Tract #28: What Is Good?

Tract #28, What Is Good?, is ready for you to download and review. Download it, see page #3 for printing instructions, and let me know your comments! Thanks!

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What Is Good?

We all agree that some actions are good and some are not good, and we all agree that people should strive to do good, but how would an atheist define the philosophical concept “good”?

Defining good is not as easy a task as it might at first appear. For example, some theists define good and evil such that good is sort of a benevolent force that is a reflection of God, while evil is simply a lack of that force and has no existence in and of itself (similar to darkness, which is a lack of light and not a separate thing).

Others define good in terms of following God’s example or obeying God’s laws. Obviously, to an atheist, these are not particularly useful definitions.

That’s why an atheist needs to stick with a definition of good that is much more mundane.

Perhaps the simplest solution would be to define good as the opposite of bad — anything that is undesirable is bad, and anything that isn’t bad is good. That works, but it feels a little hollow. Why strive to be good when “good” is so bland?

For the purposes of discussing ethics, the moral atheist might want to define good as benefiting others for the sake of benefiting others, often at a cost to one’s self. This is a much more positive position, it still leaves good as the opposite of evil, and it makes good a laudable thing.

The only significant possible drawback is that this definition does not make good a synonym for moral. But even that makes sense, in its way — someone could be perfectly moral because such behavior is philosophically required, but at heart not be a good person. On the other hand, a good person might not be moral, as in the case of someone who steals money from a bank to give to starving people.

In any case, if you get into a discussion of good and evil, be sure to define your terms beforehand. They may not be as cut-and-dried as you think they are.

Posted on August 23, 2009 at 10:09 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Morality, Tract

One Response

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  1. Written by Joakim Rosqvist
    on August 24, 2009 at 2:45 am
    Reply · Permalink

    I think the key word is choice. Ultimately that is why we dislike being sick, injured or incarcerated – our choices are limited.
    Imagine a diagram where the X axis is time, from now onto infinity. The Y axis is total choice available, defined as the sum of the choices available for all the actors in the universe at that point in time.

    ‘Good’ can then be seen as the area under the curve, i.e. the better alternative is the one that leads to a future with a larger area under the curve – more potential choices for future actors.

    In practice, we can not correctly determine how our actions now will affect every other actor at every point in the future, “butterfly” effects and all. So a definition of good for us imperfect beings should include a weight factor that starts high and falls towards zero the further into the future we look, according to how much dimmer our crystal balls get.

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