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