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

I wrote a post which laid out the cornerstone of my theory of objective value. In it I argued that “goodness equals effectiveness”. Wherever one uses the word “good”, one could substitute the word “effectiveness” and the sentence would mean the same thing. My view is that since effectiveness is clearly a measurable and factual matter (at least in theory), so is goodness.

A thing’s overall effective functioning, its overall goodness, is relative to three things: its context, its degree, and the hierarchies of effectiveness of which it is a component part.

Contextual Determinants of What Constitutes Effectiveness/Goodness

Something can only be effective in the context of some function or functions. In other words, we can only say that x is effective

(a) at functioning in some way

(b) at functioning with some other things to combine to create a more complex function

(c) creating some further end outside of its own internal functioning (and outside of the more complex functions of which it is a part)

Put more simply, any time we say something is good, i.e., that something is effective, we have to specify what it is good at, i.e., what it is effectively doing, contributing to, or bringing forth through its activity.

So no functioning is good in an unqualified way. An apple is good, i.e., effectively an apple, when all its component molecules are functioning in the ways that make an apple happen. And the apple is only good as an apple, i.e., as doing apple things. It is not good as a chair for allowing humans to sit upright. It serves various nutritional and pleasure-giving functions for humans so we take an interest in these various functions of the apple since they contribute to our goals in these ways. The apple has other things it functionally does that may have no interest to us. Just because certain of its functions contribute to some of our own goods (by providing nutrition and pleasure) does not mean that all the effective functions of an apple are exhausted by these functions.  It has others.

Human actions can be called good relative (a) to their intrinsic functional effectiveness, (b) to their contribution to larger, more powerfully functioning actions, and (c) to their abilities to bring about external goods.

For examples:

(a) I stomp my foot intrinsically well if my attempts to bend my knee and raise my foot and then to slam it to the floor are all successful.  This is an effective stomping of my foot, which is equivalent to saying it is a good stomping of my foot.

(b) When I stomp my foot as part of a dance, in addition to stomping my foot well for its own sake, I aim to have this foot stomping contribute to an overall activity of dancing well. Perhaps I stomp my foot too hard for the requirements of the dance. In this case, even though I stomped my foot well, I therein performed less well at the more complex activity I was carrying out.  If being able to dance is to be judged a more valuable task than simple stomping is—either intrinsically, because it is a more complex and powerful kind of functioning, or extrinsically because I have set it as my purpose at the moment—then my relatively good foot stomping is simultaneously relatively bad dancing. And if, on the other hand, I not only foot stomp effectively but do so in a way that constitutes dancing effectively, then I have done both the lesser and the greater functions well.

(c) When I stomp my foot in order to squash a bug, then aside from the effectiveness of controlling my leg to stomp in the desired way, I also aim at something outside of foot stomping—bug killing.  If the effect is that the bug is dead, then my good (effective) foot stomping is also a good (effective) bug killing. And, if I fail to kill the bug, I may still have done a good foot-stomping but it would not have been a good bug-killing.

The Badness of Murder

To apply this to an example some want to use against my account, we can say that an effective murderer is a “good” murderer since she accomplishes the goal of making people die. This does not at all mean that since murder is an instance of effectiveness that murder is at all good in any unqualified sense. It does not mean that it is good for humans to be murderers. It is indeed good for people to have the cleverness, the manual dexterity, the boldness, the planning skills, etc. that may go into being a good murderer. These traits may even be admired by those who nonetheless are rightly repulsed by the murderer’s murders.

The reason why murdering is evil is because it is the kind of effective functioning that destroys better, more complex functioning both in the murderer himself and, of course, in the one he murders. The highest, most complex, and most powerful functioning we can have is the kind by which we master ourselves completely so we can maximally well function according to our powers and so that, through this, we can maximally increase the powers of others.

When we so empower others, they become functions of our power in the sense that whenever they function powerfully in the ways we have aided them to function, we are partially responsible for this and so effective and powerful through them. When I teach you an idea and it increases your rational ability to understand the world, henceforth I am always powerful in you when you have and use that understanding. If I teach you a skill, I am powerful in your skillful exercise. If I write a law that that removes a barrier to your performing some flourishing activity then I am powerful when you now can flourish. If I entertain you, I am powerful not only for affecting you and getting the response I want from you (the feeling of being entertained) but I am contributing to your overall mental well being for making you pleased, helping your relax and recharge for future exercises of power, etc. If I install your pipes, I am powerful in the effective plumbing in your house. If I build your house, I am powerful everyday it keeps you comfortable and does not collapse upon you and kill you.

