Submitted by Marvin Miller
We distinguish living organisms from non-living entities by observing that living organisms act, via internal physical and chemical processes, in the interests of their continued existence and of the future of their species — in other words, with purpose. Purpose is different from intent — for purpose, consciousness isn’t necessary and usually isn’t present.
Since the lifespan of a living organism is limited, living organisms act to perpetuate their species by reproduction. Humans, however, are more complex than other kinds of life, and we can act to continue the existence of our species in ways other than reproduction. We are aware of the environment that sustains us and of the dangers that need to be avoided, such as nuclear war. Actions to avoid those dangers are consistent with our purpose as living organisms.
The concept “good” is meaningless in the absence of purpose. No one ever talks about what’s good for a raindrop or a cloud — that wouldn’t make any sense. “Good” is relevant only for living organisms. What’s good for an organism is what helps in fulfilling its purposes, and what’s bad is what impedes that fulfillment. An organism needs a life-sustaining environment that includes adequate nutrients. It also needs to maintain the functionality of its body. Deprivation of nutrients and injury are bad.
There’s no such thing as universal good. What’s intended and expected to be good can have bad side-effects. Sometimes these can end up being worse than what the intended good was intended to overcome. A medicine intended to relieve pain can sometimes lead to addiction. Surgery can result in complications harmful to the patient.
What’s good for the owl is bad for the mouse. The slowest zebra is caught by the lion. What’s bad for the zebra can be good for the zebra species — future zebras inherit the speed of the survivors. Death is the ultimate bad for an organism, but without it there would soon be no room or sustenance for its species. Ecology-minded forest managers have introduced predators to keep the deer population within the carrying capacity of the forest.
Pleasure is good — it makes us feel good. We like sweet foods that give us energy. Pleasure leads us to do things that are good for us. But too much of a good thing can be bad — too much sugar can rot our teeth and lead to obesity. The old Greek philosophers who said that moderation is good and deficiency and excess are bad had a valid point. But even too much moderation is sometimes not good. Sometimes strong action is necessary for survival.
We often hear “better” used as a synonym for “more”. More is better when we have too little, but it’s worse when we have too much. People are curious — we seek information. But now there is practically an infinity of information available to us. Information flooding in upon us deprives us of something good — quiet time to think. A society of non-thinkers isn’t a good society.
Everyone and everything is a mixture of good and bad. Our task is to try to maximize the good in ourselves and in the world.