Going back a few days, the idea of writing this post is triggered by some discussion happening in Geddoe’s recent post, in which he talked about a Shakespearean notion of “good” and “bad”:
“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
While the idea about illusion of “good” or “bad” has been on the spotlight of discussion (attended by me, him, and mas gentole amongst other), the topic then slided on how value on things shall be determined. A topic which, in turn, led to each of us talking about our own idea of valuing “good” and “bad”.
Of course this, like many philosophy-themed discussions in coffee-shops, shall run free in the naturally-vast discourse: human ethics, mankind in general, and possibility of a universal moral conduct, if any. The discussion itself was quite lively (IMO) — however, due to the nature of statement-based reply discussion, and attempt of guarding against being OOT ( 😛 ), I feel that some of my idea wasn’t conveyed as well as intended; thus may be confusing to follow in some parts.
So, without further ado, I decided to write down my own view about it in this personal blog, in order to give a big picture of all my previous comments. Here goes…
For background information: My theological stance is, presently, agnosticism. That said, I don’t consider supernatural-based morality conduct (i.e. religions and holy scripture) as prime components in defining my view on ethics.
Also note that any discourse concerning afterlife, heaven, hell, purgatory, and such is not of any interest — and deemed irrelevant — in this post.
Part I – Defining Value
1. On Agnosticism
As an agnostic, I have been aware of metaphysical ideas’ being unverifiable, unfalsifiable, and imperceivable — at least, not in this world. Among those ideas are religions, holy scriptures, religious teachings, and even the God himself.
I don’t want to go into lengthy explanation about God-or-not — that’s not my focus this time — and you can read [this post] if you want to understand. What I want to say is that I have casted doubt upon absolute truth in unverifiable claims of God and afterlife.
To rely on unverifiable things’ existence to value things, for me, doesn’t seem favorable. That’s why I narrowed the scope of defining values only into worldly aspect.
One thing to note, however: I am not against God and religion, as you may find out in my posts and comments here and here. How I see God is like seeing Schrodinger’s Cat: it is both possible that He exists or not — something like that. I am not enforcing that anyone must or must not believe in Him; it’s due to personal matter and subjective consideration anyway.
“I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don’t have to waste your time in either attacking or defending.”
2. On Value
Back to the topic. Then, if not for God and religion’s sake, what do we do? How can we define what is “good” and “bad” in this world?
Now, I’m going to describe few keys of importance in this matter.
As I have described in my comments in Geddoe’s post, I take for granted that there is one imperatively good thing to protect in this world. Namely, “happiness” of people.
Quoting from my own comment,
I take for granted that happiness is the most important thing in this life, if afterlife not to be considered. So, maximizing the sum of happiness for everybody, along with my own, is on top priority.
This — as you may have guessed — is a utilitarianistic idea. 😉
Apparently, I have stated that people’s happiness is imperatively good in itself. Well, assuming we only live once in this world, and not having an afterlife — I will feel damned if I get a miserable one. However the most important thing is not my happiness only: others’ happiness also plays important role.
Or, talking with diagram:
+— Individual Happiness (i.e. per person)
+— Global Happiness (i.e. “the greater good” )
3. On Utilitarianism
What’s with utilitarianism? Quoting Wikipedia,
Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility, that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all persons.
That said, everything is conducted in order to make for “the greater good”. If you’re a fan of 24 TV series, I’m sure you’re accustomed to this. CTU agent did suicide mission to prevent nuclear warhead exploding in LA; risking one’s life for the sake of confidential terrorism data, etc., etc. As convincing as its name (“utilitiarianism”; from “utility”), usefulness is the most important thing in focus here.
A dramatic example is shown in season 2 of 24, in which CTU’s #1 agent Jack Bauer elected to fly nuclear bomb out of the city, as the only way to prevent the bomb exploding in the city — with a certain one-way ticket that he will have to explode with the bomb.
Luckily then surprise happened, but that’s another story.
At that condition, nobody in CTU would want him to die; he’s the best agent — but there’s no other choice, no other way out. So there he went.
