Goodness and value theory
Theories of Value ask 'What sorts of things are good?' Or: 'What does "good" mean?'
"If we had to give the most general, catch-all description of good things, then what would that description be?"
Many people believe that value theory is the most important area of philosophy. All religions and most philosophical movements have been concerned with it to some degree. It can define "good" and "bad" for a community or society. It affects everyone's life - maybe all life on Earth.
Goodness and value theory affects political economy, which sets relative valuations on factors of production. When governments decide what is good and to be encouraged, they cut taxes on those activities, remove regulations or laws, and provide subsidies. However, when they decide what is bad and to be discouraged, they pass laws to make it illegal and enforce them with violence, monopolize it to limit or control it, and make stern speeches on television.
Moral vs. other goods
First, the word "good" has a different meaning when applied to persons and actions or things. For example, to say that "Mary's a morally good person and her honesty is good." might have a different sense of good in the sentence "A banana split is good."
Economic "good" is challenged by such issues as addiction. Some claim that cigarettes are a "good" in the economic sense, as their production can bring economic growth for tobacco growers and doctors who treat lung cancer. Many people would agree that is not morally "good"; some dispute even the economic claim, pointing out an analogy to the parable of the broken window.
Philosophers and politicians have usually focussed on the sense of "morally good", as applied to persons and actions.
Academic use vs. everyday life
Virtue plays an important part in everyday life; everyone has their own set of beliefs on what is "good", and what is not. This article however, focusses on the philosophical and academic approach. Although people do all have there own set of beliefs and morals on what is "good", people do try to inflict there own views on others. This is called emotivism, im sure theres another actual word for it but its late, and i cant remember it... i believe its prescriptionism, but im not sure. Anyways, you pass your morals onto other people and persuade them to think as you do. Usually it is something everyone does, and as you grow older it works less and less because you are less easily influenced. When you are younger an adult telling you that smoking is bad, is as good as the word coming from "God", but as you grow older, other peoples opinions seem to mean less. It also depends on the ranking the person you are talking. If you are talking to the president, his opinions seem far more important, compared with someone like a child or a local bin man saying it.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam
Buddhism and Hinduism
In these religions the basic goal is for a human soul to become more perfected until it can reach or merge with Brahma or achieve Nirvana. Hindus attempt to perfect their lives toward this end. Buddhists, as reformed Hindus, attempt to perfect their detachment from a world that they believe is illusory.
Many animist religions are driven by personal prudence. Good and bad luck is caused by good and bad spirits. Both can be propitiated by the correct rituals, and these form a necessary traditional system to get through life.
Radical values environmentalism
Radical values environmentalists say that the only intrinsically good thing is a flourishing ecosystem. Individuals and societies are merely means to this end. The Gaia philosophy is the most detailed expression of this overall thought but it strongly influenced Deep Ecology and the modern Green Parties.
Philosophers say that a correct definition of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritisation. One could answer the ancient question, "How then should we live?"
To consider the roots of the modern conceptions of value, we must return to The Enlightenment's origins:
Kant: hypothetical and categorical imperatives.
Kant's (1724-1804) thinking influenced moral philosophy. He thought of moral value as a unique and universally identifiable property. He showed that many practical goods are good only in states-of-affairs described by a sentence containing an "if" clause. Further, the "if" clause often described the category in which the judgment was made (Art, science, etc.). Kant described these as "hypothetical goods," and tried to find a "categorical" good that would operate across all categories of judgment.
An influential result of Kant's search was the idea of a good will as being the only good in itself.
He saw a good will as acting in accordance with a moral command, the "Categorical Imperative": "Act according to those maxims that you could will to be universal law." From this, and a few other axioms, Kant developed a moral system that would apply to any "praiseworthy person." (See Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals , third section, -.)
Many philosophers believe that any general definition of goodness must define goods that are categorical in the sense that Kant intended.
Goodness as a property
One problem is that 'goodness' seems not to be definable, and therefore it is sometimes thought not to be a real property of the world.
Attempted definitions of goodness fail in known ways. Definitions generally either describe traits or properties of a real object or set of objects, or divide the concept into other, subsidiary concepts. Both approaches have failed to define goodness. The two usual failures are that either the definition is circular, or the definition has no meaning in the real world.
Because the project has failed for thousands of years, philosophers have tried desperate expedients to get some of the value of such a definition. Usually these definitions involved simplifications, or additional assumptions.
Problems with definitions using traits or properties
Most philosophers find that the traits or properties that would justify calling a thing good are different for different categories of judgment. For example, the criteria by which we judge art to be good are different from those by which we judge people to be good. A famous early discussion of this problem is by Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics (at 1096a5).
