Thought of the Day: Socrates’s Problem of Good

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods”? As Socrates infamously asked Euthyphro. (In Plato’s Euthyphro)

The GOOD, I have found, is far more problematic than evil.

I have waved off this problem earlier by stating that “there is no ACTUAL good and evil, just the knowledge of good and evil.” As if this were an epistemological (I guess. I truly don’t remember what I was talking about) problem rather than a genuine ethical one….they exist ONLY as a phenomenological problem, not as something that we can objectively ascertain even though we can overwhelmingly come to a consensus on what we find “good” and “evil”. But is Socrates’ question still relevant even if it’s referencing imaginary beings and concepts that only exist in the mind? We might not accept the existence of gods, Socrates didn’t, nevertheless even the godless among us will conform to an accepted standard of “good” even if it isn’t believed that it’s derived from an otherworldly being.

“Good for the sake of good” I always thought.

During my atheist days, believers would often ask me why I bothered with doing good if there wasn’t a standard to hold me to it. The response would usually be something like: “I don’t need a God to do good, but clearly you do.” While many of my views have changed, that one is still true. Even if I somehow definitively discovered that there isn’t a supernatural realm that holds us together, I’d still strive to do good. Why? Excellent question. Even among the atheist and agnostics, there does appear to be a metaphysical pull towards preferring good to evil. Logical explanations for this vary, but people…almost universally….prefer it.

I can’t recall which World War it was, but studies indicated that only about 10% of soldiers fired their weapons (or something like that). The exact details of the study I don’t recall, but what we discovered is that people just don’t want to kill other people. In fact, in the military, they have to be indoctrinated to do so. Mind you, people can be convinced to kill others…through things like mob mentality and fervent nationalism…but MOST people will never kill anyone in their entire life, to include war veterans DESPITE having the legality and motivation to do so. I suppose the same can be observed in animals of the same species. Animals kill all the time, they even get violent with one another. But does the average animal ever kill one of their own? Now I might be comparing apples to oranges by comparing animal morality to human’s. But the point I’d like to make is that perhaps the ideas of morality, of good and bad, might be innate…or the capability of forming such ideas are “hard wired” into us.

Some can claim God here, but a Maker is not necessary….such ideas probably have an evolutionary benefit, especially when we consider societal bonding. So the origin of GOOD is found in both biology and society. Yet we (or maybe just me) find such explanations wanting.

Have we answered the question posed by Socrates?

I think we simply reframed the question. Since ‘good’ has no divine order, we’ve simply turned it over to the whims of other people.

What makes an action inherently GOOD? Is it good because we like it, or do we like it because it’s good? OR are actions morally affirming because we find them good, or do we find them good because they are morally affirming? If the former for both questions, then good and morality are subject to change according to human whim. If the latter, then it’s conceivable to have an objective set of morality that exists independent of the mind and can be found true under any circumstance…like 2+2 always equals 4. Yet the problem becomes obvious: unlike the number 2, there’s not a clear set of criteria for what makes something “good”. It’s not a well-defined concept. In fact, I might be making a major philosophical blunder by confusing “good” with “inherently moral”. While a given action might be morally defensible, it could have devastating consequences on others.

Draw up any sort of scenario you want out of that.

But as far as “good’s” relationship with “moral”, what can we say about it? Is it the absence of evil? If so, then how do we define “evil”? For this, I find that we have a much easier time drawing up a definition. (although not a precise one, like the number 2) At the very least, we have to say that evil is an intent. One could easily make a bad moral decision, but simply because it’s “bad” does it make it “evil”? (especially if it was done unintentionally?) No. So there has to be an intent to do bad, but by simply intending to do bad, does that make an action EVIL? Once again, we find problems. A man going back in time to kill a young Hitler BEFORE he comes to power and commits genocide is BAD because he is off to kill an innocent man….even though it saves MILLIONS of people. Maybe that’s not the greatest of examples, but it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where people must do bad things for the greater good. Therefore evil must be MORE than an intention to do bad, it must be the intention to do bad for the sake of bad itself.

Do such events happen? Well, there’s the case of psychopaths (or is it sociopaths?) that lack empathy and commit acts against others for their own enjoyment. Serial Killers, serial rapists, child molesters…those are all seemingly evil acts that no one but the perpetrator of the crime benefits from. Are those clear cut cases of “evil”? I’ll let you be the judge….but it’s seemingly far EASIER to pinpoint evil (or at least define it) than GOOD.*

*In the middle of writing this, I completely forgot the point I was trying to make. 

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