The definition of goodness

Let’s start with an analogy: a river flowing across the countryside. Where the slope is nearly flat, the river meanders, wandering here and there according to the influence of various local factors. Where the slope is more pronounced, the river follows a definite course. With a bit of effort, a primitive farmer can use the river for irrigation. Lacking any kind of pump, though, he’s going to find that not all attempts to harness the river will be successful, and that the most successful approaches all have one factor in common: remembering that water flows downhill.

Morality is like the river, in that there are some circumstances where it is fairly easy to make it become what we want it to be, as well as other circumstances where, do what we will, the “water” is going to follow its natural downhill flow. But if morality is like the river, then what is the landscape that shapes its natural course, and what force of “gravity” pulls it downhill? That one is a little more complicated to explain.

As you may recall from last week’s post, I differ from Thomist philosophy (or at least, from as much as I’ve seen of it so far) in that I believe there is precisely one ontological perfection, no more, and this perfection is reality/truth itself as a whole. All lesser “perfections” are, in fact, errors in perception: our minds are inadequate to contain and process more than a very small fraction of the whole truth about reality as a whole, so we are forced to isolate certain perceptible aspects of reality and treat them as distinct concepts, even though real truth is not isolated nor distinct from itself. Anything we have a concept for is necessarily imperfect, and is less than the whole truth.

In discussing things like “goodness,” therefore, the philosopher needs to be careful to remember that he is actually studying the characteristics of his own imperfect perception of goodness, and not something that is perfect and complete in and of itself. If he forgets the inherent imperfection of all philosophical entities, and believes that such things have an independent existence of their own (or worse yet, are the ontological sources for observable reality), then he makes the same mistake that led Aristotle to conclude that the celestial bodies are all perfect spheres moving in perfect circles. Such “perfections” are merely oversimplifications designed to make the philosopher’s life easier; they break down if you try to apply them to the more complicated reality they are drawn from.

In considering the actual basis for “good” and “evil,” then, the first thing we need to remember is the real-world context in which such patterns can be seen to emerge. That context is a context of materialism. We exist as material organisms; our lives, our actions, our very consciousness is built upon a physical foundation of energy exchanges, organized in patterns that have evolved over millions and even billions of years. “Good” and “evil” can thus be reduced to a question of energy exchanges, in much the same way as a symphony can be reduced to a series of rapidly varying air pressures—and with about the same loss of comprehensibility.  That’s zooming in too close, so that we can’t see the big picture. Too much detail overwhelms our limited minds.

There is useful information there, however. Knowing that a symphony exists, materially, as a series of variations in air pressure, we can understand why you can’t listen to symphonies in a vacuum. And likewise, knowing that good and evil are constructed out of a pattern of material energy exchanges, we can understand why good and evil do not exist in some abstract, ethereal dimension, but rather are rooted in, and bound to, our material life.

Let’s elaborate slightly (but not too much, since this is still just a blog post). As living organisms, we are what we are as a result of natural selection. Organisms that did not have the physical properties leading to extending their own existence are organisms that proved more likely to perish without reproducing; the organisms which were equipped to maintain and continue their existence were more likely to prolong the patterns that led to this kind of survival-seeking, in their own lives and in the lives of their offspring.

At the most fundamental level, then, we have a differentiating factor: natural selection has given rise to a behavioral pattern of pursuing actions that promote continuation of existence, and of avoiding actions that interrupt the energy exchanges (thus causing death). The actions that promote survival are thus “good” (on a primitive level), and the ones that promote premature death are “bad.”

Note, by the way, that there is no point in asking whether it matters whether the organism lives or dies. That’s a subjective question. We are not speaking of whether some third party observer has preferences one way or another about the organism’s life, because that’s irrelevant to understanding what “good” and “bad” really are, especially at such a foundational level. All we have, and all we need, is the evolved pattern of behavior that prefers survival over extinction.

This is a category of good and evil that exists all the way down to the microbial and even sub-cellular level. At this point, however, it’s still too basic, in a symphony=list-of-frequencies sort of way. To properly understand good and evil in our own context, we need to follow the organism as it evolves mechanisms that promote the “good” behaviors and avoid the “bad” ones. Again, though, we’re tracing the evolution of a material phenomenon, specifically the development of neural systems capable of registering sensations, emotions, and instincts.

