12 June, 2003
Author: George Irbe
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Good Will Before All Else
It cannot be said that the term ‘good will’ has been in popular use among philosophers. The term is seldom encountered in their works. Of course, it is understandable that ‘good will’ does not preoccupy the thoughts of the moral relativists and utilitarians of modern times. To them the term is of little or no concern to start with, being, in their view, a rather unnecessary, or entirely fictitious, concept. But, it seems to me that even those philosophers who borrow from the Aristotelian heritage to a greater or lesser extent; who do recognize ‘good’ as an absolute value, and categorize the virtues and character attributes of man that add up to - in total - to a moral life; even so, to them also the concept of the ‘good will’ holds no particular significance, no discrete position, in the hierarchy of value-terms.
It is worth noting here that, to my knowledge, Aristotle - that great Greek philosopher, the expounder and explicator of the code of ethics which contributed most significantly to the evolution of Western civilization – also did not recognize good will by itself as an important character attribute or a virtue. He mentions good will only briefly, as a precursor to different kinds of friendship, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Chapter 5. However, in what is perhaps the most notable passage in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6, Chapter 2, Aristotle defines moral virtue in terms of ‘disposition of the mind,’ ‘ true principle,’ ‘right desire,’ and ‘good choice’ which necessarily imply the presence of a ‘good will’ in the individual:
. . . inasmuch as moral virtue is a disposition of the mind in regard to choice, and choice is deliberate desire, it follows that, if the choice is to be good, both the principle must be true and the desire right, and that desire must pursue the same thing as principle affirms. . . [T]he function . . . of the practical intellect is the attainment of truth corresponding to right desire [i.e. truth about the means to the attainment of the rightly desired End].
Furthermore, the idea of a ‘good will’ is implicit in the terms that Aristotle uses frequently to describe a man’s character, such as ‘a good man’ and ‘a virtuous man.’
Immanuel Kant is the one philosopher who is renowned for his use of the term ‘Good Will’ and for the particular meaning which he has ascribed to it. It seems almost as if Kant and his followers have patented the term - appropriated it solely for their own use and invested it forever with an immutable content and value of their making. Kant made his well-known declaration on the ‘good will’ in his characteristically imperative manner at the opening of the first section of his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, which states:
There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except a good will.
Kant’s absolutist approach to just about everything has made him an easy and tempting target for criticism by all non-Kantians; it is usually only in the course of such criticism that Kant’s patented ‘Good Will’ is mentioned by the other philosophers. So it is not at all exceptional that I should have first encountered the term ‘good will,’ as I recall, in one of Mortimer Adler’s books, in a section criticizing Kant’s inflexible absolutist view on morality. After reading Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, my own opinion of Kant is simply that he never recognized human nature, or, if he did, he certainly did not understand it at all.
Since I became aware of Kant’s ‘Good Will’ and the critical responses it has engendered from other philosophers, I have felt intuitively that the concept of a ‘good will’ deserves a different meaning and usage than the one accorded to it by Kant, as well as, perforce, by his critics. In short, I think that the ‘good will’, rather than being a ‘good’ in the Kantian sense, should be recognized as an intimate part of the human soul.
