Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Do I Mean By "Good"?

In my previous post I said that my #1 rule of theology is that God is Good (all the time). That got the pretty obvious follow-up question in the comments, "what do I mean by good?"

It's a reasonable question. We might agree, after all, that "God is Good" (all the time), and disagree entirely on what that looks like. I think it is important to keep your core affirmations simple, precisely so they are stable enough to support a rational system of ideas and beliefs. So while, I'm happy to try and give some definition to my meaning of "good" I wouldn't include this stuff in my rule, because my opinions can and do change sometimes (and on a rare occasion I'm even wrong).

So what can I say about "good"? I will say that it is an immense concept - a quality which can be applied to people, situations, behaviors, and things. It has overwhelmingly positive connotations, be they moral, artistic or emotional. When we say someone or something is good, it is a positive affirmation. A statement of support. An indication that it is "right" or "virtuous". A "good" thing is itself in a way that is proper or laudatory, even exemplary. But these are all ways of getting at the concept generally. I can be more specific.

"Good" is the object of moral reasoning. It has been defined variously, by different schools of ethics, as "seeking the greatest benefit for the greatest number" (utilitarianism), "never treating another person as a means to an end, but only as an end in themself" (deontology), or "perfecting oneself through habits of virtue" (virtue ethics). There are more ways of approaching this, but the central agreement here is that there is such a thing as "good" and it is possible to deduce what is good for a particular person or in a particular situation via reason, experience, observation and rules.

One way of describing the process of moral reasoning for arriving at the "good" is the ascription of value. We ascribe value to tangible and intangible factors alike in attempting to determine what is the best course of action or way of being. For example, we value things like "freedom", "truth", and "safety". By placing relative value on these things we can then begin to discern right from wrong by whether or not it promotes or injures these values. Everything, from individual actions, to patterns of behavior, to the substance of a person is valuable in this sense, in different degrees. When something is highly valuable we call it "good". When something has extremely low value, or a primarily detrimental effect on higher values we call it "bad". This makes ethical calculation complex indeed, but also crucial.

There is no way of getting around the fact that relative valuation of moral "goods" is extremely subjective. You and I are going to disagree on whether "freedom" or "truth" is more valuable. This makes it difficult to make very definitive statements about what is good. Openness to persuasion is thus a virtue, a "good", I believe we should value, but ultimately we have to agree that the "good" is something worth pursuing and it is attainable in some degree. If we don't at least agree on that, then the conversation was over before it started.

How does this relate to what I mean by saying "God is Good"?

First, "goodness" like God is somewhat inscrutable. It eludes perfect understanding. However, like God, "goodness" is indeed knowable, and it is imperative on us to seek to know it. The quest to know God and the quest to know what is good are intimately related, because God is the ultimate definition of good. Where we are forced often to choose between relative goods, sometimes sacrificing a lesser good for the greater, God retains the value of all goods at all times. Indeed, God increases the value of all goods infinitely. In God, every good attains its perfection and no imperfections are found.

To say "God is Good", is not like saying "Mozart's music is good" or "charity is good". It is saying, "God IS Good". God is the essence of good. God is pure, distilled, good.

So many of our theological questions, failing to grasp this, start with false premises. For example, the possibility of universal salvation is often said to be in conflict with free will. Some will say, for God to be good God must save everyone and permit no suffering, but others will say that for God to be good God must permit his creation a choice, which means there is a possibility some will not be saved. God does not have to choose between valuing freedom and salvation. God is capable of valuing both to their utmost or God is not Good. And God is Good. (All the time).


Craig said...


Thanks for the definition. A follow up if I may. What does God's goodness look like to you? Or more generally as we look at the world around us.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

Or if you're going to be all Barthian (a good guess?) you could say that God is the definition of good. There is not some external idea of what the good is; there is only God, who defines goodness.

Course then people would still want you to describe things God is/does that illustrate that goodness.... and illustration was not a strong point of Barth's :)

Glad you're theology-blogging again.

Aric Clark said...

See part of me likes the logic game of saying "God is the definition of good". Of course if God it the only uncreated entity then all things have their source in her, etc.. etc.., but it really isn't helpful is it? As you say, it requires illustration.

Furthermore - I hate, I despise, the argument that argues from God to goodness as if anything God could conceivably do would automatically be good, just because God did it - ie: God sponsors Genocide (Book of Joshua) = Genocide is good. That makes a mockery of the idea of good and is an insult to God. We were given brains. We ought to use them.

Craig said...

Which leaves the question. What does God's goodness look like, as it operates (presumably) in our world.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

"as if anything God could conceivably do would automatically be good, just because God did it - ie: God sponsors Genocide (Book of Joshua)"

Well, the crux of that argument is whether God actually did that. If we believe God really took that action, we have more problems than a mistaken definition of good. (Especially right now.) If we don't believe God really took that action, then divine sponsorship of genocide vanishes, without any change in the basic argument from God to goodness.

