How Can We Define "Good" and "Bad"?

I’m interested in distinctions between both moral and qualitative good and bad (or “evil”). If you believe there's a god who has laid out all such distinctions for you, then to you, this essay must seem superfluous or worse. But if you believe we must at least sometimes try to make such distinctions for ourselves, what common basis for distinguishing can there be? It seems one man’s good is another’s bad.

A Moral Imperative. As I may have mentioned, in college I studied literature and philosophy, looking for answers to the big questions in life. It became apparent as I worked my way through the history of philosophy that it like other disciplines had made great progress, but much of the progress had to do with eliminating various grounds upon which any certainty could be based. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant seemed to serve as the capstone of philosophy’s epistemological and moral inquiries and purported to provide such ground, however; and I was fortunate enough to study Kant under one of the world’s great experts on his work, Prof. Lewis White Beck.

Kant’s philosophy is difficult, and I certainly can’t say I mastered his thought. But one of his most famous ideas is that of the “categorical imperative,” which he proposed as the one over-arching ethical rule or guideline existing a priori--that is, the one rule or guideline not derived from any factual investigation or any existing or possible contingencies, but existing out of necessity, purely in and of itself. I think a fair statement of this imperative would be: that one should act only in such a way that one could wish it were a universal law that everyone in the same circumstances would always act in the same way.

After much pondering, I felt disappointed and almost bamboozled; this seemed little different from the “golden rule” that one should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Also, I never quite saw how he’d proved that this rule really existed a priori; certainly every possible attempt to apply it can be imagined only within a context of facts and contingencies.

It seems to me I could just as easily declare it to be an a priori rule that one should always act in such a way that, taking into account the particular facts and circumstances and considering all of the likely consequences of one’s action that one can reasonably foresee, and assuming that one wants to help make the universe better in both the short- and long-run, one could want to do such act.

And that very statement sums up my own ethical "temporary conclusion," one that I at least find useful as a guideline. (I don’t consider this working principle of mine to exist a priori, however, unless perhaps in the same way all possibilities in the universe could be said to exist a priori, with everything related--and relative--to everything else. But, b.t.w., I could wish it were a universal law that everyone would always follow this working principle.)

However, making my rule work properly requires some additional postulates or corollaries:

(a)That everything in the universe is, directly or indirectly, connected to everything else in space and time; and everything we do, or don’t do, can have far-reaching effects.

(b)That “truth” or “better” ideas about things will over time tend to prevail over less true or less good ideas if they’re communicated, tested, and allowed to compete. This entails that there be means for testing the (relative) truth or value of our beliefs that that we can from time to time tentatively agree on (e.g., the criteria I’ve described in the essay, “What Can We Know?”, such as consistency, corroboration, and predictive power, or other means) and that in some meaningful way actually work.

(c)That we can never foresee all the effects of our actions (or inactions), but that we will probably better serve the purpose of making the universe better if in deciding our course we try to take into account all those effects we can foresee.

Note that we do NOT have to agree on what would constitute making the universe “better”; we all just have to be making sincere, reasonable efforts to figure that out. For me, “better” means something like maximizing syntropy while minimizing suffering. But if all of our ideas about it compete, and I believe that the better ideas of “better” will tend to prevail.

A few additional moral guidelines I like: (a) it’s extremely helpful if as many people as possible recognize that they don’t have a monopoly on absolute truth; (b) it is almost always better to treat others with respect (and general good manners are usually helpful, too); (c) questioning things and seeking information is usually helpful; (d) communicating material information, or at least offering to do so, is usually better than not doing so; (e) it’s almost always better to avoid waste. Compassion is also helpful more often than not (although I suppose, e.g., people who work to help the suffering might burn out if they dwell too much on the pain they’re trying to alleviate). And using force against people is usually relatively inefficient, at least once you get past the short-term, and should usually be used sparingly.

I could probably think of more guidelines, but I generally like breaking rules better than making them.

"Better" in my Book. I also at least more or less believe that, under this system, my own welfare will not clash too horribly with others. For example, I was once hoping for a certain job, and met a person who was a minority who was considering the same position. I knew more about the position than the other person did, and I could have tried to discourage the other person from seeking the position by falsely disparaging it, or I could at least have refrained from telling the other person why I considered the position so desirable. Instead, I told all the reasons I wanted the position myself, and the other person ended up getting it. I consider this outcome to be completely consistent with my own welfare for the following reasons, among others. First, I believe the world would be better if our employment situations were more integrated, so my action helped make the universe what I’d consider to be “better,” directly furthering the main purpose that gives my life meaning. Also, I believe deliberately lying or withholding material information generally tends to have deleterious effects on one's own psyche, so in this instance I averted any that I might otherwise have suffered. Finally, rather than having done something for which I would feel at least somewhat ashamed, I’d done something for which I could feel a bit proud; this again promotes my own true welfare, which I believe also helped make the universe better. (After all, in truth, it is rarely the case that we each only get ONE chance at reaching our dreams; far more commonly, our "fates" result from many, many choices made at many, many points in our lives.)

Obviously, there are more difficult cases. What about the argument that, living in the U.S., I enjoy wealth and other benefits that are unimaginable for much of the world’s population, and that those other people might be better off if I sent them most of my material wealth?

This is a tough one, not just for me but for any ethical system or religion. ‘Cause most of us really don’t want to do that. Most religions seem to reach a compromise in the form of tithing or other charity. There is a recognition that we are only human; most of us care about our fellows, but it is not human nature to be completely self-sacrificing.

As Mohandas K. Ghandi said, " I do not believe in the doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number. The only real, dignified, human doctrine is the greatest good of all." We need the motivation of being able ourselves to enjoy some of the fruits of our efforts (and our luck), rather than just giving most of the fruits away. It is also human nature for people to need some motivation to provide for themselves. I think it’s acceptable to take these and other considerations into account. However, there are so many people who simply cannot help themselves adequately for one reason or another, and I believe we probably do much less than we should to help them.

I’d like to just note that making the world better can be done in many different ways and almost certainly calls for different things from different people. Not only do we each have different views as to what’s “better,” but we are each equipped to contribute in different ways, large and small. E.g., not everyone can or should join the Peace Corps, or adopt any other particular course of action.

I also believe that the accumulation of many small actions can have as great or even a greater impact than some single, big, dramatic action. Obviously, we shouldn’t neglect opportunities to make dramatic changes for the better. But I believe that the little things we do every day—treating one another with respect, sharing pleasantries, picking up our trash, paying attention to political affairs and voting, etc.—add up in very important ways. Even one's efforts to look cute can qualify as part of one's contribution toward the beautification and fun-ification of the world.

Particular Moral Issues. A couple of particular issues; the first has to do with imbalances in power. I simply want to suggest that wherever there is an imbalance of power, particular scrutiny should be given to how the person or group having the greater power uses it. And there are many different kinds of power--it can derive from physical strength or size, age, the law, financial resources, control over access, information, skill or talent, perceived authority, etc.

The other, very important particular issue has to do with the distinctions among thoughts, words, and actions. It is very important, for many reasons and in all possible contexts, that we recognize that just because a particular action might be considered “bad,” that doesn’t mean that just talking or thinking about it should be considered bad. Occasionally, mere words can be bad, especially in contexts involving an imbalance of power, such as between an adult and a child, or a corporation and an investor or consumer. But such claims should be scrutinized, especially if the claimed “bad” words are not materially false or misleading. And I can’t think of any instance in which merely thinking something should be considered bad.

(Proceed to next Essay, Governmental and Economic Systems, or . . .