Many judgments of goodness translate to prices, but this appears to be a summary or effect of judgment, not a cause. For example, a piece of art found in an attic may be sold for the price of a meal. A collector may then recognise it as a lost work of a famous artist, and sell it for more than the price of a house. The price changed because the collector had better judgment than the owner who kept it in an attic.
If goodness were a common trait or property, we should be able to abstract it, but no one has succeeded. Thus goodness is widely believed not to be a property of any natural thing or state of affairs.
Of course, this belief is open to trivial skepticism: Perhaps philosophers just haven't stumbled across the right definition. One philosopher named Robert S. Hartman claims he has. He maintains that "good" is a second-order property, a quantifier of qualities: to call a thing good is to contend that it is all there under its concept. See Science of Value.
One wonders where such an immaterial trait as goodness could reside. An obvious answer is "Inside people." Some philosophers go so far as to say that if some state of affairs does not tend to arouse a desirable subjective state in self-aware beings, then it cannot be good.
Although the elusive definition of external "objective" goodness could be used to construct rational morals and legislation, a subjective definition of goodness could be useful to help one live a good life.
Shortcomings of subjectivism
It is useful to discuss relativism, or subjectivism, about intrinsic good. Subjectivists may say that to answer the question, "What things are intrinsically good?" we need only answer "What do I, or my group want not merely as a means to something else, but for itself?"
There are, however, problems with this approach. We can be wrong about what is good for us.
For this and other reasons, conceptual metaphor theories argue against both subjective and objective conceptions of value and meaning, and focus on the relationships between body and other essential elements of human life. In effect, conceptual metaphor theories treat ethics as an ontology problem and the issue of how to work-out values as a negotiation of these metaphors, not the application of some abstraction or a strict standoff between parties who have no way to understand each other's view.
Intrinsic versus instrumental goodness
May people find it useful to distinguish instrumental and intrinsic goods. This was discussed by Aristotle: an intrinsically good thing is worth having for itself, even if it doesn't help you get anything else that's good.
Hammers and radios are instrumental goods, used to build and get music (say).
Many people find intrinsic goods in the pleasure we get from listening to a great piece of music, or understanding philosophy or science.
It's not always an either-or proposition. Some things are both good in themselves, and good for getting other things that are good. Understanding Science is such a good.
Since instrumental goods are always to get other goods, the values by which one lives must ultimately be intrinsic. For example, most people pursue money merely so that they can afford what they call "the finer things in life," And the question is: What are they? Which things are intrinsically good?
Pragmatism and intrinsic goodness
John Dewey (1859-1952) in his book Theory of Valuation saw goodness as the outcome of "valuation," a continuous balancing of "ends in view." An end in view was said to be an objective which we adopt or not, which we refine or reject based on its consistency with other objectives or means to objectives held by ourselves or others.
His empirical approach did not accept intrinsic value as an inherent or enduring property of things. He saw it as an illusory product of our continuous valuing activity as purposive beings. In his view, all goodness is best understood as instrumental, with no contrasting intrinsic goodness.
However, simple hedonism is rejected even by most hedonists because there seem to be pleasures that are bad (e.g. eating too much) and pains that are good (e.g. going to the dentist).
There are other problems with identifying goodness as pleasure. It's strange to say that carrying out one's duty (which is obviously good) has anything to do with pleasure. Also, the sense of achievement following completion of one's work is rarely considered pleasure, although it is clearly good.
Aristotle even distinguished genuine happiness from amusement, and virtuous from base pleasures. This makes some sense because useful work is seen as better than mere amusement (such as a chat room).
The usual fix of Hedonism is to consider consequences, as well as pleasure and pain. For example. going to a dentist has a small amount of pain now, but avoids more later. However, even consequentialism is strained when considering duty.
Happiness or pleasure can often be recognized, which solves many problems for Hedonism. But no known definitions of happiness or pleasure have met objections similar to those of a definition of goodness: The situations producing the happiness or pleasure are different in different categories of action.
Furthermore, the conditions and consequences of pleasure, or pain, can seem to be either good or bad, and thus undermine our judgement about that pleasure or pain.
Neither happiness nor pleasure has been conceptually divided (analyzed) in a way that permits deductive choices of real-world alternatives.
So imagine that the only intrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures. But then aren't we giving a circular account of "good" -- if we say that good things are good pleasures, then we're using the word "good" to define itself.
Alternatively, we might try to find out which pleasures will result in the most other pleasures. Then we could call those pleasures "intrinsically good," and only then say: "the only instrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures." That could avoid the circularity problem.
