Do Good And Evil Really Exist?
From Against the Ethicists, in Sextus Empiricus by Sextus Empiricus

Now that the Dogmatists have not described the conception of Good and Evil convincingly we have already argued; but in order to become more easily familiar with the arguments about its existence it is quite sufficient to say that, after all (as Aenesidemus used to assert), whereas all men consider that the good is what attracts them, whatever that may be, the particular views they hold about it are conflicting. And just as, although men agree (shall we say?) that comeliness of body exists yet they are at variance about the comely and beautiful woman, — the Ethiopian preferring the blackest and most snub-nosed, and the Persian approving the whitest and most hook-nosed, and someone else declaring that she who is intermediate both in feature and in colouring is the most beautiful of all, — so in the same way both laymen and philosophers share the same pre-conception and believe that good and evil exist, — good being that which attracts them and is useful, and evil that which is of the opposite nature, — but as to particular instances they are at war with one another. — One thing is pleasing to one man, another thing to another, and, in the words of Archilochus:

Men differ as to what things cheer their hearts,

Seeing that this man welcomes glory, that man wealth, another well-being, and another pleasure. And the same account applies to the philosophers. For the Academics and the Peripatetics assert that there are three classes of goods, and that some belong to the soul, some to the body, and others are external to both soul and body, — the virtues belonging to the soul, and to the body health and well-being and keenness of sense and beauty and everything which is of a similar character, and external to soul and body being wealth, country, parents, children, friends, and the like. But the Stoics, though they too declared that there are three classes of good things, yet classed them differently, saying that some of them belong to the soul, that some are external, and that some are neither psychical nor external, and eliminating the class of bodily goods as not being goods. Thus those belonging to the soul are, they say, the virtues and right actions; and external are the friend and the good man and good children and parents and the like; and neither psychical nor external is the good man in his relation to himself, for it is impossible for him to be either external to himself or psychical; for he is composed of soul and body. And there are some who are so far from eliminating the class of bodily goods that they even assign to them the most principal good; and of this sort are they who approve of carnal pleasure. But lest we may seem now to be unduly prolonging our argument in showing that the judgement of men regarding Good and Evil is discordant and conflicting, we shall base our exposition on one example only — namely health, since the discussion of this is specially familiar to us.

Health, then, is by some considered to be a good, by others not a good; and, of those who suppose it to be a good some have declared it to be the greatest good, others not the greatest; and of those who have said that it is not a good, some have counted it "a preferred indifferent," others an indifferent but not "preferred." Now that health is a good, and the prime good, has been asserted by not a few of the poets and writers and generally by all ordinary folk. Thus Simonides the lyric poet declares that "Even fair Wisdom lacks grace unless a man possesses august Health." And Licymnius, after first uttering this prelude —

Mother sublime, with eyes bright-shining,
Lov'd queen of the holy throne of Apollo,
Gently-smiling Lady of Health —
adds this lofty strain —

Where is the joy of wealth or of kindred,
Or of kingly dominion that maketh man god-like?
Nay, parted from thee can no one be blessed.

And Herophilus in his Dietetics affirms that wisdom cannot display itself and art is non-evident and strength unexerted and wealth useless and speech powerless in the absence of health. — Such then are the views of these men. But the Academics and Peripatetics said that health is indeed a good, but not the prime good. For they held that one ought to assign to each of the goods its own proper rank and value. . . .