Eventually I discovered that my intuitive sense that the ‘good will’ is to be found in the soul is perhaps not an entirely foolish notion. I draw support for it from the thoughts of Thomas Hill Green. In his Prolegomena to Ethics, Green criticizes Kant’s conception of the ‘good will’ in a moderate and not entirely dismissive manner. In addition, Green modifies the Kantian meaning of the term ‘good will,’ creates its inverse, i.e., ‘the will to be good,’ and posits it as a key ingredient in the evolution of our moral consciousness since the times of the ancient Greek philosophers. I will quote here selected pertinent sections from some paragraphs, numbered consecutively in the Prolegomena to Ethics by the author, which give an indication of how Green understands the meaning of the ‘good will’. Incidentally, one also cannot help noting how strongly these quotes resound with Green’s optimistic belief - which is his trade-mark among philosophers - in the perfectibility of man and man’s society:
. . . we have no knowledge of the perfection of man as the unconditional good, but that which we have of his goodness or the good will, in the format which it has assumed as a means to, or in the effort after, the unconditional good; a good which is not an object of speculative knowledge to man, but of which the idea – the conviction of there being such a thing – is the influence through which his life is directed to its attainment. [#195]
[Kant’s] good will may be taken to mean a will possessed by some abstract idea of goodness or of moral law and, if such possession were possible at all, except perhaps during moments of special spiritual detachment from the actualities of life, it would amount to a paralysis of the will for all effectual application to great objects of human interest. It would no longer be the will of the good workman, the good father, or the good citizen. But it is not thus that we understand the good will. The principle which it is here sought to maintain is that the perfection of human character – a perfection of individuals which is also that of society, and of society which is also that of individuals – is for man the only object of absolute or intrinsic value; [#247]
With Kant, for instance, whatever his rigor in identifying moral badness with selfishness and this with pleasure-seeking, it was never doubtful that the goodness of the good will lay in the prevalence of interest in a worthy object, badness in such failure of the worthy interest as enables the desire for pleasure to prevail. His error consisted in his too abstract view of the interest on which he held that true goodness must depend, and which he seems to reduce to interest in the fulfillment of moral law according to the most abstract possible conception of it. [#262]
Socrates and his followers are not rightly regarded as the originators of an interesting moral speculation . . . They represent, though it might be too much to say that they introduced, a new demand, or at least a fuller expression of an old demand, of the moral nature. Now though our actual moral attainment may always be far below what our conscience requires of us, it does tend to rise in response to a heightened requirement of conscience, and will not rise without it. Such a requirement is implied in the conception of the unity of virtue, as determined by one idea of practical good which was to be the conscious spring of the perfectly virtuous life – an idea of it as consisting in some intrinsic excellence, some full realization of the capabilities, of the thinking and willing soul. Here we have – not indeed in its source, but in that first clear expression through which it manifests its life – the conviction that every form of real goodness must rest on a will to be good, which has no object but its own fulfillment. [#251]
And when we come to ask ourselves what are the essential forms in which, however otherwise modified, the will for the true good (which is the will to be good) must appear, our answer follows the outlines of the Greek classification of the virtues. [#256]
In the root of the matter the Greek conception of these virtues is thoroughly sound. They are considered genuine only when resting on a pure and good will, which is a will to be good – a will directed not to anything external, or anything in respect of which it is passive, but to its own perfection, to the attainment of what is noblest in human character and action. [#279]
Being a devoted Aristotelian, I was happy to learn that, as the above quotes from the Prolegomena clearly indicate, Thomas Hill Green found the genesis of the ‘good will,’ or its inverse, ‘the will to be good,’ in the virtues as conceived by the ancient Greeks. Furthermore, I was encouraged to pursue my intuition that the ‘good will’ resides in the soul by Green’s words, in paragraph #251, that: “ . . our moral attainment . . tend[s] to rise in response to a heightened requirement of conscience, and will not rise without it . .”; that it involves “ . . the thinking and willing soul . .”; and that “. . every form of real goodness must rest on a will to be good . .”.
The Will is in the Soul
Before I attempt to justify my intuition about the ‘good will’ residing in the soul, I must first provide background information on my beliefs regarding the soul, which are by no means conventional. In what follows I will re-state some passages form two of my previous essays: (1) The Dark Side of Human Nature, and (2) How it all comes together: God – Life – Soul; for brevity, I will refer to the essays, as numbered above.
First of all, as I state in (2), I belong to a sub-set of cosmological theists who believe that the Creator imparts an immaterial soul to human beings. I go even further, following in Aristotle's footsteps (but with a different understanding of God and the soul), by positing that all living things are imparted with a soul, where the soul is the very essence of the meaning of 'life'. The soul is an essential component of my understanding of human nature. Furthermore, in my opinion it is the soul which possesses the 'free will.'
Second, as I state in (1): The soul, also, just as its biological host, has progressed through an evolutionary process planned and controlled by a Supreme Intelligence. Therefore, there are simple, primitive souls and more developed souls, culminating with the soul of man. The level of intelligence, and the corresponding extent of the free will associated with it, conforms to the degree of development of the soul. The extraordinary thing about Homo sapiens is that, compared to other life forms on Earth, his soul and intelligence have been not only hugely increased, but that they have been raised to an entirely different plane. Nevertheless, this soul which could be dubbed the 'super-soul,' if you wish, still carries within its blueprint the structures from more primitive models of the past.
