On the good: Truth, ontos, and telos

What is good? The answer I increasingly hear to this question is, ‘it depends’–whether it be on cultural attitudes or on individual sentiment. But the answer mistakes the question for another one: what do people think is good? That’s not the question. The question is: what is good? People sometimes go further, insisting that the good itself is not good: ‘it’s just another false metaphysical construct, like free will’.

But free will is a bit different. Since everything we do happens either by chance or by causation, we can never be said to ‘control’ our actions autonomously. If we do something by chance, we have no independent control over our behaviour, since there is no independent control over our behaviour anywhere. If we do something by causation, we also have no independent control over our behaviour, since something else (like the starting conditions of the Universe and the laws of physics) has control. For people who believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing deity, we certainly have no autonomous control–the deity does. Free will is probably a myth. But the good is not like free will. Here’s why.

Socrates, who was killed for ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’ with his words of wisdom…

Imagine you are hanging out with your friends. Then, all of a sudden, one of your closest friends brings out a red button and, in all seriousness, says, ‘I don’t care. Life is mean and cruel. I don’t want to live anymore, and neither should you. If I push this button, every nuclear warhead will launch and everyone will die in 60 minutes. Give me one reason not to do it. If you can’t find one, I’ll push the button in 60 seconds.’ Now, let’s assume your friend is telling the truth, and pushing this button really will blow up the world. What do you say?

Well, of course you might start with something that appeals to your friend’s sense of self-worth, like, ‘you are valuable: you are valued by us! Your life is meaningful and good and worth living. Don’t do this, please. We love you so very much.’

But then your friend replies, ‘I still don’t care. My life feels meaningless to me, and nothing you can say changes that. I’m going to push the button.’

Desperately, you insist, ‘but other people’s lives matter–if you do this, billions of people will die. That’s not just wrong in itself. It’ll also prevent them from loving, caring, sharing their lives with others. Isn’t that wrong?’

But your protest comes to no avail, as your friend replies once more, ‘I feel no empathy anymore. I don’t care about other people on an emotional level. I don’t love them, I don’t cherish them, and I can never sympathise with them. Do you have any other reasons for me not to do this? You have 10 seconds.’

10. You say you still love your friend.

9. Your friend replies he doesn’t love anyone back.

8. You panic.

7. Your friend looks calm.

6. You start crying.

5. Your friend doesn’t care.

4. The world’s about to end.

3. What do you say?

2. Love won’t change anything.

1. Neither will community. What about wis–

‘Wisdom,’ you say, out of the blue.

‘What did you say?’, your friend asks, bemused.

‘If you blow up the world, you won’t have wisdom. Nobody will. And that’s bad.’

‘How so?’, your friend queries, taking their finger away from the button, but still ready to blow up the world without the slightest further hesitation.

‘Maybe you can’t feel love. Maybe you can’t see community. Maybe you’ve lost your way and no longer hold the same values we hold. But we share our consciousness–at least we share that.’

‘What’s so good about consciousness?’ They move their finger towards the button once more.

‘Not consciousness, per se. Consciousness of something…’

‘Of what?! Consciousness of what?’ Your friend goes impatient.

‘The good!’

‘Ha! There’s no such thing as ‘the good’.’

‘Well, if there’s no such thing, why do you want to press the button?’

‘What?’

‘If there is no such thing as ‘the good’, what reason do you have for pressing the button?’

‘Exactly! There’s no reason for doing anything?’

‘Then why not do nothing? Why not forget about that button and do nothing? There’s no reason for doing anything, because there is no good, so you can’t justify pushing or not pushing the button. You might as well just stop.’

‘But… I don’t want to stop. I want to push the button.’

‘But why? Why do you want to push the button?’

‘Because I… I…’

‘Think it would be good to push the button?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘Because we’re so stupid. Everyone’s so stupid. There’s no point in living if everyone’s stupid.’

‘What’s bad about being stupid? What would it mean to not be stupid?’

‘When you’re stupid, you can’t understand anything. You don’t understand what’s true and what’s false. People are such idiots because they have so much knowledge, but no understanding, no—’

‘Wisdom?’

‘Well, if wisdom means understanding, then yes. People have no wisdom.’

‘And is wisdom bad?’

‘No. Wisdom is good. That’s why I must press the button.’

‘So you do care about something! You care about wisdom! You believe wisdom is good, on a rational level.’

‘Yes.’

‘Is wisdom anything more than consciousness of what is true and false, good and not good?’

‘No—nothing more. That is certainly what wisdom is.’

‘And is some wisdom better than no wisdom?’

‘Of course.’

‘And would pushing the button lead to no wisdom, because there would be no life, and therefore no consciousness of the good?’

‘Well, yes.’

‘And even if most people seem stupid to you, are not some people wise enough to see aspects of the truth which partake in the good?’

