On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

All things, insofar as they are, have goodness.  This is because, for any existent thing whatsoever, to be is necessarily better than not being (regardless of whether a given existent thing consciously acknowledges this or is even capable of thinking about it at all).  This goodness is partly a function of the fact that every existent thing inherently depends upon its having being in order to have any other good things.

Existing is, in the first place, the most foundational good.  It is the good in which all other goods can even occur.  All actual good things are existent things and we can only enjoy them if they exist and if we exist.  Even our own personal excellences all require our own existences as their precondition and, furthermore, fulfilling our potential for an excellence essentially consists of existing in certain greater ways rather than in other lesser ways.   All that is either intrinsically excellent or delightful to others about any existent thing is also a function of its way of existing, the form its existence takes.

I borrow Plato and Aristotle’s term “form” only with the proviso that it needs always to be read in ways that are consistent with modern biology.  If you think it is impossible or unwise to retain form or essence language given the facts known by modern biology, leave your objection in the comments and I will happily explore my reasons for thinking they can be compatible and complementary ways of understanding the natural world and how philosophical recourse to this metaphysical language need not lead to any confusions about the proper biological nomenclature or be inconsistent with recognition of biological processes.

As my first preemptive defenses against foreseeable objections: I only see biological “forms” as the contingent results of natural selection, not as in any way immaterial essences given directly to beings by a divine agency.  By forms I also do not mean to imply that any non-biologically-based, distinguishable metaphysical, non-physical thing is at work in natural entities making them take the shapes they have.  The “forms” things have are purely functions of physical, chemical, and biological processes. There are also no strict formal constraints that prevent evolution by which one species splits into two.

By the term “form” in general, I only refer to recurrent, scientifically specifiable patterns of organization that make different entities classifiable as belonging to common groups, as essentially the same kinds of things.

In other words, I refer to the fact that, for whatever physical, chemical, or biological reasons are explanatory in any given case, there are patterns of being which occur the same in more than one entity, such that each of those entities can be rightly and accurately referred to as the same “kinds” or “forms” of things and expected as such to have either identical properties and behaviors or to have characteristically similar ones, which can be, or already are, scientifically specifiable.

Every “form” is a way to exist and, therefore, if what I said at the beginning is correct, a possible way to be good.  Now a given being may or may not completely fulfill its formal possibility for existing excellently according to its kind. Every being, essentially, might more or less fully realize the potential which its nature gives it.  It may become a more or less excellent instance of its kind.  The more that a thing fulfills its potential, the more it actualizes its nature, and the more it becomes that thing.

For a simple example, all humans have some musicality which gives us each at least some potential to be musicians.  The more that one of us fulfills the excellences of music performance, the more one becomes an excellent musician.  In Aristotelian language (while not endorsing the superseded physics with which he interpreted the terms), to turn a potentiality into an actuality is to realize a form.

The more a thing does the characteristic things of its kind, the more it becomes in actuality, and not just potentially, a thing of that kind.  The more excellently you do those characteristic things which are fit for your kind of being, the more closely, ideally, and powerfully you embody its formal ideal.  And, in some significant sense, this makes you more that sort of thing.

In a certain real sense, the degree to which a musician plays according to ideals of perfect musicianship, the more she is a musician and the less adequately she approaches the ideal of perfect musicianship, the less she is a musician.  This intuition is captured when we praise a good musician by saying “she is quite a musician” or criticize a bad musician by saying, “she isn’t much of a musician”.

What we are saying in the latter example is that what she does functions less as musicianship the further it gets from being an instance of ideal musicianship and she herself is less of a musician to that extent.  And vice versa in the former case.

So, we fulfill a potential to do something not only by doing the formal motions involved in doing that thing but, more importantly, by doing that thing in ideal ways.  We actualize ourselves as musicians not just by plucking on strings or blowing into horns but by effectively expressing musical skills and by effectively creating instances of music which excellently do whatever music characteristically does.

And this does not go just for being a musician of course but it goes for being a whole human being.  The more we actualize our potentials the more we fully realize our human nature by more closely approaching an ideal of human perfection and existing more fully as human.

While we are all, of course, minimally human by virtue of belonging to the species and doing human activity to at least some minimums of characteristic human excellence, we can more fully realize our humanity and more fully exist as humans to the extent that we realize our characteristic excellences.  These excellences are our virtues, be they moral, intellectual, or technical.

In some real way, having only the crudest and most rudimentary musical abilities, as I do for example, and rarely expressing any of them, means I am less fully existing as a human being than, say, an alternate version of me who had all my own cultivated powers and expressions of them but also added to them the fulfillment of the ideal of musicality.

