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

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.

He writes:

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 naturalend”, 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.

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

A Directory of Philosophers From Underrepresented Groups
A Moral Philosopher on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson
“The History of Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Suicide”
Why Would Being Controlled By A Brain Be Any Less Free Than Being Controlled By An Immaterial Soul?
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.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    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”.

    Your argument looks like the following:

    1. Either happiness is desirable only because we are capable of desiring it or something makes happiness desirable.
    2. If something makes happiness desirable, then it is most plausibly due to a kind of Aristotelian teleology (function).
    3. If nothing makes happiness desirable, then it can’t have the moral relevance (of a moral realist variety) that we want.

    First, I think this is a false dichotomy. Why can’t happiness be desirable precisely because it is good just for existing? Isn’t intrinsic value exactly the sort of thing that doesn’t need to be “made good” by something else? If happiness is intrinsically good, then nothing makes it good.

    Second, there might be natural laws that make happiness good just like there are natural laws that give us consciousness. No “goal” or “teleology” gives us consciousness. Happiness itself is a conscious state, so it probably exists due to natural laws just like consciousness itself.

  • Midwest Skeptic

    Essentially, I am an Aristotelian and not a Humean.

    Then this is where we are at an impasse. We have different fundamental worldviews.

    I do not share your Aristotelian view where having a certain function implies an obligation to fulfill that function. My view comes down on the side of Hume – reason is the slave of the passions. The role of reason is to inform us about how to get what we desire. I see desire as more fundamental than function.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I see desire as more fundamental than function.

      For what?

      Quite often I’m sure you suppress your desires out of considerations of other goods. You may say that those are out of concern for other, deeper desires. But the question then is whether you can rank fundamental desires and whether anyone’s desires can ever be worse for them themselves—less desirable than others they would have if they were more rational.

      It’s not merely function that is good, it is constitutive function. You ARE a certain kind of functional set of powers, whether you desire to be them or not and you will flourish if you function powerfully and fail to flourish if you don’t. These are objective issues. Your desires don’t change them. Your desires are not rational if they are at odds with them.

    • Midwest Skeptic

      I put my desires first – even before being rational.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Then you’re irrational, and especially so in all those cases in which being rational would mean more effectively realizing your power than not. There’s no way to force you to be rational.

    • Midwest Skeptic

      But you have not proven that “effectively realizing your power” is a necessary or even the most rational thing to do.

      This seems to be based on an old teleological argument that I do not think is true. I do not believe that life or humans have a fixed function or purpose. Even if we did, I do not think it can be proven that we ought to maximize that purpose.

      I also do not believe that the choices I make based upon my desires are irrational.

    • Midwest Skeptic

      After reading many of your pages, it is still not clear that you have proved that morally goodness = fulfilling one’s function. And who gets to define what a specific person’s function is? Why is it not just whatever that person says it is?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I didn’t say “moral goodness=fulfilling one’s function”. Our good is to maximize our power. Power for a human is being functionally powerful according to our constitutive traits. People can be wrong about the ways in which they themselves can be most powerful. It’s rather objectively determinable. Who gets to define a specific person’s function? That’s a confused way to ask the question. The question is in what ways can that person realize and coordinate their powers to maximal effect. Morality then comes in in very specific contexts. The distinctively moral is largely a matter of definition. We have many more goods we ought to pursue than simply those which are designated as moral. What are traditionally understood to be uniquely moral goods are those about regulating relations between people. I have written several posts I’ve already referred you to which explicate how moral codes, when properly calibrated to our flourishing and not against it, contribute to our maximization of our powers and to that extent are justified: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/17/why-be-morally-dutiful-fair-or-self-sacrificing-if-the-ethical-life-is-about-power/ and http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2010/07/11/how-our-morality-realizes-our-humanity/

    • Midwest Skeptic

      But I don’t think that you have proved that flourishing is good.

    • Midwest Skeptic

      But the question then is whether you can rank fundamental desires and whether anyone’s desires can ever be worse for them themselves—less desirable than others they would have if they were more rational.

      As long as an individual is comfortable weighing trade-offs between desires, then there is no problem with rationality. Most people desire to live a long time. But most people also want things that involve small amounts of risk. Playing any sport involves a small chance of injury or death. So it’s just a personal choice to weigh the pluses and minuses and pick what you want most. There is not one right choice – different people have different desires and priorities.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      People can sometimes make bad choices, they can live less powerful and less happy lives. Their own perceptions and desires are not always their best guides from a rational point of view. This is not to advocate for a paternalistic form of government. We can live in a liberal society that allows people freedom of choices—even bad ones—without having to be foolishly and unrealistically relativistic about what is of value. And we can recognize differences in what is most valuable to given individuals given differences in their capabilities and other circumstances, again, without being foolishly and unrealistically relativistic about what is of value.

    • Midwest Skeptic

      But what would be inherently irrational about living a less powerful life? Some people are willing to trade life span or health or wealth for other things. I do not think this is irrational because it does not amount to a logical contradiction.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    But I don’t think that you have proved that flourishing is good.

    Can you prove it is not? Can you possibly live like it is not?

    And, yes, definitionally, I have made plenty of arguments about the logical connection of a being to its constitutive functions as its constitutive goods. Functionally you live this way and order your desires accordingly but theoretically you pretend you don’t understand that. That’s the real mystery here—how such a practical contradictory view of objectivity has such hold on people’s minds. Anyway, more on this specifically: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/11/18/a-philosophical-polemic-against-moral-nihilism/

    • Midwest Skeptic

      Can you possibly live like it is not?

      I can easily live as though the flourishing of other people is not important – thinking of others only when it is in my interests given the situation in which I find myself.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    But what would be inherently irrational about living a less powerful life? Some people are willing to trade life span or health or wealth for other things. I do not think this is irrational because it does not amount to a logical contradiction.

    It’s a practical contradiction, not a logical one. There are more ways to be irrational than just in formal logic terms. And nowhere have I defined life span, health, or wealth, as equivalent simpliciter to measures of maximum power—quite the contrary: http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/2011/10/26/some-people-live-better-as-short-lived-football-or-boxing-stars-than-as-long-lived-philosophers/

    • Midwest Skeptic

      It’s not illogical to engage in behavior that that cannot be universalized. A good strategy for a criminal to maximize their power is to tell lies, knowing that most people tell the truth and that lying by a small numbers of criminals will not undermine the basic honesty of society, thus allowing them to continue a life of crime.

  • http://idsds-dasd-dsds-das.com Doug Poskitt

    “The ones you mention (or not mention, I know
    who they are)would sell the skin off a dead cat
    if it meant they would get their face in the public