• Brendan Golledge
    I will take a mostly phenomenological approach to goodness.

    Human Experience can be Decomposed into 3 Parts:
    I believe that all of human experience can be decomposed into 3 parts: sensory experience (from which we get unique factual information), logic (which sometimes can be used to find inconsistencies in propositions even without direct sensory knowledge), and values (beliefs in good and bad which drive our thoughts, emotions, and behavior). I will focus on the nature of values here.

    Values can't be derived from anything else
    There is a thing called the "is-ought" dilemma about how it is not possible to derive value statements from factual statements. For instance, it would be wrong to say, "There shouldn't be starving children, so there aren't any starving children," and it would also be wrong to say, "There are starving children, so there should be starving children." Ought statements cannot be derived from fact statements, but only from other ought statements. I like to call this "the fact of nihilism," because it is impossible to prove any moral proposition to anyone who doesn't already share at least some of your moral views.

    Because of the fact of nihilism, the base of one's moral system is always arbitrarily asserted. It must be this way, because there is nothing objective that they could be based on.

    Morals and Preferences are the Same
    And our morals, psychologically speaking, are not different than our preferences. For instance, if I believe that I like vanilla better than chocolate, then when I am in the ice cream parlor, I will choose vanilla. If I believe that stealing is wrong, then I will likewise choose to pay rather than to steal. All value judgments, whether they are preferences or moral sentiments, influence our behavior in the same way. The only difference is that we consider moral sentiments to be much more important than personal preferences.

    On the Freedom of Nihilism
    There is also absolutely no difference between believing that you have a preference, and actually having a preference. Reusing the example from before, I could suddenly change my mind and say that instead of vanilla, I like chocolate better. If I really believed it, it would be true. This means that the fact of nihilism actually gives us extraordinary freedom to remake ourselves. I don't think most people know how free they are in this regard.

    On the Psychology of Goodness
    So, there is very little difference between thinking that something is good and choosing to act to bring that thing about. The experience of good and bad is how evolution created our control system.

    I created a psychological model a few years back (which I've mentioned on this forum before) that goes like this:

    Values -> Emotions -> Thoughts -> Actions

    More specifically with regards to emotions, (value) + (perceived event related to that value) -> (emotion)

    I'll come up with a new example today. Suppose a mama loves her baby (value), and hears her baby crying (event related to that value). That will make the mama distressed/unhappy, so she will try to think of a way to relieve her stress/unhappiness (thoughts). Then she will choose the course of action that she believes is most likely to make the baby stop crying (action).

    We actually have a great deal of freedom in choosing our emotions when we realize that they are an experience derived from our perceptions and values. To use the example from above, in order for the mama to not be distressed by her baby crying, she'd either have not not care about the baby (which does not seem advisable according to normal morality), or she'd have to believe that crying wasn't really a problem. For instance, it often happens to me that my baby cries when I put her down, but I put her down anyway so that I can go to the bathroom. I figure that being by herself in the crib for 2 minutes isn't going to kill her, so I am not bothered by her crying in this case.

    An example of how we might want to change our values to change our emotions would be anger in response to a petty insult. If someone insults me, and if I genuinely believe something along the lines of, "This insult is not accurate," or "I don't care what this person thinks," then I will not feel angry.

    On Pride and Self-Deception
    Humans have a unique capacity among animals to imagine things that aren't real. We also, like all other animals, are hardwired to try to improve our emotional state. Combine these two, and you get the result that humans often use their cognitive powers to deceive themselves rather than to fix actual problems. This is how I define pride: lies that we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. These lies are usually quite subtle, or else we would notice them, and then they would not have their intended effect of making us feel better.

    I could write a whole essay on the subject of pride, but I think sufficient to say here that the Christians are right that pride is a serious problem for people and that humility is an important virtue which needs to be learned. Probably the first reaction most people would have upon hearing this is to think of pride in other people, but this in itself is an example of pride. It is usually useless to think a lot about other people's pride (past becoming aware of it), because we can't do anything about it. But we can do something about our own. To conclude this section, I'll just say that this is a battle that pretty much everybody has to fight, so if you've not fought it yet, you are probably a lot more proud (self-deceiving) than you realize.

