The following originally appeared on Secularite as part of my “Empowerment Ethics” series, which now appears on Camels With Hammers.
One of the interesting forms that moral skepticism takes is this ambiguous question, “Doesn’t everyone mean something different by the word ‘good’?” Or, in its declarative statement form, “There can be no objective meaning of the word ‘good’ because everyone means something different by it.”
These sorts of comments stem from the ubiquitous phenomenon of different people calling opposite things good and bad to what each other calls good and bad.
Does this phenomenon actually mean that the word “good” is ambiguous? I don’t think so. I think what is happening is simply that people are having disagreements about what things are good. That may mean different things are appearing to be good to them or, in more extreme cases, that they may have different ideas about how to determine what is good. But neither of those things is the same as differing over the meaning of the word “good”. Essentially, as competent users of any language with a word for “good”, it is precisely because we share some sort of understanding of what “good” means that we find our disagreements over what actually is good so distressing in a great number of cases. It is knowing that someone is calling what we perceive to be bad “good” (or vice versa) that strikes us as wrong and, even, infuriates us. We both know what good means, so for them to call the bad by that term is backward in some way. It takes work to explain what’s formally wrong with what they’re doing without using synonyms for good and bad themselves. It is simply bad to call the good bad or the bad good. It is a species of wrongness. It’s false.
The issue is not as simple as just a problem of using different words or having different concepts even. Were I to go to a foreign country I might be confused. Perhaps they have a word to express welcome or affection that is, ironically, also an English word that expresses a contemptuous insult. I might be put off and offended until the translation is explained. So long as I understand how they are using this word, my anxieties can be allayed. But if what they use their word for good to describe is the opposite of what I use my word for good to describe, then hearing what they call good is not just upsetting because of a different use of the word, there is a genuine disagreement of some sort between us. The problem is not just translation and different uses of words so that they mean different things. The problem is their word for good and my word for good mean thesame thing and yet we apply our goodness words toopposite things.
The problem also is not usually just that we have different accounts of what makes things good. Because often we might both completely agree something is good even if our theories of why differ. So I might say an action is good because of the excellent consequences it brings and you might say it is good for its formal fairness. The right answer might be either, both, or neither, and yet we could both be right about what is good, in principle–just imperfect about abstractly figuring out why it is good or how to give an accurate account of it.
But for all this, competent language users rarely have any trouble understanding one another when the word good is used. There may be differences over whether what is referred to as good really deserves to be called good in any given case, but we usually have a working idea of what someone means. In some cases it’s crystal clear. By goodness someone means effectiveness. If they say the best vacuum cleaner is brand x’s, what they mean is that brand x is the most effective device available for efficiently picking up dirt from floors by creating a physical vacuum effect that pulls dirt into a bag. If someone calls a film good they are usually saying that they liked it in some way and, sometimes, are trying to indicate that it was aesthetically worthwhile. Occasionally someone might argue that they can see a work of art is good but that they do not enjoy it or that they enjoy it but that they don’t think it is actually good. The latter is a common judgment people make when they talk about “guilty pleasures” or art that’s “so bad that it’s good”. The former judgment is common when people say they “appreciate” what makes great art great, even if they don’t personally enjoy it. They may say even that it is better than art they personally would prefer to engage with. People might also enjoy art of a range of types that are not strictly speaking enjoyable to engage with but which provide other benefits to them.
Other times by “good” people mean simply that they like something. Often good is a shorthand for “good for” where some intrinsic good is assumed but unstated. So if someone says, “it is good to eat vegetables”, everyone understands the unstated “fors” that are implied. It is good [for humans] to eat vegetables [for them to have their bodies run more effectively, with greater strength and less degeneration, and for a longer time].
When we describe other people as “good” we implicitly mean that they have a preponderance of character traits that make them desirable to us and, we think, should make them desirable to others. This is different than just saying we happen to like someone. I might say, “John is not a good person but I like him.” But if I say “John is a good guy”, I am indicating that I think people generally would be right to like John. Where we specifically mean that John is morally good we mean he is motivated to do what is good and right, and does so reliably.
