Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

All statements about values can be restated as statements of facts. The truth or falsity about value claims can be discovered by investigations of facts. Goodness is a word that can be defined by reference to certain kinds of factual relationships in the world. Whether or not something deserves to be called good can be determined by investigating the relevant factual relationships in the world to see if they are rightly instances of good or not. The same goes for “bad”.

In short, I reject the notion that there is a fundamental distinction between facts and values. Values are kinds of facts. I also reject the wide interpretation of the naturalistic fallacy which claims that one can never derive an “ought” statement from an “is” statement, i.e., that a statement of facts can never tell anyone about how things ought to be. There are indeed fallacious inferences that endorse certain factual relationships as truly valuable when they are not and that make this erroneous judgment from a simplistic and mistaken equation of certain kinds of facts with certain kinds of values which are not actually directly (or at all properly) entailed by them. Some of these cases of fallacious inference would properly be accused of committing what is known as the “naturalistic fallacy”, insofar as that fallacy refers to hasty inferences from “is” to “ought”.

But not all inferences from “is” to “ought” are fallacious and therefore not all of them deserve to be accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy.

In what follows I will lay out systematically my case for calling goodness a matter of objective fact.

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.

To say that x is good at y is to make a verifiable or falsifiable fact claim that x is effective at y-ing.

To say that x is good for y is to make a verifiable or falsifiable fact claim that y is able to do what it does more effectively when x contributes in some specifiable way to y‘s activity.  Sometimes this means that y‘s effective performance is, as a matter of fact, enhanced in a particular way by x. Sometimes it could mean that y‘s existence is in some or all instances, as a matter of fact, preconditioned by x, such that y only happens in some or all instances if x is present.

This sense of goodness, as sheer effectiveness, is the most basic kind because it is the only factual kind. It is the kind which refers to naturally occurring and objectively describable relationships and all the other, more complicated senses of “goodness” which we use can be analyzed in terms of how they relate to fundamental relationships of effectiveness.

Every being is a function of its components parts working together in the characteristic way definitive of that kind of being.  Every component part is a further function of its own constitutive parts down to the most basic rudiments of existence.  In this way, beings are essentially describable as functions of the parts which compose them as engaged in particular processes which occur when they are combined in particular quantities and arrangements.  Increasingly complex beings are essentially increasingly complex functions made up of constitutive beings, each of which are functions themselves.

Given the nature of being as functionality, there are two basic kinds of effectiveness.  The first kind of effectiveness is the successful functioning of a function itself.  A function exists through its functioning effectively.  There is no function apart from the act of functioning.  Ceasing to function makes a function cease to be.  Since a being is a function, a being’s ceasing to function entails necessarily its ceasing to be.

So any being’s intrinsic good is to function effectively according to that function that the being is.  Of course, as has already been described, each being is composed of many parts, each of which itself is a function composed of further parts.  This means that increasingly complex beings are composed of increasingly numerous functions on increasingly numerous levels.

So for every being to do well as the being that it is, it must function according to its characteristic activity well, i.e., effectively.  What each function is can be characterized in objective terms as a description of its essential functions and therefore its objective good, its effective functioning, can be described in terms of the conditions by which it functions well as the function it is.

Let me stop to stress that functions are not defined by consciously given purposes. A river is a river because it functions in a river way, not because any intelligent being purposed it to act in that way.  A heart is a heart because it functions in a heart way, not because any intelligent being decided it should act in that way.

Goods in this way need no being to declare a preference for them in order for them to be good. A thing’s goodness does not come from a god or any other person declaring it good. Its goodness is in its functioning as what it is. Neither is goodness the same thing as pleasantness. We call many pleasant things “good” as a shorthand way of saying they are effective for a purpose we have an interest in.  Some of these things are objectively good for us insofar as whether through their pleasantness or something else they contribute to our effective functioning.  But their pleasantness is not by itself their goodness.

Our conscious interests are also not the arbiter of “goodness”. Often when we refer to things being good or not good (bad) by reference to our interests, we refer simply to their being effective or ineffective for attaining what we want. In these cases we use the word good in a shorthand way.  What we really mean is that x is effective at satisfying our conscious desire for y. Whether x is actually good for us is an objective matter, which hinges on what our objective interests are.  Our objective interests, which may be completely independent in some cases of our conscious desires, involve what is objectively effective at constituting or increasing our own functioning through which we have our being.

What best advances our functioning, best advances our being, and is thereby our objectively greatest interest.  This can be theoretically be determined according to facts about the nature of our characteristic functioning and facts about what effectively constitutes or advances that functioning the most.

There is much more to say on this topic, of course, but I will end this post at a reasonable length and return to related topics in coming posts.

Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on these and related 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:

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”

Immoralism?

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

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

    Given the nature of being as functionality, there are two basic kinds of effectiveness. The first kind of effectiveness is the successful functioning of a function itself. A function exists through its functioning effectively. There is no function apart from the act of functioning. Ceasing to function makes a function cease to be. Since a being is a function, a being’s ceasing to function entails necessarily its ceasing to be.

