What Do We Mean by “Good”?


  • Coherentists enjoy two advantages in making truth claims: they can use emotions as warrant and they do not face the problem of specifying conceptual goods for intersubjective judgment.
  • Contemporary culture views finding goodness as a purely subjective appraisal.
  • Some correspondentists claim all moral goodness is based on sentiment, but this fails to resolve the problems of subjectivity and dooms nearly all public morality.
  • Romantic thinkers argued goodness to be an intimation delivered by a pantheist deity, which would allow intersubjectivity, but this position was eventually altered to retain the means while rejecting its source producing nihilism.
  • The hermetic options have fostered subjectivism that in its strongest articulations devolves into emotivism.
  • Conceptually, goodness can be sought in three kinds of experience: utility, quality, and morality.
  • Utility is invariably hypothetical and contextual.
  • Determinations of truth have utility in structuring the goodness choices that follow, so even entirely subjective utility depends upon an accurate analysis of experience; this imposes some limitations on pragmatic choices that pragmatism fails to recognize.
  • This connection can prompt either premature closure or an act of severance so as to minimize the is/ought
  • Broadening contextual considerations and the necessity for the act of severance may produce a publicly defensible utility of furthest ends but only if modernist axioms are engaged.
  • Contemporary appraisals of objective quality face three problems: temptations to substitute judgments of utility, the problem of conceptual specification, and the dominance of subjectivism.
  • Judgments of quality are possible using consensual standards of quality or expertise.
  • Morality is the most difficult of goods to examine because it inevitably requires an end of choosing and a systematic means to obtain it; these difficulties pose particular problems for public morality, but also challenge private schemas.

In thinking about what is true, coherentists have a real wedge issue in celebrating emotions to validate truth claims, something correspondentists with their need for external validation simply lack. Coherentists can drive that wedge further in regard to goodness claims. The problem of specification that plagues correspondence truth claims is more powerful when considering questions of goodness, for where can we find it as an object in reality (see “Is Goodness Real”)? To what can we compare our notions of goodness to seek their verification? We also face powerful cultural headwinds in any such effort, for postmodernism sees goodness as a cultural or personal choice based on experience, pragmatism, or convention (See “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements“). This view is pervasive enough that any honest analyst might ask herself what else it could be based on. Worse yet, correspondence reckoning must ignore vital components of life, most importantly the power of emotions and beliefs to structure our knowing what is true and good at best or at least to make life rich and enjoyable. The neurological and physiological bases of emotions may be a subject for empirical science, but issues of qualitative or moral goodness can never be (see “The Limits of Empirical Science). That has hardly stopped human science for wading into the issue in ways both scientifically irresponsible and socially destructive (see” The Calamity of the Human Sciences“). But knowing facts about emotions does not produce emotions and the cultural bases of belief say nothing about its actual truth or goodness. Furthermore, the linkage between our emotions/beliefs and the goodness claims we make has been deeply studied by modernist thinkers dating back to the seventeenth century, and many argue cogently that moral goodness is a kind of sentiment. Romantic thinkers throughout the nineteenth century felt that our morality is rooted in a mystical pantheism that comes into consciousness as emotion, a view that postmodernists appropriated in part, leaving out the divinity, and thereby rooting all morality in private choice. This shift retained an ease of preference while foreclosing on its verifiability. It is little wonder it fostered the nihilism that Nietzsche made famous in the twilight of Victorianism. The first two-thirds of the twentieth century, that choice was pitched as a rebellion against popular mores in the Romantic tradition, but once postmodernism had reached critical mass, choice was taken to be formed by those same mores in relativist manner. To the degree that they could be thought even remotely consistent, moral philosophies of our era include emotivism (goodness claims are a kind of meaningless yelp of preference like saying “ouch” or “um”) relativism (goodness is a cultural creation) and subjectivism (goodness is strictly an issue of private taste). It seems that the deck is stacked strongly against defending goodness as objective, knowable, and defensible.

But with deference to these strong negative arguments, I think it can be done. First, as with all such discussions, let us define the terms. We use the word goodness in three senses: utility, quality, and morality. I plan to discuss the first two uses of the term now and delve into morality in another essay (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“).

In terms of utility, we might substitute the word “useful” for “good” with better clarity. To say “An axe is a good tool with which to cut down a tree” is synonymous with saying it is useful for the purpose for which it is intended.  Judgments of utility are invariably hypothetical, meaning they are structured as goodness claims reliant on a prior statement of value. We first decide what we want and then decide how best to get it. The grammatical structure of such statements is invariably an “if/then” combination of clauses in which the first establishes the hypothetical good being pursued and the second the means to achieve it. “If you want to cut down a tree, you ought to use an axe.” The goodness of the hypothetical is entirely dependent on the desire it serves. Hypothetical statements entirely eliminate the is/ought problem of goodness best articulated by David Hume. That problem centers on the impossibility of deriving any goodness imperative from any declaration of truth. If I see a man beating a dog, nothing in that reality compels me to say I ought to intervene. I must add that ought to the true situation I am observing, Perhaps I would find it useful to intervene. Perhaps it is my dog and I wish to avoid the veterinarian bill. My mind would analyze the situation thusly: the truth of this situation is that this man is beating my dog. If I want to avoid a vet’s bill, I ought to intervene.” Were my objection to be a moral one, it might be structured in that same hypothetical manner: “If I seriously disapprove of a man beating a dog, I ought to intervene.” This would indicate a hypothetical moral structure that is entirely rooted in the virtual circle. My interests could as easily be structured so as to compel my disinterest or apathy. The utility of my reaction is dependent on my own desire in the moment. A correspondentist system would have to interrogate my own reaction in terms of some non-personal and explicable standard of value. That could be based on a kind of general utility: if everyone could get away with beating other people’s pets, then the world would be a more precarious place to live in. In sum, utility can be seen as either coherentist or correspondentist depending on how universally we seek to assess it. The common factor is that utility must always be hypothetical.

