In a large number of religions, 'good' and 'bad' are defined by some all-powerful diety who either sends a representative or himself to tell us about what exactly they want us mortals to do.

In Buddhism, instead an enlightened individual basically worked it all out.

So the basic question is - why does that happen? What decided that killing (even if your intentions are good*1) will cause something negative ? What about the other actions? There is no 'final judge' to confirm or deny we've followed a particular path - so why does the universe (?) act this way? And what makes us sure that we're correct?

*1 - It's an impression I got from reading some other answers, if I'm wrong on this please do correct me)


12 Answers 12


In Buddhism, the concepts of good and evil do not exist as in other religions (no being is inherently good or evil). No deity tells you what to do. There are the teachings of the Buddha, that we can make use of, as opposed to believing in a doctrine (such as "Ithe authority tells you this, therefore you should obey*").

However, there is still a distinction between the helpful and harmful, skillful and unskillful - in the context of the path (to liberation, nirvāṇa, nibbāna). In terms of karma (actions, kamma), there are the wholesome and unwholesome, but these are useful in terms of the actions we choose to avoid and to act on, in each given moment (now).

Mara, as mentioned in the Pali Canon, is referred to as evil (in the English translation), but even he will be enlightened one day. In other words, noone is inherently evil (or good) - no deities, ghosts, humans or other, in Buddhism. For instance, Maha Moggallana, disciple of the Buddha, mentioned to Mara at one point that in a previous existence, he had been Mara, and (the current) Mara had been his nephew. Strikingly, despite having been the "embodiment of evil in the world", a number of lifetimes later, he was one of the prominent disciples of the Buddha (Gotama).

An excerpt from the story: (source)

The first Buddha appearing in our "fortunate aeon" (bhadda-kappa) with five Buddhas, was Kakusanda. He lived when the lifespan of man was 40,000 years and when the first darkening of the golden age became evident because of a king's lack of concern and the occurrence of the first theft. Because of that, man's vital energy became reduced to half. At that time, Moggallana was Mara, chief of demons, lord of the lower worlds, and his name was Mara Dusi. He had a sister by name of Kali whose son was to become the Mara of our age. Hence Moggallana's own nephew was now standing in front of him at the door post. While being the Mara of that distant time, Moggallana had attacked a chief disciple of the previous Buddha by taking possession of a boy and making him throw a potsherd at the holy disciple's head so that blood was flowing. When the Buddha Kakusandha saw this, he said: "Verily, Mara knew no moderation here" — because even in satanic actions there might be moderation. Under the glance of the Perfect One the astral body of Mara Dusi dissolved on the spot and reappeared in the deepest hell. Just a moment ago he had been the overlord of all the hellish worlds and now he himself was one of hell's victims. A moment ago he had been the greatest torturer and now he himself was undergoing one of those terrible torments.

Whether we believe in the details of the stories in the Pali Canon is up to each of us. However, important to note, is that we all have the ability and opportunity to choose a wiser path.

Regarding your questions (in shuffled order):

  • There is no final "judge". No being (God or otherwise) controls our existence.
  • The Buddha (through long practice) awakened to (discovered, if you will) the way things are, how this existence functions.
  • Upon awakening, the first inclination of the Buddha was that "noone will ever understand this" - that it's impossible to teach. However, he was persuaded that some beings could be helped, and so he decided to teach others.
  • Briefly explained, words are inadequate to explain the way things function (karma, and so on), so instead of preaching something to believe in, the Buddha pointed the way for each of us to find out.

So noone "decided that killing is negative" (nor did anyone decide the effects of other actions). However, Buddhists will gladly help you on the path to finding out for yourself, to discover the effects of karma (your actions). Regarding being "sure we're correct", don't just take anyone's word for it. Try it out, see for yourself, do the methods and teachings from Buddhism work for you. Only then can you find certainty.


"why does that happen? What decides that killing (even if your intentions are good) will cause something negative ? What about the other actions? why does the universe act this way?"

As some answers correctly say, an action is bad when it leads to suffering, imprisonment, and confusion - and good when it leads to peace, freedom, and correct understanding. But why? What makes an action wholesome or unwholesome?

The nature of suffering, imprisonment, confusion - is conflict. A mismatch between how things are and how you want them to be. A conflict between you and the world. A conflict between people. An inner conflict in one's psyche.