Thus Crantor put health in the second place, adopting the order of the philosophers previously mentioned; but the Stoics affirmed that it is not a "good" but an "indifferent." They suppose that the term "indifferent" has three senses: in one sense it is applied to that for which there exists neither inclination nor disinclination, — such as the fact that the stars or the hairs of the head are odd in number or even; in another sense it applies to that for which there exists inclination and disinclination but not more for this thing than for that — as in the case of two drachmae indistinguishable both in markings and in brightness, when one is required to choose one of them, for there exists an inclination for one of them but no more for this one than for that. And in the third and last sense the indifferent, they say, is that which contributes neither to happiness nor to unhappiness; and indifferent in this signification, they say, are health and disease and all things of the body and most external things because they tend neither towards happiness nor towards unhappiness. For that which it is possible to use either well or ill, will be indifferent; and whereas one always uses virtue well and vice ill, one can use health and the things of the body at one time well and at another ill, and consequently they will be indifferent. — And they say too that of things indifferent some are "preferred," others "rejected," others neither preferred nor rejected, and that the preferred are those which have considerable "worth," and the rejected those which have considerable "unworthiness," and that extending the finger, for example, or contracting it, and everything like that, is neither preferred nor rejected. And amongst the things preferred are ranked health and strength and beauty, wealth and glory and the like; but amongst the things rejected, sickness and poverty and pain and suchlike. — So say the Stoics; but Ariston of Chios affirmed that health, and everything of a similar kind, is not a "preferred indifferent"; for to call it a "preferred indifferent" is equivalent to claiming it to be a "good," and practically differs only in name. For, without exception, amongst the indifferent things which lie between virtue and vice there is no distinction; nor are some of them preferred, others rejected naturally, but owing to the different circumstances of the various occasions; [so that] neither are those said to be preferred inevitably preferred, nor those said to be rejected necessarily rejected. Were it, for instance, obligatory that men in sound health should serve under the tyrant and on this account be destroyed, but that the sick should be set free from that service and freed likewise from destruction, on such an occasion the wise man would choose sickness rather than health. And thus neither is health inevitably preferred nor sickness rejected. As, then, in the writing of names we place different letters first at different times, adapting them to the varying circumstances, — Delta when we are writing the name of Dion, Iota when it is Ion, Omega when it is Orion, no one letter being preferable to the others by nature, but the occasions compelling us to act thus, — so also in the things which lie between virtue and vice there exists no natural precedence of some before others, but rather a precedence due to circumstance.

But now that we have thus shown, mainly by means of examples, that there is no agreement about the preconception regarding things good and evil, and the indifferent as well, it will be our next task to deal with the arguments of the Sceptics about the problem before us. If, then, there exists anything good by nature or anything evil by nature, this thing ought to he common to all men and be good or evil for all. For just as fire which is warmth — giving by nature warms all men, and does not warm some but chill others, — and like as snow which chills [by nature] does not chill some and warm others, but chills all alike, — so what is good by nature ought to be good for all, and not good for some but not good for others. Wherefore also Plato, in establishing that God is good by nature, argued on similar lines. For, he says, as it is the special property of heat to make hot and the property of cold to chill, so also it is the special property of good to do good; but the Good is God; therefore it is the property of God to do good. So that if there exists anything good by nature, this is good in relation to all men, and if there exists anything evil by nature, that is evil in relation to all. But there is nothing good or evil which is common to all, as we shall establish; therefore there does not exist anything good or evil by nature. For we must declare either that everything which is supposed by anyone to be good is in very truth good, or not everything. But we must not declare that everything is so; for if we should call good everything which is supposed by anyone to be good, then, since the same thing is supposed by one man to be evil, and by another good, and by yet another [is held to be] indifferent, we shall be granting that the same thing is at once both evil and good and indifferent. Epicurus, for example, asserts that pleasure is a good, but he who said "I would rather be mad than enjoy pleasure" counted it an evil, while the Stoics say it is indifferent and not preferred; but Cleanthes says that neither is it natural nor does it possess value for life, but, like a cosmetic, has no natural existence, whereas Archedemus says that it has a natural existence, like the hairs in the armpit, but possesses no value, and Panaetius that it exists partly by nature and partly contrary to nature. — If, then, everything that seems good to anyone is altogether good, then, since pleasure seems good to Epicurus, and evil to one of the Cynics, and indifferent to the Stoic, pleasure will be at once good and evil and indifferent; but it is impossible for the same thing to be by nature opposite things, — at once good and evil and indifferent; therefore we must not declare that everything which seems good or evil to anyone is good or evil. — But if what seems good to anyone is not in all cases altogether good, we ought to be gifted with discernment and able to distinguish the difference between the supposed goods so as to declare that this thing which is supposed by this man to be good is in very truth good, whereas that thing which is supposed by that man to be good is no longer good by nature. This difference, then, comes to be perceived either through sensible evidence or through a process of reasoning. — But it cannot be through sensible evidence. For everything which causes an impression through sensible experience is of such a nature as to be perceived with one accord by all in common who have their perceptions undistorted, as one may see in the case of nearly all appearances. But the same thing is not accounted good by all with one accord, but by some virtue and what partakes of virtue, by others pleasure, by others painlessness, by others something else. Therefore the really good does not impress all men through sense-evidence. — And if it is perceived by reasoning, then, since each of those persons who are held in honour in the different sects has his own peculiar reason — Zeno one by which he opined that virtue is the good, Epicurus another by which he chose pleasure, Aristotle a different one by which he chose health; each of them likewise will introduce his own peculiar good, which is not a good by nature nor common to all. So then nothing is good by nature. For if the private good of each is not the good of all nor by nature, and besides the private good of each there exists no good upon which all are agreed, no good exists.