When one murder another he effectively remove an entire powerful functioning from the world. He is responsible for much less functioning, much less effectiveness, much less goodness. This is a net loss of his own power since all that lost goodness is on the ledger for him. He is responsible for all that does not happen comparable to the way that when we personally fail in exercising a power we are responsible for the goods we were trying to create not being there when the world would have been better if they were there (and we would have been more powerful for having created them). Except this case goes well beyond failing to exercise power in some specific case, now there is all this powerful functioning of another person that will cease entirely. All this good the murderer cannot replace. The murder also harms the psyches of those who love the victim, threatening to be counter-productive to their own flourishing. Murders also threaten the effective functioning of the social order. Violent, hostile, mistrustful social arrangements are counter-productive to maximum flourishing of the maximum number of individuals and counter-productive to total prosperity.

And the murderer himself also fails in various intrinsic human functional capacities for optimal empathy, for optimal social cooperation and coordination, for empowering others, for creating (or contributing to) good, effective things and institutions, etc.

Hierarchies of Goods

Goods are in a hierarchy. A greater power of effectiveness is better than a lesser power of effectiveness for being more effectiveness (and effectiveness itself equals goodness itself—it is a transcendental category).  More complex functions are greater powers since they involve a greater quantity of individual instances of effectiveness in their sub-components and also the extra and more complicated instances of effectiveness that occur through the complex coordination and multiplication of each sub-effectiveness.

So a particular good effectiveness can be destructive to total power by either having its effectiveness only at the expense of a greater overall functioning of something of which it is a sub-component or by exercising strong power of effectiveness that destroys or hinders one’s other powers and with them one’s total power and the total effect in the world.

The Spectra of Good to Bad

No things are either all good without qualification or all bad without qualification. Badness is the opposite of the spectrum from goodness and every function (i.e., every being) is somewhere on this spectrum for its kind of being, for its kind of functioning. Every thing in existence is at least minimally good qua its kind of being. For effectively being the kind of thing it is, it has some modicum of goodness as that successful instance of that kind of functionality. To the extent that any given thing functions poorly as the kind of thing it is, it is also bad. Things which cross a certain threshold where their goodness outweighs their badness we call “good” in a shorthand way and things which cross the threshold into predominantly poor functioning we call “bad” in a shorthand way.

But this does not mean that there are any things that are all bad in every respect or all good in every respect. Even a murder is “good” as a murder but it is extremely bad (or “evil”) as a human action because it not only functions terribly at increasing the total power in the human world but it is the essential form of decreasing the total power in the human world (and, really, the whole world too on that account).

There are of course many more distinctions to make. For now it was necessary to clarify that saying goodness equals effectiveness is compatible with saying that

(1) goods (instances of effectiveness) are only good in strictly specifiable contexts of effectiveness and never just simply

(2) goods (instances of effectiveness) are not all equal, but are capable of being ranked objectively in terms of their degree of functional effectiveness (i.e., power)

(3) all things are only good (i.e. only effective) to a certain degree and are also at least a little bad to a certain degree (and vice versa), even if that degree of effective goodness or ineffective badness is miniscule.

(4) things which are very good, very effective (even excellently effective) in their own functioning, or for some particular higher functioning, can still also be devastatingly bad (even outright evil) because they harm (or outright destroy) much greater qualities, sums, or complexities of power, on a total accounting.

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”


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

Your Thoughts?

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.

  • usagichan

    Reading this and the “Goodness is a factual matter” post, the problem that I am having is that I don’t see how effectiveness, as used in your posts, is a measurable quality – in other words it seems to me that it is simply substituting one immeasurable quality for another. For example, imagine I were to examine how ‘good’ a teacher is – I substitute ‘effective’ for good – how do I determine how effective they are? Well, I could look at their students examination results, which are measurable, but only indicate how effective they are at preparing students for examinations. In this way a teacher that initiated a lifelong love of the subject, but performed poorly at drilling their students for the mechanics of examination would be measured as less ‘good’ than a duller but more efficient teacher, whose words were forgotten the moment their students left the exam hall.