    First, why is a being a function?

    Second, even if a being is a function, why is proper functioning “goodness?”

    So any being’s intrinsic good is to function effectively according to that function that the being is. Of course, as has already been described, each being is composed of many parts, each of which itself is a function composed of further parts. This means that increasingly complex beings are composed of increasingly numerous functions on increasingly numerous levels.

    Why is a beings intrinsic good to function effectively? What does “intrinsic good” mean here?

    Let me stop to stress that functions are not defined by consciously given purposes. A river is a river because it functions in a river way, not because any intelligent being purposed it to act in that way. A heart is a heart because it functions in a heart way, not because any intelligent being decided it should act in that way.

    Then how do you know what the function of a thing is? And why is the “intrinsic good” of a being so important? I don’t care about the intrinsic good of rivers. If a river goes away, that is just the way of the world, and it’s no big deal.

    If no consciousness ever existed, I don’t think any “functions” found in nature would matter. Why is any of it of moral significance?

  • http://egoistphilosophyblog.com/ Keenan Steel

    Excellent post, sir. I thought rather than posting a huge reply, I’d just reply on the egoist philosophy blog:

    http://egoistphilosophyblog.com/goodness-more-than-effectiveness

    I’d be curious to know what you think.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks so much, Keenan, I saw your post when you tweeted it to me and will read it shortly. I have just written a reply to James which I will publish tomorrow and hope to attend to your thoughts next!

  • Marcel Kincaid

    You and Sam Harris may be able to pull the wool over your own eyes with this sort of sophistry, which looks a whole lot like Christians convincing themselves that omnipotence and evil are consistent, and like Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of god, but you can’t do away with the gulf of distinction between facts and value judgments. Is it better to be happy, or informed? Prosperous, or generous? Intellectually honest, so as to be right, or to redefine words like “good” so as to have been right? (Per Quine’s distinction.) Talk of “effectiveness” won’t tell us which of these is “good”, any more than it will tell us whether it is “good” that our evolution has been driven by defending against parasites using us as a resource. Your absurd and already indefensible notion of “goodness” is one of the things that — for better or worse — vanished into Darwin’s solvent … the ultimate effective process. Is it a *good* thing that a giraffe’s laryngeal nerve is over 15 feet long, or that human females often have large pendulous breasts, far larger than function requires? All evolutionary facts stem from the same basic cause, but it’s very far from a fact to claim that they are all equally “good” by the normal, rather than a hookah-smoking-caterpillar’s, meaning of the word.

    • Daniel Fincke

      It’s more than Sam Harris and me who think there can be objectivity in value judgments (and, in fact, Sam Harris and I are in disagreement about the points I make in this piece).

      A brief reply is that pointing out the existence of competing goods does not prove they are not each themselves objectively goods. Just because in particular circumstances or complexes they need to be chosen between using complicated calculi does not mean that real, valid, rationally defensible judgments cannot be made. If these are, as you put it “judgments” then they have to be rooted in actual facts about existence. Otherwise, we are not “judging” anything but just emoting about it in a completely arbitrary way.

      And yes, effectiveness, taken without any further elaboration will not answer the questions you raise, but relative to specific ends, effectiveness does solve questions. As far as a giraffe is concerned a “good” neck length is whatever is conducive to its maintained (or advanced) existence. This may be a range of lengths that do the trick equally well, in which case they would all be equally effective, equally good. There is nothing about Darwin that undermines this basic value relationship. Evolution only explains how certain value relationships came fortuitously and unintentionally to be. It says nothing about their being “unreal”.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com/ George W.

    I would have to add myself to the list of voices that think that we can have objective morality without God.
    The argument that Darwinian evolution has “dissolved” a defense of objective values of goodness or fitness is like claiming that the laws of thermodynamics make thermometric scales obsolete. Being able to make relative measurements based on objective facts cannot be “dissolved” by the mechanisms that make those facts true.
    Unless I’m missing your point?

  • Axxyaan

    Maybe I am missing something but I don’t see how your essay shows what it seems it was set up to show: All statements about values can be restated as statements of facts.

    You go off on how you can give an objective meaning to goodness by defining it as effectiveness but you nowhere connect this effectiveness with values. On the contrary you seem to seperate them by saying what is (objective) good (for us) is different from our preferences, desires, interests…

    But if we are talking about values, then we are talking about our preferences, desires, interests… So you may have a way of finding out my objective interests, that doesn’t mean you know about what I value. Maybe I just don’t care about my objective interests?!

  • Daniel Fincke

    But if we are talking about values, then we are talking about our preferences,
    desires, interests… So you may have a way of finding out my objective
    interests, that doesn’t mean you know about what I value. Maybe I just don’t
    care about my objective interests?!

