What is good? What does it mean for something to be good or bad?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated in his essay “Self-Reliance” that man…

“must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.”

I rather like this approach to the meta-moral question above, for the most common response to a question of the sort would be a blunt and blase one along the lines of, “Good is something that is like, better than other things and makes other things better.”

Most people would disregard such a seemingly mundane question for a useless excuse to opine, but therein lies the folly of most individuals. We often forget and dismiss what rests beneath our everyday lives. We take for granted these sorts of commonplace notions relating to goodness and happiness, when, in reality, they set the foundation for most of the motivational powers that drive a lot of our actions every single day.

Just as Emerson wrote to engage and motivate others to define themselves through their own thoughts, beliefs, and work, I do the same here. What do you think good is?

I think the brilliance of a question like this is its multiplicity and subjectivity in answer. Most of our understanding of “good” can probably best be demonstrated in our society’s use of art. So often we are swept up into what we think is “good,” i.e. “that drawing of a dog is good!” Why? What makes a drawing or painting good? We cannot fall back on a work’s mere realistic portrayal, for we see goodness in abstract artwork as well, that does not resemble its object or anything at all in some cases.

I hold goodness to be something that might not be as subjective as we think it to be. Goodness most certainly is something that is to be sought for its own sake. Thus, therein lies some innate value within goodness. This value is similar to Aristotle’s discussion of virtue. Virtues are to be sought for themselves and nothing else. They are, in and of themselves, valuable for the sort of person, environment and community they are disposed to bring about. Similarly, so is goodness. Many philosophers will attempt to embed goodness within mechanisms of their theories, but on a surface-level approach to our everyday lives, goodness is something that is sought for itself.

The sort of distinction just made does not help identify “goodness” within our world. However, it does aid us in identifying things that are clearly not “good.” For instance, some that reside in our materialistic world might contend money to be good. They might even put forth a claim that with money one can buy food for others through charity, etc. This seems, on the surface to actually be a good thing, but the effects are where the good rests in this scenario, not the money itself. Money, thus, proves itself as a possible means towards promoting “goodness,” but is not so in and of itself.

Enough about what I hold goodness to be, what do you think?


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