Of course, utilitarianistic move doesn’t always imply that, to win collective and greater good, we must do some personal sacrifice. Rather, it merely conveys the idea that “collective/greater needs are better prioritized over personal/smaller needs”.
4. Individual and Collective Happiness
4.1. My “Egocentric” Idea
Back then in the discussion in Geddoe’s post, I proposed a seemingly utilitarian idea that, in the end, reveals itself to be a view concerning my needs:
Strange as it may be, but that’s how I think it is. As for your point: is the family planning good? I said: yes. Why?
Because it prevents baby boom, then prevents food shortage, then prevents economics difficulties, and in the end, I don’t need to face food shortage — and economic recession — at the latter stage of my life. That, is my happiness. ^^
I support nature preservation. Because I don’t want to live in spoiled earth, drink contaminated water, and I want the coffee beans to stay on its highest quality. Therefore, I can continue (or even maintain) this happiness I already have upon living on this earth.
Eventually, everything goes back to my own happiness. I always commented upon this myself, that this is some kind of selfishness. What differs it from hedonism is, I am considering things in the long run. ^^
A bit self-oriented, perhaps. But hey, why are we living on earth if not to have a gulp of happiness in it? 😛
That is almost paradox. Being selfish in itself, that is to preserve my own happiness — but, as a byproduct, contributes positively to others’ happiness. Now, isn’t it strange? 😆
To a certain degree, I freely confess that this view is based on economics’ worth of things. However I bring this into topic not without intention: what I want to show is that, to some extent, individual happiness may overlap with the course of collective happiness, i.e. collective “good” I have defined on the beginning of this post.
If I am to prioritize my happiness over collective’s, then I can do many shortcut means to happiness and prosperity. Doing corruption, cheating on trades and bargains, doing evil for my own sake. However, this isn’t good: as I have implied in the next comment,
You may ask: “if happiness in life is that important to you, then you don’t need to care for ethics! You can do evil for your prosperity, and live hedonistically.” But no…
If I (and many people) do that, the happiness won’t be sustainable. Economics will fall, peace will be scarce, world fall apart — I won’t be able to drink my vanilla coffee and watch football match every weekend.
In my opinion, personal happiness that will do harm to the social system isn’t good. Basically it’s not self-sustaining: my happiness today may lead me to the downfall the next day. Either directly or indirectly: people may bring me to the police, or doing martial law on my greed — or, if they chose to be ignorant, it is the society downfall that will befall me.
Maybe today I (along with few else) can manipulate our taxes for profit — but, in a long run, the collapse of the economy will find its way to us. Just like many employee from Soeharto’s reign feasted upon international debt in 80’s, as their misdeeds now caused the unending-yet monetary crisis in Indonesia.
It is alright to have your personal desire fulfilled. Just don’t forget to care whether it is doing more harm or good in a long run. 😉
4.2. On Collective “Goodness”
I am among people who believe that, if something has no harmful side effects, then doing it en masse wouldn’t be hurting anyone. So, I believe that if everyone has the same idea as I explained in point 4.1., then it wouldn’t result in something disastrous. My bet: it would be even capable of maximizing sustainable happiness for everyone. 😉
Talk about example. I’m against war because it may lead to the disappearance of peace and wealth already accumulated, which is the source of happiness of many people (me included). What will happen if many people think the same way? You bet…
5. Revisiting My Value: Is it Purely Subjective, or can-be more Objective?
Of all things, let’s take another look of our definition this far.
Assuming that there is no afterlife, then happiness is the most important focus in this world
Well, if you only life once, you wouldn’t want to have it gone miserably…
Then, we have to work to maximize our happiness
And do it sustainably. Just remember the point 4.1. 😉
In the macro scope…
Apparently, if happiness is our focus, then maximizing it for the biggest sum of it, individually and collectively, is an automatic goal. Hence the utilitarianism.
Economically talking, this kind of value system is quite reasonable. However, there is one question:
Happiness is relative. It is due to person, and tends to be subjective.
How do you define a “collective good”, if the core definition of the goal (i.e. happiness) is still due to subjectivity?
