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Goodness and Badness

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It's very common to hear of a person being good, whether it's through conversation with friends or through the media. I have often asked myself where this judgment comes from. What makes a man or woman good? Is it that they are born a virtuous person, or do they earn virtue by their actions? On what basis can a person say someone is good? Do they know they are good because they have followed certain rules of being good? If so, these rules would have had to be created at one point. Are the creators of these rules virtuous themselves? Perhaps all people are made good by God, but it is their actions that say otherwise. In this discussion, the definitions of a good or moral decision will be visited, as well as the driving force behind these decisions.

To help us answer such questions, we can study the beliefs of philosophers who sought to explain such mysteries. Among these are Plato, Aristotle, Mencius, and Seneca. There are many different ways to define goodness, as can be seen in the explanations of good and evil by each philosopher.

Plato's concept of goodness relates to his belief that saying that something is good is to talk about something within the object itself which exists independently of the item. This abstract reality within that object is a Form. He believed that the highest of these ideas and the essence of being was the Good. It was defined by many as the perfect idea and blueprint. This idea and blueprint was God's purpose in creating the universe. Therefore, this belief of goodness is defined as anything that increases the universe's ability to reach God's purpose for it. Anything that decreases that level is considered bad or evil. This belief can be classified as transcendental realism.

What in an individual's mind makes these decisions? In Plato's Republic, Socrates aims to describe a just man by describing the attributes of a just city. This city consisted of craftsmen, soldiers, and guardians, each with their own occupation. "Each citizen should perform that work or function for which his nature best suits him. This is the principle that we may properly call justice" (Abel 29). With each profession minding their own business and doing the proper task at hand, the city is considered tempered, courageous, and wise.

An individual's soul is also composed of three parts according to Plato: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason judges between right and wrong. It governs spirit, which fights off the desires of the appetite. In the same way, the different parts of the soul must also not overstep their bounds. "Overrunning the territories of soul and city, desire will claim for itself the right to govern" (Abel 36). Through this analogy, Socrates comes to the conclusion that justice or virtue is "nothing else than the power that brings forth well-governed men and well-governed cities" (Abel 37). Harmony is needed between all parts of the soul.

Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, states that "Virtue consists of two kinds, intellectual virtue and moral virtue" (Abel 60). Intellectual virtue is mainly taught and therefore requires experience and time. On the other hand, moral virtue is formed from habit. From these definitions, Aristotle concludes that these virtues cannot be implanted by nature, because any nature-given tendency cannot be changed by habit. "The virtues we acquire by first having put them into action" (Abel 60). In order to be just, we must practice just actions. Characteristics develop from performing the corresponding type of activities.

How then, does man know what type of activity to aim for? It is said that a successful piece of work is one in which nothing can be added or subtracted from it to make it better. It follows Aristotle's conclusion that virtue aims at the median within actions and emotions. "To experience [fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and any kind of pleasure and pain] at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner Ð'- that is the median and best course" ( Abel 62). Any action that aims for the median is considered right. However, there are certain acts such as theft, murder, and adultery which have no median. These actions are considered unjust.

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