    No, the word is not univocal. There are two senses of the word “values” that are rooted in the same basic situation. There is objective value, which is not just preferences, desires, and conscious experience of taking an interest. This is what I discuss in this post. In subsequent posts in the series I have already begun to (and eventually will continue to) discuss the ways that our subjective valuing relates to objective value relationships.

    If I can find out your objective interests, I can find out what is objectively valuable for you and what you should value and I will have an objective way of demonstrating this to you. Your subjective value judgments (i.e., your desires, preferences, conscious experience of being interested in different goods) represent) are essentially your beliefs about what is objectively most valuable to you. Those beliefs can indeed be wrong (that’s precisely why there can be true and false, correct and incorrect in value judgments, including moral ones). It is indeed possible that sometimes people do not properly care about their objective interests and instead their values, i.e., their value judgments or value feelings, are out of whack for not corresponding accurately to the truth about what is valuable for them. This is obviously true.

  • Axxyaan

    Can you elaborate on what you mean with: “what you should value”. Because in this context it is too ambivalent for me. Possible meanings are.

    1) You are expressing your own values as I understand the term.

    2) As an addentum to one, you are slipping your base values in (maybe unware) as the measering stick. We of course can then objectively compare how other values are compatible with those base values, but then the question is why accept this as the measering stick.

    3) You are introducing some kind of code which will translate value statements into fact statements even when people don’t mean those fact statement.

    4) As you see value statements as fact statements, you are expressing a fact statement here. However I have no idea what fact you are expressing here.

  • Alan Watson

    Hey Dan,

    I’ve debated ethics so much I’ve become a bit gun shy but I’ll give it a shot anyway. There is much that could be said but I’ll keep it short and pick one or two premises to pick on. ;-)

    >>”The most factual sense of the word “good” we have is the sense of effectiveness.”

    Here I find value to simply be that in which we find the state of the universe. The laws of physics. If a river is “good” at cutting valleys then it is simply the facts of fluid dynamics and gravity. So, if the TLOP were different our value of rivers might be different. Rivers don’t want to be good at cutting valleys. Nothing outside of a human mind can value the valley cutting ability of a river. It’s a subjective and arbitrary value.

    But let’s for a moment consider effectiveness as an axiom for “good”.

    So my first impulse is to consider parasites. If they can said to have a purpose it is to reproduce and this they do very well. They are “effective” or “good” at reproduction. Unfortunately they often do so at the cost of their host. They can cause severe suffering and disability including blindness and death.

    One might argue that parasites are not moral agents and therefore their actions of causing suffering to their host cannot be said to be “bad”. But to add the premise of moral agency would seem to invalidate your axiom that what is “effective” is that which is “good”.

    But, for the sake of argument lets accept that moral agency does not obviate the axiom of “effectiveness” as “good”. Let me ask you a question. Assume for sake of argument, human reproduction had evolved as parasitical and our life cycle would begin as larvae in baby kittens (maudlin appeal conceded, please feel free to substitute any life form and give me grief) and to continue our cycle we would have to devour baby kittens causing them suffering and death. If this process were “effective” and we were moral agents, would it then be said to be “good”?

    I don’t think there is any question that evolution would endow us with a sense that it was “good”, but not because it was effective. It’s like how so many of us have a sense of unease to stand at the edge of a steep cliff but we lack the same when it comes to cars (very dangerous things). We sense the danger of the cliff because our ancestors were selected for by fearing steep cliffs (those that didn’t often won the Darwin Award). But so many of us have not evolved the sense of fear when it comes to driving a car because we did not evolve with cars.

    IMO: Given sufficient premises and our evolved moral sense (personal and social) we can reason morality (ethics). However, these are always contingent on at least one subjective value. Without this subjective value there is no “good” or “bad” (hence I’m nihilistic as to any ultimate or axiomatic “good”).

    p1 The fire is hot.
    p2 Heat will damage my hand and cause suffering.
    p3 I evolved to fear damage and pain (subjective).
    C Therefore I ought not put my hand into the fire.

  • http://qpr.ca/blogs/ Alan Cooper

    Your use of the word “function” (rather than something more neutral such as “effect) seems to beg the question by implying value before deducing it.

    And in cases where the function of a being is not unique,the goal of enhancing the effectiveness with which a function is performed raises the question of how to weight the competing interests of different functions of the same being.

    As an example of this, consider your case of the river.It is effective at several competing functions – transport of precipitated water back to the ocean, carving valleys, filling other valleys and deltas with silt, providing habitat for birds and fishes, etc,etc,etc. Now ask whether drilling a tunnel to bypass a long sweep of the river around a massif (which enhances the water flow at expense of carving), or building a dam (which enhances bird habitat at the expense of some kinds of fishes) is “good for” the river. How can you answer these questions without imposing some relative value on the different functions? And from where can you find that relative value except in your own preferences? (or appeal to authority, the choice of which is really just another expression of personal preference)?