The nature of peace, freedom, truth - is no conflict, no mismatch between expectations and reality, between us and them, no inner conflict, no outer conflict.

So, things that lead to conflict, to division, to mismatch - are bad. And what are these things? Lies lead to mismatch between beliefs and reality, therefore lies are bad. Divisive speech leads to conflict between people. Desire leads to unsatisfied expectations, which is a form of inner conflict. Desire also leads to conflict with people who have what you want. Hatred leads to conflict. Intoxication leads to mismatch between perception and reality. That mismatch is a form of conflict. And so on. Whatever action spreads the seeds that grow as division of people, division of mind, conflict - is going to be unwholesome.

The same principle works for wholesome, positive action. Whatever leads to unification, to decrease of conflict, to less division, to a better match between ideas and reality, between people, and within one's own mind - that leads to harmony, to peace.

Truth, peace, love, acceptance, suchness - is conflictless.

Non-truth, war, hatred, intolerance, dukkha - is conflict.

Conflict and conflictlessness is the key principle behind Buddhist ethics. This is what defines whether the action is good or bad, through the mechanism of cause and effect.

Divisive action leads to division. Conflict-inducing action leads to conflict. Un-truthful action leads to conflict of information. Violence leads to conflict.

Reconciling action leads to peace. Pacifying action leads to no-conflict.

This is the basic principle. Conflict is bad. No conflict is good.


The nature of suffering is conflict because mind (being an informational phenomenon) does not handle logical contradictions well. So anything that leads to an experience of clash or contradiction is perceived as suffering by the mind attached to (or identifying with) one of the sides of the contradiction. Conversely, reducing the conflict leads to experience of harmony, and that's the mechanism behind 8NP. This is already down at the level of the fundamentals; I don't think there is a further why more fundamental than this.

  • If we define good as correct understanding, doesn't that make good relative to what someone perceives as correct. But, truth, reality, and expectation are different to different people. So, my action to me might be good as it accords with correct understanding but to another it might be bad. So a skillful action (even not doing anything) might then lead to suffering for someone else since their "reality" or expectation is different. Does this mean that conflict will always exist as long as there are different "realities"? An ultimate reality would then be a requirement to avoid this conflict?
    – user29568
    Dec 9, 2018 at 14:34
  • Correct understanding means ultimately correct, i.e. Enlightenment, understanding of Buddha, seeing things as they really are. In Mahayana this implies direct realization of emptiness. In Yogacara terms, this is realization of Pariniṣpanna Svabhava.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Jun 14, 2019 at 0:05

Suffering/samsara is "bad". The end of suffering/nirvana is "good". Therefore, whatever is conducive to enlightenment is "good", while whatever leads one away from it is "bad".

  • 1
    It is not always helpful to see Samsara as bad. We all experience Samsara (the repeating cycle of birth, life and death), it is the material we have to work with, so to speak. It just is what it is. Seeing it as bad opens for the risk of aversion to it - wanting to get away from it. However, craving/clinging and aversion are conducive to staying in Samsara. Jun 27, 2014 at 7:09

In my understanding, which is imperfect, in a Buddhist understanding of reality, there is no absolute moral ground to find or be found on, no inherent "way of life" to live up to or learn, no true measure of worth or worthiness, no true absolute bar or standard of what is to be considered inherently good or bad, no central value judgement system, and therefore nobody to communicate that system to us from some sort of divine moral source.

It is up to each individual to discover first hand what is beneficial, what is wholesome, what is skillful, what is good. We decide what that measure should be, and set it simply based off of experienced reality: good is what liberates us and alleviates the experience of suffering, bad is what confines and deludes us, that which increases the experience of suffering. Good and bad, therefore, can be inferentially equated to ignorance vs. awareness of what our true nature is really all about. This can be brought back to an awareness of the lack of inherent good or bad value.

So, good is that which is in line with this awareness of a lack of inherent goodness, and bad can be thought of in terms of ignorance, or the deluded notion that things have an absolute positive or negative value. This is tied into relativism, into emptiness via dependent origination, to interdependency, to what Thich Nhat Hahn calls interbeing. We have a good and bad, but it is merely a convention, in no way absolute. We can say that, as long as we have apparent existences, causing pain and suffering to others merely furthers our own misery, and misery in general, and ought to therefore be considered a "bad" or non-beneficial action.