Aric Clark said...


You're right that the crux is whether God actually does something - whether we attribute any given action to God or not, but that is what I'm saying about "goodness" it is the primary criterion for helping us decide whether God actually "did" something. In other words, I can say that God did not sponsor genocide BECAUSE genocide is evil and God does not engage in evil. That's what I mean about good being knowable to some degree and it being part of our quest to know God, that we seek the good. When we know what is good in a certain situation we know more about God. Working the other way, from God to Good, means using other criterion, besides goodness for defining who God is (like - it's in the Bible) and then you usually end up with a portrait of God that is distinctly - NOT GOOD.

Aric Clark said...


Work it out for yourself. That's the point. You have to do the hard work of moral reasoning to know what God's goodness looks like in a given situation.

Nick.Larson said...

Sorry I haven't been posting much, I'll try to do better with that part.

So this thread asks really good questions, and I think Craig is particularly accurate when he asks the question of what that looks like...I think this is that "so what" question. I think that using the definition of God is good has to then stem from the simple question of how do we know when "it" (which is presumed good) actually is God?

Aric, your argument [that God is good (all the time) and that Genocide in the Book of Joshua is not] says a lot about how you view scripture. Your definition of good just got complicated (and not simple like you wanted) when you added this wrinkle. Of course I agree with you about the genocide = band not good, but I think this makes your argument that God = good weaker. So now not only do you have one issue defining good via God, but now you have interpretation of scripture which can become an even bigger elephant in the room.

If I was the one answering the question of what is good, I can give another classic answer (which I believe has less issues and achieves a similar purpose). Good looks like Jesus. I know this may seem like semantics to some of you, but I think it’s an important distinction. This argument is one of the main reasons for me to why I am a Christian. I would say the standard by which we choose to define good must start with Jesus. I will stand behind every action of Jesus in the NT and be challenged and persuaded that something is good based on this definition. I define good based on if something helps life flourish. The Jesus of the gospel accounts acts to bring life into and through every situation. I don’t think I can do that with the entire OT, or at least a straightforward reading of the text. And yes, Heather I believe Barth would answer Jesus as well.

Nick.Larson said...

and of course there is a typo...not that it's not obvious but I don't want to call genocide = band...I want to call it BAD!

Aric Clark said...

Hey! Nick! :D

The definition of good definitely IS complicated. The rule "God is good" is what I wanted to keep simple. Like all foundational principles it is simple to state and complex to apply.

And I think there is a misunderstanding - I'm not primarily interested in defining good via God, really it's the other way around. I use good as a defining characteristic of God. Yes, in some sense these are reciprocal - ie: I might change my idea of goodness a bit if I were to be strongly convicted that God's nature pushed me in that direction, but this has its limits. If the meaning of the word good is so flexible that regardless of what we believe God to be like we call it good, then we may as well toss it out altogether because it is useless.

And you are right that it says something about my view of scripture. That's unsurprising. I believe any reading of scripture which leads to evil behavior, or an understanding of God which is evil is wrong, and I don't care if you could demonstrate that "the Bible says X.." if X is evil, then it is wrong. God's goodness trumps any other consideration. God is good even if the Bible says he is not. (which I don't believe it does, on the whole).

As for the "Jesus" answer, it is good for the "so what" question, but it still begs the question for me - "whose interpretation of Jesus?" Marc Driscoll preaches a Jesus that in my view is evil. So just saying "Jesus is the definition of Good" doesn't suffice. You have to get to moral reasoning at some point and demonstrate WHY your particular portrait of Jesus is good. Which is why I left my answer here as basically - good is the object of moral reasoning.

Craig said...


The reason I ask, is because I am interested in how you see God's goodness working itself out in our world.

My two cents is to say that our view of "goodness" and God's view of "goodness" may not be the same.

Finally, by what standard do you place moral reasoning as the determining factor or goodness?

Aric Clark said...


Moral reasoning isn't what "determines" good. Moral reasoning is the method of knowing what is good. Just like acquaintance and conversation is a method of knowing a person. Moral reasoning is that method because it sets out to be. It makes its purpose the knowledge of good. It's analogous to geometry as a method of knowing about spatial relations, or psychology as a method of knowing about human thought processes.

Why do I say moral reasoning is important? Because it is better than the alternatives. For example one could accept some outside code or system of rules as the absolute definition of good and not question that at all. One could simply say everything in the American legal code is inherently good and therefore I will adhere absolutely to its rules. I don't even need to point out the flaws in this approach. Another alternative is amorality - to assume that moral reasoning is impossible or irrelevant and to act according to other principles besides what is good - realpolitik is such a philosophical outlook.

Can you think of any other better option than that people should try and reason out for themselves what is good and what is not?

Craig said...

I was just curious? Doesn't moral reasoning presume some kind of transcendent or at least common morality, or agreement on what is moral? If so where does that come from? Doesn't it also presume that reason should draw everyone to the same moral conclusion?

