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In the modern degrading society we live in today, people are constantly questioning the highly debatable topic of morals. We would like to think that we are trying our hardest to strive to do what is right in society to make us decent people. However it is hard to do what is ‘good’ when there are so many different ways of defining the meaning of good itself.
There are three main types of ethics, Descriptive, Prescriptive and Meta ethics. Descriptive ethics presents the facts in the way people live and how they make moral choices in life. It simply states the facts without making any moral judgement of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Prescriptive ethics states the norm about what is right or wrong by examining the choices and the reasons behind the issues. It says how we should live or behave setting standards for everyone to live by. This is the most widely used form of ethical language when debating morality. Meta ethics is a philosophical analysis of different words used in ethical language. It closely examines the words themselves and their exact meaning in different contexts.
The subject of Meta ethics is to intimately study the moral language to be able to reach a better understanding of its meaning. Without the knowledge and intense understanding of the language we use in moral debates, we cannot argue our points successfully or be able to come to any logical conclusion. Therefore it is vitally necessary that we determine the meaning of the words we use so we can successfully take part in these ethical discussions.
The most important ethical term, which unfortunately is so loosely used in society, is the term ‘good’. We frequently hear of a concert being ‘good’ or that person is a ‘good’ person or it is ‘good’ to be peaceful. But when we so casually use the term ‘good’ do we actually know what we are implying? What does the term ‘good’ mean in itself? Surely we should all be able to instantly provide an answer to this question because we all use the term ‘good’ on a regular basis. However we find that when posed with this question, many are not sure themselves of the core meaning of the word.
In this essay I shall be examining the intensity of the ethical term ‘good’ and what people mean when they determine something to be ‘good’ of ‘bad’. We need to decide in fact, if it is actually possible to define the word ‘good’ at all or does it depend totally on the situation, having a slightly different meaning in every different context.
The meaning of the term ‘good’ is not necessarily something that we all naturally agree on. There are many factors that affect the reasons why we perceive the meaning of ‘good’ to be what it is. Some examples of this include the sources of our values and morals, how we are brought up and the way our conscience plays a part in our every day lives. Naturally everyone may see different situations to be different degrees of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in their opinion.
A key concept leading to the understanding of something being ‘good’ is Definism. This idea is that we need to define accurately what we mean by the term ‘good’ before we can specifically distinguish if something is good or bad. Once we have classified the meaning of ‘good’ we can then accordingly judge every situation or act against it. When we have identified the essence of the term in itself we can grasp the ideas and understandings behind it. However many ask, ” can the term ‘good’ universally be defined?” We shall now look at the different ways society tries to identify the word ‘good’.
There are two main ways of defining a moral act, these being absolute and relative terms. Absolute moral terms are when something is perceived as always being ‘good’ or ‘right’ regardless of the situation or the facts involved. This is also known as an objective term, it is completely independent of all conditions to determine its moral ‘goodness’. All absolute moral terms are known universally as always being correct regardless. For example, many argue that Peace will always be ‘good’ along with happiness. These terms should apply to everyone in society in every situation because they will always be right and striving to reach them can never be wrong.
Relative terms are the direct opposite of absolute terms. When something is relative, it totally depends on the specific situation it is in. It is also dependent on people’s personal opinions. Everyone views situations in their own way, which is slightly different to everyone else. It all relies on what you believe it to be in your own individual opinion. The term ‘good’ therefore can only be determined in its particular context. This is also known as Subjectiveness, for example euthanasia or fighting for a cause you believe in are two examples of relative situations of doing a ‘good’ thing.
There are several theories’ we can look at in which the term ‘good’ is used in Meta ethics. The first of these is the utilitarian theory of good. According to this theory, a term is determined as being good pending the results of a specific moral act. For example, if we were in the situation where we had to kill one person to save the lives of thousands of others then this would be seen as ‘good’. This is because although the sacrifice of one life is not ‘good’ in itself alone, because it saves the lives of many more it is seen as the greater ‘good’ because it is the lesser of two evils. The results of killing one person to save many are much greater than the act of killing one in the first place. The ‘evil’ of killing one is cancelled out by the ‘good’ of saving so many others. Therefore the utilitarian theory of good can be measured by what it achieves.
Another important theory is that of Natural law. The term ‘good’ is used in this part of Meta ethics according to how well something fulfils its purpose. The key philosopher that brought this idea into ethical recognition was Aristotle in ancient Greece many years ago. He believed that everything existing has a natural purpose in life in which it is aiming towards as its ultimate goal. This means that the level of ‘goodness’ something is, is measured by how much a particular act contributes to the ultimate purpose the object has. If it helps to fulfil this purpose then it is a morally ‘good’ act, however if it makes it harder to fulfil its purpose then it is considered ‘bad’.
