The Meaning of "Good"

 "What is the right thing to do?" "Which of these is the best alternative?" "Is {insert a controversial topic} right/wrong?" "How do I know what is 'right'?" "Against what standard do I judge which alternative is "The Best"? What is the meaning of terms like "good", "bad / evil", "right", "wrong", "duty", "responsibility", etc.? How do I lead "a good life"? What is the "right thing to do"?

Everybody, regardless of their intelligence, their education, their knowledge of Reality, their sanity, their philosophical awareness, or even their sobriety, makes decisions they firmly believe are "for the best". And everybody has some form of concept of what is "best". It may be different from individual to individual, and even from moment to moment. But everybody believes that "Doing the Right Thing, is Good". They merely differ in what they consider is "The Right Thing" and how they define "Good".

So just what is meant by the morally/ethically "right" thing to do, or a "good" thing to do?

Good - (adjective) 1. Being positive or desirable in nature; not bad or poor. 2 a. Having the qualities that are desirable or distinguishing in a particular thing. b. Serving the desired purpose or end; suitable 3 a. Not spoiled or ruined. b. In excellent condition; sound. 4 a. Superior to the average; satisfactory. b. Used formerly to refer to the U.S. Government grade of meat higher than standard and lower than choice. 5 a. Of high quality. b. Discriminating. 6. Worthy of respect; honorable. 7. Attractive; handsome. 8. Beneficial to health. 9. Competent; skilled. 10. Complete; thorough. 11 a. Reliable; sure. b. Valid or true. c. Genuine; real. 12 a. In effect; operative. b. Able to continue in a specified activity. 13 a. Able to pay or contribute. b. Able to elicit a specified reaction. 14 a. Ample; substantial b. Bountiful. 15. Full. 16 a. Pleasant; enjoyable. b. Propitious; favorable. 17 a. Of moral excellence; upright. b. Benevolent; kind. c. Loyal; staunch. 18 a. Well-behaved; obedient. b. Socially correct; proper. 19. (Sports) Having landed within bounds or within a particular area of a court.

Good - (noun) 1 a. Something that is good. b. A good, valuable, or useful part or aspect. 2. Welfare; benefit. 3. Goodness; virtue.

In case you didn't notice, if you disregard the circular definitions for the noun, there are 36 separately identified shadings of meaning here for the word "Good". All but a single one of these definitions (17a. Of moral excellence; upright.) will generate little philosophical disagreement as to what it means, and to what examples in Reality it refers to.

Right - (adjective) 1. Conforming with or conformable to justice, law, or morality. 2. In accordance with fact, reason, or truth; correct. 3. Fitting, proper, or appropriate. 4. Most favorable, desirable, or convenient. 5. In or into a satisfactory state or condition. 6. In good mental or physical health or order. 7. Intended to be worn or positioned facing outward or toward an observer. 8 a. Of, belonging to, located on, or being the side of the body to the south when the subject is facing east. b. Of, relating to, directed toward, or located on the right side. c. Located on the right side of a person facing downstream. 9. Of or belonging to the political or intellectual Right. 10. (Mathematics) a. Formed by or in reference to a line or plane that is perpendicular to another line or plane. b. Having the axis perpendicular to the base. 11. Straight; uncurved; direct. 12. (Archaic) Not spurious; genuine. Right - (noun) 1. That which is just, morally good, legal, proper, or fitting. 2. a. The direction or position on the right side. b. The right side. c. The right hand. d. A turn in the direction of the right hand or side. 3 a. The people and groups who advocate the adoption of conservative or reactionary measures, especially in government and politics. Also called "Right Wing". b. The opinion of those advocating such measures. 4. (Sports). A blow delivered by a boxer's right hand. 5. (Baseball). Right field. 6. Something that is due to a person or governmental body by law, tradition, or nature. 7. A just or legal claim or title. 8 a. A stockholder's privilege of buying additional stock in a corporation at a special price, usually at par or at a price below the current market value. b. The negotiable certificate on which this privilege is indicated. c. A privilege of subscribing for a particular stock or bond.

And here we have 24 separately identified shadings of meanings for "Right" - some of them quite distinct. And by linking with the definition for "Good", the only definition for "Right" that would be cause for any philosophical disagreement, is "(adj) Conforming with or conformable to morality. (noun) That which is just, morally good."

