What is Goodness? A Naturalist’s Interpretation


If I were to define what “good” is, and give a working definition for what good and evil mean in the natural world—I must agree with the Buddha’s theory—namely that good and evil are natural conditions, or simply put, they are extensions of pain and suffering. That which alleviates our pain is most good. That which compounds our suffering is bad.
According to Confucius, “The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin. When all is orderly, he does not forget that disorder may come. Thus his person is not endangered, and his States and all their clans are preserved.”
Morality deals with good and evil, which as far as I can tell can be defined purely in naturalistic terms. There is no need to alter the implications of such by including additional suppositions, such as including supernatural premises of “original sin,” or as the early Church fathers used to say “man sinned in Adam,” whatever that means. Ethics deals with morality based practices, i.e. the execution of a good act or a bad act, and is what most of us mean by when we talk about the concepts of “good” and “evil.” This area is the one which most Christians are concerned with.
According to my understanding, however, good and bad being extensions of pain and suffering, are also relative, because as the Buddha taught pain and suffering are only illusions. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that, because pain and suffering are certainly real enough, but I understand the idea which prompted the Buddha to make such a statement. If you look at “good and bad” in terms of “our perceptions” then, yes, we our allowing outside stimuli to inform us about what is good—that which does the most good for us, and what is inherently bad—that which would cause the most harm. What I have described was first stated by for by Lao Tzu, who revealed in the Tao Te Ching that:

If people do not revere the Law of Nature,
It will inexorably and adversely affect them.
If they accept it with knowledge and reverence,
It will accommodate them with balance and harmony.

So how can we know what “goodness” is if ethics is merely relative and is privy to personal experience and the corresponding perceptions of such? Being relative, I should point out, does not mean being subjective, a mistake many people make. Nor does being relative mean being absolute. Happiness is not an absolute, for example. Happiness depends on many different factors, such as a person’s temperament, how they cope with a problem, how they respond to a good or bad stimuli, and so on and so forth.

Goodness, in our natural sense of the word, is much the same. It is relative according to its relationship with us, along with our perceptions and experiences, but as defined here, “goodness” is simply the natural consequence dependent on the existence of pain and suffering.  The conditions of which can be regulated to usher forth a higher goodness and hopefully achieve a higher state of happiness. Thus as long as pain and suffering have hold over us, and can influence us either implicitly or else directly, often times by shocking our complex nervous systems and invoking complicated emotional responses, “goodness” exists not apart from us, but as a part of us. Therefore wherever there is the potential for pain and suffering, there is the potential to experience “goodness” in the form of the alleviation to that pain and suffering, and yet we know of it is so via our relationship to it through the common experience. David Hume, in his Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, stated, “…that which renders morality an active principle and constitutes virtue our happiness, and vice our misery: it is probable, I say, that this final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species.” I couldn’t agree more.

In my mind, goodness can only be recognized as a natural process playing to our hopes and our fears, and we come to know it through our life experience, and we can become aware of it and grow in our understanding of it as it plays on our natural senses, and for this reason it is universal. However, this does not mean our version of “goodness” is absolute, since only the animal brain can respond emotionally to external stimuli, and only we thinking beings can rate these experiences as either “good” or “bad,” and so “goodness” no matter where it is deemed to have come from, is always going to be relative.

It seems to me that Christians want absolute morality, absolute justice, absolute promises, and like to deal in absolutes. But there is no absolute “goodness” since our very notion of goodness is relative to begin with. And if there was such a thing as an “absolute” goodness, it would be nigh impossible to define, since it could never be actualized and so could never be fully understood. Therefore, it could share no real connection or relationship with us, and so would not be relevant. This is why I find most “God equals morality” claims irrelevant.
If there is an ultimate goodness, it is the direction we are moving toward, but we can only glimpse it on the horizon. Yet because we have come to understand through a natural processes that “goodness” is real to us, because it directly stimulates us, elevates our chances of survival, makes our lives easier and less hectic, it comforts us, it feels nice, and so we like it, and brings a higher form of happiness into our lives, and so “goodness” is good for us. Indeed, it seems we have no choice but to esteem that which is “good” and continue striving toward an ever loftier “goodness” primarily because we have made it into a virtue, or as Confucius pointed out in the Analects, “I have not seen a person who loved virtue, or one who hated what was not virtuous. He who loved virtue would esteem nothing above it.”
In a nutshell, I believe both Christians and humanists choose to love virtue and esteem that which is the most loving and good, and rightly so. However, Christians seem to define it according to what their religion teaches, without taking the time to study it objectively apart from their preconceived biases. Believers hang all their hopes and aspirations on supernatural claims, which are largely dependent on their holy texts, but also informed by their ecumenical convictions derived from religious doctrinal interpretation of foresaid holy texts, which more often than not defines God as the ultimate “goodness” to seek, frankly, because that’s what the texts tell them to believe, and so they do. They will quote any number of Bible verses to remind you of it. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Because the Bible tells me so.” Yet this is the exact opposite of what it means to think objectively, without preconceived notions informing your opinion. Even so, as I have demonstrated, genuine “goodness” can come from natural means as well, and I think more theists should examine the naturalists’ and humanists’ claims carefully before simply writing them off.
In the end, we all are still creating our own definitions of “good and bad” even as the consideration of ethics may vary from culture to culture and person to person. But the bottom line is, we know what good and bad are, and can distinguish between the two, precisely because they exist naturally. If they did not, we would have no basis for defining any such concept of right and wrong, moreover, we probably would not know the difference, except for our relationship to the naturalistic state of the aforementioned conditions, we can develop complex systems of moral philosophy and derive at ethical standards for behavior and living life to the best possible good.
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