    Do you propose some sort of metric for ‘effectiveness’? Is it even possible to have an objective measure that encompasses all aspects of human life? Otherwise we come back to the point that you are mixing a concrete action (maximisation) with an abstract subject ‘effectiveness’.

    The other thing that strikes me is that the concept of ‘effectiveness’ assumes that there is an ideal state which actions can either lead towards (i.e. are more effective) or away from (i.e. are less effective (anti-effective? deleterious?). Do you see this as a Universal ideal state, or is it dependent on your perspective/ culture/ potential?

    • Stutz

      Just because goodness or effectiveness is difficult in practice to measure, it does not mean that it is a worthless or impossible objective to pursue. There is a fantastic comparison that Sam Harris makes in this case to show my point: health. Can you define or measure human health itself? That is a very complex thing to try to do. And yet we have armies of scientists and doctors studying the various aspects of health and improving our collective and individual levels of health every day. And it is obvious to any rational observer that a person with cancer is less healthy than a person without it, all other factors being equal. Difficult cases don’t destroy a concept.

  • Stutz

    I think that what is going to be unsatisfying to many about this assessment of murder is that it seems to be just saying that murder is wrong in the context of human society such as it exists. It “decreases power” in the world we live in, but we might be able to imagine a time and place where murder would do a greater good and thus increase power — in a situation where a minority must be sacrificed for the survival of a majority, for example. In other words, lay people want murder to be wrong all the time, even in hypothetical situations and in thought experiments in which it would seem that murder would be justifiable in a utilitarian sense. I would like to see you address this issue further.

    • Camels With Hammers

      How would murdering a minority be necessary for the survival of a majority? Could you construct a more specific thought experiment?

    • Melissa Reyes

      Purely as a thought experiment: In the case of murder, I’d like to use the fictional character of the serial killer Dexter, the titular character of the popular Showtime television series.

      One could argue that as a proficient serial killer he satisfies all three levels of effectiveness:

      1) he is a “good” killer (he possesses the “cleverness, manual dexterity, boldness, the planning skills, etc.”)

      2) he contributes effectively to a larger function (killing other serial killers)

      3) as a result of his effectiveness, there are less serial killers in the world and more potential for human flourishing from his would-be victims (creating some end outside of its own internal function).

      This is a case in which murdering a minority (serial killers) might be necessary for (or at the very least beneficial to) the survival of a majority and contribute to the larger functioning and effectiveness of the world. The popularity of the show is based on the audience’s willingness to subconsciously justify a serial killer’s actions. As the audience, we are able to accept Dexter’s moral code and therefore, murder appears justifiable and the series itself–palatable, even entertaining and enjoyable.

      If such a scenario were to translate from fiction to reality, wouldn’t this be justifiable grounds for murder?

  • Ivan

    We are mostly in agreement. Within this context of discussing your views, we agree that “Something can only be effective in the context of some function or functions,” and “any time we say something is good, i.e., that something is effective, we have to specify what it is good at,” and “no functioning is good in an unqualified way,” and “goods (instances of effectiveness) are only good in strictly specifiable contexts of effectiveness and never just simply.” That’s what I was trying to get at when I commented elsewhere about “an intended goal.”

    Now, what makes complex functioning good? When you first began talking about complex functioning, I inferred that you’d say complex functioning is good—i.e. effective—because it contains more raw, gross effectiveness—i.e. goodness. Indeed, you go on to write that “A greater power of effectiveness is better than a lesser power of effectiveness for being more effectiveness.”

    But effectiveness still needs a context or goal. What is this effectiveness effective at? What is this goodness good at? We’ve moved up a level of analysis, and so we need a new answer to this new question.

    The simpler functionings that constitute a complex functioning are good in themselves, i.e. effective at their respective functions. And the complex functioning is effective at its complex function. But is amassing effectiveness good at something? If so, what?

    Adding some effectiveness at being an apple to more effectiveness at being an apple does indeed get us more total effectiveness—or goodness—at being an apple. But is amassing apple effectiveness good, or effective, at something else?

