Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, Part II: What Is Goodness?
Are you a good person? When asked, most people on this globe would probably say that they are, and that they believe there is a reward for people such as themselves in an afterlife such as they imagine.
It may surprise you that Nietzsche also considered himself a good person, though it was not because he tried to follow God’s law (he didn’t), but because he believed that was a “superman” who could “kill God” (he didn’t).
We think there’s a huge contrast between people who think they’re “good” because they run marathons for cancer research and people who think they’re good because they can “kill God.” However, both definitions for true “goodness” are far off the mark. In this second segment of the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty trilogy (read Part I here), I will address the phenomenon of absolute Goodness. Is there such a thing? How can we know it?
During Jesus’ ministry, a young, wealthy society leader came to Him with a weighty question: “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16) The young ruler was asking for the truth about goodness. First, he assumed that Jesus was good, and second, that man must do a good thing to have eternal life.
Just as mankind is asking Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” we are also asking the rich young ruler’s question: “What good thing must I do?” However, most people do not understand that there is even a standard of absolute good, and much less that God is the author of all that is good.
But what is Good? Goodness is a difficult idea to grasp, for it has often been defined as what “feels right,” what “meets a need,” or that which is invented by the infamous “superman.”
Is it “good” to have a need filled? It is “good” to be fed when hungry, loved when lonely, sheltered when homeless? The modernist is immensely practical. He answers that anything that meets these needs is good. Food, Love, Shelter.
However, this definition of Goodness falls short of encompassing all that is truly good, for “goodness” is not inherent in all things that meet a need. Food and drink are not always good, especially for gluttons and drunkards. And in the sticky situations where “love” takes the form of adultery, two lovers may find their own loneliness satisfied while leaving lonely spouses behind.
Mortimer Adler, a modernist who comes close to the truth but misses it by more than a hair, makes a distinction between subjective and necessary needs. Subjective needs involve personal preference. Not all women think that blue is a “good” color when it comes to painting their homes, and mushrooms are “good” only to people who enjoy eating them. So Adler’s definition of Goodness hinges on necessary needs. He says that absolute Goodness, for all men, exists when a “good” thing meets a real need: a need that is inherent in the laws of human nature. Though this has a shade of Biblical truth to it (all men need God, and God is Good), Adler’s next point of logic is dangerous: “It is by reference to our common human needs that we claim to know what is really good for all human beings.”
There are four reasons why Adler’s definition of “good” does not work.The first is that too much of a good thing, no matter how much it was initially needed, can become a bad thing. Think: too much food, water, or sleep. Second, it is difficult to know if a need is valid, and if it will really be fulfilled by the “good” thing we think it needs. We must be able to decide if the long-term results of the unfulfilled need or desire are worse or better than the long-term result when the desire is fulfilled. This requires omniscience. Third, there are many intrinsically Good things that every man does not necessarily need for survival. These are non-essentials that include joy, knowledge, beauty, courage, an honorable reputation, and creativity. We don’t need them, but they are absolutely Good things that we desire, and Adler’s definition leaves them out. Finally, most people don’t acknowledge that they need moral Goodness. When asked, most people, even the most heinous of criminals, will say, “I think I am generally a good person.” Most people who need a standard of Goodness by which to live their lives never actually acknowledge their need.
Man heartily denies his need for God’s moral Goodness in his life, and can often successfully survive (aka, have his needs met) on this earth without being morally Good. Man also will adamantly declare that he needs to do evil: that his homosexual “needs” should be filled, that he “needs” to steal to survive, that he “needs” to commit suicide. Obviously, any understanding of what is good must include the aspect of moral Goodness.
Mankind has an inherent idea that certain moral actions are always bad and certain others are always good. C. S. Lewis develops this concept in the Abolition of Man:
What is common to [all value systems] is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.
C. S. Lewis is affirming that there is knowledge of a standard embedded in each person: the Truth, if you will, about Goodness. He acknowledges the fact that every person recognizes when they have suffered injustice and that the same moral standard carries itself into everyday experience, where mankind encounters and disapproves of cowardice, lying, murder, stealing, adultery. Likewise, all men agree that kindness, compassion, truthfulness, loyalty, faithfulness, and patience are inherently good actions. This is the law written in every man’s heart. This internal law that Lewis describes is, by function and essence, what the Bible affirms to belong to the one righteous and holy God, Yahweh.
However, even if we did all agree that this moral law is written on our hearts, we would find we often disagree when it comes to the practical application of the moral law. Certainly there does seem to be a majority that agrees that murder, cannibalism, and cruelty are bad things, but we have already proved that the agreement of the majority cannot be the most reliable way to define goodness. We know that not all civilizations have had an agreement of the majority on the same “Good and Bad” issues that the current “civilized” western world does. Are we to understand that a 51%+ belief among Americans that cannibalism is wrong in the twenty-first century outweighs a 51%+ belief that cannibalism was right among Africans, South Americans, and the New Hebridians in the first century?
Nietzsche called this agreement of the majority about a moral standard the Herdenmoral, or the morality of the herd. Its inherent weakness disgusted him. To him, the fault of this system was that the “blind” members of the herd followed the rest of the herd into whatever system of ethics the herd decided was good. Though these feelings were well-founded, Nietzsche’s reaction was not to point to an ultimate Lawgiver that the “herd” should follow, but to declare that morality belonged to the masters. He called this Herrenmoral: the morality of the masters. The master was a “superman” who would create the perfect and most heinous crime against the “herd morals,” and who would earn the right to create his own moral standard. Nietzsche’s logic then followed that the “superman” would “kill God” because any God whose law had been abused to such an extreme could no longer be the master of the moral standard.
Nietzsche’s heinous moral theory spread like an infection. Clarence Darrow used Neitzsche’s philosophy to successfully defend two brutal murderers, Leopold and Loeb, who Darrow said had only been acting in consistency with the Nietzschesque ideas they received in the Ivy-league schools they attended. Leopold and Loeb believed that their “superman” crime gave them the right to be a moral standard for themselves. They believed that their heinous crime was so bad that it had defeated any other moral standard that could possibly be raised against it.
However, there must be a standard for ultimate good beyond the opinions of sinful men. Jesus’ answer to the young ruler’s question, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” was, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matt. 19:16-18)
We see that God is the tertium quid: the abiding, constant standard that decides what Goodness is.
Read my complete article, “Is There an Absolute Good?” to discover how God as the standard of Goodness answers the “problem” of good and evil, and how God’s Goodness brilliantly impacts the culture that receives it.