    Existence as a Whole Is Good
    One day I imagined, "What is the worst thing that could possibly happen?" I imagined that a meteor hit the Earth and killed everything. Then I thought, "Would a dead Earth be evil?" I decided that it wouldn't be, because so far as we know, Mars is dead, and nobody considers Mars to be evil. So, I concluded, if the worst thing I can think of is not evil, then it must be the case that the actual world is net good. I thought of the world as being filled with evil things at the time (which I suppose is not wrong), but this thought experiment convinced me that there is good to be found, and if I can't see it, then I'm just not looking hard enough.

    It seems to me that according to this train of thought, it's possible to have the view that all that positively exists (such as a person) is good, and bad is only the loss of that good thing (such as killing a person). But you can't lose something that wasn't given to you first, so, a net evil world cannot exist.

    I suppose if there were a capricious God and a hell he sent people to to be tortured for all eternity, then maybe this would be worse than nothing existing at all. But so far as I know, this doesn't happen. It appears that with a naturalistic world-view, nothingness is the most evil that anything can be, and nothingness is typically considered to be morally neutral.

    Partial Exceptions to the Is-Ought Dilemma
    For a while, I thought that whatever premises I choose for my moral system would just have to be arbitrarily asserted according to my fancy. However, one day I noticed two things: 1. Only living beings appear to experience good and bad, and 2. Those things that are good at existing will continue to exist. From one, I can conclude that if I want my morals to have an effect on the material world (which seems like a reasonable wish), then morals must be limited to prescriptions for living beings. It would be futile, for instance, to assert that elliptical orbits are evil. From two, I concluded that if I want my morality to spread and be successful (also a reasonable wish), it must be a morality that is good at spreading itself and the people who believe in it.

    I could write another essay perhaps on flushing this out, but it seems to lead naturally to the broad precepts in traditional morality. These are things such as, "take care of your health" (because a morality which kills its adherents won't spread well), "have children if you can and be good to them" (because a society without children will die and its morality will die with it), "don't commit crimes" (because crime destroys the social cohesion which we rely on for our existence, and so any morality which encourages socially destructive behavior will also die).

    Objections to the Above Arguments:
    I wrote earlier that all morality is arbitrarily asserted, and yet later asserted that existence is net good, and that morality ought to be aimed at living beings trying to continue to exist. I suppose a person could assert that existence is evil and that he doesn't want to exist, and I would have no rebuttal, but then he may as well just go kill himself. It seems to me that existence exists as it is, and I can choose to try to be okay with it, or to hate it. I don't see why I'd choose to hate something that I can't change, because it's futile and it makes me feel bad.

    The Basis of Morality cannot be Utilitarian:
    It could be said that we go to work in order to eat, and we eat in order to live. So, many things we do in life are so that we can do other things. But if everything were utilitarian in nature, then everything would derive its goodness from something else, but there would be nothing at the end which was good. So, the basis of our morality must be things that are good in-and-of themselves.

    I like to think that if there were a creator God, then he created the world just the way he likes it. That would seem to be necessary if he were both omnipotent and omniscient. So, it seems according to this train of thought, that according to God, absolutely every existing thing is beautiful just the way it is (or else he would change it). So, when we study nature and see beauty in it, we are perhaps seeing the world at least partially the way that God sees it.

    Now, the study and love of nature does not provide us directly with any benefits. It is true that perhaps it was interest in nature that led us to all of our scientific advancements, which have aided us enormously, but it is still true that in the short-term (like over the scale of a person's lifetime), it's rare that scientific endeavors bear material fruit.

    But I do think there is a psychological benefit to loving things just for their own sake. It allows us more opportunities to be happy/contented/see beauty. This is perhaps good for its own sake. I think it allows a person to be more psychologically stable and more honest. The reason is that if a person is only interested in his own personal gain, then it is extremely painful for him when things don't go his own way. But if you have some hobby which takes delight in things outside of yourself (such as astronomy, botany, painting, whatever), then even when your own life is screwed up, you can still find joy. And this is what makes it easier to be honest. We are hardwired to seek goodness, so if you are able to find goodness from more places, then you have less incentive to pluck fruit from a deceitful tree when you are hungry for some kind of comfort.

