Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

What is Good?

What does it mean for something to be good? It seems pretty simple on the surface. Everybody knows what “good” means, right? Except that it’s actually a pretty difficult question to answer. Philosophers have struggled with it for centuries.

The first thing that often comes to mind when we think of something being good is that we like whatever that thing is. It has the qualities one expects of that particular thing. For example, a good tree is one that we like, one that provides the proper amount of shade or lumber or windbreak.

Or if we’re referring to people, we think a person is good if that person does things society approves of: selfless, generous, kind and honest. But it gets complicated pretty quickly. Someone can be good most of the time but do things that many of us consider bad once in a while.

For example, we generally think of an honest person as good, but when that person says something cruel (however honest) we tend to be critical. Take abortion (or any other political hot potato). Most folks feel strongly about it one way or the other, so those on the opposite side have to reconcile their views on the matter with their views of the person who sides against them.

If you strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose, you might have difficulty accepting someone like Pope Francis as good given how he feels about it. Or consider the Second Amendment. You might have a hard time thinking of someone as good if they strongly believe in the right to bear arms, including semi-automatic weapons.

You can pick virtually any issue and find “good” people on both sides of it, even something as mundane as artwork. I know several people who think Jackson Pollock was a terrible painter. They look at his abstract work and think anyone could spatter colors around like that. Others find deep meaning in his paintings. They consider him a good artist.

So it turns out that “good” is difficult to nail down precisely. One way to determine what is good is to examine one’s visceral reaction to it. On an instinctive level, we can often tell what is good and what is bad. Snakes may be good snakes but we still generally consider them to be bad for us. Same for spiders.

Most of us don’t like either of them regardless of how good they are for the environment. And even though we’ve largely come to like bees because they do so much pollinating, most of us don’t want them living in our yards or near our homes.

As for people, we have to employ a different system. I think we only need to consider two things: truth and generosity. First, truth. Without it, there can be no trust. If people lie to us, we don’t know what to believe. So truth is vital. And truth means more than just speaking truth; it also includes living truth, being true to oneself and to others. Spotting what is right and fighting for that.

Second, generosity. People who are generous lift us up. They make us more inclined to like them and the world around us. They make us want to be generous too. That doesn’t mean we should give away everything we have, but we shouldn’t be parsimonious either.

There are other qualities, like fairness, loyalty and humility, that people often cite. But those qualities, it seems to me, are subsets of truth and generosity, so I would define a good person as one who is true and generous. Now if only I could tell who was honest and generous at a glance. 😊

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