Archive for February, 2007

As someone that has always been intrigued with the nature of the human mind, and how it interacts, it seems a bit normal to talk about morality. After all, once we understand that beliefs need rationality, and harmonization with other beliefs, it’s only natural to begin that journey toward how we define “good” or “moral”.  But wow does this open a can of worms.

First, just the thought of trying to pursue “good”. I was trying to get some kind of generalization of how we use that word and its absolutely boggling:

He’s a good hockey player.
That movie was very good.
It’s good that he got rewarded for his good deeds.
Charity is good.
This ice cream is very good.

All of these are totally different from each other. Certainly saying someone is a good hockey player is different than saying that ice cream is good. It almost seems that this the word has some kind of different meaning within context, yet it is the same word.  I got to thinking that there are lots of words like “good” also. How about great, bad, best, right and wrong.  All of these words seem to have a very nebulous meaning, yet we hardly give them a second thought when we utter them in conversation. And others seem to understand!

But, we need to know such things so we can get a handle on morality and ethics. If we cant understand and use these things, then we cant possibly  understand what ethics are.

Many people, for instance use the terms “ethics” and “morality” completely differently. I am not so certain that there is any difference, really. Think about it. Don’t we tend to use ethics when we want to refer to some sort of professional conduct? For instance we talk of corporate management’s ethics, or medical ethics or legal ethics.  But as soon as we begin to talk about individuals, that word switches to morals.  He has the highest moral standard. His morals are beyond reproach.  So, to be honest, I think that ethics are simply professional morals. So I will address them as such.

So in order for us to talk about “morality”, it presumes that we accept this nebulous thing we refer to as “good”, and its relatives, “bad”, “right”, “wrong”, and other vapor words.  There is no inherent meaning in these words, if you think about it. Yes, there are definitions, but philosophically, we get into some pretty hot water thinking about the words themselves…they seem to not have any kind of meaning unless there is relevant context.  This, then becomes difficult, because of the very state of nothingness of the words.

If I say “Honesty is good”, what am I saying?  Well, you may think that I am endorsing honesty, which may be true. But that evaluative word says absolutely nothing about anything behind that statement. I am simply “cheering” honesty.  If I say “Abortion is wrong”, again I am not stating anything factual, only that I do not endorse it. This is significantly different than saying “He is a good man”.  The fact is that we use these words far too often to mean absolutely nothing.

Where I’d like to get to, is what is “good” from a rational sense (remember I am a rationalist for the most part).  It seems that where ever we go, we come to the conclusion that what is good seems to  be a matter of individual endorsement, individual state of mind, or cultural deployment. However, I came across some writings of an ancient philosopher that may be of help to us. He was for me.

Aristotle wrote extensively about the conditions under which moral responsibility may be ascribed to individual agents, the nature of the virtues and vices involved in moral evaluation, and the methods of achieving happiness in human life. In essence, a glass of wine, a car, a restaurant and a person are “good” when simply they “hit the target of their purpose”.   I won’t even begin to try to explain the ramifications of this, for they are tremendously complex, but I can tell you that this seems the most rational of thoughts. At issue, of course, is this nebulous idea of “purpose”.  We certainly intuitively know it, but is it conditional? Is it subjective? Is it based on our culture, upbringing, experiences?  Probably. My idea of a good red wine might very well differ from yours, but there may be a red wine that we both agree is “good”.  We might agree that serial killer Ted Bundy was not good for many reasons, and we might agree that Jesus Christ was good. But would we agree that Bill Clinton was a good president?  Would we agree that Susan Sarandon is a good actress?  Think about it, when you go to defend your stance on these, your first top is to set the parameters of purpose, although we usually start that process by saying something like “well..my criteria for being a good… actress, president, bottle of wine, etc… is ……..”. And thus we go into the purpose diatribe.

This gets to be even more challenging as we try to extend “goodness” to people. Because, how do you define the purpose of a person?  AHA.  Well, we will table that discussion until after my next philosophical examination….the philosophical basis for God.

Read Full Post »