In a recent post I argued that goodness, objectively speaking, means effectiveness. Of course we use the word “good” for numerous purposes, to express that we find something pleasant, desirable, useful, advantageous to our interests, etc. But I want to argue that when it comes to the facts of reality, goodness has only this one essential meaning, effectiveness, and that the valid opportunities to describe pleasant, desirable, useful, interest-advancing things with the word “good” are all justified only insofar as these things prove effective in the cases at hand.
“But”, you might ask, “effective for what?” And this is the question posed by Keenan Steel of the new Egoist Philosophy Blog in his reply post, “Goodness Is More Than Effectiveness”. He writes that I have only acknowledged one kind of goodness but not the morally essential one. He argues that I have made an uncontroversial point that goodness can refer objectively to effective means but I have not accounted for the real moral problem which is the question as to what means are worth pursuing. How do we determine what ends are good and what makes ends good. He claims that in order to solve the problem of getting from “is” to “ought”, from facts about the world to valid normative prescriptions about what to value or what to do, that we need another sense of good besides effectiveness.
Philosophers are generally pretty good about discussing the best way to get to a desired outcome, but what do we do when we disagree about the end goals?
[Dr.] Fincke says:
The most factual sense of the word “good” we have is the sense of effectiveness. Effectiveness is a matter of straightforward fact. My heart right now is effective at pumping blood. Many rivers have been effective at carving valleys. The sun is effective in innumerable ways at sustaining life on Earth.
While this is true, we’ve begun using a different meaning of the word “good” now. To say that “goodness = effectiveness” could be done by cracking open a dictionary and using a non-normative use of the word “good.” The entire proof for this argument could have been found in any respectable dictionary. Usually when someone says the sun is good at heating things around it up, they’re not saying that the sun is “good” in a moral sense, nor do we talk about what the sun “ought” to do. Why not? Because we recognize that the sun does not have goals.
Effectiveness is not morality. Again, we have two issues: the goal, and how to attain that goal. Goodness, in any meaningful sense of the word, must include an analysis of the goal. For example, suppose the goal for person A is to die. Jumping off of a bridge is a fairly effective way to accomplish the goal. If effectiveness is goodness, then jumping off bridges is better (i.e. more good) than struggling slowly towards the goal of true love.
Let me explain why I chose the word “effectiveness” rather than the word “usefulness”. Usefulness is a word which implies that something’s value is in its contribution to bringing something else about. It refers only to a thing’s role as a means. “Effectiveness” on the other hand refers to the ability to generate an effect. Effectiveness can simultaneously be usefulness and entail the effective production of a further end outside of itself. But also effectiveness can refer to activities which are ends in themselves, which are their own effects.
The nature of any being is to exist as it does. Every being results from sub-components functioning at every moment in a certain way. Every being grows insofar as its components grow in specific ways with respect to their powers, strengths, and complexities of organization. Every being effectively occurs in reality when the components of which it is composed function well for the kind of being it is.
Naturally, each thing’s natural “end”, that towards which it tends and in which it fulfills the kind of being it is, is to function as the thing it is. Natural beings, including we humans, do not have any sort of God-given natural goal. Entities just function as they do and either function more enduringly and powerfully in the ways they do or not. They do not intend to be the beings they are (unless they are conscious beings) but they nonetheless tend towards being what they are. And goodness is simply a word for how well they fulfill this tendency and each particular being’s intrinsic goodness–i.e., it’s intrinsic effectiveness–refers to the functionality which is its natural tendency.
Essentially, I am an Aristotelian and not a Humean. I think that some activities aim towards purposes beyond themselves, some activities are ends-in-themselves which fulfill their purpose in their very performance, and some activities are both self-satisfying and aimed towards further ends. By the word “effectiveness” I mean to capture all of these senses in one word. Goodness is any effectiveness either towards a further purpose or towards itself or both. I run effectively as long as my legs propel me quickly. My legs can function in running mode well as long as I effectively run–regardless of whether I successfully outrun a bear or simply run for its own sake or run simultaneously for both fun and to win a race. The running can be the means, the goal, or the means and the goal. All that matters to determine whether the running is good is to judge if I effectively run. We would say I run badly to the extent that I do not very effectively run, meaning the extent to which I unintentionally run slowly or without endurance, etc. We would say I outran the bear ineffectively if she catches me. We would say I run the race ineffectively either if I outright lose or, maybe, only if I lose badly.
