What is Good?

If one is to claim to walk a good path, one must have some conception of what “good” is. In some ways, that’s a simple question — we are all capable of recognizing that some things are good, and some things aren’t. The problem tends to arise more when we actively seek good things; understanding “good” is, in the pragmatic system described in the last chapter, primarily a means of pathfinding.

The first problem of describing a good path is one of authority. Whose place is it to call a thing “good?” Sommeliers can point us to good wine, literate friends can point us to good books, and food critics can tell us about good restaurants, but is there anyone out there who can define “Good” as it applies across all spectrums? Philosophers and religious leaders are the most common claimants to that right, but is it possible to say any of them are describing the universe more accurately with their definitions than are others?

Belief in an absolute authority of goodness presupposes that good is objective, that is, that it exists as a fundamental aspect of reality. This doesn’t seem to be the case. For any given thing to be good in a descriptive sense, it must have someone to experience it. A succulent steak, for instance, only acquires the attribute of “good” when it is eaten; until then, it’s only a piece of dead flesh, at a relatively high temperature, infused with organic and mineral additives. A painting without a viewer is merely the sum of its parts, and a symphony without an audience is nothing more than vibrations in the air.

Likewise, for an act to be considered good, the act must be conscious, taken by a sentient being. Note that our use of “good” to describe an action increases in proportion with the sentience we give a being: a virus which creates antibodies that prevent death in the future (like the smallpox vaccine) is entirely non-sentient and therefore not “good” in a moral action sense. A dog who saves a child from a burning building, however, is truly good — though not quite so “good” as a human bystander that does the same thing. To call an act “good,” then, requires that the actor and the beneficiary of the act have some similarity to us. Any act that does not affect any other sentient being cannot be called good.

A possible objection might be raised here that some acts are called good that don’t directly affect other people or higher life forms. Nurturing a stand of trees, for instance, is an act many would call good. The key, though, is that it is only considered good by other people who also value those trees as something more than material: as having some similarity to us as well. A pagan viewing the tending of a grove sees the act as a good of an almost sacred order, while a lumberjack viewing the same act sees it as the morally neutral act of maintaining resources.

Good, then, depends in most cases on the way we see the world, and, more importantly, that we see the world. Even things that are good purely instinctually, like sex, are good because of the way our brains work and not because the act itself is good in some objective way. This raises an interesting question: is goodness, then, merely a physical aspect of our evolved brains? That question will be addressed in a future essay.

So: goodness is subjective. It’s an attribute that exists inside our minds, and not in our external reality (unlike, say, a positive charge in a piece of metal). It’s not purely mental, however: rather, it’s a way by which we interpret the outside world. That means that goodness is always an attribute, never a thing in itself. This is perhaps what makes it so hard to define. Try to define, for another example, the word “red.” The only way to do so, for most of human history, was to simply point to things that were red. Even to imagine “red” isn’t to imagine the color itself, but to imagine something — a field, a shape, an object — that has “red” as an attribute.

Since we’ve begun looking into the physics of light, however, we can define “red” in another way: as a specific wavelength in the spectrum of light. Even this, though, has its limits — that definition of red only applies to those whose eyes and brains work normally. To a color-blind person, or someone blind from birth, the term “red” is a logical null, with no meaning and no possible meaning. The only reason the word can be commonly understood is that most of our brains work in similar ways.

So also with goodness. Because we are all human, most of our brains work along the same lines. That’s why I can say to a friend, “this bread is good,” and have them understand and agree with me. But because a few human brains do vary, our individual definitions of good also vary. Most comic books aren’t “good” to me, due to my childhood love of reading and my adult preference for “good” literature. Cilantro isn’t “good” to me, likely because I have an overabundance of bitterness-receptive taste nerves on my tongue. But for those living under different conditions, comic books can certainly be good, and cilantro can be excellent.

The reason we usually think in terms of an objective, absolute “Good” is that certain goods are present in the vast majority of a given culture’s members. Nationalism and patriotism were, until the twentieth century, almost universal goods. Love is even more universal, as are certain ideals: sacrifice for a child, generosity, responsibility. Only a few brains in any given population will be constructed so as to ignore these ideals, and we usually refer to such individuals as psychopaths, sociopaths, or simply “evil.”

The best we can do for “goodness” in the common sense of the word is to say that things are “good” when they are understood to be so by most people. This isn’t really a very satisfying conclusion, and we must find another way around it. To do so, we will divide up the simple “Good” into aspects of ethics, law, aesthetics, goodness of utility, and goodness of will. Each of these will be adressed in future essays.

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  • [...] Pragmatism is only useful to a point. It is a strategy for acting, but it needs a pattern to act in accordance with, goals to strive for. It is the Path in the Good Path; the Good is something else entirely. I’ll cover these issues in the next installment. [...]

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