To be good is the striving of man. The ultimate good is that which increases one’s happiness. This is what Aristotle says, but I am not totally convinced of it. It seems too cute to say that what we all truly seek is happiness from my experience. It is too common that conceptions of happiness clash that it is not, in a modern age, possible to say that the ultimate good is solely happiness. The term happiness itself meant something so wildly different to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks than it does to us now that it is difficult to conceive of their idea of happiness. We conflate happiness with pleasure and ignore the possibility that one can have a life well lived and that would be happy. But I’m not convinced that is the same as the good life as it was for Aristotle. It is still a pressing problem, but I think there is too much muck and mire to reality for it to be so simple as to say that if we live our lives well we will be able to look back on them and be happy. I think that ignores the fact that even while one is doing good, one can be completely miserable. This is not to say that it is necessary for one to be miserable to be doing good, but it is to say that good and happiness are not synonymous as Aristotle would have them.
It remains, though, to question what is good. Even in eliminating Aristotle’s conflation of good with happiness, we are left with so many other conception of good. Implicit to the rejection I have of Aristotle there is also a rejection of the Utilitarian pleasure as the ultimate good. Misery is a type of psychic pain. When we are miserable, we bemoan our lot and question our existence. We are in a terrible state, racked with questions and ambiguities. It is a state largely devoid of pleasure for most, although the pleasure seeker whom can conflated any state of life with pleasure will certainly find pleasure from a miserable toothache as well as from the sweets which brought it upon them. But that does not make pleasure, no matter how wide spread or what algorithm we put it through, as the Utilitarians would have, will make it so that we are necessarily advancing toward something which we may call good. No, it is far more difficult to find our way to anything which is good than to run it through a math problem and be able to say that it is necessarily the proper good.
And yet, even beyond Utilitarians, others do want to position good as an external answer. The religious in the western monotheisms often place God as the ultimate good. I can’t help but find this inadequate. I want to be, myself, good. Why do I need an external body with complete agency of its own to be good? God is, in western monotheism, an agent of his own design. He can make choices and do whatever he will. God is not some goal which we can strive for, as he is beyond the conception of our own humanity. The good, then, is its own agent, with its own will, and its own ability to act. We are not masters of the good, but the good is a master of us. And again, I find myself in want of a better way. I want a good which is attainable, which I can conceive of and understand.
So I’ve sat, and I’ve meditated, and I’ve thought about the acts I consider to be on a path in accordance with the good. It is not prostration to an external master, nor is it the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people. It is much more expansive than the self, and yet it is decidedly personal. The good is divide between two halves, the community as well as the personal, and neither can be ignored. This does not answer what the good itself is, though it begins to assign aspects to it. The good is at once a personal autonomy and a sense of community. If one is only acting toward the ends of one of these positions, they are not truly living a good life. They are not meeting the good, nor are they anywhere within what could be their own personal good but only acting on their own personal pleasure. Likewise, if one is solely acting for what they perceive to be the good of the community, they are not acting toward the good either, but they are acting toward that which they consider to be the pleasure of the community. The good is not the self-immolation to the community writ large, for that is abandoning oneself to something external to them and that can never lead to the good as you must attain it yourself, yet nor is it the immolation of the community for the individual self, for that would be solely seeking one’s own pleasure, and that is itself not good either, as there is more to the good that the pleasure we can calculate for our own lives and for those beyond us.
As the human is a social animal, I must conceive of the good within society. As the human is an autonomous mind, I must conceive of the good within the individual. It creates an apparent contradiction, as what can be of one’s own pleasure may be largely damaging to the community at large and one could too easily lose oneself to the community. They must not either be lost or damaged within the good if we are too believe that there is such thing as the good. The individual must be a part of the society, and must not impress their will upon others. Within the good, there is the respect for other’s autonomy and their own autonomy as well. There is expediency toward the good of society within the individual. The individual’s role in society is to help the society, but also to use the society to help oneself. I am within my society, and my society is within me as well. I can use my society to allow myself to be influenced, but I cannot allow it to take away my own autonomy. I am not the only person harmed or helped by my actions, and yet I cannot use this as the measure of whether to act or not.
So, within that, we must find what the good is. What is that which would enhance society and the individual as well? Is there such a thing? Can we even know it? Therein lays the problem. With all of this, we are attempting to discover something which would be universal as well as truly understandable. Despite all of this, despite knowing the roles of the human within oneself and within society, one must acknowledge that it is difficult to decide that which is truly good. We have a problem of being human, of our minds not being completely reliable. While we can know some abstract concepts and some concepts which are intangible through some logic, it makes one wonder how much we can actually know, how much we can actually do to live through our lives. The problem of good is a particular problem of something giving us advice to live by. It is a problem because the good is often presupposed to be something of an answer. But for life to actually be livable, the power of answers must be questioned. Which I can act in such a way that it is apparent my life will be easier and that society may deem my acts a good, this is not the good. The good has within it a respect for autonomy, as previously stated, and the only way to respect autonomy is through ambiguity.
The one true good is, then, ambiguous and difficult to truly comprehend. Any action which we take is only good in its measure, but not in its nature, particularly in the case of the ascertaining of answers. While these all may appear to be good, as they appear to ennoble humans and enable them to have greater brevity of choice, this is an illusion as to whether or not it is actually allowing us to know that which is good. No, the only things which are good are those which respect the autonomy of the society and oneself and also enable both to survive. One cannot judge an act by its outcome, for in that it is a sum of prior actions, none of which actually create something good. Even if something is pleasurable, it may not be good, as the greatest pleasure, even for all people everywhere at all times, may destroy autonomy. Nor is it happiness which is the greatest good, as happiness itself presupposes an answer to life’s questions. No, it is those questions, those unanswerable questions, that the good lies within. It is something massive and something small. It is a thing of contradictions which can never, themselves, be answered.
-A Person Who Exists