Is Goodness Real?

Answering a Question about Goodness

I came across this written response to one of my students. He had posed an excellent question: does goodness really exist? If so, does it exist as an ontological (reality-based) entity or an epistemological (mind-dependent) one? I have been fortunate to have worked with many terrific students whose curiosity and honesty stimulated my efforts to seek plausible answers to their questions concerning truth, goodness, and beauty.

 Have a fine week.

 S. Del


I am pleased that you are struggling with basic questions of the nature of goodness, but it occurs to me that you might still be outlining the fundamentals in your own mind when you should be working on the specifics of Mill et al. You seem to have a fixed disposition to see one side of the argument: that goodness is subjective, invented, coherence, or pragmatic. That is certainly a defensible point, and the people you are studying all held it to be true to a greater or lesser degree. They were revolting against a much older tradition, though, that might be less clear to you. So I will explain it.

As this tradition began in theology and remains difficult to disentangle from religion, I will occasionally have to bring religion into the picture, but the argument can largely be made on ontological grounds.

The first part argues for ontological goodness. This is as old as the pre-Socratics. As Aquinas said, “A thing is good so long as it has being.” The argument posits that existence is better than non-existence because existence increases potentiality. When argued as moral goodness, “potentiality” becomes “freedom,” but the ontological argument would hold even if there were no humans in the universe. Being is better than nothingness because being allows stuff to happen. This is obviously closely related to a second argument for ontological goodness, which is the argument for order. We see this argument all over the place in science. By this argument, Mercury is good even if it has no impact on any human because its existence helps order the existence of the solar system, the Milky Way, and so on. As you can see, this is a refinement of the argument from being, but it is an important one. It sees nature as a correspondence virtuous circle in which physical order is good because it allows everything to exist both as things in themselves and as part of a larger order. Think of the ecological movement that sees nature as good and human involvement as a general moral evil. That view explicitly embraces the ontological goodness of the natural order and rejects the disruption humans impose by virtue of their free will. Of course, this view depends for its persuasive power on a religious view of human sinfulness going back to the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden and was supercharged by the Romantics in the early 1800’s. Though the whole idea of ontological goodness derives from the religious assumption that God imparts this order, it has largely survived the scientific revolution by the discoveries of natural laws and fundamental unity of scientific disciplines. By this reasoning, human nature is just a special variant of all of nature and so moral goodness is just a part of a larger ontological goodness. It is very possible to dispute this position, and much of modern existentialism opposes it on the grounds of  ­­­­­­­entropy, and there is also the position that “natural law” is more like the law of averages.

As said above, ontological goodness begets moral goodness with human choice producing actualization of potentiality through the exercise of freedom. Even so coherent a thinker as Nietzsche agreed with the relationship between goodness and power. “What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself.” I doubt that hard science will eliminate the illusion of our freedom no matter how deterministic science becomes. Knowing that my emotions are chemical does not make them feel any different, and I can’t reduce my apprehension about an important decision just because I know abstractly that I will see causation when remembering it later. This is the Kantian category argument, which strikes me as decisive in defending human freedom. Anyway, since homo sapiens is a choice making machine, moral goodness exists only as an extension of ontological goodness. Just as nature is ordered to proceed in a certain order, so are we, and these are the human goods. This effort to establish a link between man and other things is abetted by the lesser freedoms of animals, who still seek their own goods. But, of course, all humans do not act this way.

This brings up the issue of evil, which is another way of approaching goodness. Evil is the corruption of goodness. It is ontological disorder as well as moral. As the absence of goodness, it corresponds to the “nihil” that is the alternative to being in ontology. “Evil, if free, destroys even itself,” says Aristotle. By this argument, ignorance is evil because it does not see potentiality thereby destroying freedom. Slavery is evil because it actively limits freedom, making a thing of a human. Sartre’s bad faith is evil because it is the human making a thing of herself. In each case there is a lovely parallel between moral evil as a metaphor for nihilation and ontological evil as literal nihilation.

Now it can be argued quite effectively that there is a big difference between moral and ontological goodness. The universe cannot do evil. This gets tricky, but the standard response is that we define evil as the corruption of goodness, associating it with human choice, rather than the absence of goodness, which association with nothingness is the antonym of ontological goodness. I’m not sure that is clear. Ask me about it if it is confusing.

Since humans can corrupt moral goodness (because they have so much freedom), it follows that only they can do evil. Consider suicide. He who desires non-being desires it only because he wishes the removal of some evil, as Cicero says, preferring non-being to the corruption of good that he is living with. Though understandable, this is a rational error, for even corrupted goodness has more potential than non-being. In moral discourse, we even define evil as the corruption of good or the absence of moral qualities, as we call cruelty the absence of compassion.