    Study of math and science potentially bears fruit after a long period of time, but study of the arts doesn't seem to do this, at least not in the material sense. I think it is still good to do. It seems to me that when a person does some kind of art (such as singing), he is declaring to the world what is important to him. And what is important to us makes life worth living. So, when you draw a picture or sing a song, you are declaring both to the world and to yourself what is important to you, and perhaps more generally that life is good and that you are glad to be alive. Since values are arbitrarily asserted, and believing in them is the same as having them, simply singing a silly song can make life seem good.

    Summary of my Moral Beliefs:
    I believe that it is possible, while being intellectually honest, to hold the view that existence as a whole is very, very good. It is good for us to try to see it.

    I also believe that it is the nature of living beings to try to struggle to exist. So, it is good for us as living beings to try to do that. Perhaps the best thing for us is to do those things that are necessary for our survival, and to enjoy doing them.

    But it is also good to create new forms of any kind, such as buildings, art, literature, social systems, etc, so long as these things don't interfere with our ability to survive. Beauty and goodness can be found in anything, since it is arbitrarily asserted, after all.

    All Real Problems are Moral Problems:
    There are many things that happen to us which we have no control over. These include things such as our sex, date of birth, height, natural attractiveness, parents' wealth, whether someone chooses to give us a chance, etc. The things that are outside of our control do not require us to make a choice, so there is nothing to do about them, other than to appreciate them, ignore them, or endure them. The only thing there is to do is to choose what to do, and this is a moral problem.

    Even when there is a material problem that needs solved (such as what to eat or where to live), still the only choice that is made is what to try to do. We cannot choose what thoughts pop into our heads, so when we choose to try to solve a material problem, we cannot know in advance what solutions we will come up with. We also cannot control external circumstances, so we can't choose how successful the solution will be. We only choose what we try to do, and this is a moral problem.

    So, the only real problem is to choose what to do. But there is a more fundamental problem than this. There is no difference between what you choose to do, and what you consider important. For example, there is no difference between choosing to help one's family, and deciding that one's family is important. Loving truth is the same as trying to find out what the truth is. The debate among Christians about whether one is saved by faith or by works is foolishness, because in truth, there is no difference between the two. So, the only ultimate question in life is what we consider to be good or bad, or important or unimportant.

    Rules for Life:
    I made some rules that I think summarize my life philosophy.

    1. Think continually on what is good.
    2. Test your beliefs. Try to prove yourself wrong.
    3. Do your best, and try to be content with this.

    I've posted stuff on the internet about my ideas before, and recently found that other people were either totally uninterested, or didn't understand it very well. So, I've been trying to think about how to simplify them so that people who aren't interested in philosophy could grasp something of them. The 3 rules I came up with above are the simplest summary of what I believe that I've come up with so far. Maybe I'll teach them to my daughter when she's old enough.

    As I discussed above, I believe that all real problems are moral problems, so thinking about what is good is the only thing that can be done to address one's problems. This can mean comparing and contrasting moral philosophies, or it could mean seeing a flower and noticing that it seems beautiful to you. I mean for these rules to be applied in the broadest sense.

    Rule 2 forces intellectual rigor and will stop you from getting stuck in a rut, or from lying to one's self. It is unpleasant to apply rule number 2 though (because our beliefs are generally formed from what makes us happy), so, liberally applying rule number 1 should make rule number 2 easier.

    And then rule number 3 compels us to actually do something about our thoughts. It also grants the mercy of not expecting more from ourselves than our best. I like to think that if I've really tried, and I didn't succeed, then God must not have wanted me to succeed, or else he would have given me more favorable circumstances. There's not much point in trying for or wanting more than our best.

    I also like these rules because they provide no final answers, but only ask you to try to find them for yourself. I wrote earlier in this post about what I think some answers are (like trying to see as much goodness in existence as possible), but I think ultimately every person has to wrestle with this stuff for themselves. It's maybe a sad thing about wisdom that it can't be directly passed on from one generation to the next, like eye color or height can be, so that every man's wisdom dies with him. In so far as wisdom has a continuous existence among humankind through time, it must be born again in each person who has it.
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