Posted by: Mark Waser | Apr 17, 2014

On the Nature of Good (and Bad and Evil)


What is “good”?  Philosophers have argued over the question for millennia.  They disagree upon both the definition of good and which examples are good.  If they agreed upon the definition, then we could start to sort out which examples were good.  If they agreed upon the examples, then we could start to sort out the definition.  As it is now, all we can do is to try to figure out consistent sets of definitions and examples and see if one is acceptable to be crowned as the “one, true” good (assuming that there isn’t more than one).

So – Who gets to choose which ‘good’ is the one, true good? The standard answers are

  1. No one (it is an absolute truth or “natural law”),
  2. G*d and/or some elite which does not include the respondent
  3. An elite which does include the respondent
  4. Everyone together.
  5. Everyone separately (there is no one, true good)
  6. No one chooses (we are deterministic)

To be a “good” (consistently accepted) definition, the answer clearly MUST include option 4. Other choices may also be true (and I would argue that several are) but unless everyone accepts the definition, it is not truly a useful definition.

This *seemingly* puts the definition into the realm of the personal. Unless/until I agree that pleasure is the ultimate good, hedonism isn’t a good definition (unless I am outnumbered by a sufficient majority to summarily be declared wrong).  And, given a choice, I choose *not* to wire-head into infinity and I will fight your attempts to impose that upon me.  So what happens when we are forced to realize that we will ALWAYS disagree?

((Pleasure and pain are indicators of the fulfillment of goals or instrumental sub-goals.  Unfortunately, they can be “spoofed” and do not prioritize well.  The pain of surgery is not helpful and the pleasures of sugar, fat, drug and sex addiction are all physically harmful (although the last still has some reproductive advantages even in the age of contraceptives).  Personally, I would argue that “good” is more simply the fulfillment of goals or instrumental sub-goals.  Why settle for mere (flawed) indicators of that “good”?

If your personal goal is to experience as much pleasure as possible, then that is your right.  However, your right to wave your fists ends before my nose.  Any costs that you impose upon me (or society in general) reduce my ability to experience my good.  So, we need to be able to work out some way in which we can both have what we each decide is good for us (assuming that we are both normal autonomous members of our society).  If we don’t do so, we will waste resources striving against each other and we will both end up worse in the long run.))

This puts the definition of good back into the realm of the social.  Self-interest is fine and even desirable since it is necessary for autonomy (i.e. not being a burden).  Selfishness, when defined as insistence on personal privileges that others will not tolerate, leads to wasted resources by definition (which leads to less “good” for everyone).  At a minimum, therefore, we should agree that good EXCLUDES selfishness or that good should “suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible”.

Other than that, get your definition of “good” away from me.  I don’t want you involved in defining “good” for me.  That might tempt you to impose something on me “for my own good”. FAIL!!!  “Good” is what I say it is – unless it conflicts with reality.  Reality says that I have to exclude selfishness or resources will be wasted and someone won’t get their “good”.  Other than that, it’s up to personal preference.

We’re all wired differently, we all have different biases and we all like different things.  As far as I am concerned, this is a “good” thing since it puts us in different ecological niches so that there is more “good” to spread around.  Being in different niches also means that we have different advantages and disadvantages which makes trade worthwhile and catalyzes innovation (more even than war – and certainly more sustainably).

So – if we can all agree to “suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperative social life possible” – that’s really all the precision in the definition of my personal “good” that I need or want.  Yeah, my personal good is eventually driven by my sensations, expectations of sensations and preferences in pleasure and pain – but *you* cannot possibly have an accurate enough idea of how that turns out that you can manipulate it without my consent without violating my autonomy.  Which brings up the point that there are a number of things (death, autonomy violations, crippling, inflicting pain, stealing or wasting their resources, etc.) that are “bad” frequently enough that you don’t do them unless you are given permission to do so by the affected entity.

If you want a vague but extremely powerful notion of “good”, then you can assume that most of the common instrumental sub-goals (life, health, autonomy, wisdom, happiness, power, money, fitness, sociability, intelligence, rationality, education, children) are “good” unless you know that they have powerful drawbacks (i.e. selfishness).  This is what actually drives people to believe in hedonism – the high correlation between pleasure and pain and the fulfillment or blocking or instrumental sub-goals.  “Evil” is the intention of causing “bad” whether or not “bad” results.

Rational entities will not join a society unless it provides benefits that more than outweigh the disadvantages.  Societies that do not provide enough instrumental sub-goals (“poor” societies) or allow the blocking of instrumental sub-goals (“unjust” societies) will lose their rational population to better societies at a speed proportional to the disparity between societies; knowledge and rationality of population; and other factors like loyalty, transition costs and hostage-leaving.  Thus, we (and philosophers) frequently end up arguing what is “good” and “just” because they can see the obvious results without having clearly agreed upon the exact definitions of those terms.

The most passionate arguments are almost always about what Marvin Minsky calls “suitcase words”.  Hopefully, this essay will have “unpacked” some of the concepts that hide in the seemingly simple word “good”.  When all else fails, go back to your definitions!

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