In this sort of picture we see how being can be equated with goodness. The extent that I do something excellent is the extent to which I am a certain kind of being and the extent to which I lack an excellence is the extent to which I am not a certain kind of being.

There are some excellences which I can never have because of constraints I get from being human.  I can only be excellent in terms of the powers germane to my kind of being and in terms of the possible complex recombinations of power permitted within the constraints of my kind of being. The degree to which I fail to excellently realize those powers is the extent to which I fail to ideally be my kind of being.

Just as when a heart fails to pump blood, it fails to realize the very functionality which biologically defines it as a heart and so fails any longer to, in effect, be a heart, we can say that:

When I fail to philosophize well, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a philosopher.

When I fail to act morally well, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a moral human being.

When I fail to be a moral human being, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not excellent according to central human powers.

When I fail to be excellent according to central human powers, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not an ideal human being.

When I fail to be an ideal human being, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a human being.

Of course, the qualifiers “functionally speaking” and “to that extent” are crucial to all of the above distinctions.  Fortunately, by our very nature, before we die we never fail completely to fulfill our powers that make us human and until we die we can have the structures that, even when temporarily not functional, make for formal humanity.  Only once dead, when we completely stop functioning as human beings do and we lose all our human structures, do we completely stop being human.

Of course there are many questions my account raises. I already have a first follow up in the post How Our Morality Realizes Humanity and I hope to answer what I expect to be numerous questions, challenges and objections in posts which find their inspiration, shape, and focus from your thoughts.

Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Eli

    This is a really thought provoking post. I would certainly agree that something can be considered to be x when it fulfills the function of x (a heart is only a heart when it pumps blood.) This idea of function becomes a little more problematic when you move outside the material realm and make the assertion that not acting morally makes you less of a human being. How is being moral so central to the purpose of being human?
    I think I agree with what your saying, but some more explanation would be helpful. Also, please forgive me if you have already covered this in a prior post.

  • David


    Enjoyed this post.

    There’s a puzzle that arises for all of us who insist that ethics is grounded in the flourishing of our nature in some way or another, that your post touches on, but that I’d like to press a bit more pointedly, to see how you develop your view.

    I’ll call ourselves aretaists for lack of a better term.

    Aretaist views recognizes that proper attributions of excellence works pretty much as you say. They also recognize that we are not just musicians, farmers, teachers, video-game-players, or even musician-farmer-teacher-vg players. We are human beings. But what is the activity proper to hbs? Is it something else we do when we are not playing music, farming, playing video games, etc, so that we are excellent hbs when we are excellent at that other activity (human beinging?) Or are we excellent human beings by ordering our other activities in a certain way? If so, how is excellence at that ordering different from excellence in the activities that are so ordered. Is human excellence a certain sum of other excellences (assuming they can be commensurated)?

    You mention “central human powers” and I suspect that your answer to my query will hang on how you analyze that term, and what role ‘central human powers’ play in your account. Are they powers humans must develop in order to develop any other excellences?

    Anyway, I wonder if the different aretaic views (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Augustinian, Thomistic and Nietzschean) can be distinguished by how each view answers the kind of question I’ve raised. That’s a genuine musing. I’m not sure about it myself, but I’m curious what you think about it.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Eli, here’s your reply, I eagerly await your further thoughts!  Dave, I will think through your provocative questions next.  And, to anyone else reading along, what other objections or questions should I address in future posts on the topics raised in the blog post above?  Your Thoughts?

  • http://serptopia.blogspot.com serp

    Oh my, you seem quite the Aristotelean. Your approach to morality is an interesting one, but there are some very large differences in the way you and I approach morality and the world in general. I’ve read this post and the other you linked to on how our morality realizes our humanity. Here are my thoughts:

    For one, I don’t hold existing to be inherently better than not existing. Not existing seems quite neutral to me, and that which exists might be good or evil. There are things or even people of which I would say “It would be better if it/he/she did not exist.”

    As far as I can tell, you provide basically two reasons for acting with good will towards others. One is that maintaining and upholding order is likely to maximize our own power/existence in the end even if it doesn’t immediately. The other is out of love.

    To the former, I say that many a person has gained power through selfishness, dishonesty, and disregard for others; and to the latter I say, what of those I don’t love? Should I love everyone? Why?

    Finally, one thing between these two posts seems a discrepancy. In this one you say we cease to function when we die, but in the other you say that you continue to function poorly through a building you build as long as it causes problems for the occupants, and that Edison continues to function through the light bulb. I don’t follow.

  • http://serptopia.blogspot.com serp

    Pardon, where I said “upholding order” I should have said “upholding order and empowering others such that we function through them.” wouldn’t want you to think I skipped that part :D