If you know, and by "know" I mean like how you know that breathing is good and sleep is nice, what your true nature is, then you will understand on an intuitive level how to free yourself from and avoid ultimate suffering, and what is the absolute extinguishment of all suffering? :) This is the same as if you know that a fire burns from first hand experience, you call the act of sticking your hand in a fire bad, due to the effect that that will have: suffering.

This happens, clearly, because certain causes have certain effects. For instance, if you commit a horrible act to someone, you will eventually come to grips with the notion that this was a human, like you, vulnerable and suffering the vicissitudes of life. This will bring about the experience of suffering, and will cause you to either become numb or more sensitive. It must be contended with in some way. This is a form of suffering.

More so, you were suffering before you committed the act that led to further suffering. In other words, you had a feeling of suffering that acted as the motivation behind an act. That intention/motivation/feeling of suffering becomes stronger when you act on it, though we are seeking to satisfy ourselves. So it is understood that, ultimately, it is this intention that defines an act as having moral value, it is intention that creates good or bad karma, also perception, also effect. However, in Buddhism, the "aim" is to free yourself of karmic conditioned existence. It is seen that even "good" karmas are the causes of suffering, and are just a part of the truly good or truly bad trap.

So, are your actions set with the intention of extinguishing suffering? If so, with a correct understanding of what causes suffering, then they might be beyond karmic consequence. Are they set with the notion of true existence and value? If so, they will likely act as seeds, as cause for immediate or future suffering, and are ultimately non-beneficial towards the goal of ultimate, final liberation.

Question must be in the "why" of things, and have room for weather or not the apparent actor is aware of the consequences or effects of the actions that are being committed in the name of said intention. So, is there a killing where the intention was truly beyond the perception of absolute good or bad, motivated purely by compassion and free from all misapprehension and motivational suffering? I can't answer that for you, but I cannot imagine myself in a situation where a killing would not lead to more suffering. What decided that? I would argue just the bare, basic, un-elaborated, simple ole truth of our lives.

Remember, positive and negative are subject qualifications and are based on pleasure and pain, which are also subjective. We cannot value things in any absolute way given those truths. The universe does not judge you, you do a fine enough job doing that yourself.

There's a great story, and I will have to find the sutra this comes from, where a man came to the Buddha asking him to help, there was a dire situation. This man's brother (or some relative) had died, and they had not performed the necessary rights to ensure a safe passage to a heavenly afterlife, or good rebirth. He knew of the Buddha's fame as a sage and teacher, so thus sought out his expertise, certain that the great Buddha could alleviate this misfortune.

The Buddha instructed the man to go get two very light weight "jars", and fill one with melted churned butter, and the other with rocks, and bring them, with the body, to the river. Excited, the man did this, believing the Buddha would surely help his brother.

When he came back, the Buddha was waiting for him, and instructed him to place both jars in the river, and when he did so, they just floated there, slowly drifting away. The Buddha then broke open the first jar, and the butter stayed on top of the river as the jar broke. It frothed up, and was carried away. Then he broke the other jar, with the rocks, and the rocks all sank down after the jar was broken.

He told his new friend that there is nothing that anyone can do after the life is over. Only the weight of our good or bad deeds determine where we go in rebirth, as it does so from moment to moment in this life.

Our actions leave impressions in our consciousness, in our minds and on our hearts, based on our own sense of value judgements, which are based on our own sense of what is truly real and existent. These impressions carry us away, or sink us down. How is it not the case?

The trick is transcendence, to develop an awareness of the true nature of reality (anatta, anicca, dukkha) and get your intention fixed in a alignment with it. This is done by following the 8 fold path, and the morality section is based off of simply making it so that there are no mental distractions that will keep you from developing your awareness. As such, they are based off of non-attached, dispassionate, compassionate social activity. They are aimed at selflessness.

Karma is based off of volitional reactive activity to perception driven feelings, the quality of those feelings, and our relationship to them in terms of either our tolerance to them, or their influence over us. To reduce blind volitional reactivity, we can develop awareness and equanimity via meditation.


Part of what makes an action good or bad is the intention.

Actions taken with unwholesome intentions such as these from "The Roots of Good and Evil" can be considered bad actions:

Greed — liking, wishing, longing, fondness, affection, attachment, lust, cupidity, craving, passion, self-indulgence, possessiveness, avarice; desire for the five sense objects; desire for wealth, offspring, fame, etc.