That hypotheticality is a major obstacle to comity in our social lives, for not only do our desires differ but also the insistence with which they impress themselves on our awareness, as we all know. It is a simple observation that not only do we desire different things, we also desire these different things at different times and at different intensities. This might seem an overwhelming hindrance to any public consensus. But it can be navigated so as to produce comity, provided we consider utility itself to be subject to public justification.

To begin that task, we start with the acknowledgement that our search for truth is itself governed by utiliy. We need to know what is true in order to choose what is good. Put another way, truth is the means to goodness, so we may see seeking truth as just one more example of utility. This may be a danger if we engage in a practice that is so natural to the truth/goodness relationship that it may be taken as the norm: the act of premature closure that foreshortens considerations of truth so as to facilitate the deliberations on goodness that are sure to follow. This dangerous emulsion of what should be separate operations may be employed to ease the often-torturous observation and reflection on experience that delivers a true understanding of the experience that ought always to precede the preferential act. Pragmatists advise that we engage in this distortion intentionally, that we see the branching of choice as the first rather than the second act of natural freedom, always structuring perception to yield the “cash value” of every option, slanting experience so as to ease preference. Then the hypotheticality that governs our preferences becomes the starting point for experience with the inevitable result of distorting our understanding of the true that should form the conditions of preference as a second operation. But that perversion of utility is not necessary. Empirical science shows that the act of severance that closes off our constructions of the truths of experience from considerations of the preferences we engage as a result of those constructions is possible (see “The Act of Severance“). Science’s stunning successes in unlocking reality’s secrets prove that the act of severance is possible and its technologies equally prove that unlocking those secrets yields incredible utility. It is worth reiterating that these successful linkages of truth and utility are more tenuous in other pursuits, though still open to competent cultivation in ordinary experience. It is also worth emphasizing how different empiricism’s act of severance is from the premature closure so admired by pragmatists. Hard science’s hypotheticals, founded upon actual truths, produce a real, if immediate utility. Soft science’s hypotheticals, founded upon distortive desire and prior hypotheticality, produce frustration, conflict, and inconsistency.

This is an imporatant realization in establishing a public morality because the incompatible components of private beliefs can never be reconciled in the public space, but we may hammer out agreements about the fulfillment of our common needs by appealing to a common utility of furthest ends (see “The Utility of Furthest Ends”). This can be summarized as consensus on the consequential horizon persons ought to bring to the public square if  they wish to satisfy their public needs. We obey traffic rules not because we find them moral but because they prove useful for reaching our destination. Though we may not care a fig that the neighboring driver reaches hers, it should be obvious that her accident will surely hinder our timely arrival. Now this barely extended horizon of outcomes is but a slight departure from pragmatism, a perspective moved by immediate hypothetical interests. But to avoid that accident, we both have to learn the traffic laws, sit for our driver’s licenses, maintain our vehicles, etc. etc. Thinking beyond momentary desires extends our consequential horizon to allow us to achieve longer-term desires that matter to us even if the moment tempts us to discount those in favor of what lies just under our nose. Prudential reasoning employed in public interactions may be seen as a pure hypothetical exercise of rational agency in pursuit of a utility of furthest ends.

But this essentially practical concession only introduces the question of whether utility is separable from the other ways in which we use the term “goodness,” or whether all of our efforts to seek the good in any form can be reduced to or judged in reference to utility. I would argue that both judgments of quality and private morality, as opposed to the public form,  are distinct from judgments of utility, but good arguments exist to the contrary, and also for the argument that both quality and morality are purely coherence issues. I disagree with both of these approaches, but I will try to give them a respectful airing.

