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

1. The question


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.


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.

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Freedom, responsibility, and higher-level laws

In this post, I present an argument for the following thesis: When determinism holds, a person’s action is free and the person is responsible for the action if determinism does not hold on the relevant higher level on which the action is being described.

Let’s start by unpacking what that means: Continue reading

Watchmen’s Ozymandias and the ultimate moral dilemma


Ozym Ozymandias

The ideal hero… but can he be?

First, I have to ask you: have you read Watchmen? Or at least seen the movie? If you haven’t, this is going to spoil the heck out of it; what I’m discussing is tied to the conclusion of the great story. Do read the original graphic novel first rather than reading this. If you’ve seen the movie, that’s good enough, but I would not recommend starting with it instead of the comic.

Watchmen is the graphic novel (ie. comic book) that always gets mentioned when talking about how comics or even superhero comics can be deep and can be art. I’ve already discussed philosophical questions raised in it in two articles, concentrating on the metaphysics around Dr. Manhattan. This time, I am going to use it to look at a central question in ethics. It’s one of the most important questions in ethics: do the ends justify the means, or, when do they?

Now, if you’re ready to hear more about this, read on.

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A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?

A vague sketch of an idea, but might be significant.

I’ve been reading and thinking about the nature of religion and its relation to belief and to the supernatural. What ideas I get depends on what I focus on or what I read. If I read Daniel Dennett, it seems religion really is built around the supernatural. If I read Karen Armstrong, it seems that it’s not. This idea comes from the latter way of looking at it.

So, this idea is that religion was not originally supposed to be about beliefs, that this is only something we think because we’re confusing it with science. On the other hand, I’ve also read that science has been made too much about knowledge only. And that religion — and myth — used to have an important function that we’re partly missing now.

This makes me think: Do a naturalistic world view — belief in only verifiable things, nothing supernatural — and religion need to contradict in any way? From this perspective, it seems that not. Here’s a sketch of different ways they could be closer and closer to each other as they come to involve a better understanding of the world and people. Continue reading

Review: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize the truth: the living cell evolved with no Creator, no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own, created by the evolving biosphere? The truth is much more magnificent, much more worthy of awe and wonder, than our ancient creation myths.

Reinventing the Sacred proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based world view. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe. Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred — creativity, meaning, purposeful action — are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically. (…)

-From the cover blurb

Reinventing the Sacred coverLast week, I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and criticised it for answering the human world/physical universe problem in a way that effectively rejected current science. Fittingly enough, this review features one of the books I think successfully integrates science with humanity, even spirituality.

Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion actually has much more scientific content than one would expect from its descriptions. Certainly, it offers a view of how we could see sacredness as a property of the evolving universe rather than a god outside of it. Continue reading

Can non-sentient things have innate moral value?

Frankly, I think only sentient beings can have ultimate moral value. Other things can have it only instrumentally. However, the matter is a little more complicated than that. I will argue my view here.

“Sentient” means having inner experience, being able to feel something. As far as I can see, there is good reason to think that animals with a sufficiently complicated nervous system — and it doesn’t have to be very complicated — all have sentience, and other things don’t. It’s not really a question of whether the thing is an animal specifically or whether it has just what we call a nervous system, but you need something like that, and the only thing we know of at the moment that seems to fit are animals.

Sentience apparently implies the capacity to feel something like pleasure and pain, to experience things as positive or negative. As I see it, that is the core of moral value. Continue reading

Are we writing a dictionary or talking about what’s right?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave with no internet or television, you’ve probably heard about the same-sex marriage debate. If you’ve followed it, you’ve probably heard the argument that there should be no same-sex marriage because marriage is something that’s between a man and a woman. That’s just what it means.

Opponents don’t think much of this argument, obviously, but let me analyse just what is wrong with it — and any other argument that refers to the meanings of words the same way. Continue reading