What does “good” mean? 1: What’s the question?

1. The question

Introduction

What concept could be better known to everyone than that of goodness? Certainly people are adept at using it, together with related terms like “bad”, “right”, “should”, etc. If I say that you should lose weight, or that this is a good pencil, or that eating meat is wrong, everyone understands what I mean. All of those examples relate to different kinds of goodness/badness, but they’re all varieties of it.

good-clouds

It’s hard to decide what would be a good picture for an article about goodness.

So everyone can use terms related to various kinds of goodness. But hardly anyone can really explain what it means for something to be good. That is to say, what if the question we ask is not whether it’s right to eat meat, but what does it mean to say that it’s right? As we will see in the next section, this question is much more difficult than it looks.

As the example above hinted, there are different kinds of “goodness”. Something could be morally good or bad (or indifferent), like eating meat, but when a hammer is “good”, it just means that it works well. With some of these kinds of goodness, it’s easier to explain what they mean. Moral goodness is among the more difficult ones.

This is going to be a multi-part article where I discuss what “good” really means, going through different theories and different kinds of goodness, working my way up to the concept of moral goodness and how it works. I will give my own explanation for how the various senses of goodness work and what they have in common. It will turn out that talk of something being good can make sense and have conditions for truth like more ordinary claims can, but it works differently from them.

The question: a circle of concepts

So what’s the problem we run into if we try to explain what it means for something to be good, or its opposite, bad? Let’s try it. If a deed is good, it’s good to do it. Well, that’s not getting very far in explaining anything. Let’s try a different term: if a deed is good, we should do it, and if it’s bad, we shouldn’t. But wait, what does “should” mean? The same thing as “ought to”, apparently, but then what does “ought to mean”?

Let’s try again. If something’s good, then it’s desirable. Well, what does that mean? It does not mean that we always desire it. We might not, if we desire the wrong things. It means that we should desire it. But, wait, no. Now we’re back to “should”. Maybe we should say that it’s rational to desire it. But what does “rational” mean? In some cases, it means that the rational thing to do is that which will best help you attain your goals. But it can’t mean that here, because now we’re talking about what your goals should be in the first place.

If we try to explain what “good” or “bad” means, we easily find ourselves going around in a circle of terms that are all related to each other so closely they mean practically the same thing. As long as we don’t get out of the circle, we have said nothing. If “desirable” just means the same thing as “good” and nothing else, we have said nothing, at least in terms of a definition, if we say that something being good means its being desirable.

Terms that can be used like this include at least:

  • good/bad
  • right/wrong
  • positive/negative
  • desirable/undesirable
  • should/shouldn’t
  • ought to(/shouldn’t)
  • rational/irrational

This is not the only way in which talk about goodness is strange.

Ought and is

One thing worth noticing right away is that goodness is a strange sort of property. Can we observe that something is good? In some sense, surely, but we don’t see it directly like we see that something is blue or round or feel that something is soft. It may be obvious that kicking kittens is wrong, but how? Is it just something we feel? Is it really a property of the act at all, or just our reaction to it? We return to such questions later.

Many philosophers agree that you cannot derive “ought from is” — you cannot get to what is good or not just from claims about how the world is. You have to add something, a kind of component of value. But what is that component? This is almost the same question as that of what “good” means, and we’ll be answering it in the later installments. For now, it’s worth noting how all this makes claims about goodness oddly different from other claims. I know what it means for that car over there to be blue because it’s an observable property. I can’t say the same thing about goodness.

What next?

In the next part, we will look at the various kinds of answers philosophers have given to the question of how statements about goodness work. It will be a general overview of different theories. After that, I will explain how different simpler kinds of goodness work, and the last part will tackle morality.

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