In (1) I have presented the details of my theory of how the soul functions, which I will not repeat here, except for this concluding remark, which says: In a real sense the human soul is burdened with a heavy responsibility by the Supreme Intelligence in return for the near-limitless power of intelligence it has been granted. It is as if the Supreme Intelligence has decreed: "You are largely on your own. It is very hard to do, but try your utmost to get it right." So far, getting it right has proven to be almost impossible; the human soul carries within it the vestiges, faint as they may be, from other souls of other species, reaching back into the primordial past. The great intelligence of the human soul is a blessing, but it can also be seen as a curse: the God-given innate urge, given to the soul of man, just as it is given to the souls of other species, to excel in the pursuit of status and possession of goods, enables man to excel at what is best, but it also enables him to excel at the worst that can be imagined. The human soul can use the best powers of reason at its command to rationalize the necessity for the most evil acts. That is why envy and greed and other vices show up as very glaring and integral parts of human nature, much more so than in the lower life forms.
At this point a few remarks are in order concerning our amorphous understanding and use of the term ‘human nature.’ I use it myself in the title of The Dark Side of Human Nature. The conventional view of human nature recognizes that it has some innate undesirable and unpredictable facets which cannot be eliminated, but which must be taken into account when trying to anticipate the behavior of individuals, or society as a whole. This view is held by most practitioners of politics, law-makers, and sociologists in civil societies. Only the coercive utopians refuse to accept human nature for what it is and stubbornly insist on amending, homogenizing, or perfecting it by force, in spite of their many disastrous attempts to do so, as witnessed by history.
I would, however, like to suggest that there really is no such thing as one ‘human nature’ which is characteristic of all humans; there are, rather, the individual natures of individual human beings which have some common traits. In my view, the qualities and characteristics that are conventionally attributed to ‘human nature’ really belong to the soul; or, it is the soul that expresses the nature of a human being. I have explained above how every human soul carries within it common elements, some of which could be described as vestiges of savage, undesirable traits and impulses which it has inherited through the course of evolution from earlier life forms. Thus, when the sociologist, or pragmatic politician, or law-giver factor ‘human nature’ into their respective deliberations, they are factoring in contingencies to deal with the most prevalent of the undesirable and unpredictable latent traits of millions of human souls.
There is a most important aspect of the human soul that leads directly to the proposition that it holds within itself the quality of ‘the will to be good,’ which leads, in turn, to the initiation of actions that demonstrate a spirit of ‘good will.’ As I say in (2), the human soul is a very special exnihilated creation; its perfection culminates in self-consciousness, which is not the case for other mammals whose souls have only consciousness. This self-consciousness is what sets man apart from all other living things.
Next, I would like to state something that we all know, often almost intuitively, from the experience of living with our own self, i.e. our self-consciousness, and with other human beings: we can recognize, as I have said in (2), between a human soul that is merely self-conscious and one that is self-conscious and, to put it simply, also has a conscience. Conscience is the understanding and self-acknowledgement by the soul of the difference between right and wrong thinking and acting; it is a persistent inner force which compels the soul always to think and do right to the best of one's ability. Conscience is both backward- and forward-looking. It is a faculty that the human soul is capable of developing for self-examination as to what it has done and what it will do. It is the only attribute of the human soul that raises it above the souls of other life forms.
We have, then, the two challenges that the soul faces continuously, without surcease: (a) constraining the latent inherited vestiges of primitive traits from ancestral species, and (b) performing up to the standards set by its own conscience. There is only one instrument the soul can conceivably use to perform both of these functions – its will.
It appears quite obvious to me that there can never be the absolutely perfect soul which will never weaken, never flag, never err, in facing up to the two challenges. Such a soul would be truly super-human, endowed with a super-human will.
(a) The first challenge concerns what are commonly known as instinctive actions. Instinctive actions are usually instant, often violent, and, at times, self-preserving. They are often described as ‘kill or be killed’ choices. Even so, the soul, if it has a conscience, will put it to use to examine critically such actions after the fact: was the severity of the action necessary?, were there alternatives?, etc. Other instinctive actions, for instance the instinctive sexual urge to procreate, and the urge for rapacious consumption of material goods, are other issues that the soul’s conscience must struggle with and resolve.