The final issue on goodness is epistemological goodness. Of course, since “goodness” as a concept is mind-dependent, we should remember David Hume’s argument that no “is” can ever justify any “ought.” The ontological argument given above would dispute that claim. So would the “if/then” hypothetical response we discussed in class in which the “if” part of the claim lays out the desire and the “should” part lays out the best way to satisfy the desire, grammatically reducing all goodness claims to issues of utility. But remember that the “if” part of the sentence is hypothetical and choice-dependent, so the power of this manner of expression is another point of argument among thinkers. Another epistemological issue involves the relationshjp between truth and goodness. Would you say that it is good to know the truth, or that it is bad to be in error? Of course you would, for even in asserting that there is no goodness, one must be arguing for a truth that is preferable to a falsehood. Ontological goodness would exist without human choice, but moral goodness is a possession of the human mind only. Epistemological goodness then consists of an accurate relationship between ontological and moral goodness. To paraphrase Aristotle, when we say or choose something as good that is really good, we possess epistemological goodness. Just as correspondence truth is a good thing to have in regard to reality, so correspondence goodness is a true relationship between ontological and moral goods. The realization that truth and goodness are so intimately related should cause a correspondentist like you to be cautious about claiming that one is correspondence and the other coherence.

This would be a far easier argument to make if it were rooted in moral absolutism (religion) rather than moral universalism (reasoning), but I hope you see it is a legitimate one anyway. Of course, one could also make a very good case for coherence goodness, but that seems to be your default position, so I will leave it to you to make.


6 thoughts on “Is Goodness Real?

  1. We call something “good” if it meets a real need that we have as an individual, as a society, or as a species.

    It is not a simple matter of pleasure, because many things that are actually bad for us are pleasurable. We want cake, but what we really need is nourishing food.

    Nor is it a simple matter of avoiding pain, because some things, like childbirth, are painful but necessarily for survival.

    I use the term “morality” for the “intent to achieve good, for others as well as for ourselves”. And the term “ethics” for the “rule systems” we employ toward that end.

  2. The definition of “good” derives from the definition of “life”. The difference between a rock and an amoeba is that the amoeba has needs. The amoeba extends its pseudo-pod to pull itself toward food. A plant extends its roots into the ground. A flower twists to point to the Sun. A baby cries out until it is given warmth and food. That’s life. Outside of life “good” has no meaning.

    The best thing about defining “good” as “meeting the real needs of the individual, the society, or the species” is that it roots morality in empirical reality, and provides some objective criteria for saying “this is good” and “that is bad”.

    The rock has no morality. But for every living species there is a set of objective “goods” to attain and “harms” to be avoided. And the moralist can join with the scientist to seek the best answers, once the question is clear.

    Every school of morality and ethics, every logical model that philosophers employ, must ultimately be judged by how well their principles serve the best good for everyone. For the rules of living here did not just drop from the sky, but have been evolving since our species began.

  3. Marvin,
    Thanks for your comments. The argument for ontological goodness is certainly open to debate, but your point about morality being confined to those with free will seems indubitable to me (though the question of whether we have free will is tougher). I wonder about “the best good for everyone,” for without a teleological view of our nature, I think we would be reduced to a Utilitarian position on what the majority thinks good, and that position is a difficult one to defend. I think the “final cause” argument works but only in terms of needs, not for all things everyone considers good, for even in regard to needs, we can find little that is universally agreed to. Our desires are less clear.

    1. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a reasonable outline of human needs and their priorities. We need food, water, shelter, etc. for basic survival. After we have the necessities we may pursue our other desires in ways that do not harm ourselves or others.

      The “free will versus determinism” debate is pointless. Both are simultaneously correct, and the “versus” can be replaced with “and”. We experience free will whenever we go through the mental process of making a choice. It is a real world phenomenon. The fact that the “cause and effect” model can be applied, and that someone with a “God’s eye view” of all of the precedent causes could predict the result of a given process in advance does not in any way obliterate the reality of the process itself. One might even say that free will is inevitable. 🙂

      Utilitarianism is only correct if you correctly answer “useful for what?” A principle, rule, right, law, ethic, etc. serves a purpose. The purpose is to assist in obtaining the best good and least harm for everyone.

      Take a moral question like: what is the best speeding limit on the highway? It will depend upon a weighing of benefits (getting there sooner, etc.) and harms (getting there alive, etc.). In theory, there is an optimal speed limit that takes into account the construction of the road, the safety improvements in the automobile, the capabilities of the drivers, etc. Even with all the facts, there may be disputes among good and ethical persons as to the correct rule. So we study the facts, discuss alternatives, and then vote our best guesses. We apply the rule, study the results, and adjust it if necessary.

      This same kind of process applies to gay marriage, gender and racial equity, and every other moral issue on the table. And the answers, as you’ve already noticed, may change over time.

      The philosophical question “what is good” is really a practical question of “what is good for us”. And, at least in theory, we can empirically determine what that is by applying both science and reason.

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