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Good Person: A Matter of the Heart (The)

The morally good person, I would say, is a person who is intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods.

The person who is morally bad or evil is one who is intent upon the destruction of the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, or who is indifferent to the existence and maintenance of those goods.

Being morally good or evil clearly will be a matter of degree and there surely will be few if any actual human beings who exist at the extreme ends of the scale. (An interesting but largely pointless question might be how humanity distributes on the scale: a nice bell curve or...what?)

Here, I submit, is the fundamental moral distinction: the one which is of primary human interest, and from which all the others, moving toward the periphery of the moral life and ethical theory, can be clarified. For example: the moral value of acts (positive and negative); the nature of moral obligation and responsibility; virtues and vices; the nature and limitations of rights, punishment, rewards, justice and related issues; the morality of laws and institutions; and what is to be made of moral progress and moral education. A coherent theory of these matters can, I suggest, be developed only if we start from the distinction between the good and bad will or person--which, admittedly, almost no one is currently prepared to discuss. That is one of the outcomes of ethical theorizing through the 20th Century.

I believe that this is the fundamental moral distinction because I believe that it is the one that ordinary human beings constantly employ in the ordinary contexts of life, both with reference to themselves (a touchstone for moral theory, in my opinion) and with reference to others (where it is employed with much less clarity and assurance). And I also believe that this is the fundamental moral distinction because it seems to me the one most consistently present at the heart of the tradition of moral thought that runs from Socrates to Sidgwick--all of the twists and turns of that tradition notwithstanding.

Just consider the role of "the good" in Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, for example, stripped, if possible, of all the intellectual campaigns and skirmishes surrounding it. Consider Aquinas' statement that "this is the first precept of law, that good is to be done and promoted, and evil is to be avoided. All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this; so that all the things which the practical reason naturally apprehends as man's good belong to the precepts of the natural law under the form of things to be done or avoided." (Treatise on Law, Question XCIV, Second Article) Or consider how Sidgwick arrives at his "maxim of Benevolence"--"that each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him." (Methods of Ethics, Book III, Chap. XIII, 7th edition [p. 382 of the Dover edition, New York, 1966] Sidgwick was of course very careful to incorporate his intuitions of justice and prudence into this crowning maxim.)

A few further clarifications must be made before turning to my final argument:

  1. I have spoken of the goods of human life in the plural, and have spoken of goods with which we are in effective contact, i.e. can do something about. The good will is manifested in its active caring for particular goods that we can do something about, not in dreaming of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" or even of my own 'happiness' or of "duty for duty's sake." Generally speaking, thinking in high level abstractions will always defeat moral will. As Bradley and others before him clearly saw, "my station and its duties" is nearly, but not quite, the whole moral scene, and can never be simply bypassed on the way to "larger" things. One of the major miscues of ethical theory since the sixties has been, in my opinion, its almost total absorption in social and political issues. Of course these issues also concern vital human goods. But moral theory simply will not coherently and comprehensively come together from their point of view. They do not essentially involve the center of moral reality, the will.

  2. Among human goods--things that are good for human beings and enable them to flourish--are human beings and certain relationships to them, and, especially, good human beings. That is, human beings that fit the above description. One's own well-being is a human good, to one's self and to others, as is what Kant called the moral "perfection" of oneself. Of course non-toxic water and food, a clean and safe environment, opportunities to learn and to work, stable family and community relations, and so forth, all fall on the list of particular human goods. (Most of the stuff for sale in our society probably does not.)

    There is no necessity of having a complete list of human goods or a tight definition of what something must be like to be on the list. Marginal issues, "Lifeboat" cases, and the finer points of conceptual distinction are interesting exercises and have a point for philosophical training; but it is not empirically confirmable, to say the least, that the chances of having a good will or being a good person improve with philosophical training in ethical theory as that has been recently understood. It is sufficient to become a good or bad person that one have a good general understanding of human goods and how they are effected by action. And that is also sufficient for the understanding of the good will and the goodness of the individual. We do not have to know what the person would do in a lifeboat situation to know whether or not they have good will, though what they do in such situations may throw light on who they are, or on how good (or bad) they are. The appropriate response to actions in extreme situations may not be a moral judgement at all, but one of pity or admiration, of the tragic sense of life or amazement at what humans are capable of, etc. etc.

  3. The will to advance the goods of human life with which one comes into contact is inseparable from the will to find out how to do it and do it appropriately. If one truly wills the end one wills the means, and coming to understand the goods which we effect, and their conditions and interconnections, is inseparable from the objectives of the good person and the good will. Thus, knowledge, understanding and rationality are themselves human goods, to be appropriately pursued for their own sakes, but also because they are absolutely necessary for moral self-realization. Formal rationality is fundamental to the good will, but is not sufficient to it. It must be acknowledged that one of the moral strong points of Naturalism is its concern about advancing the goods of human life and about combatting the forces of ignorance and superstition that work against those goods. One cannot understand Naturalism as a historical reality or a present fact if one does not take this point into consideration.

  4. Thus the morally good (or evil) will or person will necessarily incorporate the following elements at least:

  1. Consciousness, the various intentional states that make up the mental life.

  2. Knowledge of the various goods of human life and of their conditions and interconnections. This will include much knowledge of fact, but also logical relations, as well as the capacity to comprehend them to form hypothetical judgments and to reach conclusions on the basis of premises.

  3. The capacity to form and sustain long-range, even life-long intentions. One is not a morally good person by accident or drift, but by a choice settled into character: a choice to live as a person who is intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, etc. The corresponding is true of a morally evil person. Intention--settled intention, or disposition--is the fundamental locus of moral value, deeper than will as a mere faculty (which does not by itself yield moral value) or as an act of will or choice (which is momentary, as character is not). It is this type of intention, worked into the substance of one's life, that is moral identity. And it is the moral identity of persons that Naturalism would have to account for if it were successfully to accommodate the moral life and ethical theory.