For Goodness’ Sake

Not a day goes by that an average person doesn’t make a judgment. You’ve probably had something for breakfast this morning. When you opted for cereal over eggs, or coffee over tea, it’s because you clearly had in mind that what we can philosophically refer to as “value”, and saw more of it in one than the other. Even though it might appear trivial because it happens so often, judging things is anything but, at least when we try to define the basic notion of what goodness is. I will try to give a brief indication of the depth of the topic, because it has been an issue in philosophy for millennia.

The familiar act of choosing one thing or action over the other is the act of making a value judgment, and we usually refer to the things we want as “good” or a synonym. It’s surprising how accustomed we are to using words that declare things to be agreeable (“nice”, “pretty”, “right”, etc.) given how little we can say for sure about what it is that those judgments actually mean. Just to give you an overview of the problem: when you declare that something is “good”, is that the same as declaring any other property? Would you say that being good is exactly like being heavy or yellow? Probably not, as those two properties seem very “physical” in their nature, and we can even measure them with devices. But would you say that “good” is not measurable? If so, how do we come to make decisions, or achieve consensus when discussing an issue? The question of accounting for the nature of goodness is the same as the question “what makes ‘good’ things good”?

Let us say that “good” is a result of having another property. Which property should this be? According to hedonists, good things are those that are pleasant. This might seem like a good approximation, but some things that we would call “good” are not a result of those that we would – like a visit to the dentist. Yet, the pain of decaying teeth is not pleasant either. Furthermore, let us turn the definition around: are all pleasant things necessarily good? We can think of addictions that, while pleasant in the short run, turn out devastating in the long one. It seems that we have made a mistake and pleasure is at least not all there is to goodness.

But can we think of defining goodness by some natural property or the sensation it causes? For some philosophers, like G. E. Moore, the answer clearly seems to be no. The key to seeing this is to consider what question we’re answering when talking about natural properties and sensations. It’s clear that when we talk of characteristics that cause drugs to give pleasure, we are talking about matters of biology – but then, in his words, we are committing a “naturalistic fallacy“, because what we’re after is the perception, not the physical parts. And on the psychological side, when we talk of pleasure being good, and that good is what we desire, we can argue whether we desire pleasure or not, but we’re no closer to talking about what good actually is. It appears that for Moore this is merely a matter of a dispute in psychology.

Possibly, a quick dismissal could be that “good” is whatever people agree on is “good”. By this we simply mean that a philosopher, if he or she is so curious, can feel free to refer to a dictionary, or ask a linguist, and the answer will surely be provided. This seems like a good move, but the philosopher can again claim that something is missing, as Moore does. We might be perfectly satisfied that our usage of the word “good” is correct, just like we can be sure that our usage of “fast” is correct, but that won’t give us any more clue about either the nature of speed or goodness. It appears that, again, we’re not doing philosophy, but linguistics this time.

So what should “good” be then? Moore questions whether it can be analyzed at all, and proposes that it’s a fundamental property, not to be subdivided any further. Moore aside (I don’t exactly share his view), one can wonder whether there is anything “behind” good things – not that they aren’t “good” as we call them, but whether we would be able to tell if there was no ideal “goodness” to support them.

We have barely scratched the surface of the topic, and already the difficulty of defining basic terms is apparent – and that was the point. It’s worth taking some time to consider this problem on your own, if only to be more aware of what’s going on when you judge things and people. It’s not all so simple.

Further reading to get a sense of Moore’s position: Principia Ethica, Chapter I.

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