Appraisals of quality, for instance, face tough sledding as correspondence claims, for our culture finds it astoundingly difficult to think of such things as matters of correspondence judgment rather than coherence opinion. Again, the problem of specification rears its head, for where in reality do we find external validation for any appraisal of quality? Its absence would confirm that all such opinions—from art reviews to fashion magazines to college admissions—are either disguised judgments of utility or bogus coherence preferences indistinguishable from expressions of taste. For instance, judgments of aesthetic quality may actually be disguised accounting estimates, a bait-and-switch technique that substitutes valuation of the marketplace for a judgment of quality. Nothing wrong with that except for the (intentional?) misrepresentation of one thing for another. I strongly suspect that this kind of error involves thinking of quality in terms of utility. It is so much easier to measure quality by its concomitants—shouldn’t higher quality art be worth the higher price—than by the actual elements that produce its quality. It is just fine to say the one painting van Gogh sold in his lifetime for a price that today would be around $1,000 was a masterpiece then as now, but it makes little sense to peg its quality to a price tag that today might be many thousandfold higher. It may be that its price has now caught up with its quality, but that assumes its quality differs from its price. So of what is its quality composed? Unless we are willing to have the quality of a thing rise and fall with its valuation in the marketplace, we will have to find another source of correspondence quality. And when you consider all the kinds of appraisals of quality everyone makes about so many different kinds of things, acts, and persons, you come to realize how truly difficult nesting these appraisals in correspondence becomes (see “Three Portraits).

Now that difficulty is worsened by the confusion over warrant that characterizes our age, but perhaps it is possible to find something in reality to base true correspondence judgments of quality upon. And, indeed, there are two such bases: standards of quality, and expertise. The example I use for standards of quality is the American Kennel Club’s specification of those qualities that typify the ideal dachshund. This may be a quirky example, but it is actually quite typical. For everything from student grading rubrics to codes of professional ethics, the spelling out of standards provides precisely the specification that correspondence requires in order for the appraiser to make the one-to-one analysis between a thing and the ideal of quality that orders its merits. Just as a simple judgment of perceptual truth pits my description against the reality it describes, so too does a standard provide a one-to-one basis for correspondence. As my judgments of perceptual truth pit my percepts against the reality I think I know, the judgment of canine quality faced by breeders and dog show judges requires comparing the dog to the standard that enunciates the archetype of the breed. Now one might challenge the validity of the standard. What gives the AKC the right to define the perfect dachshund or some professional association to build a rubric assessing student competence or Consumer Reports to lay out the criteria for best midsize sedan? Certainly, the standards require some correspondence judgment. What qualifies them as good? This is yet another judgment of quality. In some cases, logical analysis, authority, or even empirical evidence supports the standards as written. But the most common source of such standards is expertise, the collaborative wisdom of those who have both the experience and the close scrutiny to claim clear competence in the area being judged. Experts produce standards. From whence do they draw them? If you recall Aristotle’s explanation for how one comes to understand concepts, you will see a similar operation in regard to accumulation of expertise. One gains it by repeated episodes of thoughtful exposure to some experience or product that produces an abstract archetype of that experience. Often, the archetype can be set into some standard. For instance, the AKC rules for dachshunds establishes a set of specific qualities that made these dogs proficient in their breed’s purpose of hunting badgers in their dens. But in some subjects, expertise does not lend itself to words and yet still functions as a kind of informal substitute for articulated standards. As expertise itself is a powerful correspondence proof of judgment (see “What Counts as Justification?“), we should be confident that it provides adequate support for correspondence judgments of quality (see “Expertise).

But let us quickly add three limits. First, expertise should produce consistent judgments of quality. If it does not, what is claimed as correspondence judgment is really coherence opinion without any binding claim on other persons. Second, those consistent judgments must be linked to some standards that can be at least partially articulated. Otherwise, all we have are consistent expressions of personal taste. Finally, the kinds of experience that produce expertise must be of the Goldilocks variety: neither too similar to inhibit thoughtful analysis nor too different to discourage points of comparison. The poor drone on the factory floor who attaches a thousand parts A to parts B per day cannot claim expertise. Nor can the art critic who evaluates a thousand very different works of craft. I should add that authority, a weaker proof of correspondence judgment, is a very poor arbiter of quality, for as I have previously discussed, the presence of disagreement vaporizes authority’s warrant, so any disagreement about quality would eliminate authority as a competent judge of quality. But as authority, like undistilled experience, is the go-to expedient for institutional and cultural longevity, it is all too frequently used as a basis for standards despite its obvious shortcomings as correspondence warrant.

So in our judgments of quality, we face a number of temptations to error. We might prefer the simpler associations of utility that allow pragmatic evaluations to be disguised as true correspondence judgments of quality simply because we cannot articulate the standards that produce the judgment. Or we might bow to postmodern notions of the equality of opinion that insist all such notions are merely private appraisals constructed within the perceptual wall and defended within the appraiser’s virtual circle (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). Neither of these approaches is likely to uncover anything valuable about the goodness of something produced by its quality, which may be appropriate in those cases in which neither expertise nor standards can be marshaled to produce a correspondence judgment. But in those cases when correspondence judgments of quality are possible, embracing either a judgment of utility or private opinionating is likely to produce only cynicism or frustration about the nature of quality itself. True correspondence judgments of quality are possible, but they depend on either the enunciation of standards or the development of expertise, and these techniques are not possible in all fields in which we might desire to issue such judgments. Where they are, real judgments of quality are possible, though one should bear in mind that any such judgments, like all correspondence judgments, may only be considered provisionally true, proved by a preponderance of the evidence.

Of the three kinds of goodness, utility is far simpler to tease out than quality and quality far, far simpler than morality. For that reason alone, it should be considered as a prelude to thinking about moral issues.


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