Fair Questions: Is the good a philosophical question?

Quite a while ago, @Lovegrove asked a question of me during a discussion on one of his entries.  The question was essentially whether or not I thought the definition or nature of good (in the sense of moral good or virtue) was a philosophical question.  I decided to give it a full response, but I’ve taken my sweet time getting around to it.  It turns out that an absolutely insane life leaves little time for fun things like this.  My apologies for the long delay.  My answer in brief is that it is a philosophical question and also that it is not.

The question, “What is good?” has certainly been explored by many philosophers.  There are many philosophical treatments of morality and ethics, and well as some of meta-morality and meta-ethics.  In the sense that philosophers have addressed the question many times and in many ways, it is indeed a question we have sought to answer by philosophical means and thus could perhaps be described as a philosophical question.

In practice, it is a question we answer prior to doing any philosophical investigation.  We already have values either inherited from a cultural/familial tradition or developed in reaction to the inherited values, and these values are what we use to determine what sorts of intentions and actions and consequences are good.  Our values are how we provide a solution to that most basic philosophical issue of the Problem of the Criterion.  We need some way of deciding whether a particular moral proposition has merit long before we get to the point of exploring moral philosophy as an adult.  Evidence from developmental psychology shows that moral development generally takes place long before we start reading Aristotle or Kant or Mill. 

Once we begin exploring moral philosophy, it does often happen that our definition of the good changes in some way beyond our previous moral development, but by this time our worldview already has some basic elements which we are unlikely to relinquish, and it’s very doubtful that we are genuinely open to true investigation.  My observation has been that most of the moral philosophy we manage to accomplish has the effects of helping us check our moral beliefs for consistency and helping us build more elegant rationalizations for our existing beliefs about morality.  We may have to add or remove important elements from our belief system to reach that consistency and elegance of rationalization, of course, which might give us the impression that we have completely overturned our previous views, but it is truly rare for a person to completely overturn their core values even if they alter their ontological, metaphysical, and epistemological views dramatically.

Let’s consider another way of looking at the issue.  If the question, “What is good?” is a meaningful one in the sense that it refers to a standard which exists independently of our whimsical opinions rather than being a mere elegant rationalization of our existing values, then it was never a philosophical question from the start.  It would then be an empirical question which we would need to answer by finding evidence of the objective standard.  And if we did find such a standard, it is very likely that we would evaluate the standard using our existing values and accept or reject it on the basis of our evaluation rather than adhering to the standard which we had discovered simply because it was an objective standard.  We would probably need an extraordinary motive to do something other than cleave to our existing values.

In the end, the good is a question which has indeed been addressed philosophically, but on a functional level precedes our philosophical maundering and often overrides it in our daily lives.


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