Moreover, if good exists, it ought to be desirable on its own account, since every man desires to obtain it even as he desires to escape evil. But, as we shall show, nothing is desirable on its own account; therefore there does not exist any good. For if there is anything desirable on its own account, either the desire itself is desirable or something other than this, — for example, either the desire for wealth is desirable or wealth itself is desirable. But the desire itself will not be desirable. For if the desire is desirable on its own account, we ought not to be eager to obtain that which we desire lest we should cease from desiring any longer. For just as [we ought to avoid] drinking or eating lest by having eaten or drunk we should cease to wish any longer to drink or eat, so, if the desire for wealth or health is desirable, we ought not to pursue after wealth or health, lest by acquiring them we cease to desire them any longer. But we do desire the acquisition of them; therefore the desire is not desirable but rather to be avoided. And just as the lover is eager to obtain his beloved that he may escape from the distress which love entails, and as the thirsty man hurries to drink that he may escape the torment of thirst, so also he who is distressed through his desire for wealth hurries to obtain wealth that he may be relieved from further desire. — But if the desirable is something other than the desire itself, it is either a thing separate from ourselves or a thing belonging to ourselves. And if it is separate from us and external, either some effect is produced in us by means of it, or no effect; as, for instance, by the friend or the good man or the child, or any other of the so-called external goods, either there is produced in us a pleasing motion and a welcome state and a delightful affection, or no such result occurs and we do not experience any different motion when we regard the friend or the child as desirable. And if absolutely no such effect is produced in us, no external thing at all will be desirable in our eyes. For how can we possibly have a desire for a thing in regard to which we feel no emotion? And besides, if the enjoyable is so conceived because we get joy from it, and the painful because we get pain, and the good because we get delight, it will follow that no desire is implanted by that which produces in us no joy nor delightful feeling nor agreeable emotion. But if there is produced in us by an external object, such as the friend or the child, a welcome state and an agreeable affection, the friend or the child will not be desirable for his own sake but for the sake of this welcome state and agreeable affection. But such a state is not an external thing but is personal to ourselves. Therefore none of the external things is desirable for its own sake or good. — Nor yet is the desirable and good one of the things personal to ourselves. For it is either solely corporeal or psychical. But it will not be solely corporeal; for if it really were solely corporeal, and no longer a psychical affection, it would elude our perception (for all perception is a property of the soul) and it would be on a par with the things which exist externally and have no fellow-feeling with us. But if the pleasure it contains extends to the soul, it will be desirable and good on account of this but not on account of its being a merely corporeal motion. For every desirable thing is judged to be so by means of a sensation or perception and not by means of an irrational body. But the sense or intelligence which apprehends the desirable is of the soul; therefore none of the things which happen to the body is desirable for its own sake and good, but, if any, those which happen to the soul; and this involves us once again in the original difficulty. For since the intelligence of each man disagrees with that of his neighbour in respect of its judgements, each must necessarily regard as good that which appears so to himself. But what appears good to each man is not good by nature. So in this way, too, nothing is good.

And the same argument applies also to evil.