Reclaiming the Vocabulary of Morality

In the previous post it became clear that contemporary progressive culture does not use moral words to convey clear ideas about an objective moral order. It uses them instead to convey feelings of approval or disapproval. One of my first goals, then, is to free moral words from their servitude to emotion and restore them to their proper rational function.

The Good

I’d like to begin by reflecting on the concepts of the good and the right, two of the most basic categories necessary for conducting reasonable discussions on moral questions.

I find it interesting that even though the word “good” is very general, it is indispensable for discussions of morality. The meaning of the word can range from weak expressions of pleasure to assertions of superlative excellence. It can be used to express personal preference or to pronounce moral judgment. It can be misused as synonym for the “right” or it can mean the “pleasant.” Given the wide range of meanings for the word good, it would seem important to be clear and specific in our use of the term in discussions about morality.

Examination of the ways the word good is used shows that in every case, except in reference to God or its misuse to mean the right, it is used in a relative sense in which something is declared to be “good for” something else. Apart from God, who is absolutely good, any finite good can be “good for” one thing but bad for something else. Salt is good for preserving meat but bad for snails.

A thing can be “good for” someone in two senses. It can give pleasure or promote well-being. Likewise, it can be bad for someone in two senses. It can cause unpleasant feelings or reduce well-being. To say that something is good in the first sense (pleasure) is to express the connection between it and a feeling of pleasure. Examples are abundant: that was a good meal, a good show, or a good experience.

An experience can give momentary pleasure but not be “good for” one in the sense of promoting well-being. We all know, for example, that overeating is not good for you. And an experience can be “good for” your well-being but not be especially pleasant. We can readily offer examples: “Eat your vegetables because they are ‘good for’ you.” “Moderate exercise is ‘good for’ you.” and “Honesty is the best policy.” Such assertions declare that possessing these goods, regardless of whether or not they give immediate pleasure, advances your well-being. We can distinguish these two meanings of the word good by naming one “the pleasant” and the other “the useful.”

Let’s draw a preliminary conclusion. To engage in fruitful moral discussions it is important not to confuse the two meanings of “good,” pleasant and useful. If one party uses the word good to mean the immediately pleasant and the other party uses it to mean that which is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being, the discussion will be futile. We can hardly dispute a claim that someone finds something pleasant or unpleasant. The claim is the proof! Hence, this type of assertion about goodness is not subject to rational debate. But a claim that something is productive of long-term or ultimate well-being is subject to discussion and dispute.

What is the difference? The assertion that X is a means to long-term or ultimate well-being is a claim about what our physical, psychological, moral, or spiritual natures require for proper and optimum functioning. This can be true only if within these dimensions of human existence there are objective structures and inherent ends, subject to rational analysis. Additionally, these structures and ends must remain constant regardless of our subjective feelings.

Analysis of the concept of the good has led us to the concept of human nature, its proper functioning, and its ultimate end. Is there such a thing as human nature, and, if so, how can we discover what is “good for” it? Do human beings have a natural (and perhaps a supernatural) end, and do we know what it is? These questions lead us to our most basic beliefs about God and creation.

Natures and Ends

In the previous section we concluded that we call a thing “good” when we want to express the relation of being “good for” between it and something else. To say a particular hammer is good is to say that it is good for doing what hammers are meant to do, drive nails and demolish things. In analogy, to say a particular human being is “good” is to say that this human being is capable of doing and actually does what human beings are meant to do. In the same way, a particular human action is good if it does for human beings what human actions are meant to do for human beings.

Notice that hammers, human beings, and human acts can be called “good” only if we know what they are meant to be and do. The idea that human beings are meant to be and do certain things and not others implies that they possess natures and ends. Put as simply as I can, a nature is the design plan or structure of a thing that makes it the kind of thing it is. Inherent in the idea of a design plan is proper function and purpose. Just as a hammer’s design plan makes it suitable for driving nails but not for threading needles, human nature directs human beings to certain ends, not to others. And certain acts enable human nature to function properly to achieve its intended end and others do not.

The idea of the good is relevant to moral issues only if human beings possess natures that determine the conditions under which they can function properly to achieve the end at which their nature aims. Apart from the idea of human nature and its end, the “good” will always be reduced to the “pleasant.” And the pleasant is not a moral category. Whether you find a certain activity pleasant or not cannot demonstrate whether it is good for you. As we will see in the course of this series, at the center of our contemporary moral crisis is loss of faith that human beings possess natures and ends. Human nature and its ends have been replaced by the arbitrary human will.

Philosophers from Aristotle onward attempted to describe the essential features of human nature and the ends toward which it is naturally directed. Aristotle’s work on this subject in Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.) exercised profound influence on Western ethical thought, and it still commands respect today. Although such philosophical ethics as Aristotle developed can play a role, Christian ethics adds three faith presuppositions to Aristotle’s naturalistic perspective: (1) God is the Creator of human nature; (2) Jesus Christ is the perfect example of a good human being; and (3) union with God is the end of human nature.

For Christian moral thought, the idea that human beings possess natures and an ends is securely grounded in the confession that God is the maker of heaven and earth. God created human beings in his “image” and “likeness” (Genesis 1:26, 27). Throughout the Bible, God deals with human beings as if they were designed to function properly by doing certain things and not others. Certain individuals are set forth as examples of “good” human beings. Jesus Christ serves as the supreme example of a perfect human life. Certain commands direct us to engage in activities that show us the best of which human beings are capable, chiefly the commands to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and our union with him in baptism ground our hope of eternal life and union with God in the general resurrection.

In sum, the Christian understanding of the good is determined by the following convictions: (1) the most important characteristic of human nature is that it is the image and likeness of God; (2) human nature’s proper function is to image the perfect character of God in the world as informed by the example of Jesus Christ; and (3) human nature is directed by its Creator toward the end of eternal life and union with God. Nothing can be considered good for us that contradicts or inhibits these three principles.

These three foundational principles provide us with lenses with which to read the Bible along with the church to fill out in greater detail the character of a good human being, that is, a picture of what the Creator intended human beings to do and become.

1 thought on “Reclaiming the Vocabulary of Morality

  1. Charles Hanson

    “The resurrection of Jesus Christ and our union with him in baptism ground our hope of eternal life and union with God in the general resurrection.”
    In this sentence you are showing that you believe and are stating that Hades is still active? and if so you believe the Old Covenant is active and you also believe that Christians today still go to Hades when they die, This is the general teaching today and it is all Old Covenant.



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