Inherently Good

Some people say that something is inherently good. For example, knowledge is often said to be inherently good, good for its own sake and for no other reason. It is better to know something than not to know it, because just expanding your mind and your knowledge is good. Just because.

I am skeptical of this view. In fact, I can't think of a single good thing in the universe that is merely inherently good. Every good thing I can think of is good for a particular reason. Food is good because it keeps me alive; producing more food is good because it keeps more people alive. Love is good because it produces positive feelings in human beings that can be reproduced time and time again by mere exposure to the object of that love; and, because it binds human beings into a cohesive society, which itself is good because it helps human beings achieve more of their individual goals than they could ever achieve alone. As for knowledge, any knowledge that can be called good is good because it helps people figure out how to solve their problems, remove their disutility, and so on.

Suppose something were inherently good, and not good for any other reason. How would we know that this thing is good? We couldn't look at any tangible benefits provided to us by the inherently good thing, because then we would be tempted to say that it is a good thing because of those benefits, and not because of the inherent nature of its goodness. How would we differentiate that thing's inherent worth for something that is inherently bad, but likewise has no tangible impact on our lives? That is, by what standard could we call the thing good?

Well, by no standard at all, because standards are external. Standards aren't inherent, they're imposed on a comparison from the outside, based on some list of criteria. Usually those criteria are tangible if not physical. Good things produce good feelings, at the bare minimum, and do so reliably.

The most likely explanation for the inherent goodness of a thing is that it reliably produces good feelings, despite producing pretty much nothing else.

Suppose I draw a picture of a cartoon cat, for example, and I think the cat is cute. Maybe just looking at this cat produces nice feelings. I didn't otherwise gain anything from the drawing; it didn't improve my drawing ability, it actually cost me money in terms of paper and ink resources, it cost me time to produce, and because I drew it in my own private office, no one will see it. It's also unlikely that I'll ever tell anyone about the cat drawing I made, that I enjoy. Is this an inherently good thing?

Actually, no. It's not "inherently good," because in order to enjoy my cat picture, I have to spend some time looking at it, or at least thinking about it and remembering what it looks like. The time I spend looking at or remembering my cat picture is a diversion from some other task. In other words, it's leisure time. Maybe other people prefer playing the flute in their leisure time, or going swimming, or having a snack, or playing a game, or any number of other things. But whatever else anyone does, they're spending their time on leisure, and when I look at my cat picture, so am I.

Some would say that spending too much time on leisure is wasteful, but I don't know anyone who would claim that leisure serves no practical or tangible purpose. It serves many purposes, from giving our brains and bodies time to relax between more strenuous physical or metal tasks, to generating social conversation and thus strengthening social bonds, to helping us prepare for a good night's sleep. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so Jack needs to invest at least part of his time in leisure activity.

My point is that I cannot think of a single thing that is inherently good, but not good for some other reason. And this, to me, suggests that there is no such thing as "inherent goodness." Anything worth being called good has some sort of tangible benefit to someone. Otherwise, it's not really good.

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