I'm not sure about better or worse, it just seems like either it doesn't work so well, or there is a significant failure of reasoning.

Nick.Larson said...

"I'm not primarily interested in defining good via God, really it's the other way around."

Ok, fair enough Aric. The way I read your statement is one that was interested in defining what "good" is, and the way I understand your argument it involves defining it off of God. If your argument is not based off of this then you need to make claim to your starting point. You've talked plenty about Moral reasoning, but you haven't chosen to locate yourself within a school of ethics. Are you considering your work to come from the school of virtue ethics? are you a utilitarian?

And I can think of a better option than people trying to reason it out for themselves. I'm sticking to the life of Jesus. I understand there are complexities involved here, and yes someone like Driscoll can come up with a different interpretation of Jesus. Just because I want to use Jesus as the starting point for defining good does not mean that it is straight-forward. If interpretation were straight-forward we wouldn't have a bunch of denominations. We wouldn't have had centuries of Christian vs Christian violence. In fact it's been my experience the one thing most people won't let someone get away with is making fun of their Jesus. But that does not give us the excuse to abandon that as our foundation.

I'm sticking to my Jesus, and the theme I have derived from him. Something is good when it allows for the flourishing of life. I say that's a better option than the reasoning of humanity.

Aric Clark said...


I agree that reason often works poorly in practice, but it is all we have. And no, there need not be any presumption of transcendent good, or universal good for reason to work. Sociologists don't all have to use exactly the same techniques all the time and yet they often come up with valid insights. Agreement isn't a necessary presumption either, just as it is not in any other school of human thought. People of sound mind and good will often disagree. But they can hopefully communicate meaningfully about that disagreement.


I don't need to pick any particular school of ethics at all, anymore than every psychologist must be only a Freudian or only a Jungian. I can glean valid insights from all or some of them. I'm not trying to argue here for anything grand or elaborate. All I'm basically saying is that we know what is good by figuring it out. We use our minds. We argue and debate. We say that stealing is wrong because of reasons x,y, and z, but could be acceptable under extenuating circumstances such as a, or b. It's a process of reason.

And I love ya, buddy, but your Jesus answer is just too glib. You have no choice but to use your reason to arrive at what is good. Why is a particular action or behavior of Jesus' good? You can't say "because Jesus did it". that's a non-answer. What then if the same action were done by someone else? Would it be good? Why? What makes that action good? If Jesus' actions are good (which I agree they are) and if Jesus himself is good (which I insist he is) then there is a reason.

Incidentally, you gave your reason - because they conduce toward human flourishing. Which is the exact same words John Stuart Mills, a famous Utilitarian ethicist used to define good. He arrived at that definition by reason. And so did you.

Craig said...

Just to be clear. You have no problem with two people (or groups) using their moral reasoning to come to contradictory conclusions as to what is good?

Aric Clark said...


Depends on the conclusions and the nature of the disagreement I suppose. But whether I like it or not it is the state of things. People do, all the time, come to contradictory conclusions about what is good. In many of those cases some people are more correct than others and, sometimes good reasoning and argument will sort that out. For example, there were people who honestly believed that colonialism was a "good" thing. All the arguments in favor of colonialism have long since been demolished, so that was a case of a disagreement where some were wrong and others were right.

In other cases deep convictions on all sides make it impossible to discern who is right. For example Pacifism vs. Just War. Both sides value life highly and seek to prevent violence. They agree very closely on what is good, but disagree vehemently about the means. There are sound arguments on both sides. Either history hasn't yet moved this argument into the category above yet, or this really is a stalemate of sorts.

In yet other cases, it probably doesn't matter too much. Are you a believer in direct charitable acts or in organized efforts for the sake of efficiency? You MIGHT stake out ground on one side or the other of this issue, but is it really necessary? Can't we just say both are good and move on? Disagreement is often completely unproblematic.

Doug Hagler said...

I agree that if there is a problem intrinsic to moral disagreement, it is a deeply insolvable one. If it was solvable, greater minds than ours would have done it. That is, if there was an "objective" good, there is no reason we wouldn't have come up with it by now, since concepts of good don't depend as much on technology as do, say, concepts of the origin of life or of the universe or what-have-you.

What it seems like we need here is some idea of what good is apart from the Bible so that we can read the Bible critically. This is especially important because the Bible is internally contradictory, even on fundamental questions of right and wrong. Even looking at Jesus isn't enough - you need Jesus AND.

Well, to be clear, it is totally imposible not to have Jesus AND your experience. That's a given. But you also have reason, which will lead you to conclude things about your experience - again, whether you want it to or not.

What I don't have tolerance for is theology which does not come out at the beginning and admit its starting point, pretending as if it has some sort of superhuman pure perception of what truth is.

Puts my teeth on edge.

If we can avoid that, then we are engaged in the very human pursuit of working out together what is right and wrong. We also end up having lots of reasons not to be jerks to each other, which is a nice side-effect.