Thursday, April 14, 2011

Good Means Helpful

Let me boil down all this philosophical rambling about 'end-relational theory of normative terms' to a catch phrase:
Good means helpful.
That's the bulk of it. If I'm asked what it means to call something good, my response is, "It means that thing is helpful."

Of course there is a difference between 'good' and 'helpful.' People are much more likely to ask the obvious follow-up question, "Helpful for what?" than they are to ask "Good for what?" In some contexts, it's downright jarring for someone to ask the follow-up question about 'good,' e.g:
"Helping the suffering is good."

"Good for what?"

"How can you ask that?!"
I suggest this difference doesn't come from the meaning of 'good' itself. Instead, we associate 'good' more strongly with certain conventional answers, while we don't associate 'helpful' so strongly with any particular answers. 'Helpful' is the more open-ended form of 'good.'

One of the major conventional answers to "Good for what?" is "reducing unnecessary suffering." This is why the above statement sounds so obvious. Spelled out, it would be:
"Helping the suffering is helpful [for reducing unnecessary suffering]."
If some idiot or philosopher asks, "Good for what?" in such an obvious case, we take her to be rejecting conventional (typically unstated) ends and asking for an unconventional end. Probably even a selfish end! This is what draws our ire.

To review, both 'good' and 'helpful' have the same meaning, the same definition. And both words have a blank space in this definition where an end needs to be plugged in, but we're much more likely to fill in the blank for 'good' without asking for clarification.

(Frankly, I'm surprised this isn't already a popular catch phase in moral philosophy. Is there something embarrassingly wrong with it? I'll risk it. As Francis Bacon wrote: "[T]ruth emerges more readily from error than confusion.")1

1. From


  1. The end-relational theory seems like a very sensible approach. Can you help me understand how it relates to the various metaethical positions (realist or anti-, etc.)?

  2. >If some idiot or philosopher asks

    Uh...what's the difference?

    Cheap shots aside though, I'm having a great time with these recent articles. I've alluded to it on the past but before reading on philosophy or anything, my own conception of what morality was based on was what I termed "goal-based morality" where what ought to be was based on a goal. I never actually called anything good since the term didn't make much sense to me, but, this is pretty neat stuff.

    So, Garren, once again, thanks for your blog and explaining the things in it. I'm really enjoying it.

    @ Robert:

    I've been wondering that too. So far, I think that this can go either way, as I can see this easily being used in a Prescriptivist sense but I imagine it can also be done in a Cognitivist sense. *Waits for Garren to elucidate*

  3. See my comments on the next post, 'What is Moral Realism?', for answers.