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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I previously called the problem of good. Those who believe there is an ultimate goodness central to the universe face the problem of the universe’s imperfection and badness. The most obvious form of this problem is the Abrahamic problem of suffering; it’s also a problem for Advaita Vedānta, in which it’s hard to explain how ignorance can be possible. But for those who don’t believe in that ultimate goodness – which includes Theravāda Buddhists as well as naturalistically minded scientists – there is an alternate problem, of how we explain the existence of value in the first place.

This problem is not quite the opposite of the problem of suffering. Those who don’t believe in an ultimate value of this sort – I am here going to call them “atheists” as a shorthand, though I think that runs the risk of oversimplifying the matter – have no problem explaining the existence of particular good things, the way that theists have a problem explaining the existence of hurricanes or ALS. The problem they face, rather, is in the basic question of how things can be good (or bad) at all, of how the very ideas of goodness or badness can mean anything.

The analytical movement in early twentieth-century philosophy rejected not only “religion” but most forms of metaphysics, looking with deep suspicion on any claims about the universe that could not be demonstrated empirically. As a result, they came up with (highly implausible) theories about ethics and value that often dismissed them entirely. For A.J. Ayer, value claims are entirely meaningless; C.L. Stevenson argued that they mean nothing more than the expressions “boo” and “hurrah,” with no rational content. G.E. Moore wasn’t quite as dismissive – the word “good” did mean something real – but it was also something undefinable, like “yellow” (referring to the subjective perception of yellowness as a colour, not the way in which yellow objects happen to refract light). What this effectively meant was that it was impossible to argue rationally about what was good; you just knew. The economist John Maynard Keynes, who knew Moore well, witnessed firsthand the anti-intellectual bullying that resulted from such an approach in Moore’s social circle:

How did we know what states of mind were good? This was a matter of direct inspection, of direct unanalyzable intuition about which it was useless and impossible to argue…. In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and could best use the accents of infallibility. Moore at this time was a master of this method — greeting one’s remarks with a gasp of incredulity — Do you really mean that, an expression of face as if to hear such a thing reduced him to a state of wonder verging on imbecility … Oh! he would say, goggling at you as if either you or he must be mad; and no reply was possible. (Keynes, “My Early Beliefs”)

These various analytical attempts to analyze value judgements are all pretty clear failures, to my mind; in many cases they explain away value judgements rather than actually explaining them. But they all come within a shared context of rejecting metaphysics – and thereby rejecting any metaphysical status for goodness in the universe. It seems to me that the rejection of a metaphysics of goodness leaves them bereft of any ability to speak reasonably about what goodness actually is. Alasdair MacIntyre, with the Nietzschean wit that characterizes his early work, compares the analytic philosophers to Hawai’ian natives who would explain prohibitions by saying that they are taboo, but not be able to explain what taboo means – so that soon enough King Kamehameha II could abolish the taboos without any serious objections arising:

Deprive the taboo rules of their original context and they at once are apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions, as indeed they characteristically do appear when the initial context is lost, when those background beliefs in the light of which the taboo rules had originally been understood have not only been abandoned but forgotten…. But had the Polynesian culture enjoyed the blessings of analytical philosophy it is all too clear that the question of the meaning of taboo could have been resolved in a number of ways. Taboo, it would have been said by one party, is clearly the name of a non-natural property; and precisely the same reasoning which led Moore to see good as the name of such a property and Prichard and Ross to see obligatory and right as the names of such properties would have been available to show that taboo is the name of such a property.

MacIntyre then compares Nietzsche to Kamehameha II, shattering the pretensions of those who claim “good” still means something in the absence of the “background beliefs” that make that meaning possible. It is not that Nietzsche wins the debate, that good means nothing; but that for us to see the meaning of good we must have the kind of underlying beliefs that the twentieth-century analytic philosophers did not.

What are those underlying beliefs? It seems to me that, at base, they require goodness to have a real, objective existence, beyond that which people happen to value at any particular place and time. Reality, the larger stage in which our lives take place, what Ken Wilber calls the Kosmos – what is most often called “the universe” or “the world” except that these terms usually limit themselves to the physical – it must somehow have value and goodness as a part of its nature, at least insofar as human beings exist within it. Seeing that goodness at the heart of the world is a lot easier if you take the next step and view that world as the creation of an omnibenevolent God. But then, of course, it winds up being a lot harder to explain the world’s observed badness.