This idea of Natural law lead on to the development of Christian theology, especially by the greatly admired philosopher St Thomas Aquinas who linked Aristotle’s ideas with Christianity. In religion, the term ‘good’ is related to what God would or wouldn’t approve of. If God saw a certain act as acceptable or if it fulfilled a command from him from a religious Holy Book then it would be seen as ‘good’. For example devoting time to worship him would be seen as ‘good’ but committing adultery would be seen as ‘bad’ in Gods eyes. The ultimate ‘good’ example in Christianity is Jesus whose life was seen to be morally ‘good’ because everything he did was approved of by God. He was perfect and therefore Christians today try to follow in his footsteps and do as he did.
‘Goodness’ is unlike any other quality and the ultimate aim for all living things according to many people. Something can therefore be determined as ‘good’ because it is unique, individual and supreme. We can detect this by the simple skill of human intuition because the ‘goodness’ is self-evident. This approach is known as Intuitionism or Ethical non-naturalism. Because it is a unique feature, it is very dependent on different situations or circumstances. The term ‘good’ will therefore have an individual meaning for different acts that will only apply to that one situation and could have a totally different meaning in another circumstance. We can also determine ‘good’ because intuition tells us the results it has are beneficial to others or ourselves. However, even though the consequences may benefit and be ‘good’, it is impossible to define the word from an intuitional point of view because it is always changing depending on the factors involved.
G E Moore is the most famous example of an Intuitionist. He claimed the term ‘good’ was ‘incapable of definition because it is simple and has no parts.’ He believed too that the term had a different meaning that changed depending the circumstances or different situations the word is used. He likened this to a horse, they have many properties and qualities that make a horse a horse but if you ‘reduce a horse to its simplest terms, you can not define these terms.’
The phrase ‘good’ will have a certain meaning not only for different situations but also for different people. Many people can observe an act but they may disagree as to whether the act was good or not depending on their conscience and opinion. Intuitionism means it has a distinct meaning for you. G E Moore gave the example of the colour yellow, we cannot define a colour, we may be able to give examples of things that are yellow but to give an actual definition of yellow is quite impossible. He believed that we should judge the goodness of an action based on its results, aiming to maximise ‘good’ in the world. He was a strong intuitionist, which involved the belief that within us we have a “moral faculty” which reveals “moral truth” to us, showing us what was morally ‘good’.
Another focal area of Meta ethics, which involves language, is Emotivism or ethical non-Cognitivism. Emotivism is sometimes viewed as merely the expression of feelings of the speaker. They can be seen more as commands or rules the speakers wants its audience to follow. These feelings are the opinions of the speaker saying what they believe to be right or wrong and are dependent on a matter of taste. The term ‘good’ is accordingly defined depending on what the speaker believes to be right. They state a moral preference of what they do or do not approve of and not the core meaning itself.
The preferences of the speaker therefore, try to influence the opinions of the audience. They are not concerned with the moral statements themselves or their meaning but more focused on the purpose of the statement. The speaker indents on promoting a response from the audience relating to what is right or wrong.
This theory is also known as the ‘Boo’ and ‘Hooray’ theory which can be seen as offensive because it is seen to reduce morality to simple cheers or boo’s. It is called this because when listening to a point of view, the audience simply shouts ‘hooray’ to say something is ‘good’ or that they approve of it or ‘boo’ if they disagree and think it is morally ‘bad’. However one problem with this theory is that in a modern society, we do not irrationally act merely on our feelings and emotions alone. We use logical thinking and reasoning too and this therefore must be included.
Prescriptivism solved this problem by using reason to determine ‘goodness’. R M Hare who tried to examine what was actually happening when a person was making a moral statement took the best example of this approach. He tried to find out what was it meant to do and if moral statements had a purpose. This type of Meta ethics tries to prescribe a course of action that is recommended. . For example, the speaker may say ‘ To be considered a ‘good’ person, we should try our hardest to help those less fortunate than ourselves’. By saying this he is expressing what a good person is and also is suggesting a course of action we should take, i.e. helping others.
As a result of this way of talking, the speaker is very opinionated and thus forcing an action as a result of his beliefs. The speaker is giving advice that applies to all situations at any given time regardless of other factors. It is Universable and therefore applies to all people in every situation. The theory of Universability is a general idea that can be applied to past, present and future and to all other people.
In conclusion we can see that there are many different ways in which the term ‘good’ is used in Meta ethics. In Intuitionism it is used to describe moral principles that are self evidently right. In Emotivism, when we say something is ‘good’, it is what we see as being right according to out emotions and feelings. Prescriptivism on the other hand uses reason and logic to determine what is ‘good’. Utilitarianists perceive something to be ‘good’ pending the results that follow the action. How we determine what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to ourselves, greatly depends on which ethical view we take to situations as a result of our opinion. There is no one definition for what is ‘good’ and so it is down to us to decide which one we believe to be right and then try to live our lives accordingly.