The word “good” doesn’t mean “pleasant.” It’s not a synonym for “delicious” or “talented,” and should never be preceded by the words “really,” “pretty” or “super.” Commitment to an idea necessitates a complete grasp of that idea’s magnitude. But no one can fully comprehend a concept that is not communicated with precision. “Good” furnishes us with an excellent example of this principle.
I suppose I ought to pause and qualify my opening statement, because these days “good” actually has come to denote “pleasant,” “delicious” and “talented,” and can therefore be modified using words like “really.” But this nonchalance robs “good” of its richness, of its gravity, of the fullness of its implications. Everyone understands the casual “good” when it is reduced to “likeable” – a shallow, subjective term to apply to anything pleasing. Rarely, however, does “good” enter the conversation in terms of “the Good,” or to indicate conformity to an objective standard of excellence. Let me illustrate the distinction.
When a carpenter considers his newest table, he doesn’t sit back and exclaim, “Hey, that’s pretty good!” This would smack of self-congratulation, and would do more to communicate his reaction rather than to describe his work. Rather, he nods, gives it a thump, and says simply, “Good.” He can call it that not because it pleases him in some subjective way, but because the table has met an objective standard and therefore has goodness.
This begs the question, “What is goodness?” Our reason replies that this common noun refers to a certain desirable quality that every human person inherently understands. And then we immediately grasp the gravity of the situation. If to call something good is to say that it has goodness, which is to link it to an eternal transcendent principle, then we realize that this is not a word we may speak lightly. Certainly we can and ought to use it, but, realizing now what it means, we apply it with greater care because we can suddenly see its implications. These implications include the responsibility we have for the proper use of the word.
If what I have said is true, then it points to a broader principle of precision in language that carries with it an obligation. We are responsible for every word, for protecting from corruption these greatest products of our God-given reason. Imagine what might happen if we took responsibility for the word “liberal.” Reestablishing the fundamental meaning of this word (līberālis: of freedom), for example, would completely renovate our political landscape.
The bottom line is this: our ability to build a language allows us to build societies around a discussion about what it means to live well and to hold one another accountable within them. The development of the common noun means that we can share a conception of morality and reinforce it. Without language, this would be impossible. And it is my argument that to allow language to decay is to allow society and morality to decay.
Talk to Me: What do you think about the connection between language and morality? How do you perceive technology to play into the discussion?