About a year ago, we did a series on morality, and concluded with Utilitarianism as a meta-ethical framework by which to decide which personal moral system is most appropriate for each circumstance. But when talking about Utilitarianism, I made the same mistake that most Utilitarian advocates make, and that is to define good by a word that means something else. Whether this word is happiness, pleasure, fulfillment, wellbeing, eudaimonia, or, in my case, satisfaction, it feels too limiting, like we’re shifting the definition of good to mean something else. So today, I am going to explain what I mean by “good,” and in the future, I will simply call it “good,” rather than any of those other less satisfactory labels.
We start by observing that we feel that some things are worthy of happening more than others. These things can take the form of circumstances, actions, attitudes, and plenty of other types of things. When presented with two of these things, we will judge one to be better than the other. Unless we are contemplating philosophy, this judgment is made by observing how we feel about it, and this feeling is stimulated by the comparison, just like our vision is stimulated by the light entering our eyes, and our hearing is stimulated by the sound entering our ears. In other words, we have a sense of right and wrong.
You might think, like a lot of philosophers throughout history, that having a sense of good means we must be perceiving some objective good that is out in the world and is independent from our perception. But there is no reason to believe our perceptions always show us objective things. For instance, the objects we see have no color, they just reflect different wavelengths of light. The colors come into being when our brains interpret the signals from the wavelengths of light enter our eyes. Similarly, good is not an inherent property of the circumstances, actions, etc. that exist in the world, but comes into being as the interpretations our brains make of those things. So then what is good? Good is when the sense of good is stimulated.
But there’s a problem that immediately jumps out at us. Different people perceive different things as good and bad. We see this all the time. People argue and fight because they disagree about whether something is good or bad.
There are three approaches to resolving this. The first is to look for universal moral goods, things that cause everyone’s sense of good to signal the same thing. The idea is that these are truly good, and everything else is conditional. The second approach is Relativism, the idea that there is no real good or bad, and it just depends on your point of view. The third approach is Deontology, which says everyone’s sense of good is equally valid, and no one’s good should be given more weight than anyone else’s. Building upon Deontology, we get Utilitarianism, which says when you add up everyone’s individual good, we get an objective total good.
One person’s sense of good is most strongly stimulated by learning about the universe. Another’s is most strongly simulated by training their body and working together with a team to rise through competitive ranks. Another’s is by doing work with their hands that has practical value to those around them. Deontology and Utilitarianism say that none of these are good intrinsically, but they are all good when paired with the people they are good for.