But this is flawed. Imagine a nation of sadists. The public torture of one person in such a nation may produce more pleasure than any other event, since everyone's basic (not to say base) urges would be satisfied vicariously. But many people would say that such an action would be bad.
So pleasure seems a poor candidate as a criteria of goodness.
Some philosophers, faced with intractable circularity, considered that goodness was a special property that is not empirically verifiable, like 'redness' or 'circular.'
For example, G.E. Moore blamed this circularity on what he called the "naturalistic fallacy". He believed that people had a nonphysical intuition that could sense goodness, which was then falsely projected onto things and fallaciously treated as a natural property. Few people believe in this intuitionism, but the term has stuck because goodness is so widely thought nonphysical, or no physical basis can be found for it.
Others described a theory called Emotivism, simplified to the 'Boo-Hurray' theory of morality. It was thought by emotivists that to call something wrong, or good, was either to express disapproval or approval.
Emotivism has problems as an explanation of goodness. For example, people's emotions vary according to situation, person or circumstance. But goodness is usually conceived as constant across all situations. Torture, for example, does not become good because it is approved. Public disapproval does not always mean that an action is wrong. Therefore emotions are an inconsistent and inaccurate guide to goodness.
Circularity in the analysis of 'goodness'
The other form of definitions of goodness is to try to divide the concept of goodness into smaller, more understandable concepts.
It has been thought that if some conception of goodness were divided, or causally regressed far enough, the process would eventually come to a logical stopping place, an "ultimate good." However all known forms of such regressions appear to be either circular, or open to skepticism.
Attempts to translate, divide or causally regress the concept of goodness usually fail in a particular way. Every such attempt seems to end up with one or more subconcepts prefixed with the word "good" or related words like "pleasure," "dutiful," "praiseworthy", or "virtuous." Such definitions appear to be circular, and therefore are believed invalid.
The circularity of causal regression hits scientific definitions of goodness especially hard, because it seems to indicate that science cannot study goodness. Some philosophers have gone so far as to say that science can only study "what is", not "what should be." They claim that there is an unsurmountable gap between facts and values, the "fact -value distinction"
The clearest proponent of this viewpoint was David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature , who famously questioned the move from statements about facts to statements about what ought to be.
The evasiveness of a definition of 'goodness'.
Many philosophers tried to end the regressions by applying an auxiliary evaluation that helps the general regression to a stopping place. This auxiliary evaluation is often open to skepticism.
For example, Aristotle considered "The supreme element of happiness" to be theoretical study, because it "ruled all others." (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a15) In this case, supremity was the auxiliary evaluation that could be doubted.
He also supported the ancient Greek view which said that it was not happiness , which is a mental state over time, which is intrinsically good -- it is, instead, something like happiness, but eudaimonia, for which there is no word in English, except perhaps the word "flourishing" or "well-being." Eudaimonia is more than simply happiness; it is a happy life that is well -lived .
Happiness is a subjective state. Eudaimonia is an objective state; literally, it means something like "having a good spirit." Thus this line of argument ends in circularity also.
Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) appproached the problem by asserting that everything sensed was an effect, with an earlier cause. Each immediate (proximal) cause was less diluted in goodness, and therefore, the first cause would have to be perfectly good. In this case, the concept of dilution might be doubted as an inaccurate metaphor, or that the dilution necessarily scales back to perfection (maybe the first cause was very good, instead of perfect). One might also doubt that the causal regression ends: It might be circular, for instance.
Another improvement is to distinguish contributory goods. These have the same qualities as the good thing, but need some emergent property of a whole state-of-affairs in order to be good. For example salt is food, but is usually good only as part of a prepared meal. Other exampless come from music and language.
Most philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which thay call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods.
Collectivism versus individualism: contributory goods
We may want to go beyond eudamonia by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole.
Some elements of Confucianism are an example of this, encouraging the view that people ought to conform as individuals to the demands of a peaceful and ordered society.
So the question at issue now is: Is an individual's life intrinsically good, or is it merely instrumentally good? Is an individual's life, well-lived, something that is desirable for its own sake, or is it desirable, ultimately, only as a means to having a happy society?
We can use the terms "values individualism" and "values collectivism" to mark the dispute. Here are some definitions:
Values individualism is the view that only individual lives (or their eudaimonia ) are intrinsically valuable; and so they are valuable not merely as a means to the flourishing of society.
Values collectivism is the view that individual lives (or their eudaimonia) are only instrumentally valuable, i.e., good only as a means to, or as an outcome of the flourishing of society; the flourishing of society (whatever this might be) is the only intrinsically good thing.
