What is Goodness?


The question is: What is Goodness?

When I ask myself that question, several questions come to mind; preliminary questions that I must get out of the way to pursue the question further; questions that branch me off in different ways depending on how I answer them.

1-Is something [i.e. what is the reality]  (a) good because I like it, or (b) do I like it because it’s good?

2-Is good = (a) power over others to make them do what I want, or is it (b) a kind of harmony involving both myself and something else?

3-What is truth?

In all cases we are asking for the reality involved: How things are.

The first question is crucial, because if 1(a) is what is real, then pleasure becomes the good. This is an old answer: that what is meant by good is whatever gives me pleasure rather than pain. If this is true, also, then whatever advances my pleasure is good, and 2(a) follows from 1(a), because power in this paradigm becomes the ability, the power, to guarantee my pleasure and avoid pain, and I am at the center seeking to order all other things for my ultimate benefit. Power to achieve pleasure and avoid pain then becomes goodness; goodness collapses into this power; and truth becomes whatever will advance my power over others so that I can achieve pleasure and avoid pain.

If 1(b) is what is real–that I like it because it IS good–then pleasure is a response to the goodness, and the pleasure is defined by the good, instead of the good by the pleasure. This means that goodness is independent of my likes and dislikes, and that my likes and dislikes can be right or wrong; for if something IS good and I don’t like it, then my dislike means I am out of tune, not relating properly, to the reality of that goodness. This also means that 2(b) follows from 1(b), for if goodness is not determined by my individual makeup, but involves something outside my personal dimensions of reality, then goodness must involve myself coming into some kind of equilibrium or harmony with whatever goodness is, which I do not determine.

The reality of 1(a) makes the truth of goodness a matter of individual choice governed by desire. It also makes morality relative to the likes and dislikes of the choosing person, and there is no possibility of moral disagreement. For example, suppose I said to you: Wild animal shows in the circus are really good things. You then reply: No, it’s no good! If all I mean by my phrase is that “I like animal shows”, then the disagreement makes no sense, for all the second person has said is that “I don’t like animal shows.” These are just statements of fact, and no disagreement is possible. If I say I like Pepsi, it would make no sense for you to respond, Well, you’re wrong, because I don’t like it! I like Pepsi. No you don’t: I like coke! Huh?

The reality of 1(b), however, makes the truth of goodness independent of individual choice and desire, for my desires could in fact be wrong, not related to the reality of the situation, so that my choice could be wrong as well. Moral disagreement now becomes possible, for it is disconnected from the locus of my likes and dislikes, and the contingency of my subjective preferences. On can now argue about a moral issue, whereas with 1(a) no argument is possible. When I say “animal shows are good” I am making a claim about how things are independent of individual likes and dislikes, and it follows that all right-thinking people should like animal shows; while if I say “animal shows are bad” I am making a counter-claim about how things are independent of an individual’s likes and dislikes, and am claiming that it is wrong to like animal shows: that to be rational and moral, to be right, to be in tune with reality, you must hate them. We can now argue about that, which is the important point I’m making, unlike the people of 1(a) who have no grounds for disagreement.

This can lead us into more serious areas, however, if you don’t think animal shows are serious. Suppose you have an acquaintance who finds that he likes to share every secret you tell him. You confide in him, and he blabs it to everyone without your permission. If you have chosen 1(a) as a premise in your metaphysical system (it is good because a person likes it), then you cannot possibly have a moral disagreement with that person. Suppose you said to him: that’s not a good thing you’re doing! Well, in the universe of 1(a), all you mean by that is that you don’t like what he’s doing. And if he agrees with 1(a), too, he can simply respond that he likes doing what he’s doing, and that’s all there is to it. You like coke, I like Pepsi; you like keeping confidences, and I don’t, because spreading info. around gives me a great deal of pleasure.

Your only possible response at that point is to use power, to make a power move, because in the metaphysics of pleasure/pain, it will all come down to the likes and dislikes of the stronger party. If I am the most powerful, then my likes and dislikes will rule, because I have the power to enforce them, and what is good comes to be defined by the likes and dislikes of the stronger. In fact, if 1(a) is correct about what is real about goodness, then goodness in any society is simply what the powerful like, and bad is whatever the powerful dislike, and there is no room for rational argument or disagreement, but only for power struggles. And education becomes a matter of educating those with less power into the likes and dislikes of the powerful, into what the powerful think is good for their interests (for their interests are all that matter, for fulfilling their interests is what is good). Justice, too, and law, becomes a matter of maintaining the good of the powerful, so justice becomes whatever maintains the interests, the power of the stronger.

But if 1(b) is what is real, then you can give a counter-argument, for it is possible for the gossips pleasure in this activities to be unreal and wrong in terms of the realities of human relationship and goodness in them. You are not locked into the use of force as an only possible response: you can appeal to reason concerning objective realities. In addition, those in power can be wrong, and this just doesn’t mean that they’re wrong because I don’t like what they’re doing, but that I dislike what they’re doing because they are wrong. Education then becomes a process of opening someone up to reality: teaching them to see what is there, and verify it for themselves: education means teaching the recognition of reality! Justice and law, too, then, are in a dependent position; the law can be wrong, even if the powerful like what the law says.

If 1(a) is real, then Beauty, too, vanishes from this world as a real feature of it. It too becomes a matter of likes and dislikes. “Beautiful” then simply means “I like it,” and “Ugly” means I do not. But if 1(b) is real, then beauty does not depend on my likes and dislikes, and I can be educated into having the proper–the right–likes and dislikes. In fact, in all these areas, likes and dislikes can be right or wrong! And truth is not what gives me power, but is that which reveals the reality of goodness. Instead of Goodness, beauty, and truth becoming a function of my likes and dislikes, with all that is left being the play of power, my likes and dislikes become a function of goodness beauty and truth, and the play of power is always the last option. What is beautiful is then not defined through what the powerful like, as as in 1(a) where goodness, beauty, and truth become a human creation, solely dependent on human choice. Instead, human choice is in one sense irrelevant, and goodness, beauty, and truth are a matter of human recognition, not of human creation.

It is important to notice at this point the different criteria for choice:

If 1(a) is correct, then if I ask myself, when faced with a possible choice, is it right to do some possible action, “is it right?”= will it maintain or increase my power, my ability, to achieve pleasure and avoid pain; it is right if it will do that, and it is wrong if it will not. I can then only say that someone is stupid if they make a wrong choice–I cannot accuse them of moral failure, for morality, Quality, is totally absent from such a world.

But if 1(b) is what is real, then when I ask “is this action right?”, what I mean is: is this choice real in the light of a reality independent of me? And the question of my personal power and pleasure become deeply irrelevant in one sense, for what is right could mean doing something that decreases my power to achieve pleasure and pain in a significant way: my pleasure and pain become irrelevant. And I can then say someone is morally wrong is they make a wrong choice; they are not stupid, they are morally wrong, they have made a choice lacking in quality.

Truth now involves a moral dimension, whereas it cannot if 1(a) is correct. And this would mean that to understand reality, I would have to become moral; and to the degree I am moral, to that degree my perception of reality would be clear; and to the degree I am immoral, to that degree I would not be seeing what is real.

But this does not tell us what goodness IS–thought it does now make that question all important. If 1(b) is what is real, then the all important question now becomes: What is goodness?


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