I argue that the word goodness should be interpreted to mean, in the most fundamental sense of the word, “effectiveness”. I also argue that since effectiveness is a factual issue, goodness is a factual issue. These controversial positions of mine raise a lot of thought provoking questions and challenges from readers. I am using this feedback to guide me in my process of extrapolating the implications of my definition of goodness here on the blog.
Last week, at a commenter’s request, I talked about how the standard of effectiveness could help us judge the relative merits of alternative, competing ways of being effective, using the case of teachers as an example. In reply I got several comments, each of which I would want to reply to in a post of its own if ever there is the time. In this post, I will focus on the further reply of the commenter whose earlier comment inspired the post on measuring effective teachers:
Thanks for a very interesting reply to the first of my questions. So if I understand your position correctly, while you are acknowledging there are challenges in measuring the effectiveness of a teacher, there is no intrinsic reason not to be able to do so. The good (effectiveness) of a teacher is a question of tangible effect, and while that effect is difficult to quantify in a meaningful way there is nothing intrinsic to the effect that is immeasurable – given a sufficiently powerful means of measurement and a meaningful metric, effectiveness is a concrete attribute, not an abstract one.
Again as I understand it the concrete good (effectiveness) is in terms of empowerment of the individual (in this case the pupil) to achieve greater complexity (and although it is not explicit in the articles I read, I assume that you mean mental complexity in this case, and in all cases ordered complexity – chaotic systems can be increasingly complex but seem to me to be rarely a reasonable target for development). So a further question here – is all increase in complexity a desirable (and therefore a good) target? Increasing complexity seems such an arbitrary measure of progress – and complexity is also a difficult property to measure, and so we come back to the problem that you claim that something is a matter of “truth” yet what is the truth and what is being measured seems to vague for me to accept the argument as put so far (that is not to say I reject it – it is an interesting concept, I am just not convinced that the “truth” of good/ effectiveness is adequately supported by your model).
For example, it could be argued that the quality that life possesses and develops towards is not increasing complexity per se, but increasing fitness to its environment (to borrow the language of evolutionary science). Generally it may be the case that increasing fitness is positively correlated to increasing complexity, but it is not guaranteed. So to go back to our teaching example, if surpressing complex development increased fitness to the pupils environment, what would be more “effective”, a teacher that promoted complex behaviour that made the pupil less fit for their environment, or a teacher that inhibited the emergence of complex development that increased the pupils fitness to their environment.
Once again this is not to say that either “complexity” or “fitness” are immeasurable therefore good is a qualitative abstract term. It may well be that “good” is a matter of “fact” – your approach certainly provides for meaningful discussion about the actuality of the concept of “good” rather than the “we know it when we see it” approach to examining it.
My response is below the fold:
Yes, I do not suffer from Sam Harris Disease, I do not think goodness is just a “we know it when we see it” kind of issue. I am taking a factual part of the world (relationships of effectiveness), which are already designated with the word goodness in ordinary language and showing how if we are careful and methodical, we can ground all our other senses of the word good in such facts and debate about such facts rationally.
Sometimes empirical science will be of greater aid and sometimes of lesser, not because the issues are ever not ultimately about facts but because sometimes the relevant facts are not strictly quantifiable and sometimes because what is needed is philosophical analysis of the meanings of concepts and how to avoid practical contradictions, etc. But, ultimately, the whole account is an attempt to translate values out of the mysterious realm of the supposedly “non-factual” into the terms of the factual world around us.
The questions usagichan raises are the precise ones to address next. “Why is greater complexity a better thing than lesser complexity?” Or, to translate this into the factual question, “Why should we think greater complexity, as a general rule, can be expected to lead to greater effectiveness than lesser complexity does?”
By complexity, I do not mean the kind that could be involved in chaos. usagichan raises precisely the distinction I would in pointing out that when I have been referring to complexity as a good, I have meant ordered complexity. By ordered complexity I do not mean necessarily that there has to be an orderer behind a given complex for it to count. What I refer to is a system in which individual effective (i.e., good) things combine with other individual effective things to create another functionally effective being out of their interaction.
This ordering could be elements binding to make a molecule, cells ordering together to make an organ, organs coordinating to make a living body, a body and its brain teaming up to make a person, people working together in order to make a formal or informal social organization. Wherever simpler beings of less parts, less complexity, and less efficaciousness in isolation link up together to create something (literally or figuratively) bigger than themselves and in doing so they do not sabotage each other’s best, most effective functioning but rather amplify it, then there is an increase in ordered complexity, an increase in effectiveness, and, that means, an increase in value.