‘Yes. There is certainly some wisdom. But very little.’

‘Is it good to preserve wisdom, and bad to eliminate it?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘And, since pushing the button would eliminate all possibility of wisdom, is not pushing the button bad? Because then we would not ever know what is true and what is good?’

‘If pushing the button means we cannot be wise and cannot understand what is good, then yes, pushing the button is bad.’

‘And would not pushing the button mean we can preserve what little wisdom there is, and even perhaps increase it?’

‘Yes. Pushing the button would be bad. Not pushing it would be…’

‘Good?’

‘Yes.’

‘So, what are you going to do?’

‘I won’t push the button. I will destroy it. I don’t want anyone to have the chance to blow up the world again. Regardless of my feelings for people, I know it is good to pursue the good. And I know we must have wisdom–or understanding of the good–in order to best pursue it. I myself could do with that wisdom. Maybe we all could.’

Some moral claims are true, and some are false. The claim that killing all people is good is a false claim, because killing all people would not, in fact, be good. The claim that letting people live is good is a true claim, since letting people live would, in fact, be good. But how do we decide whether a claim is true based on what is good? Don’t we need some interface between truth and goodness, to decide how the two meet? Don’t we need, in other words, values. The good is just good, so itself has no being, but the values which partake in it do have being in the same way numbers or abstract logical concepts do. We have concepts and values which interface with the good, letting us know which claims are true and which claims are false. These values have being. They have ‘ontos’. But their being derives only from their partaking in the good. Therefore:

  1. TRUTH: Moral claims are true if and only if they correspond to
  2. ONTOS: Good values, which have being (ontos) and partake in
  3. TELOS: Our ultimate purpose (telos)–the good.

But what are ‘good values’? From the thought experiment above, we can find one which both pleasant and unpleasant people can agree upon: wisdom. Wisdom is a value which is good. Moral claims which correspond to this value, generally, are true. But wisdom is not the only value which partakes in the good. Our imagined saviour in the discussion expressed a willingness to show empathy, or act as if we show empathy, to other people. We must ensure people feel good, and don’t suffer. We must make sure the world has as much love, or positive socially-directed emotion, as possible. Love is pleasure shared. This leads us to the next value: community. We should do what is best for creating not just love in individuals but also a sense of duty to our common community as people.

Community is defined by those capable of experiencing love and/or possessing wisdom. Some people acknowledge some values, but not others. The psychopathic friend above acknowledged wisdom to be good, but not love or community. Perhaps if they had more wisdom, though, they would acknowledge that love or community are also good. People who acknowledge wisdom as the central good have what Socrates termed ‘gold’ souls: they prize wisdom above all else. People who acknowledge love as the central good have what Socrates termed ‘bronze’ souls: they prize emotional satisfaction above all else. People who acknowledge community as the central good have ‘silver’ souls: they prize social sharing and/or social recognition above all else.

The truth is, we need all three values. Though those with gold souls will, theoretically, acknowledge the goodness of love and community, those with bronze and silver souls remind us of the goodness of these other goods. The irony is that most people who embrace moral nihilism, or the thesis that nothing is good, generally are bronze or silver souls, not gold souls. Our psychopathic friend is an exception rather than a rule. But they are a good example of how to debunk moral scepticism: whenever anyone tells you that everything about morality is culturally relative or subjective, give them a story like this. Ask them, ‘why do you get up in the morning?’. The answer is that they think getting up in the morning is good. Ask them, ‘what is, in fact, good?’ Even if they deny two of the three objective values I’ve outlined, they won’t be able to deny the third.

If they’re a gold soul, they won’t be able to rob wisdom of its goodness. If they’re a silver soul, they won’t be able to rob community of its goodness. If they’re a bronze soul, they won’t be able to rob love of its goodness. Some people have what seem to be ‘iron souls’, only caring about survival. But survival is the precondition for these other values, and is only good for the sake of these values. It is not a good in itself–hence why there is such a thing as ‘euthanasia’, or a good death. But so long as surviving means we can pursue more of what is good than what is not good, it is valuable. Whatever soul you are–bronze, silver, or gold, or all of them at once–I don’t think you can deny these three theses:

  1. It is good to pursue the good;
  2. Moral values like (a) love, (b) community, & (c) wisdom partake in the good; &
  3. Moral claims are true if they correspond to moral values.

Even if the second statement is less certain than the first, at least one of the three core values I’ve identified is good, or part of the good. Overall, we can be

  1. Certain that wisdom is good,
  2. Less certain that community is good, &
  3. Somewhat less certain that love is good.

Whichever values are, in fact, good, we must never deny that the good is good, or that objective moral values which partake in the good exist. If we deny this, then we must deny everything, and we won’t be able to find good reason for doing anything. We will have to do nothing, because there will be no reason to do anything. Is that good?

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