    (Perhaps you indicated your answer when you wrote that “effectiveness itself equals goodness itself—it is a transcendental category.” But I’ll wait for your reply.)

  • George W.

    Interesting post, thanks for pointing it out to me.

    I immediately thought the same thing as was mentioned in comment #2, that there is concievably a situation under this model that makes murder a net good.

    Consider, for example, a future where overpopulation had made it so that at our current population our species would be incapable of survival and millions would die. It would seem, perhaps, logical to assume that murdering a portion of the population would serve the greater good of the portion that survived. It may even seem better than letting nature run its course, given that the populations most likely to be affected by scarce resources would be small indiginous cultures- thus causing an even greater homogenization of culture and a net decrease in diversity.

    As I was considering this idea, I was immediately struck by the ramifications of the unknown potential of those who might be affected by such a decision, and whether any combination could be said to be “good” or even “better” than the alternative. I only know that the alternative stand- that nature should run its course- seems to be among the worst possible solutions.

    It seems to me that life has value, yet too much value has disasterous consequences. Too much of a good thing, maybe. I’ll need to consider this when I write my post.

  • Emptyell

    Any chance you could assemble these into an e-book? I’d buy it.

    • Daniel Fincke

      I’ll be writing a book this summer, Emptyell. Stay tuned!

    • Emptyell

      Cool. Put me on the list.

  • butterfly5906

    I haven’t read many of your posts, so maybe you have answered this elsewhere. (if so, I’m sorry.)

    But couldn’t this same argument be used to justify rape? If a man gets a woman pregnant through rape, and the child grows up to be a highly effective person, the goodness of the new life could outweigh the physical and emotional harm done to the woman by the rape. Isn’t the man responsible for, or made more powerful by, all that additional effectiveness, in the same way he would have been responsible for the loss of effectiveness through murder?

    • Daniel Fincke

      If we normalized rape we would be undermining the flourishing of the raped to an unconscionable extent. Consensual sex can lead to the creation of all the powerful human lives need to create without there being any acts that violate key trust relationships, violate autonomy, traumatize and emotionally disrupt people, etc. Rape causes many evils and any good that can incidentally result on net does not require all the damage that it does to be achieved. Consensual sex provides all the benefits without any of the potential disruptions to the rape victims’ flourishing.

  • Alan Cooper

    If you are putting these ideas into book form then I hope that you have another go at the issue of comparability of effects.

    One problem I had with your earlier post was with how to determine the essential function of an entity type which has several mutually competing effects (such as the river of your “goodness equals effectiveness” post).

    I am also puzzled by your idea of “total power and the total effect in the world” of an individual – and it’s desired exercise so as to “maximally increase the powers of others.” Both of these seem to require some way of combining unrelated effects on a common scale. If one effect is increased in magnitude at the expense of reducing the magnitude of another, then how can one tell whether this has increased or decreased total effect if the effects are not of the same type? And how does one compare the value of creating a world in which one billion humans live long lives of intense creative expression as opposed to one in which twenty billion live short truncated lives of sickness and squalor?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, I never got to addressing your river objection which has the distinction of being the last comment posted at the old Camels With Hammers. But I attempt to address at least part of your concern with that issue in this post.

      The trade off between fewer lives of greater flourishing vs. more lives of less flourishing is an interesting one. I would say the fewer lives of greater flourishing is clearly the more rational option as it introduces greater orders and complexities of functioning and attains to more fulfilled functioning generally, rather than multiplied stunted flourishing.

      The harder question for me is “a minimal stasis of universally mediocre flourishing” vs. “more greatness of flourishing for some (or many even) at the expense of some (or even just a few) abjectly miserable flourishing”.

  • Alan Cooper

    Even for what you regard as the easier problem, many would disagree with you. It all comes back, I think, to which of many kinds of effectiveness is or are the ones which are most important. Perhaps the pope would justify his position on the numbers issue by saying that the most important kind of flourishing is to willingly submit to the will of “God”, even under the test of hardship. And an overcrowded planet will then win on both counts – by giving more people the benefit of a harder test.

    I still don’t see how calling the utility function “effectiveness” makes it any more likely to be uniquely definable, even *with* a subjective component (and all the more so without one).