We are then faced with the problem of how to choose, and on what basis, between values collectivism and values individualism.
Returning to the ecology question, which its advocates see as beyond the collective/individualist duality, one can now view radical values environmentalism as the view that the value of Earth and value of life must constantly be increasing - green economics for instance is concerned with ensuring that values are quantified and prices set by means which respect the actual trades that ordinary people would make. Electoral reform and accounting reform and even monetary reform all proceed directly from the desire to make the economic and social relation accurately reflect values decisions made by at least the wiser individuals. This is a very concrete and material view, that bears little relationship to Animism or the Gaia philosophy.
The more spiritual view, however, that all life has intrinsic value, is more reminiscent of the philosophy of Hegel(1770-1831). Hegel rejected individualism as expressed for example in both the American and the French revolutions. Individualism, he felt, runs directly contrary to the nature of humanity and reality, since the individual has value and reality only as a part of a greater and unified whole. Humans, for instance, live only as part of a living planet Earth.
Another similar viewpoint is that of Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy which advocated quietism and conformity to the Way, or Tao: "The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living or sentient object, as well as through the entire universe".
This sort of holism seems an odd point of view: in our experience goodness, or value exists within an ecosystem, Earth. What kind of being could validly apply the word to an ecosystem as a whole? Who would have the power to assess and judge an ecosystem as good or bad? By what criteria? In effect, it could only judge us sentient beings within it, and dispose of us as it required.
Perhaps this view could be grounded in a Hegelian Absolute Mind , or in the concept of God, but these concepts are not accepted as providing an elucidation of everyday examples of goodness. The economic view tends to be more satisfactory since it can be directly related to the Categorical Imperative or people's documented choices to select one thing over another.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that many people get support in accepting the fact that God created the world or "the universe", and therefore that it has a purpose and value which lies beyond our understanding. This is of course true of many of those who accept the economic or material view of the human body or its similarity to other hominid bodies.
One way to resolve the issue is to focus on empathy and the ability of beings to feel each others' pain. We care more about a gorilla than a mosquito, and would protect one and kill the other, then, not because of some abstract similarity genetically measured, but, because the gorilla lives and feels just like we do. This idea is carried forward in the ethical relationship view and has given rise to the animal rights movement and peace movement.
This is compatible with Enlightenment views, expressed e.g. in David Hume's views that the idea of a self with unique identity is illusory, and that morality ultimately comes down to sympathy and fellow feeling for others, or the exercise of approval underlying moral judgements.
The question of pain comes up also in early Enlightenment theory:
Jeremy Bentham's book The Principles of Morals and Legislation prioritized goods by considering pleasure, pain and consequences. This theory had a wide effect on public affairs, up to and including the present day. A similar system was later named Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill.
Utilitarianism succeeds in many cases. However Utilitarianism has some questionable implications.
For example, it considers all goods as interchangeable. If feeding a starving child would cause the child to feel sick, and not permanently improve his situation, a Utilitarian would prefer to spend the money on a watch for a rich man.
Unhappily, the utilitarian argument to permit abortions is of the same form as this questionable type, though with changed quantities. To see this, substitute "unconscious fetus, destined for loveless poverty" for "starving child" and "improved woman's income" for "rich man's watch."
To a humanist, who values human life above all else, the form of the judgment remains invalid, while a utilitarian might agree with the statement, based on the changed magnitudes of value.
In another widely questioned set of judgments, Utilitarians weigh the pleasures and pains of men and animals in the same scale. (See PETA, an animal rights organization based firmly on Utilitarian ideals.)
John Rawls' book A Theory of Justice prioritized social arrangements and goods based on their contribution to justice. Rawls defined justice as fairness, especially in distributing social goods, defined fairness in terms of procedures, and attempted to prove that just institutions and lives are good, if rational individuals' goods are considered fairly.
Rawls' crucial invention was "the original position ," a procedure in which one tries to make objective moral decisions by refusing to let personal facts about oneself enter one's moral calculations.
A problem with both Kant's and Rawls' approach is that goodness appears to be both prior to and essential to fairness, and different for different beings. Procedurally fair processes of the type used by Kant and Rawls may reduce the totality of goodness, and thereby be unfair.
For example, if two people are found to own an orange, the standard fair procedure is to cut it in two, and give half to each. However, if one wants to eat it, while the other wants the rind to flavor a cake, cutting it in two is clearly less good than giving the peel to the baker, and feeding the meat to the eater.
Many people judge that if both procedures are known, using the first procedurally-fair procedure to mediate between a baker and an eater is unfair because it is not as good.