This is a delicate issue. For example, how do I know if there is a psychopathic general, seated on a high position, in my country’s army hierarchy? He may feel happiness through ethnic cleansing or such. Same goes for possible psychologically-deviant people: they may want to do pedophilic actions — or perhaps craving for cannibalistic feast, e.g. like the legendary Dr. Hannibal Lecter. 😛
In my opinion, there are three reasonable ways for examining this:
- Validate with “greater good”
- Is it in harmony with sustainable sources of happiness?
- Validate with economical means
If this is about to make loss of the current happiness of people in status quo, without better reward at all, then it’s not good. Prohibitable.
Best illustrated like this: tax corruption is subjectively good, but not for the society’s sustainability; warfare ambition may be subjectively good, but may end up giving miseries to many people (including own’s citizen); and so on.
Will allowing these desires result in favorable economic trade-off?
For instance, let’s take subjective view that supports genocide. In most cases it will harvest international criticisms and, possibly, reluctance from other countries to do diplomatic activities. At this rate this isn’t a good tradeoff, and shall just be avoided at all.
On lesser extent, but more down-to-earth example: letting go of rapists may end up in society’s insecurity and tension, leads to riot, then halting all activities in it. Bad trade-off in the end. 😉
On personal point of view, I’d like to note that defining “good” is subjective to each person by nature. Nevertheless, there’s a way to make it seem more objective — that is, to consider it on the base of worth-to-worth and consequential results. Comparing the eventual trade-off with the decision made can be of some good measurement; though it doesn’t apply in every case.
Part II – On Universal Moral Conduct
6. The Collective Goal
Based on our discourse thus far, you may have guessed how it would sound. Apparently it’s not different from the ideal of utilitarianism per se. That is,
To maintain the sum of collective and individual “good” (i.e. happiness) in the longest duration possible
Pay attention to the keyword “duration”. The sustainability, as I have described in part 4, plays important role in this aspect. Simply said, nobody wants to have happiness that ends fast — or, in worse scenario, ends up as a nightmare. 😉
When I said about “universal” moral conduct, it is more like these — as digested from the points I have described before.
Maximize your happiness wisely; Respect others’. Keep your environment in good form for everyone’s benefit. Do not be dangerously selfish, so that you end up ruining everyone’s previously existing happiness.
One may ask, though:
Why does it have to be sustainable? If you can live with it all your life, and then the system breaks as soon as you die. It doesn’t cost you anything at all, right?
Well, actually that’s true. At least for me. If I die first and the system breaks down later, I don’t have to care — I’m lucky to have enjoyed it all my life.
To this question, I freely confess, the answer is only through altruism. In the system of which we take no interest after leaving, then it’s the possible answer.
Nevertheless, there’s this interesting quote I saw while reading a linux guru’s interview in local magazine:
“My mentor told me back then: ‘if you feel that you have learnt much from the open-source gurus and net forums, be grateful for it. That is, by sharing your knowledge to the newbies like you once were.'”
From old InfoLinux magazine I ever read. Well, perhaps that’s also one good idea… 😛
7. Side Issues
Back in that discussion, I was mentioning something aside these utilitarianism and ethical things; though are still related in the discourse of ethics. It was about two matters which will be addressed below.
7.1. About Religious Ethics Influence
Despite my being agnostic and doubting the truth about God/religions in common, I still manage to react rather positively towards them. Quoting — once again — from my own comment,
I do think that metaphysical grounds (in this case, religions) may prove its usefulness — I do find some religious teachings fits well to help us developing as mankind. Among them Golden Rule, Christianity’s idea of love and compassion, and Gandhi’s ahimsa. There are also some hadith that (IMO) conduct some good morality… They provided me some leaps of understanding of morality, which in turn helped me in developing those personal values.
While I see myself as mostly utilitarian person, I do find that some religious teachings possess a usable merit of their own. And, to some degree, many of it would fit to my utilitarian value system scheme.
I do have admiration for Golden Rule because of its simplicity but, nevertheless, outstanding idea of “don’t do to other what you don’t want to be treated as such”. It fits with the idea of sustainable source of peace — as well as Christianity’s teaching of love and peace.