Hatred — dislike, disgust, revulsion, resentment, grudge, ill-humour, vexation, irritability, antagonism, aversion, anger, wrath, vengefulness.

Delusion — stupidity, dullness, confusion, ignorance of essentials (e.g. of the Four Noble Truths), prejudice, ideological dogmatism, fanaticism, wrong views, conceit.

Actions taken with wholesome intentions such as these, from the same book, can be considered good actions:

Non-greed — unselfishness, liberality, generosity; thoughts and actions of sacrifice and sharing; renunciation, dispassion.

Non-hatred — loving-kindness, compassion, sympathy, friendliness, forgiveness, forbearance.

Non-delusion — wisdom, insight, knowledge, understanding, intelligence, sagacity, discrimination, impartiality, equanimity

However there is also a factor of the end result. Some actions taken with good intentions can lead to suffering while some actions taken with bad intentions can turn out actually well for someone. So in another sense, actions which lead to suffering are bad actions and actions which lead to freedom from suffering are good actions.

  • 1
    Sensual pleasures aren't evil. It becomes evil only if the 3 roots of evil are present. Even Arahaths eat tasty food. It's said that they experience the taste best among all beings. Jun 26, 2014 at 22:59
  • 1
    Yes, they are devoid of attachment, aversion and ignorance. So they do not cause evil or create new Karma Jun 27, 2014 at 11:42

In Buddhist psychology, there is a very realistic answer to this question in terms of kusala sankhara and akusala sankhara. In essence, kusala sankhara consists of those causes of actions that are based upon awareness, knowledge, and compassion, while akusala sankhara consists of those causes of action that is somewhat lacking one or more of these qualities. The reality is that the causes of either form of behaviour are very complex, intelligent, and mostly unconscious.

  1. Why does that happen?

    Understanding the causes of human behaviour and human intelligence is a vast study. The Theravadin Abhidharma and modern psychology are examples of such studies. You ask the question as if there is a simple answer. Causality is complex and there is no simple way to characterize it.

  2. What decided that killing (even if your intentions are good) will cause something negative?

    Wrong question. The only knowledgeable question to ask is: How does an intelligent and well-informed person decide the psychological consequences of a particular instance of killing? The answer: He decides on the basis of a whole lot of background information. How can you expect otherwise? In psychology, there is no “what” that decides anything.

  3. What about the other actions?

    Same answer as #2, above.

  4. There is no 'final judge' to confirm or deny we've followed a particular path - so why does the universe (?) act this way?

    In psychology, there is no final judgement, only a very carefully qualified estimate. The universe does not perform actions. Only persons (and perhaps some animals) perform actions.

  5. And what makes us sure that we're correct?

    When it comes to psychological explanation, certainty is never an option. It sounds like you are talking about the attitude of a dogmatic guru. If so, I suggest you find another guru that does not have a deep psychological need to feel superior to you.

  • @ Ronald as you are talking from psychology perspective can I interpret your answer as, what your conscience tells you is good is 'good' and if it pricks its 'bad'.
    – user13135
    May 6, 2018 at 0:09
  • No. Conscience deals only with what is obvious to the individual. When it comes to recognizing more subtle forms of the wholesome or the unwholesome, psychological insight through vipassana is absolutely required. When good judgment is needed, conscience often sees the wholesome as unwholesome or the unwholesome as wholesome. Buddhist psychology is a very advanced and sophisticated psychology. Knowing what is wholesome requires an understanding of the very sophisticated intelligence of the Bodhicitta and that is very very difficult. May 6, 2018 at 21:12

'roots', also called hetu, are those conditions which through their presence determine the actual moral quality of a volitional act, and the consciousness and mental factors associated therewith, in other words, the quality of karma.

There are 6 such roots, 3 karmically wholesome and 3 unwholesome roots, viz.,: greed, hate, delusion (lobha, dosa, moha), and greedlessness, hatelessness, undeludedness (alobha, adosa, amoha).



