Monday, December 31, 2012

71. Judgments of good and bad

 I insert this extra item to follow up on comments on recent posts

In a comment on my discussion of forms of identification (in item 70 in this blog), Noud te Riele proposed that judgments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are a primitive simplification of the world around us. My response was that while I would not readily judge people as good or bad, surely we can judge actions. We need such judgments for the expression of conflicting opinions in debates that are the source of the good life. In the present item I want to look at this issue more closely.

What might be the basis for this debate? It seems straightforward to look for it in ethics. In item 39, discussing the good life, I aligned myself with the virtue ethics of Aristotle, as opposed to the consequentialist, most often utilitarian view and the deontological, duty based ethics of Kant. In a consequentialist approach an action would be good if it is effective, if it yields intended or desirable outcomes. That makes sense, I think, but it is not enough, there is more. I would not go so far, however, as deontological ethics to proclaim a certain type of action to be universally bad or good, regardless of outcomes or circumstances. I would look at the action from the perspective of virtues that are relevant to the situation.

Now Aristotelian virtues, or variations upon them, are multiple and not necessarily commensurable: depending on the specific conditions of action, one virtue can enter into conflict with another. I gave examples, such as the terrible choice that Agamemnon had to make between the army he commanded and his daughter.

This means, then, that there can be several, perhaps many, sometimes conflicting aspects of good and bad, and in that sense the simple-minded notion of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ is indeed crude, as Noud claims. But one can still, and in fact does, consider good and bad in the light of each of the relevant virtues. What would be good and what bad concerning Agamemnon’s responsibilities as a commander? And concerning his responsibilities as a father? And then the terrible choice: which of the two should prevail? Here there is indeed no indubitable, clear choice of good and bad. But judgments of good and bad still play a role in the quandary. Agamemnon's wife judged differently and had him killed for his choice.

I return to the example that Fransje Broekema brought into the discussion earlier, of the parent who in trying to protect and educate her child (in protective identification) imposes her norms and rules (in projective identification), which can fetter the child too much, robbing it of the opportunity to discover its way for itself. Here there is a mix of good and bad. Being a parent myself I know how difficult it is to find a good balance between the two.

I refer also to my earlier discussion (in item 7) of the spirit of geometry vs. the spirit of finesse. In human affairs one argues in terms of good and bad, but in the spirit of finesse. It is not rocket science. 

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