It is interesting to note that most of the meanings of both of these words can be considered to be evaluations of how well some subject being judged fulfills its intended purpose. Look at the key words used in the definitions as "quasi-synonyms" - positive, desirable, distinguishing, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favorable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine. They all can be interpreted as an evaluation of how well the subject of the judgment measures up on the standard of fulfilling its purpose. You might say that there is a "functional" meaning of "good", and a "Moral" meaning of "Good". And the "functional" meanings are by far the easiest to understand, the easiest to provide concrete examples of, and the bulk of the various shades of meaning of "Good". The "functional" meanings of "good" can be understood in terms of - "An X is a good X, if it does a [positive, desirable, distinguished, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favorable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine] job of doing what an X is supposed to do."

Which leaves us with the single moral / ethical meaning of "Good" and "Right".

Good - (adjective) 17 a. Of moral excellence; upright.
            (noun) 1 a. Something that is good. 3. Goodness; virtue.

Right - (adjective) 1. Conforming with or conformable to morality.
           (noun)1. That which is morally good.

Moral - (adjective) 1. Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character. 2. Teaching or exhibiting goodness or correctness of character and behavior. 3. Conforming to standards of what is right or just in behavior; virtuous. 4. Arising from conscience or the sense of right and wrong. 5. Having psychological rather than physical or tangible effects. 6. Based on strong likelihood or firm conviction, rather than on the actual evidence.

Virtue - (noun) 1 a. Moral excellence and righteousness; goodness. b. An example or kind of moral excellence. 2. Chastity, especially in a girl or woman. 3. A particularly efficacious, good, or beneficial quality; advantage. 4. Effective force or power.

The problem with these remaining "moral" definitions of "good" and "right" is that they are, as you can see from the above, completely circular. A "good" choice, action or alternative is one that which is "morally good" or "morally excellent". And one that is "moral" is one that is judged "good". And "The right thing to do" is that which is "morally good". Which means, in practical day-to-day application by most people - "a good choice is whatever I choose to believe is a good choice" and "The right thing to do is whatever I choose to believe is the right thing to do". Employing the provided dictionary moral meaning of "good" and "right", there is absolutely no logical foundation from which to suggest that someone else's belief about what is "good" and "right" is in any way not correct and valid and proper.

{{Insert some commentary on the attributative versus predicative nature of "good".  Reference - Williams, Bernard;  Morality: An Introduction to Ethics, Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, 1972. ISBN 0-521-29071-6.  Pg 52ff (Chapter on Good).}}

 

And this is the essence of "Subjectivist" Ethics.

Subjectivist Ethics

Ethical alternatives cannot be publicly labeled as more or less desirable without some form of justification stronger than "Because I say so!" It is perfectly acceptable to say, in the privacy of your own thoughts, "The right thing to do is whatever I choose to believe is the right thing to do." But it is less acceptable to those with whom you deal in society to say to them that "The right thing for us/you to do is whatever I choose to believe is the right thing to do." To do so raises the probability that someone else will reply "I don't agree!" or "So what?" or "Who are you to tell me what to do?".

Unless, that is, all concerned are willing to relax the belief of Evolutionary Pragmatism that philosophy is more than merely one person's opinion. Suppose we do change this, and accept as a starting position that some alternatives are more or less desirable than others just because someone says so. Since such a system of Ethics is based on the Ethical validity of each person's subjective opinion, there is no logically valid rebuttal to another person's opinion. There is no basis upon which to found a claim that one person's opinion is any more accurate or correct or valid than another's. If this is, in fact, an acceptable starting foundation, then the resulting system of philosophy will be useful and valid only for those who agree with the judge's opinion that this alternative is indeed more desirable in some way than that. The ethical system that results from such a starting axiom is not likely to be consistent or logically coherent. There is nothing to require that the judge's opinion on any related subjects be consistent or logical. Adherents of such a system would not be able to converse on ethical topics with those who do not agree with the judge's judgments. And, more importantly, there is only one avenue open to adherents of such a Code of Ethics if they wish to indulge in any social interactions with people who do not agree with the judgments about the relative desirability of alternatives. The only practical alternative is "Agree with us/me - or else!". And that is the practical consequence of every form of Opinion Based Ethics.