Actions are considered as having beginning, middle and end. And determinant is their end, sometimes called fruit (phala) or result (vipaka). I.e., wholesome (or good) actions in Buddhism are these that lead to pleasant or happy experience as their final result, and unwholesome (or bad) actions are these that lead to pain and suffering. Action that is unpleasant at the beginning still could lead to happiness and thus considered wholesome. Example is unpleasant meditation. Action that is pleasant at the beginning, easily could lead to the suffering as final result. To determine results of action need some sort of knowledge and wisdom (prajna). Otherwise action is conditioned by ignorance (vipaka-avidya) and commonly lead to suffering.

Good detailed article Kusala and Akusala as Criteria of Buddhist Ethics, Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu.


Here's a non-traditional perspective:

  1. All of our actions will have some effect on the world
  2. Some effects are more desirable than others

Ethics are typically an extension of the perception of effects with regards to others as the self. As people are complicated and have greatly differing and conflicting desires, there is much to be considered when choosing the best course of action. Note that there are many compounding issues, such as the limitations of your own perspective, knowledge and intelligence.

Many buddhist teachings are to help guide one to typically good courses of action.

So, for your example, killing is almost universally considered non-optimal, because:

  1. Most people enjoy living, and fear the unknown and rate death as an extremely negative experience
  2. Most people enjoy other people, and do not want the other people around them to die

Therefore typically, death is an extremely negative outcome, not only for the person killed, and but for many of the people that person interacts with. In addition to that, there's also:

  1. Death (discounting resuscitation) cannot be undone to any known degree.
  2. You are probably wrong about something. Many things about a given situation are currently unknowable. It's impossible to truly know what a person was thinking, and, more importantly, what they will do in the future. Often we misattribute the reasons for a persons action based on the person themself, rather than their situation (there's a book about this). Because of this, its quite likely that our reasoning about another person is wrong. Much of Buddhism is about avoiding wrongs from this source of error (it's why intention is so important)

Because it's difficult to be certain, the action is undoable, and its a strong negative for many people, few do it. The only time it might be considered morally justified, if it was certain that greater harm would come from not killing the person; but again, this depends on the relative certainties involved, and this is were most disagreement about things such as the death penalty come from. This uncertainty in the certainty is also a meta-factor; the permanence of death will almost always spark some disagreement, which then becomes a weight in determining if it is a right action.


Intent. Nothing less, nothing more.

An action is good simply if the intention was good. And bad if the intention was bad. Consequences and results don't change this.

If an intent was good, which led to something 'bad' occurring, that's just how the outcome was subjectively judged. What is a 'bad' outcome? That's just someone's interpretation of the situation. Two people could interpret the same results differently. One good, the other bad.

Same goes for intention. Two people could perform the exact same action and expect the same outcome, but one could have a good intention, and the other bad. So the same action could be either good, or bad.

Why would Karma, for example, 'punish' a soul for an intentionally good action when the result turned 'bad'. Where would the guidance be? What would be the reason of Karma? To punish bad luck?

So now that you know this, the only good response is an up-vote! :)


I think violation of five precepts constitute bad action and keeping of five precepts constitute good action.

The five precepts are: The precept that is abstaining from killing beings; the precept that is abstaining from taking that which is not given; the precept that is abstaining from sexual misconduct; the precept that is abstaining from false speech; the precept that is abstaining from intoxicating beers, wines and spirits causing heedlessness.

Answering your questions :

why does that happen?

It happens because of raga,dosa and moha.

What decided that killing (even if your intentions are good*1) will cause something negative? What about the other actions?

Nobody decided. It is merely an observation that killing causes bad karma. Similarly lying is bad karma.

There is no 'final judge' to confirm or deny we've followed a particular path - so why does the universe (?) act this way? And what makes us sure that we're correct?

Universe acts in this way because there is far greater suffering if we go down the wrong path. In order to remain on the right path ,the path leading to cessation of suffering,we must follow five precepts. We are sure we are correct because Buddha the great Teacher said so. You can test the validity of five precepts yourself but that would be a waste of time.


If you perform your action out of awareness, consciously aware of the present moment, then that action will be a good action if the same action will be percormed mechanically, without being aware it will be bad.

If you are conscious, you will be using all your intelligence to do the action...and then again its been repeatedly pointed out in many book I have been reading that 'we humans don't have free will'. Even Ajahn Brahm says that. So if I don't have real choice of my actions how can I be held accountable for and then the question of good and bad should become irrelevant.

So practise present moment awareness, what will follow will be good as it invarently be in accordance will kamma.

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