Monday, August 15, 2011

Trading "God" for "Good"? Part 5 (Final) -- Some notes on Good

One word that seems weighty, but spared of total synonymy with religion, is “good,” aka “the good.” To me, it’s a bit of a bland term. It reminds me of all that Greek philosophy I failed to read. I want to say that it feels too general to be a gathering term, but then again all of my central terms so far have had that generic touch that makes them hubs for meaning.

The thing is, I can define my other terms. “Spirit” defines the human person (and human collective) as the meeting of subject and object. “Sacred” is a label we apply to those things which we hold most dear as a matter of our ethical existence. (Aha—my interest in sacred is really an interest in the ethical—forcing me to confront this word “Good.”)

The most daunting aspect of confronting the word “Good” is that I am entering some of the most well-worn territory in philosophical history. I understand that ethics is the ‘first philosophy’ in the post-metaphysical landscape, and so of course I have to take it on now. But—it’s a huge topic. For now, I’ll pick at it:

-         Good – first and foremost, is a spoken label. To paraphrase Hamlet, nothing is good or bad but speaking makes it so. So, in analyzing the word “good” I always want to analyze the speaker, to understand what provoked them to use that word. “Good” as a label, is always used relative to its speaker. Insofar as a person takes their own existence/self as good, I will guess that anything they term as “good” is also “good for” them.

-         The neutrality (relativism) of this term means that it can be used by anyone, which immediately gets us into trouble. Exterminating the Jews was “good for” Hitler. I feel a desire to rid the term of its neutrality, to make Hitler’s use of it somehow unfit. The neutrality also makes it less evocative—the words “God” and “sacred” have certain weight and connotation that makes it easier to identify false meanings.

-         There are a set of words that I relate closely to “good.” While good might be the central gathering term, it is these words that actually express goodness for me. A lot of these words can be found on Maslow’s pyramid: health, safety, belonging, love, flourishing. Two other heavy-hitters I would include are: compassion, justice.

-         There is still so much to unpack from “good”!

            Ethical good = good between people
            Personal good = good for the individual person  
            Practical good = gets the job done well    
            Aesthetic good = beautiful, entertaining, captivating
            Other kinds?

-         The principle riddle involved in determining goodness is that of prioritizing. Given that we include so many human values in goodness, these are bound to conflict—and then which good do we pick? There are trade-offs, conflicts, and sacrifices—between values, between immediate and long-term goals, between proximal and distant subjects. And so on.

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