If we say that someone lived a good life we are saying they had some significant mixture of the kinds of satisfactions and accomplishments that we think are valuable to have. Or if we are referring by this statement to their character, we might be saying they were morally dutiful.
On and on, there are plenty of contexts where we use the word good with understanding and are understood with little trouble. Nailing down a precise definition philosophically can be difficult because it is a word with multiple meanings and it is one of the most basic, fundamental, and pervasively employed concepts we have. Since there are multiple meanings of “good” the question arises whether they all share some common feature that itself can be defined and account for how each of the variant kind of “good” embody this shared feature. Can such a feature be explicated in non-value, purely factual terms? That’s controversial. I will have a mixed position on this in future posts.
Some philosophers argue that goodness is not capable of an essential definition that gives a set of characteristics the various kinds of good things or every particular good thing shares. Some argue that it cannot be defined because it is itself a simple, basic concept. While many things we think about can be further defined by reference to other things, some are just grasped by our minds directly. The difference between good and bad, as abstract concepts–even if we differ in how to properly apply them to particular things in particular cases–may be just a basic rational understanding we have. We all understand the opposition between the two terms. Unless we are being philosophical, we are rarely confused by other people’s usages of them.
When we have a disagreement whereby we judge particular things good and bad in opposite ways from each other we seem, implicitly, to perceive the other as failing to use the ruler provided by the rational grasp of “goodness” or “badness” correctly when measuring things. There’s an idea, however irreducible to other ideas, of “goodness” and one of “badness” and we engage vigorously in trying to correct each other’s perceptions of how to match objects in the world to these ideas in the right or best ways.
There are multiple criteria by which goodness or badness are understood to be established, in a widespread way. And they involve understanding what goodness or badness means for each domain. Aesthetic and enjoyment criteria matter in art. Conduciveness to health and enjoyment matter in foods. Someone’s internal strengths and social value to others matter in assessments of people. Even where we have different judgments in how to apply the criteria or different judgments about the nature of the phenomena itself being analyzed for goodness or badness, we can nonetheless have discussions with a common linguistic and rational felicity with the words good and bad. We may have to work harder to perceive and think more clearly, express ourselves more precisely, and understand one another, but a shared grasp of the meaning of goodness, even if not further explicable, underlies our discussions and serves as the condition of their functioning effectively and rationally.
Often in deciding between competing goods, they may be recommendable on different metrics. This career path would be more personal satisfying but involve less overall accomplishment. Or this career may involve more stability but this other one offers more money. This career may make me a more well-rounded person by involving more skills, but this other one may make me more elite in some particular skill even at the expense of others. In such cases we may have to choose between incompatible goods of comparable quality. There may be no clear and decisive way to rationally weigh them.
But just because we sometimes have to choose between good things where neither is perfect and each is good in different ways, this means neither (a) that just anything would be good, nor (b) that nothing can be meaningfully called good at all, nor (c) that people who choose differently have a fundamentally different meaning for the word good, nor (d) that two competing goods cannever be compared. None of these things are implied by the fact that we sometimes have goods that are recommendable by different standards from each other.
Ultimately, to go back to the career example, were there to be a career that involved maximum amounts of each of the following: personal satisfaction, objective accomplishment, long term stability, wealth, well-rounding personal development, cultivation of elite expertise, creation of good for the maximum number of people beyond oneself, and room for a satisfying life beyond one’s career, then that career would be in the vast majority of cases obviously better than any alternatives that did not accomplish all these goods. Just because we have to usually choose between imperfect options and make trade offs based on relative degree of goodness does not mean that the more perfect ideal standard cannot be conceived of.
Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours or raise it below in the comments if you don’t see it:
What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?
Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?
Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?
I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.