What Do We Mean by “Good”?

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 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 governed by environment. Popular 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, “A gas stove is a good choice for a serious cook,” is synonymous with saying it is useful. Nearly all appraisals of utility are judgments. Even if we are quirky in our appraisal, we usually can offer a good reason for thinking one thing more useful than another and even better can quickly test that judgment against the utility it desires. I will concede that all uses of “good” that involve utility are situational, experiential, and typically rational in the universal sense. It is neither controversial nor particularly interesting as a category. It is interesting that the key relationship between truth and goodness is based on utility. 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 is quite a valuable relationship 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 “Toward a Public Morality“). But this essentially pragmatic 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 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 Makes it True?“), 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 undifferentiated 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.



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