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Honest Question. Does something have to be useful to be good?



  1. Well – I think so, yes….but quite what it’s use *is* and who it is useful *to* will remain undefined!

  2. *its! Oops.

  3. Eee, thanks for takin a bash at it, Sinders =] I like your answer – i think its very wise.

    I’m kinda playin around with – thinking around, i guess – issues of value and worth and purpose. I’ve been thinking about how i derive (or sometimes struggle to derive) self worth from my actions and relationships, and how i worry about not being a very ‘practical’ person. I’ve been thinking about how my atheist friends make moral decisions and how they ascribe value to human life. And how christian ideas of goodness can sometimes seem very divorced from pragmatic concerns. And how all kinds of people (especially me) seem to have a disconnection between their stated worldview and their actions. I’ve also been thinking about the idea of beauty and how we give that value in our society, and whether beauty is useful. I’ve basically been thinking too much, as usual =]

    I’ve been reading a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and some stuff in my life right now – some conversations with people, and blogs i’ve read and things – have combined with what the book’s all about and set off the train of thought above. And that question up there is kinda what popped out. So thanks for engaging with my question. I really like your answer =]

  4. No.

  5. In slightly more depth:
    There are several theories (yes, no, maybe, and it depends). Speaking for myself, I’m firmly in the ‘no’ camp (full of surprises today, eh?).

    I’m not one hundred percent sure but I think the holding in equivalence of goodness with usefulness is utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill and co. – please excuse me if my facts are wrong but you saw how rubbish the laptop was – it wouldn’t cope with any real research) at the opposite end of the spectrum to aestheticism (Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Lestat being two literary proponents) where whatever is beautiful is good.

    Being a Tim of very little brain, I would say that a thing is good because of its goodness and not because of any other attributes it might possess. Does a thing have to be big to be beautiful?

    Of course, if that is the case, then the question of assessing goodness is thrown wide open and we’re only slightly further on from where we started (one more option ruled out). You might as well ask what Truth is…

  6. Excellent answers, Tim. I like the first one best (for its brevity and forceful and carefully marshalled argument). However, the latter one gives me some leads to investigate, which should be fun, so thank you very much =]

    I reckon the assessment of goodness is what i’m after here, so thanks for pointing us at that specifically. I think i’m trying to understand goodness because i want to make good choices, invest in good things and live a good life. Ultimately, i think i want to understand goodness because i want to be a good person.

    I feel like i don’t know whether (or more realistically, to what extent) i am a good person cos i don’t really understand what is good (maybe? perhaps). At least, i can’t objectively judge my ‘goodness’ without thinking first about what makes something (or someone) good. And i really want to be good (funny, isn’t it? I don’t really know why, but i think i really do desperately want to be good on some deep internal level). Or more accurately still, i really want to know how to become good.

    I guess i would be tempted to argue for a synthesis of this here utilitarianism and aestheticism you speak of and say that goodness is equivalent to neither usefulness nor beauty, but is in fact the name for the simultaneous presence of both attributes in the same thing. Thus taking the spectrum you describe and tying it in a big pretty bow.

    The problem with this is that i think part of the reason i am desperate to be a good person is that i equate goodness with value. So if i decide goodness only exists where usefulness and beauty co-exist, does that mean that less beautiful, less useful (for useful, read gifted, talented, educated, able-bodied, whatever) people are less good? and therefore have less value? Are all people equal? Oh dear; that is a slippery slope.

    I don’t know what to make of this. I want to be excellent. I want to be good. I want to be valuable. I don’t know what any of these words actually mean. At least not in an objective sense. And i feel lost as to where to start in an effort to attain these (somewhat undefined) goals. Much to think about.

  7. ps Truth is next week’s question. One at a time, dear boy, please.

  8. Nope

  9. “Why do you call me good?”

    ‘because you are useful’

  10. Thanks for the comment, CW. Are you saying that Jesus isn’t useful?

    I know the two words are not synonymous – there is more to goodness than expedience – but i wonder if its possible to be good without ever serving a purpose? Or, slightly different question, to have value without serving a purpose?

    Why do you call Jesus good?

  11. If we begin to judge people upon their fulfilling a purpose, where does that leave us with those less purposeful people? How can we care for those less fortunate than ourselves if we are judging them upon their purposfulness.

    Does this play into the government argument of deserving and undeserving poor? What about “I have come that you may have life in all it’s fulness”?

  12. Good questions, Robb. It’s taken me a while to think through a response… and here it is:

    Your very question betrays that you *do* judge others on their ability (and so do i). The question of how we behave towards people who are ‘purposefully challenged’, if you like, pre-supposes that there are such people and that we can identify them. And i think there is an extent to which this is necessary, else we ask people to help us or others in a way they are not currently able to do, and this results in things being done badly or not at all, which is no fun for anyone and results in frustration and low self esteem and all kinds of unpleasant things. I would argue that the best way to relate to people (any people) is to help them find things they *can* do, preferably some things that they love doing (unless they’re workaholics, in which case no. Teach *them* how to stop). Most people are capable of doing something. As soon as you start doing *something* there is at least the possibility of learning and growing and gaining confidence and these are good things.

    Doesn’t life in all its fulness include the joy of blessing other people by usefully offering your abilities and time and practical skills to others. Isn’t that part of being good? Isn’t that one of the greatest good feelings in life – to have genuinely been useful and offered help and support to someone else?

    At the root of all this, i think, is that i instinctively feel that other people are valuable, because they feel. But i can’t believe this about myself – i can’t believe that i am valuable because i feel. I only feel that i am valuable if i am good at stuff. Loving other people is easy. Loving myself is hard to do. Meh.

  13. Wow. I would like to say something useful and beautiful and good here, but my mind is kind of boggled right now (also impressed at the blogpost-length comments and the comment-length blogpost), so . . . instead I shall just register my boggledom. Here it is.

  14. Thank you, Jenn. I happen to believe that honest boggledom is a rare and underappreciated resource in our society and so your gift is most welcome. I find life continually boggling (i’m begiining to expect i’m not really its target audience) and so its always good to find i am not alone in my mystification.

    As for your remark regarding post length:comment length, may i first compliment you on your keen eye for absurdist detail (which is an excellent trait in a person, in my opinion), and secondly warn you that it is unlikely to get any more sensible from here on in. I have a habit of looking at things sideways and doing things back to front, inside out and halfway through, so… yeah. Enjoy.

  15. Oh good. 😉


  17. Timothy, your wish is my command (terms and conditions apply)

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