The apex of this process (so far) is the evolution of intelligent, self-aware consciousness. We evolved into a material organism whose physical structure allows the types of energy exchanges we call “thinking.” And along the way, we learned a thing or two. For instance, we learned that there is strength in numbers, and we learned that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. We learned, in other words, that banding together into societies is “good,” but that it has a price which can be “bad.” Societies can prolong your existence, but it can also cut it short, sometimes unexpectedly so.

This is the “landscape” across which the “rivers” of morality flow. In some places, there’s a clear, sloped channel down which the river flows: murdering someone, for example, makes you at least a potential threat to others, so that’s bad in two ways: not only is your victim dead, but you’ve put yourself in a situation where the “good” thing for everyone else to do is to prolong their existence by cutting yours short, so as to eliminate the threat. People benefit from being united in a society, PROVIDED that no one member ruins it for everyone else.

Morality thus arises spontaneously as set of conventions for balancing the potential rewards of social cooperation against the potential costs of social interaction. Because morality arises out of the nature of the material substances and energies that make up our lives, there is a certain degree of objective reality to large areas of morality. Dead is dead, and there’s no remedy for that, so the laws of morality in any society are almost certain to follow the same pattern of prohibition against murder.

On the other hand, there is also a strong subjective aspect to morality, in that the only reason we care about morality is because we are material organisms with a deeply ingrained behavior pattern that favors survival over extinction. If you give someone a definition of good and evil, and they ask you what difference your morality makes, you can tell them that they’re asking the wrong question. The question you have to ask first is, “To whom does it make a difference?” It makes a difference to us, because we are material organisms, whose patterns of makeup and behavior were formed by natural selection. And that’s the only difference it makes. That’s why we even discuss moral issues. Our interest in morality is the “gravity” that keeps the river flowing.

Of course, being organisms that are both intelligent and social, we have a lot more than just life and death to worry about. We understand that things can be bad even if they don’t threaten us with immediate annihilation. Loss of power, loss of goods, loss of shelter/clothing, loss of health and strength, loss of skills—any or all of these things cast doubts on how well we can survive in a hostile environment. This is another consequence of the material basis of good and evil: we have real, objective, material needs and there are sometimes hard physical constraints on who gets to keep the “good” stuff and who has to go without. It does not need to go all the way to literal physical death: any exchange that leaves you with fewer resources than you started with is a “bad” exchange (for you at least).

Ultimately, then, morality is both subjective and objective. It’s subjective in that it matters to somebody (and if it didn’t, then what difference would morality make?). People care about good and evil, subjectively, and this is what both defines morality and makes it important. But there’s an objective aspect of morality as well, and that is that our moral judgments take place in the context of a material “landscape” in which some directions are downhill and others aren’t. Societies have a way of imposing arbitrary moral standards (like the “right” of the rich to exploit the poor), but material actions have material consequences, and ill-advised moral standards are likely to be overthrown sooner or later (e.g. the French Revolution).

In answer to Nick’s question, then, my definition of goodness is that truth is good first and foremost. Your best shot at success depends on having what’s inside your head match what’s outside your head. Chasing illusory prey or fleeing illusory predators may give you strong feelings, but it’s not a survival benefit. This is the standard by which I judge C. S. Lewis’ arguments to be “not good.”

Beyond that, good and evil have to be defined in terms of finding the best balance between the interests of society and the interests of the individual. There’s no one correct moral balance, just like there’s no one correct river: we need to follow the path that best suits the circumstances and that achieves the best balance between making society strong at the expense of the individual, and making the individual strong at the expense of society.

Ultimately, you could reduce morality to a calculation of energy exchanges, albeit one that would be humanly impossible to compute. Each action has a certain cost to the individual, and a certain benefit to the individual, and a certain cost to society and a certain benefit to society. If we could add up all the costs, and all the benefits, and break it down so that neither party had disproportionately more nor less than the other, then we would achieve the mathematically optimal moral decision. Failing such a precise measure, though, we’ll have to do with our best estimate and with the imperfect process of consensus.

And that, barring a sudden burst of participation from Nick, is probably going to be as far as I go on this topic. I’ve answered his challenge, and his interest in engaging me has been conspicuous in its failure to manifest itself over the course of my past three posts, so there I think the matter will rest. It’s been fun, and moderately interesting (for me at least), and I, at least, am satisfied with the outcome.