There are several ways in which beings of lesser effectiveness linking up together increases effectiveness.
The first is that by combining their strengths they each enhance each other individually. My finger is more capable at doing what it does effectively because there are other fingers supporting it. The second is that in a complex being, each component being can increase its effectiveness by contributing (and sometimes to a decisive extent) to powerful effects on the world that it could not have accomplished on its own. Imagine all the things that an individual finger could never do but which it is able to do as part of a whole hand of them. Look at the world of powers that opens up for the fingers when they have each other and then when they gain opposable thumbs to work with.
Or how much is the power of the piano to communicate increased when added to its effectiveness with its melodies there are other instruments, each of which is constantly contrasting or synchronizing with it in some way or another adding layer upon layer of possibilities for effectiveness.
Or how much is an individual enhanced by the support of other people or by being able to participate in activities where her one excellent contribution is backed up by tens or dozens or hundreds or thousands or millions of people and so its impact is maximized.
So, we can say that both quantitatively a lesser complexity is able to do what it does better when supported by partners that amplify its effects. Qualitatively, a lesser complexity is able to add to its repertoire of good things it effectively can contribute to by teaming up with other lesser complexities to do things neither of them could do on their own. In fact, many lesser complexities utterly depend (at least in nature) on the larger ordered complexity to do their own sub-effective activity.
Take, for example, a kidney—maybe it can be grown and function in a lab, but in nature it can only develop as a functioning, effective, good kidney as part of the larger complex of the body. And for it do its most powerfully effective thing, it needs to be contributing to that body. Its greatest impact of effectiveness in creating goods in the world outside its intrinsic kidney functions (i.e., more instances of effectiveness, with greater consequences) is all bound up in the body it supports excelling at creating effectiveness.
All things being equal, greater ordered complexes are intrinsically better than lesser ordered complexes. They are not advisable though in cases where they would destroy even greater, more valuable complexes than themselves. Or where the nature of their own complex is damaging to their own component parts in a self-destructive way that is not compensated for by great creations of goodness outside themselves. Or where the ordered complex is, for some reason ordered but less efficiently than a simpler complex that got more power out of its component parts and their combinations. Or where the complex runs into unfortunate happenstance for which it is less efficiently equipped than a less complex being.
It is because of the combination of parts is not merely additive when it comes to effectiveness but multiplicative that complexes are generally far more valuable than the components of which they are made. This is a big part of why I do not think that maximal individual human power is rightly conceived of apart from maximal contribution to overall human flourishing. It is why I do not think there are often cases where the best thing for me to do is not the best thing for my fellow humans’ flourishing.
My own flourishing is bound up with my effectiveness according to human powers. Even though I can do them well in isolation, for example, I can think brilliant thoughts all alone, I can only have my expressions of my powers multiply in their effectiveness if I can increase your effectiveness too and make you, to that extent, another functioning of my power. When I contribute to your flourishing, I function well, I flourish, according to my constitutive powers through you. And when I contribute to many people’s flourishing I excel more than I could possibly just within the confines of my own body and brain.
The person who uses a tool effectively builds something. The person who invented the tool effectively contributes to, is powerful, is effective in the world, is good through each such usage of that tool by others. And the person who built something contributes to the flourishing of others every time that that which was built contributes to their flourishing.
The social order makes that happen. Preserving and advancing the social order itself means being effective through every excellent flourishing that happens within it. George Washington, though long dead, is powerful every day in America. So is Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. People like them who powerfully effect the molding, the maintenance, or the reimagining of the very order of a whole society function powerfully through that order and have a share of effectiveness in its every successful realization of power (i.e., goodness).
And that is why they are rightly called great people.
With this spelled out, I will address the evolutionary fitness vs. intrinsic excellence dichotomy in another post. The simple answer though is this: evolutionary fitness selects for what complexes are best in what circumstances but sometimes it thwarts, selects against, or just plain never happens to develop a given better, more efficient, more excellent complex. That does not make those greater ordered complexes not better.
Sometimes, there is no environmental reason an organism could not have greater intrinsic powers (e.g., be stronger, have a more efficient and powerful respiratory system, have greater intelligence or capacities for social organization, etc.) but the organism was unlucky in that it never developed the right gene or the needs of its evolutionary past constrained its development in ways which were necessary then but which are unfortunate in the present.
Sometimes, the current environment does prohibit a theoretically greater, more effective ordered complex. In such cases we can say that it is in fact better and more effective that we have a different and lesser ordered complex that serves our environmental needs, but it would still surely be better were we in an environment more conducive to our more maximal intrinsic flourishing/power/effectiveness/goodness.
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.