What is good? What is bad?

There’s this story of the Chinese farmer that illustrates why it is probably not the best to think in terms of good or bad. Here’s the story told by Allan Watts and illustrated Steve Agnus for Sustainable human:


I’ve been thinking lately about perceptions. About how relative thinks like morals are and how differently different people even within the same culture will consider a thing to be good or bad. This has brought me to reflect on Marcus Aurelius’s journal entry “that all is as thinking makes it so – and you control your thinking. So remove your judgement whenever you wish and then there is calm – as the sailor rounding the cape finds smooth water and the welcome of a waveless bay”. Easier said than done.

It’s interesting but not surprising that this idea of removing judgements pops up in stoicism, zen Buddhism, and modern day behavioral therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might have had some roots in stoicism but zen Buddhism grew this similar philosophy on their own. It makes me think any movement that sets out to improve ones mental well being, serenity and happiness will at some point happen up on this universal truth. And then there is the expression “It is what it is”. An expression that often comes when you cant decide whether something is good or bad. So your mind goes to the default — It is what it is. As Alan watts says:

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

and just to share another stoic’s take on this matter here’s Epictetus:

What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events: For instance, death is nothing dreadful, or else Socrates would have thought it so. No, the only dreadful thing about it is men’s judgement that it is dreadful. And so when we are hindered, or disturbed, or distressed, let us never lay the blame on others, but on ourselves, that is, on our own judgements. To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education; to accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun; to accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.

I feel like I should qualify this post by saying that not thinking of events in terms of good or bad does not mean not having feelings about said events. In the example Epictetus used he refers to someone dieing. I don’t think one should be emotionless where you don’t cry for a loved one. I don’t think one should not see it for what it is though — another event that boils down to “it is what it is”. Cry and mourn and feel the hurt. But when you’re done doing that move on.