The Good Life, No. 7: Good

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?


3 thoughts on “The Good Life, No. 7: Good

  1. Messrs. Strunk and White:

    Chapter V, Rule 8: “Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty — these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words…we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.”

    Hilarious. Awesome. Apropos.

  2. This is a pretty good post. ;)
    Linguistically, there are objective meanings to words. However, lately, many people point to words like “conservative” or “liberal” (like you say) to mean whatever they think the common majority thinks it to mean. “Conservative” and “liberal” had drastically different meanings a 100 years ago which is why you will hear the terms classical liberal or paleoconservative (traditional conservative) now to distinguish the difference from “neoliberal/liberal” and “neoconservative/conservative”. When words take on new meanings, it is usually for political pretenses. Political ideas want to create unity to other political ideologies, so it’s followers can get more people capital to back it. It’s a power gaining tactic. Watch out for this because words may lose the original definition and intent.

  3. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s argument in Mere Christianity regarding the transcendental use of good and evil, “Right” or “Wrong.”

    “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties do not matter; but then, next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong — in other words, if there is no Law of Nature — what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?
    It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table…” (Lewis 19-20).

    Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964.

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