Running is a functionality with its own intrinsic effective instantiation in the world. So are all sorts of distinguishable modes of reasoning, so are the activities of elements and of molecules and of organic bodies of all sorts. They each are their own “goal” and their own means to themselves. Many of them serve as constitutive components of larger beings as they functionally interact with other such beings to co-constitute those larger entities. And many of these beings serve the ends of other beings. No conscious intention is necessary for these beings to have goods intrinsic to them or contributory to other beings (whether intrinsically or extrinsically).
The choice then of whether or not to jump off a bridge has to do not with what constitutes effective jumping but what constitutes effective human living. Our interest in not jumping off the bridge is that it would be counter-effective to our intrinsic functions. Fortunately for most of us, most of the time, our conscious interests align with our intrinsic interests and we do not desire to jump off bridges. This reason not to commit suicide stems not from the mere fact of our desire to live. That is completely reverse. Our desire to live evolved (and is objectively worth obeying) because it serves our core intrinsic functional interests so remarkably well. And those functionalities are themselves effectivenesses which are their own goal and which each contribute to our overall functional effectiveness as human beings.
My account here contrasts with Keenan’s own attempt to account for what goals should determine our courses of action:
What, then, is the standard for evaluating the worth of the goal itself? All that matters morally is the state of conscious beings (to paraphrase Sam Harris).
No, much more matters morally than just the state of conscious beings. Consciousness is the precondition of our explicit apprehension of value but it does not make (most) things valuable. But, to the point of the foregoing, much more has value than the states of conscious beings, regardless of the fact that much of that value is irrelevant to something as rare and specific (in the universe taken as a totality) as human morality is. I am describing objective value itself, not just moral value, and contextualizing moral value within objective value itself, rather than arbitrarily, prejudicially, and subjectivistically describing value only in terms of human desires, consciousness of interests, or emotions.
We do not talk about whether it is right or wrong to destroy rocks unless the rocks benefit a living creature. We don’t speak of morality in terms of things that are not conscious. I have never had a debate on whether the wind acted morally when it blew a sign down. We would consider this kind of argument to be ridiculous! We usually wouldn’t see the question of whether I write with a pen or pencil to have significant moral implications, because it is (probably) unlikely to significantly impact the state of any conscious being.
Right, but that does not mean there are not intrinsic relationships of value apart from the ones of moral interest to us.
What we have argued and will continue to argue on this blog is that it is our happiness that should matter to us. A goal is something which one desires. To exist in a desirable state can be called happiness. Goals, therefore, are desires to be in a more desirable state. Because we cannot make a normative statement without referencing a goal, morality (here defined as “what one should do”)necessarily relies on the happiness of the agent.
But presented in this way, this is an entirely arbitrary goal. Why should our happiness matter to us? Because it is something we desire? That’s saying we should desire happiness because we already do desire happiness. Well, if we do not desire it, then should we not? Why should our desires determine or not determine our goals like that? Is there any way to arbitrate between desires?
And to say that happiness is “existing in a desirable state” the question is left completely open—what makes happiness a desirable state? Either there is an objective factor independent of the desire which makes the desire for it worthwhile and fitting—in which case we need an account of how objective goods arise even before we desire them (which is what I offer)—or the word “desirable” only means “capable of being desired” and not “should be desired”. But if something’s merely being desirable in the sense of capable of being desired is the morally relevant one then anything anyone psychologically could ever desire is a worthwhile goal. But that is preposterous. In order to have an axiologically meaningful desirability which can give us an objective goal, an objective value worth pursuing, its objective worth must be established with at least some considerations which go beyond the mere fact that people desire it.
So morality gains no normativity from the goal of happiness unless the achievement of happiness is more than the fulfillment of an arbitrary desire or emotion. Happiness must be clearly distinguished from mere pleasure and defined as excellent activity which fulfills one’s ideal nature through effective functioning according to one’s form (as Aristotle and I argue). Or, if happiness is defined in terms of pleasure or the fulfillment of conscious desires, etc., these pleasures and satisfactions of desire must in some way be grounded in our effective realization of intrinsic goods.
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.