Another came from the Koran, which as follows:
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship, nor will ye worship that which I worship. To you be your Way, and to me mine.
That, of all things, implies an idea of acknowledging different beliefs and religions between people.
While I’m merely an agnostic, these messages have their versatility to suit to my contemporary idea of universal value of norm. I don’t necessarily believe in God and/or religions. However, I do think that humanity may inspire from any wisdom they have inherited through their long history. Be it from philosophy, religion, or perhaps anthropology and history as well.
7.2. About System-Efficiency and Contrasting-Happiness Ideas (Re: LGBT and Same-Sex Marriage)
This topic was also mentioned, though slightly. Back then my view was as follows:
When deciding “good” and “bad” of things, I don’t see them per se; rather I try to see the usefulness of it.
Perhaps I’d better illustrate with example. For instance about morality, I don’t support same-sex marriage. Why? Simple. Marriage is intended to protect children’s rights; they are born penniless and powerless. An ideal marriage not only protect the children’s finance until they’re ready to work by themselves: it also proved acknowledgement to the infants, provide legal status, and — in addition — assuring inheritance from their parents. There’s a legal certainty about who’s whose father, who must be held responsible financially, etc, etc. This is for different-sex marriage (DSM).
In same-sex marriage (SSM), there’s no benefit out of it. They don’t have children whose legal and financial needs to be protected. Some ruling may enable them to adopt child, but that’s just making new problem out of nothing! It’ll just become an inefficient system with bulky mechanism. 🙂
That’s why, I prefer DSM and disregard SSM. In term of usefulness and efficiency, it doesn’t comply with my standard.
My view on this is, although SSM is all about happiness, I don’t see a need to support them. That is more to the efficiency and usefulness of the rule.
However, I do support the rights the SSM couple as long as it is about universal human rights. I am against discrimination for them — what I don’t agree is about the legal fuss for an importance that, for me, doesn’t have strong enough foundation. My stance on this is rather on the middle: I ‘m not staunch that it mustn’t happen, just that I don’t feel there’s any benefit out of it.
That said, any law — or conduct — that gives away too little or no benefit, or inefficient in its manner, isn’t considered “good” by me.
Another fitting example will be Indonesia’s government SPMB (national college entrance exam) form showing “Warga Keturunan” (i.e. descendant of immigrants) field. While this is reflecting truth and probably useful for statistics, this is — in my opinion — a dilly-dally. Let alone the possibility that those citizens may as well feel offended!
Move on to the next case. This one isn’t naturally related with the essence of “efficiency” I just have mentioned; rather it’s about the presence LGBT themselves.
I personally think that I can’t prevent anyone’s emotional (or hormonal) affection to each other, even if I wanted to. So there goes. Simply said, I’m neutral in this one. My only minor concern is that, if they are going for PDA — just don’t do it near the people intolerable to it. For their own sake. 😉
My note is, if they can be productive, useful, courteous, and mingling positively in society, then it’s categorically alright. So there you have it.
8. Wrapping It All…
So, it comes to an end. I hope that you have been able to get a big picture of my own definition of “good” and “bad”, and some of my contemporary world-view. Of course, like any other means of man-made idea to define ethics, I expect that this is far from perfection. I suppose that there are even loopholes in it, though.
The intention of writing this post is to inform about how I perceive the world, and how I considered an ethic suitable for my own use (thus also replying some questions I received back then 😛 ). I’ll be more than happy if anyone would tell me what they think; or showing loophole(s); or — by any means — giving feedback that may result in fruitful discussion. 🙂
Thank you for reading. Replies and inquiries can be sent via the comment facility at the bottom of this page.
 Statement-based reply discussion, i.e. somebody commented on something, then I reply his/her answer based on the statements/questions he/she uttered. For most cases this provides lively dialogue, but I often find this mechanism hindering for long and vast subjects.
E.g. when somebody talked about my utilitarianism, I was focused on it, rather than explaining the big picture along with it (i.e. the simultaneous self-and-collective utilitarianism, etc.). The space and formatting was also little compared to a blog post; hence my decision of writing this one. ^^