I informally surveyed my friends and asked:

What does good mean? How do we determine if something is good? What is “goodness” in your own words? What is the standard?

I found several kinds of answers. Here’s my answer countdown:

 

6. Good is the opposite of bad/evil.

5. Good is relative: one person finds something good and another doesn’t.

4. Good is an absolute.

3. Good means “pleasing.”

2. Good means being loving and considerate toward other people.

1. Good is anything that helps with life.

 

I’ve ranked the answers from worst to best, in my own view. Let me explain my judgments. Today I’ll explain #6, #5, and #4.

 

Answer #6. Good is the opposite of bad/evil.

A valid point. Not very informative though. We cannot define “good” and “bad” merely in terms of each other.

 

Answer #5. Good is relative: one person finds something good and another doesn’t.

I see some plausibility here, but only in matters of preference. “Good” cannot always be reduced to preference. If I prefer to steal, then is stealing good for me? Clearly not.

 

Answer #4. Good is an absolute.

Stealing isn’t good, even if I prefer it. Some say this points to an “absolute” standard that says “Do not steal.” Where can such a rule come from? Supporters of the “absolute” view may argue that moral rules could only come from a supreme being. “The good” is thus built into reality, as designed by the creator. A deed is intrinsically good because it conforms to divine law. Here, “good” only means “conforming to God’s law.”

The trouble with the “divine law” view is that it ignores the purpose of God’s laws. The purpose behind the law is not “that we will follow the law.” The purpose is that we will live.

In Deut 32:46-47, Moses tells Israel: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”

God says stealing is wrong. This indicates that it is wrong. But what is the reason it is wrong? It is wrong because of its consequences on human life. Crime doesn’t pay, not if the standard is life.

Divine law does not cause an action to be wrong—it reveals that it already is wrong to those who did not know it.

The view that good is an “absolute” (based simply on divine law) ends up meaning only, “the good is what pleases God.” Therefore, tomorrow I will write more on the idea of “good as pleasing.”

10 COMMENTS

  1. RE #5: I cannot think of a single moral issue that does not reduce to preference.
    Even if a thief prefers thieving, it should be clear that their victim does not and it is the victim’s preference to retain their belongings that makes stealing wrong even when a thief prefers the act.

  2. If a victim of “theft” preferred their property to be taken by saying so explicitly… then we have a different word for this: “giving”. Notice that by changing the preference of the receiver of the action, we change the action from a morally bad one, to a good one.

  3. Cody,

    You seem to consistently define “the good” as that which has positive consequences for human life. If this definition is true, then what was the status of “the good” before man existed? If “the good” existed prior to man, then by necessity it cannot be defined in relation to man.

    On a side note, you write, “The view that good is an ‘absolute’ (based simply on divine law) ends up meaning only, ‘the good is what pleases God.'” In characterizing the view in this way, I believe that you’ve created a straw-man. The traditional understanding of moral absoluteness is not based on divine law, but rather on divine NATURE. Divine law is the natural byproduct of the divine nature. In other words, “the good” is fundamentally based on who God is. God’s good law is a reflection of his good essence.

  4. Hey Timothy,
    Thanks for the interaction! You asked about the definition of good. Here is my definition:

    The good for an individual is that which he correctly grasps to be factually useful to the needs of his own life.

    I haven’t specified that it needs to be a human life. In post #10 I show how something can be “good” to God. You can read the whole post here: https://www.codylibolt.com/2014/07/god-saw-that-it-was-good/

    Here is the most relevant part:

    In Gen 1:31 we see God’s evaluation of everything that he had made: “And behold, it was very good.” Now God’s evaluation includes mankind.

    Since God has said mankind itself is good, here, “good” means more than “helpful for man.” If, before, the term meant “useful to some person,” then what person is mankind useful for? God evaluates mankind as useful to his own purposes.

    Since man serves a purpose for God, all that which is useful to mankind is also ultimately useful to God. I could speculate as to whether God would have had a use for a world without mankind in it. But, clearly, God’s immediate purpose in creating the world was to give mankind a home.

    When we say “the world is good,” we have two specific, distinct meanings: 1) the world is useful for man’s life, and 2) the world and man are useful for God’s purposes.

    As you can see, I don’t define “good” only in reference to the needs of human life.

  5. Also,
    Thanks for pointing out the distinction between basing moral absolutes on divine law vs. on divine nature. These ideas are closely related, but distinct. You’ve mentioned to me before that your go-to definition of sin is “any transgression against the law of God.” I accept this as an accurate characterization of sin. Since divine law proceeds from divine nature, it seems to me that sin would also be any act inconsistent with God’s character, or with “godliness.”

    I do agree that it is important to note the relation between morality and God’s own character. My complaint is against those who would seek to “define” morality in reference to either divine law or divine character. A definition of any concept should include whatever fundamental aspect or aspects explain and give rise to the rest. A definition of morality that doesn’t include “life” is incomplete. “Life” is the fundamental.

    I believe the divine law and the divine nature views correctly characterize the good, but do not define it. Their view ends up being “the good is what pleases God” or “the good is what is like God.” I want to know what is good about God? What is God like? That needs to be part of the definition.

    Does “good” simply mean “godly”? If so, then what does it mean to say that God is good? Can we say anything more about God than that he is himself? I believe we can. We can say that he is the living one (Ex 3:14, Ps 42:2, 2 Cor 6:16). To say that God is “good” means not only that “God is God,” but also that God is something. To be “the living one” means that God does not contradict or undermine himself in any way. He is consistent and never self-destructive. He is, and there is nothing about him which is diminishing or dying. And to “be” in this way is to be good. Just as we understand evil as a damaging or destroying of something that “is,” we can understand the good as “that which is and which cannot be destroyed.”

  6. Hey John, thanks for the comment. I can think of moral issues that do not reduce to preference. Here is an example: a person is alone and must choose between what he feels like doing and what he knows he needs in order to live. Take the movie “Cast Away.” Alone on an island, Tom Hank’s character has to knock out one of his own teeth because it is going rotten. He would prefer not to. He knows the rotten tooth will make him sick, though.

    If we are talking about preference as that which brings short-term pleasure, then that is an example of morality contradicting preference. On the other hand, if we are talking about preference as “that which one chooses,” then we are really using it as a synonym for choice, and then I could restate your point as: “I cannot think of a single moral issue that does not reduce to making a choice.” That is certainly true. Only volitional (choosing) beings need the concepts of “good” and “moral.” This point helps us understand why it is wrong to initiate force against a person, but okay to initiate force against an animal. A man can choose to deal with other men by reasoned choice, whereas an animal cannot. Moral issues fundamentally depend not on the casual kind of preference, but on reasoned choice.

  7. Hmm… It seems that the “Cast Away” example still reduces to preference. In this case, however, his preference to leave his tooth alone and his preference for health and life are, in terms of achievement, mutually exclusive. He had to decide which preference took priority and went the route most rational people would. It’s simply a description of human nature to say that health and life are usually our highest preferences.

    Preferences aren’t linear. There is a landscape of preferences in each one of us… many of them are, in practical terms, mutually exclusive.

  8. I agree. Preference here means considered judgment and choice rather than short-term pleasure. Here’s an important question: for what reason(s) do people prefer one thing over another?

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