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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Realism. 16 Comments »

16 Responses to “The definition of goodness”

  1. Hunt Says:

    I’m pretty satisfied with that definition as well, but don’t hold your breath for an endorsement by Nick. Moral absolutism is the process of excavating irrigation channels in the landscape; there is nothing naturalistic about it. In the context of the sometimes intricate network of cost and benefit, absolutism equals cauterizing off the sensorium to the exclusion of mandated principle. Killing “babies” is wrong, and therefore the possible millions who might benefit from fetal stem cell therapy are a distant secondary consideration. An exhaustive list of examples would also be exhausting, but in short, I don’t want to live in a bulldozed moral landscape.

  2. Hunt Says:

    I mean “to exclude everything except mandated principle…” Oh, you know what I mean.

  3. Hunt Says:

    Rereading my comment, I also don’t want to leave the impression that I’m a fanatical utilitarian either, but if I understand your analogy right, you’re not excluding categorical morality (like “murder is forbidden”) from the landscape.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Quite so. A society that condones and encourages murder increases the risk that being a member of the society will result in dying. Thus, it’s harmful to the society because it discourages membership, and harmful to the individual because it makes the benefits of society harder/riskier to obtain. Or in other words, the moral landscape slopes steeply away from casual murder as morally acceptable. There’s an objective substance to the prohibition against murder, and that substance derives from our material nature as mortal creatures with a preference for survival.

    This “slope” is not uniform, however. For example, there’s a subjective dimension to the definition of which types of killings constitute “murder.” Most people agree that killing in self-defense is not murder, some people think capital punishment is murder, and a lot of people think abortion is murder. The case of abortion is even more complex because there’s an opposing slope away from violating a woman’s right to decide what does and does not happen to her own body, not to mention the issue of deciding at what point the developing embryo crosses the threshold between prehuman and human. (As I’ve mentioned before, I may be a materialist, but I don’t go so far as reducing humanity to a single DNA molecule, so I don’t buy the “life begins at conception” argument.)

    So yeah, I think “landscape” works well as a metaphor for the interplay of the objective, subjective, and materialistic components of morality. It’s practical and reality-based, without being the fanatical utilitarianism you allude to.

  5. Arthur Says:

    I thought utilitarianism was supposed to be practical and reality-based. I’m not well-read on any of this stuff, though. I’ve read Practical Ethics and this blog. Also Stand to Reason’s blog, although I don’t think they helped me much.

    What do fanatical utilitarians say? Is Peter Singer one of them?

  6. Paul Says:

    Hi Deacon –

    Are you familiar w/ Alonzo Fyfe’s desire utilitarianism? If so, do you think what you’ve outlined here congruent with DU. I am not well read on it – and the wording is different – but it seems similar to me.

    Thanks –


  7. Paul Says:

    Probably should have said
    “Though I am still familiarizing myself with DU – and his wording and yours a bit different – it seems similar to me.”

    instead of
    “I am not well read on it – and the wording is different – but it seems similar to me.”

  8. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I’ve heard of desire utilitarianism, but I’m not really familiar with it. I’ll have to look it up now.

  9. Hunt Says:

    “Fanatical” utilitarianism is the belief that every moral decision can be made best by detailed cost/benefit analysis. By contrast, categorical moral systems say there are categories of actions that can be assigned moral value and shouldn’t ever be subject to cost/benefit. “Murder is wrong” is a categorical distinction, while the utilitarian will never make a categorical statement like that. Murder may be right if the benefits outweigh the costs.

  10. mikespeir Says:

    You’re failing to keep us entertained, Deacon, here and on the Thumb blog. What gives?

  11. Hunt Says:

    The subscription is free, so I’m willing to wait. I’d much rather read inspired stuff than space filler. Less is often more. In the end, it’s worth it.

  12. Arthur Says:

    I hope everything’s all right.

  13. mikespeir Says:

    Now I’m seriously starting to get worried.

  14. John Morales Says:

    The apex of this process (so far) is the evolution of intelligent, self-aware consciousness.

    That should be (so far as we know).

    Me too. Gap in posting is worrisome, Deacon!

  15. Len Says:

    Knock knock, Deacon – anyone home?

  16. pboyfloyd Says:

    Please to review another book now. Absent new input from here make me not think. Hulk angry now. NOT JOKE.