Essential Goodness

By essential goodness I mean a kind of multiple potential that is always there. With Aristotle, I don’t assume there is a single Platonic form of the Good. I also don’t assume that the potential for goodness is evenly distributed, but it seems to be plentiful. As befits its potential status, it is simultaneously over- and underdetermined. There is more than one way for a situation to turn out well. This is not automatic, and usually requires our cooperation and active participation.

Part of what makes meanings meaningful to us is their involvement with contingency. Contingency means that what we do matters, but it also means there will always be things beyond our control that we passively experience.

A few of these may be terrible. We lose loved ones. After seeing horrors like the Nazi concentration camps, some people lost their faith, because God did not prevent those things from occurring. This was based on a wrong expectation of a universally present guiding hand in events. Enough wonders do come to us in life that metaphors of providence speak to us, and hope is a good thing. But providence does not necessitate anything, because goodness is a potential that typically requires a cooperating agent(s) for its realization.

Fragility of the Good

At heart, I am an optimistic rationalist in the spirit of Aristotle, Leibniz, and Brandom. Though on Platonic and Kantian grounds I am generally reticent about relying on belief about more particular matters of principle, I do “believe” in essential goodness. However, essential goodness has no automatic causal efficacy. It falls to us to further its realization. (The title phrase occurred to me spontaneously, but I was probably recalling a similar one in the title of a book by Martha Nussbaum.)

Purpose, Contingency

In chapter 11 of Spirit of Trust, Brandom begins to talk about the interweaving of purpose and contingency. I may repeatedly revise a plan of action to realize the same intention. I may even redefine my intention along the way.

Only retrospectively, after this incorporation of contingency, can the intention be viewed as fully determinate. I look back and discover what I have turned out to have actually intended all along.

As Pippin and Pinkard have noted, this kind of Hegelian thought is also very Aristotelian. For Aristotle, it is only in this way — retrospectively — that we can make judgments about someone’s “happiness” or success in living a good life. Aristotle’s biological works are full of concrete examples of the worked out interweaving of purpose and contingency, but there are few other precedents for this kind of thinking.

Historically, thinking about purpose in the world was usually remapped to very un-Aristotelian notions of particular providence, and as a result considerations of contingency were suppressed. Explicit thinking about human purposes has usually occurred in unrealistically voluntaristic contexts, again resulting in the suppression of considerations of contingency. Early modern mechanism banished purpose to a supernatural realm, and attempted to reduce contingency away. Recovering this Aristotelian insight of the interweaving of contingency and purpose in a modern context was one of Hegel’s great achievements, and recovering that Hegelian insight is another great achievement.