goodness to censor both our own choices and those of others.


Whether something is fit or moral, the decision of good and bad is typically done as a comparison against a standard of 'good' and 'bad'.

This standard is often fixed, but can be variable, such as when a parent tells a child 'you are good' they may be comparing with how the child behaved the previous day. A more fixed benchmark of 'good' would be the stable notions the adult has of how children should behave.

Social construction

Good and bad are defined by people. When nobody knows and there is nobody there to judge, then good and bad do not inherently exist.

The standards of good or bad are usually socially constructed. That is, we create them with reference to others and what they have said. Good and bad hence act as tools of social conformance, providing means by which those who deviate from social norms can be judged and criticized.

A parent's view of what a good or bad child does is hence based on their conversations with others, their experiences of reward and punishment as a child, television features on parental discipline and so on.


There are many dilemmas where an act may be both good and bad. For example killing one person in order to save another (if only one can live, how do you choose?). In this way, it can be difficult to live doing only good things. You cannot just avoid bad things as this can result in further bad things happening. We can be guilty by omission as well as commission.


When we evaluate an action as good or bad, we seek to explain this by identifying and attributing causes. In this we tend to over-emphasize personal factors. In the actor-observer difference, we tend more to judge others as being a bad person when the do things wrong, yet we sustain our personal goodness by blaming the situation when we do wrong or bad things.


Right and wrong

Good and bad are often thought of as synonymous with right and wrong, particularly in the moral definition. 'Right' in this sense is not logical correctness but conformance to rules, which in the good-bad sense are the social norms of morality.

When people say 'I know it was wrong, but it was the right thing to do' they typically talking about the right thing being the 'lesser of two evils' (in other words, comparatively good).


When something is highly immoral it may be described as evil. This is an ultimate term, assuming total immorality, with an active desire to harm others, or at least a total lack of concern for them. Evil implies knowing something is bad but still doing it.


Good and bad exists along a spectrum from angelic goodness to demonic evil. Few people reach the extremes and many of us have a 'zone of comfort' where we will do some good and some bad, yet where we can live with our actions.

Social desirability

Our notions of good and bad are very strong drivers of how we act. Partly this is due to internal desire to do the 'right thing'. More strongly, we are very concerned that others think us to be good and so act in ways to gain this approval. Being seen to be good is hence highly socially desirable.

This means that when we do things which others think of as bad (and perhaps we reframe as 'necessary'), we hide our actions and are careful not to let others know. If they do find out, we will feel embarrassment and guilt.


As well as the fear of criticism by others, we do good things because our conscience (or super ego) prods us into doing so. In this way good acts become their own reward as we feel good for having remained consistent with our values.

So what?

We all want to be thought of as good, so you can use the principles of good and bad in many persuasion situations.

Praise them when they do the right thing, saying 'you are good'. Find ways to catch them doing good things. Praise improvement more than just doing the same thing right again (although give some praise here too). 

When they do the wrong thing, criticize the action, not the person, saying 'that was bad'. Saying they are bad is punishing and may result in them fighting back or turning inward. Saying the act is bad encourages them to distance themselves from it and improve how they behave in future.

You can criticize others as bad to provide a contrast, but be very careful of this as the person with you may wonder what you will say about them behind their back.

It has been shown in many experiments that ordinary, good people can be persuaded to do bad things when they fall into the pressures of a job or comply to commands without question.

See also

Values, Trust, Attribution Theory


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