Defining ‘Good’

I was reading an article recently by Sam Harris about if morality is an appropriate study for science. The author’s premiss is that it is. The article quoted from heavily from the physicist Sean Carroll’s essay in response to Sam Harris’ talk about the subject at TED.

The article and referenced essay relies on classical ideas of logic and is littered with terms like consequentialism and deontology, so can be hard to follow if you don’t have an understanding of these concepts and terms. Being in that category with most people, I had to look up those terms and I won’t bother you with their meanings and I’m not going to refer at all to classical logic, partly because I have almost no familiarity with it, but mostly because I want my ideas to be accessible to anyone with a reasonable inquisitive mind.

The basic argument for and against morality being an appropriate study for science are the following:

Pro – Rational, scientific inquiry, while possibly not providing a concrete definition of morality, it can give us a very good approximate definition and associated rules. This isn’t really any different than the science of psychology. While it’s impossible for every ‘rule’ and premiss of psychology to apply to every person in every situation, they can and do approximately apply with a high degree of success to most people and situations. So too, it can be with morality.

Con – Because everyone and every situation is different, it is impossible to create rules and guidelines for morality. For example, one person or even a society may believe that human sacrificing is good because they believe that it will bring a good harvest, or good luck to the general population. For them, the human sacrifice is ‘good’. But, to most other peoples and societies, human sacrifice is ‘bad’. Because of these differences in personal and societal concepts of ‘good’, science can never arrive at a universal concept of ‘good’.

I think this last argument, while it may be valid in a logic class or in a philosophy book, is ridiculous. It presumes that there can never been morality of any kind because everyone’s concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be different. But science deals with repeatable, consistent results. While there will always be some deviations from the norm, the fact that there is a ‘norm’ to deviate from indicates that there can really be concepts and rules that repeatedly provide consistent results within the ‘norm’. What this means is that science can successfully study and test moralistic concepts and rules.

So what does this mean to us in our everyday lives? It means that we can come up with theories and rules that can help us as individuals, societies and governments to better the lives of all of us.

We all struggle with good and bad, right and wrong. It has been so for as long as human records have been kept. By scientifically studying and testing moral concepts and rules, we can come to a better understanding of how to increase ‘goodness’ in our societies. This will benefit everyone.

What we would today describe as mental illness; schizophrenia, depression, etc, were once seen as signs of demonic possession, or as witchcraft, or some other supernatural cause. People thus afflicted were outcasts, often abused, tortured or even killed to remove the demons, or destroy the witch. The science of psychology has allowed us to treat these people humanely and to often give them the same chances to live a happy, productive life as anyone else. So too, it can be with morality.

By studying the root causes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ through scientifically testing and obtaining consistent results, we can create societies where individuals have greater awareness of what it takes to be ‘good’ and where governments can institute and promote the things that allow ‘good’ to prosper. Then we may truly be able to have a nation and a world where the pursuit of happiness for all is not only strived for, but is actually achieved.


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