In the first of a series of articles about ethics and values, Nathan Zimmerman and Ben Labe introduce us to The Good Mind Project.
And the Lord God said, “See, man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil…” –Genesis 3:22, God addressing the cherubim.
Human beings are unique among Earth’s creatures because we are the only species to have developed a method of communication rich enough to allow for sapience. That we as humans may look not only outward at the world, but inward at ourselves with perspicacity, is a phenomenon worthy of our continuing astonishment. What the writers of the Book of Genesis understood, however, was that the power of reflection comes fixed with a steep price. To know good must be to know evil, to know happiness to know strife, to know respect to know contempt, and to judge all of these things to become the objects of each other’s judgments. This burden can be as equally frightening as it is inspiring, for upon us alone it bestows the greatest and most curious of Life’s evolvements: responsibility.
With the perception of self, we may then ask, To what duties, virtues, and goals are we as humans bound? Need we bother about truth, or justice, or happiness? To be “good” is by virtue of the word desirable, but wherein lies the root of goodness, and how best may we pursue it? Because aspiring towards goodness needs no further justification, it alone can lead the way toward living the well-examined life.
What does aspiring toward goodness entail? Consider the following except from Kant’s “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”:
Nothing in the world – or out of it! – can possibly be conceived that could be called ‘good’ without qualiﬁcation except a good will. Mental talents such as intelligence, wit, and judgment, and temperaments such as courage, resoluteness, and perseverance are doubtless in many ways good and desirable; but they can become extremely bad and harmful if the person’s character isn’t good – i.e. if the will that is to make use of these gifts of nature isn’t good. Similarly with gifts of fortune. Power, riches, honour, even health, and the over-all well-being and contentment with one’s condition that we call ‘happiness’, create pride, often leading to arrogance, if there isn’t a good will to correct their inﬂuence on the mind . . . . Not to mention the fact that the sight of someone who shows no sign of a pure and good will and yet enjoys uninterrupted prosperity will never give pleasure to an impartial rational observer. So it seems that without a good will one can’t even be worthy of being happy.
And from Descartes’ “Meditations…”, the following:
Where do my mistakes come from? Their source is the fact that my will has a wider scope than my intellect has, so that I am free to form beliefs on topics that I don’t understand.
In seeking to become good men, then, we must aspire to develop not just one, but two of our human faculties–both the will and the intellect. A good will without a good intellect is a sure way to misery, and a good intellect without a good will is a surer way to treachery. As good men, we should do our best to avoid both, gazing ever back for moral lessons while peering ever forward for moral opportunities.
In our forthcoming series titled “The Good Mind Project,” we will invite our readers to investigate just one of those faculties, the intellect, within the context of a variety of general topics (politics, economics, science, ethics, religion, and more). We will choose the topics based upon their breadth and social significance, not wishing to endorse specific schools of thought so much as explain the nuanced modes of reasoning that exist within the various disciplines. We expect that those who read our series will leave it with a greater capacity for and appreciation of sound argumentation, because in our view, that is what our society most sorely lacks. Often the will for goodness is there, but what is missing is the wherewithal to apply it effectively for good.
Our first topic will be about the logic of indirect argumentation.
Nathan Zimmerman and Ben Labe were roommates while studying at the University of Pittsburgh. Nathan majored in Philosophy and the Philosophy of Science and Ben majored in Philosophy and Math and Economics. Currently, Ben is working towards a PhD in Economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Nathan is a business consultant in Philadelphia.
Illustration by Zach Jordan.