Quote Origin: No One Chooses Evil Because It Is Evil; One Only Mistakes It for Happiness, The Good One Seeks
Mary Shelley? Mary Wollstonecraft? Wednesday Addams? Epictetus? George Stanhope? Gustav Friedrich Wiggers?
Question for Quote Investigator: Usually, a person does not perform an evil act simply because it is evil. Instead, the motivation is more complex. The person is pursuing their own deeply flawed vision of good. Often, the person is pursuing their own happiness or pleasure.
This notion has been attributed to English philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft who was a prominent advocate of women’s rights. It has also been attributed to English writer Mary Shelley who authored the famous novel “Frankenstein”. An instance of this saying occurred in the recent Netflix streaming series “Wednesday” which centers on the character Wednesday Addams. Would you please help me to find a citation which presents the precise phasing of this quotation.
Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1790 Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” which included the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:¹
It may be confidently asserted that no man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks. And the desire of rectifying these mistakes, is the noble ambition of an enlightened understanding, the impulse of feelings that Philosophy invigorates.
Thus, Mary Wollstonecraft deserves credit for this quotation although the theme can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus.
The attribution to Mary Shelley was probably caused by a naming confusion. Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin. Her birth name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She became Mary Shelley when she married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher who died circa 135 AD. Clergyman George Stanhope published in 1700 a translation of Epictetus containing the following germane passage:²
And indeed, all Evil whatsoever, is in some Sense an involuntary Misfortune to the Soul; for the Soul never chooses Evil, considered as Evil, but under the Disguise and Pretence of some Good; as sometimes Riches, sometimes Sensual Enjoyments, or Honours, or Preferments and Greatness.
In 1731 “The Gentleman’s Magazine” printed a thematic match:³
Man is a sensible being, naturally seeks his own happiness, nor can be divested of self-love. No man chooses evil as evil.
In 1790 Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” which included the quotation as mentioned previously:
It may be confidently asserted that no man chooses evil, because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
In 1810 a book review published in “The Critical Review” of London contained a different version of this saying:⁴
When a man chooses evil, he does not choose it as evil. It is mistaken good. All vice, therefore, may be referred to ignorance; and hence we ought to be very mild and merciful in scrutinizing the conduct of our fellow creatures; and in censuring their deviations from the path of rectitude.
In 1834 an essay in “The Monthly Repository” of London contained another version of the saying:⁵
Protagoras, and all others who were present, assented, and it was agreed that doing evil always arose from ignorance, and doing well from knowledge.
Since, then, no one chooses evil, knowing it to be evil , but mistakingly supposing it to be good, no one, who is compelled to choose between two evils, will knowingly choose the greatest.
In 1840 a work by German theologian Gustav Friedrich Wiggers was translated by Ralph Emerson and published under the title “An Historical Presentation of Augustinism and Pelagianism”. The following appeared in the book:⁶
Thus the evil may be involuntary, as no one chooses evil merely as evil; but drawn away by the pleasure that surrounds it, supposing it good, he decides to embrace it.
The 1980 edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” contained the following entry:⁷
[Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin]
No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
A Vindication of the Rights of Men 
In 2009 the syndicated newspaper column “Aces On Bridge” employed the following epigraph with an ascription to Mary Shelley:⁸
“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”
— Mary Shelley
In 2013 the quotation appeared in “Quotations for the Fast Lane” compiled by Richard W. Pound:⁹
No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks. Mary Shelley
In conclusion, Mary Wollstonecraft should receive credit for this quotation. The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus made a similar point. The attribution to Mary Shelley is unsupported.
Image Notes: Illustration of Eve selecting an apple with a serpent nearby from jeffjacobs1990 at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Ibon Basterrika whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Basterrika knew that Mary Wollstonecraft deserved credit and not Mary Shelley.
 1790, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke by Mary Wollstonecraft, The Second Edition, Quote Page 136, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
 1700, Epictetus His Morals: With Simplicius His Comment by Epictetus, Translated from the Greek by George Stanhope, Second Edition, Chapter 13, Quote Page 115, Printed for Richard Sare, London. (Google Books Full View) link
 1731 July, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Weekly Essays in July 1731, Universal Spectator on Saturday, July 17, Quote Page 295, Printed by F. Jefferies, London. (Google Books Full View) link
 1810 September, The Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, Volume 21, Number 1, Book review of W. Burdon’s “Materials for Thinking”, Start Page 69, Quote Page 73, Printed for J. Mawman, London. (Google Books Full View) link
 1834 March, The Monthly Repository, Notes on Some of the More Popular Dialogues of Plato, №1: The Protagoras by A., Start Page 203, Quote Page 210, Charles Fox, London. (Google Books Full View) link
 1840, An Historical Presentation of Augustinism and Pelagianism from the Original Sources by G. F. Wiggers (Gustav Friedrich Wiggers), Translated from the German by Ralph Emerson, Chapter 22, Quote Page 333, Published by Gould, Newman & Saxton, Andover, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
 1980, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Edited by Emily Morison Beck, Fifteenth and 125th Anniversary Edition, Entry: Mary Wollstonecraft, Quote Page 414, Column 1, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
 2009 August 11, The Sacramento Bee, Aces On Bridge (Syndicated), Quote Page D2, Column 1, Sacramento, California. (Newspapers_com)
 2013, Quotations for the Fast Lane, Compiled by Richard W. Pound, Topic: Evil, Quote Page 174, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Google Books Preview; Amazon Look Inside)