Applying procedural fairness to an entire society therefore seems certain to create recognizable inefficiencies, and therefore be unfair, and (by the equivalence of justice with fairness) unjust.
This strikes at the very foundation of Kantian ethics, because it shows that hypothetical goods can be better than categorical goods, and therefore be more desirable, and even more just.
Summary: Values pluralism and the grading of values
Notice that there is a succession of things which can be considered as the kind of thing which is intrinsically good: from particular events of pleasure, to an individual's happiness, to an individual's eudaimonia, to the flourishing of a society, to the flourishing of an entire ecosystem. So it can be seen that there is a rather difficult problem about the scope of the theory of value. Where do you stop, in this succession of items, in your account of what is valuable for its own sake?
If you say that an individual pleasure is valuable for its own sake, then why don't you say that an individual's entire happiness is valuable for its own sake? And so forth: and on reaching the end of this sequence, we find ourselves valuing ecosystems which is itself an activity which seems metaphysical, inexplicable.
As a values pluralist, you might say: every item in this succession of items is intrinsically good. The goodness of a particular experience, of an individual's whole life, of society, and of an ecosystem, are all worth having for their own sake, and not merely as a means to something else. So as a values pluralist you would say: I don't have to decide which of these things is intrinsically good, because they are all intrinsically good.
That position does not seem to hold up to careful scrutiny. Sometimes we have a choice , for example, to sacrifice our own pleasure, or happiness, or even our own lives, for the sake of many other people. In these cases two things are weighed: your own individual happiness, and the more general happiness of a lot of other people. And if you conclude that you should sacrifice your own happiness, in one of these ways, what does that amount to?
It could say that your own life is worthwhile in and of itself, and that it is also worthwhile as a means to the happiness of others. Remember, the same thing can be both instrumentally and intrinsically good: understanding, or knowledge, is one possible example. It is clear that a human life might be another, and in that way some people would defend values pluralism. Two different things, a life and the good of society, can both be intrinsically good, even though one could be sacrificed for the second. This does not involve a contradiction.
Indeed, existentialism faces this dilemma in an egregious way: since being precedes essence, then our choices are paramount in setting our values. It makes little sense to evaluate one action over another: if they are real choices then they are expressions of our being, and of our ultimate freedom. Jean Paul Sartre faced the famous difficulty of being unable to decide whether it was better to stay at home to care for his elderly mother, or to go to war in the defence of his country.
We are left with an unresolved issue: the issue of the relative importance of intrinsic values. If these things are to be ranked in order of importance, how would the ranking go? So a person could be a values pluralist and still be an individualist, or a collectivist, or a radical environmentalist. It would just have to be said that the most important thing, the most valuable thing, is my own flourishing; or, instead, the flourishing of society; or, perhaps, the flourishing of the environment.
But this leaves us back at the start of the argument: on what basis do we, should we, choose in cases of conflict? Why is one thing better than another? Why is anything good?
After all this, we can see why the notion or thing called 'goodness' has a claim on being the most important, yet the most puzzling area of philosophy.
We can also see why there would be temptation to reduce values to prices, and why the value of Earth or value of life might be ultimately understood by economic methods, not ethical ones. To a degree, economics and ethics compete to explain people's choices. See also law and economics on this.
So much in our day to day life involves apparent value judgements: crucial life decisions we make, the habits we develop and transmit to our children, our deepest political convictions.
Academic philosophy seems to provide no objective criteria or decision process to help us in our decision making or reflections on these matters.
Hypothetical imperatives can outweigh Categorical imperatives, as we have seen, and intrinsic goods can be outweighed by instrumental goods. For each proposed ideal candidate for being called good, we seem able to envisage a situation where that candidate is judged bad.
Further, the prospect of the quest being successful, that goodness could finally be analysed, satisfactorily defined and universally agreed is unsettling for some people. They feel that perhaps the definition could be used in a totalitarian way, perhaps the world would lose some of its ambiguity, there may be a loss of diversity in society and in ways of life. So the fact that some existing choices may be threatened, produces the paradoxical situation that ultimate, incontrovertible knowledge of what is good may to some people not seem good or desirable.
Perhaps the only certainty we can have from looking at the investigations of philosopers over the centuries is that:
- What is good cannot be defined in abstraction from situations and our experience of them, academic approaches have so far proved infertile.
- There seems to be no enduring thing which can be said to be absolutely good in itself.
- Perhaps an inductive, empirical based investigation of goodness as the outcome of situations of valuation activity would be a more productive approach.
These conclusions may in the long run be more likely to give us some practical guidance in a world of multiple choice and of bewildering pluralism.