(b) I believe that the ultimate destiny of the soul depends on whether it develops a conscience. The challenge to our souls to strive for the highest standards of conscience comes from the Creator himself. However, because we are masters of our own free will, we are expected to meet this challenge voluntarily. It is on this point that human souls show a great variation from one to another, and why there is no universal, homogeneous ‘human nature’. There are millions of souls on Earth at any given time which exist with little or no conscience to speak of, and thus have hardly any standard of conscience to live up to.
As I have stated in (1), by using its God-given powerful intelligence the soul can always construe, if it so chooses, and perhaps only to ease its own conscience, arguments which are rational on the surface but which are in fact clever manipulations and inversions of wrong into right and vice versa. Moreover, the powerful intelligence of the human soul enables it to use envy, hate, and other negative feelings in very sophisticated ways; the soul uses its great powers of reason to construe and to justify the inversion of right and wrong, and to carry such inversion into action, no matter how bad the reasoning and action might be.
The Will to be Good and the Good Will
Having decided that the will is the soul’s instrument, it follows that the will to be good and the good will also come from the soul. A distinction can be made between the ‘will to be good’ and the ‘good will.’ The first is a general resolve of the soul to always keep itself, as best it can, within a discipline of thinking and acting virtuously. I interject ‘as best it can’ because there is not a human soul which is capable of sustaining the will to be good forever without faltering. We cannot ever honestly claim that we constantly harbor a will to be good.
The second term, ‘good will,’ is what the soul projects outwardly, in thought and action, towards the world at large, towards other living things, other people, and also towards its own physical self. Just as sustaining a will to be good without a break is impossible, so it is likewise impossible to maintain a good will towards everyone and everything in the world, not even towards ourselves, as the psychologists tell us.
My theory on the soul and the soul’s will leads me to conclude that both the will to be good and the good will is found to occur to different degrees and with different frequencies in different individuals, according to the varying qualities of their individual consciences. The soul’s ability to sustain its will to be good and its good will, and its ability to restore them after the inevitable occasional lapses, depend completely on the level of cultivation and sensitization achieved by the soul’s conscience.
I consider conscience to be a first principle of morality, to borrow Aristotle’s terminology. Therefore it seems idle to me to look for its causes. Thomas Hill Green says:
Whenever and wherever, then, the interest in a social good has come to carry with it any distinct idea of social merit – of qualities that make the good member of a family, or a good tribesman, or a good citizen – we have the beginning of that education of the conscience of which the end is the conviction that the only true good is to be good. [#244]
However, he talks of the beginning of the education of conscience, not of the beginning of conscience. Conscience could well be an innate property of the soul. The soul itself is an incorporeal entity, so we are dealing here with an enigma within an enigma. I would like to think of conscience as similar to a potential source of energy which, if not developed, cannot be used. It may well be the same situation for the soul and its conscience: undeveloped, it languishes unused. And if conscience is left in dormancy, so is the will to be good and the good will.
It seems to me that Immanuel Kant missed the mark on ‘good will’: he recognized the paramount value of it, but for the wrong reason. He sought for its origin outside of man, instead of inside, in the soul of man.
Thomas Hill Green is the one philosopher I know of, though there may be others of which I am unaware, who has argued, (convincingly, in my opinion), that the ancient Greek philosophers, who confronted man’s nature as it really is, enunciated the essence of the good will through their espousal of the traditional virtues. Green’s exposition of the will to be good/ good will differs from mine only in that Green is inclined to be idealistic and to focus on the societal aspects of mankind, whereas I focus entirely on the soul of the individual, with all its warts.
I hope that I have made a convincing argument, in light of the blemishes and shortcomings of the human soul discussed above, that the presence of the ‘will to be good’ and the ‘good will’ truly rank in importance above any of the traditional virtues, or the goods associated with them. Without the will to be good there can be no genuine good will, nor a genuine display of virtue. That is why I deemed the title of this essay: Good Will Before All Else to be very appropriate.
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