Merely because that alternative appears to produce undesirable side-effects for some people, is not a valid argument either. A rationale of "I don't like the results" is just as empty is a rationale of "Because I say so!". Once again, unless you are willing to stop all philosophical discussion with the rebuttal of "I don't agree!", persuasion and argument must extend the justification into realms where both parties can agree with the ground rules. How are you going to convince me that the side-effects are undesirable? And how are you going to convince me that, even if they are undesirable, these side-effects are, in general or in particular, "A Bad Thing"?

Appeals to the "Intuitively Obvious" suffer from the same deficiency as do the "Because I say so!" arguments discussed above. If I disagree with the obviousness of the statement, the argument founders. To successfully convince people that your judgments are correct and appropriate the discussion, argument, and persuasion must begin from a foundation that is mutually agreed upon. It is here where most systems of ethics have foundered, because the only alternative to voluntary agreement with someone else's unjustified opinion is "or else".

A popular version of Opinion Based Ethics is more commonly called "Social Consensus Ethics". It has a wide following, especially among those of a more "liberal democrat" nature, because of the "democratic" consequence that the consensus of popular opinion is the determinant of what you ought to do, and which alternatives you ought to choose. The rest of the social group become the "They" who will tell you what to do. "Good" and "Right" become semantically equivalent to "Socially Blessed". From this perspective, Laws are the legal embodiment of the opinions of the consensus as to what is right and proper behavior. And the coercive powers of the police are the physical embodiment of the "or else".

Perhaps a more familiar kind of Opinion Based Ethics is "Absolute Rule Ethics", more commonly called "Religious Ethics". In this version the unjustified opinion of some accepted Authority figure - a God, or a Prophet, or a Wise-Man - is taken as the determinant of what you ought to do, and which alternatives you ought to choose. The Authority figure becomes the "They" who will tell you what to do. "Good" and "Right" become semantically equivalent to "Authority Blessed/Commanded". From this perspective, the Word of Authority is the final and unchallengeable arbiter as to what is right and proper behavior. And the coercive power of the anger of the Authority is the physical embodiment of the "or else". All religious and quasi-religious philosophies embody "Absolute Rule Ethics". A set of absolute rules of behavior, passed down by the "Word of God", that must be obeyed in the face of the "Wrath of God".

Consequentialist Ethics

The alternative to basing a Code of Ethics on personal opinion, is basing it on something in Reality that everyone can see, and independently examine. With this foundation as a starting point, when some Philosopher proclaims the judgment that this alternative is more desirable than that, a doubter can go out and form his own opinion based on the facts of Reality.

Many western philosophers have used the word "happiness" to define what constitutes an improved lot of mankind. They base their judgments that this alternative is more desirable because it will make you happier. A doubter can now make a personal evaluation of the personal happiness that will likely result from the two alternatives. And the doubter can discuss with others their own experiences of happiness.

The various "happiness" philosophies differ, of course, in their exact definition of what they mean by the word "happiness". The Hedonists, as one example, defined happiness to mean primarily physical pleasures. Others have defined it to mean spiritual contentment, or intellectual satisfaction. And different philosophers establish different realms where-in the individual reaps the reward of "happiness" for achieving "a good life". In some, the "happiness" is achieved immediately, upon the execution of some act or thought that is "good" by their definition. In others, the reward is postponed to some form of after-life, or is experienced in some form of "other-life" that is separate and distinct from a Reality as I have defined it here. But regardless of their particular definitions of what constitutes "good" versus "bad", or how the individual will reap the rewards for choosing the "good" over the "bad", their universal approach to justifying their approach and definitions is that the "good life" is purported to be better than the "bad life", and better than anything in between because everybody is in universal agreement that "happiness" is better than "unhappiness".

The "happiness" philosophies share one common feature with the Social Consensus philosophies. "Happiness" philosophies employ the "functional" meaning of "Good" and "Right". "An ethical choice is a good choice, if it does a [positive, desirable, distinguished, suitable, excellent, sound, superior, quality, beneficial, competent, skilled, complete, thorough, reliable, valid, true, genuine, operative, pleasant, enjoyable, favorable, benevolent, kind, loyal, correct, proper, valuable, useful, fitting, appropriate, genuine] job of doing what a ethical choice is supposed to do - increase happiness."

Which means that in the various "happiness" philosophies, the goal of Human behavior, and all ethical choices and judgments, is the increase in the amount of happiness. With, of course, critical differences resulting from the different ways that these philosophies define "happiness", and the different realms in which that happiness is to be realized.

[Home] [Next]