What makes something good?

Recently, I read my way very slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully through R. Jay Wallace’s (excellent) The View From Here: On Affirmation, Attachment, and the Limits of Regret. I credit my “slowly” in part to my overall commitment to reading for content, not number of books read (though I tend to honor that commitment with varying degrees of success), but also to the fact that this book is just fascinating. Nearly every page is worth moving over slowly, and I loved all the of the new and different ways he got me to think about how we assess the goodness or rightness of our life and decisions.

This was a rather throw-away moment in his overall argument, but he brought up the difference between first-order and second-order good. If something is a first-order good, it has goodness inherently and constitutively. It just is good. If something is a second-order good (or has “good” only as a second-order property), however, then its goodness depends on some other element — either some other property it possesses, or perhaps the way it’s used.

(Side note: this distinction is an excellent one to keep in mind while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which, by the way, is the best book I read in all of 2020.)

I keep thinking about this distinction, because in some ways I think it articulates the major shift in my thinking over the years. When I was a more thoroughly-believing Christian, I thought of so many good things as having, and thus as needing to be defended as having, goodness as a first-order property. If something was good, it was inherently good. Any faults I recognized in that good thing were difficult to reconcile and, in many cases, I explained them away through labored, twisted, desire-blind logic. I had a hard time forming a nuanced, balanced view of many things in the world.

Part of why it was hard to break out of that mindset was because if good is a first-order property, then things that are good are rarely questioned. They should not be questioned. In fact, it can be considered apostatic (yep, just made up a word) to question a good thing’s goodness and to complicate or qualify the way in which that thing is good. To qualify something’s goodness undermines its constitutive goodness, meaning it is not purely good but is partially constitutively neutral, or even bad.

These days, I tend to think about good as only a first-order property of a few things that ground ethics, with the majority of things in this world having good only as a second-order property. I think there might be only one thing that is a first-order good: well-being. There very well may be a couple others (I’m still thinking on it), but I think “well-being” is the ultimate end to which our ethics should aim, and the ultimate evaluative measure of whether some idea, object, or behavior is good. In a sense, well-being is a first-order good because it defines what we do or should mean by “good” in regard to humans and other species. The concept of well-being as first-order good goes a long way to grounding ethics and how we can understand the goodness of more complex entities in the world.

The goodness of objects, and even ideas, is a property parasitic (ok, “dependent” sounds nicer) on these first-order goods. I had considered adding “truth” to this list, but I realized that truth is less a good and is more a simple “is.” How we use truth, how well we accept truth, is able to be characterized as good or evil. Things that are can’t be qualified as good or evil until they act or are used. Medicine is only good if it helps you heal from a disease. Medicine can make us worse if we are misdiagnosed, and medicine has been used for decidedly evil ends. Monogamy is only good if that’s the way a couple has decided is the way to have their happiest, healthiest relationship. Plenty of couples have a happy, healthy relationship that is more “open” or is monogamish. Laws are only good if they effectively prevent unnecessary harms. Plenty of laws have been enacted for evil ends (Jim Crow laws spring to mind). I think the goodness of things depends on what effect comes after the if, making goodness, in general, a second-order property.

I think there is a good argument to be made for some things being neither good nor bad, but just having the quality of being. Like truth. I don’t think the earth and the environment are inherently good, even though I have devoted my career to protecting them. I think the environment simply is and what we do with and to it is either good or bad, depending on what effect our actions have on the health and well-being of all species.

Some may argue that life itself is inherently good. Life is the closest thing I’ll grant is inherently good; however, I think a better descriptor is “valuable.” The life, but more specifically the quality of life, of others is something we have a duty to consider in our ethics – in fact, I believe it is the measure of something’s ethical and moral valence. Something is ethically good if it enhances well-being (the quality of life) and ethically bad if it harms well-being. Some lives have been so bad on balance that I don’t think we can consider them “good” to have been lived; the goodness of one’s life depends on the effect that follows her if.*

(Ok, ok, I know I just relied a bit on deontology to argue for my utilitarianism, but I’m fairly certain this didn’t diminish your overall well-being so I’m going to call this one neutrally ethical.)

One of the reasons I am pleased about considering good to be a second-order property is that as second-order, it demands interrogation. We can’t know or declare something to be good until we have a reason to call it so, until we understand the criteria upon which its goodness rests. I prefer this curious, skeptical, interrogative, open-minded, wide view of the world. It’s beautiful and difficult and we don’t always get it right. But I feel like we are always getting it a little more right, and hot dang is it a enriching way to go through life and get to know our world.

Without getting too political, I think this disagreement between whether good is a first-order or second-order property could explain a certain kind of division and angst in this country. There are many people (on the left and the right) who see good as a first-order property. Questioning the dogma is reason for expulsion from the group. Both sides see each other as fundamentally misunderstanding reality. But how do you start a conversation unless both parties understand how they each and the other evaluate and see good, and how those lenses compare? We don’t seem to have clear language to address or talk about this divide in our country (at least, not that I’ve seen?!), and I wonder how much could be helped if we fully understood the ways this fundamental disagreement about how to interpret the world and the good manifests in our public lives.

*We can hold to this stance while decrying the death penalty and working to protect the right for people to have abortions, by the way.

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