I think we can reason about what is good and bad (or right and wrong).
Let’s start off with a simple example. We have a choice to give to a charity that helps people or a charity we find out doesn’t really help people. Which charity should we give to? I think it is obvious. The one that actually helps people. There is no point to giving to a charity that doesn’t help anyone.
Well, what does it even mean to help people? Can we reason about that? We might think that the concept of helping people involves the concept of goodness or value. Can one person be better off than another? Is a person better off who is being tortured or who is sitting down eating lunch? I think it’s obvious. The guy eating lunch is better off than the one being tortured.
How could we know that? I think we know that people who are being tortured are being harmed—either mentally or physically. Either they are put in mental or physical pain. But what’s wrong with pain? No big deal, right? Wrong. Anyone who has actually experienced pain knows that we call it “pain” precisely because of how we experience it. We experience it as something bad. The concept of pain already involves the concept of being bad, and we can know that pain really exists (and why it is bad to some extent) precisely because we have experienced it before. Not all of us have been tortured, but I suspect everyone has experienced pain.
Some people have told me that they don’t agree with how I use the word pain. Perhaps the term suffering might be more appropriate and most people seem to agree that suffering might be a better term than pain for these discussions. But is the concept of pain so different from the concept of suffering? I am not convinced. Some people think pain involves the experience of the body being damaged or something, but I don’t think it is really pain unless there is some suffering involved—unless we would say it was a bad experience.
Some people told me that we can’t really know anything about good and bad. Well, perhaps there is always some room for doubt. Perhaps the evidence we use to justify our beliefs about good and bad are always based on limited information. There’s a chance we could be wrong. However, I don’t think it makes sense to say we don’t know something unless we are certain that it is true. I define knowledge as justified true belief. If a justified belief is true, then I would say we know it. (I must then admit that there is some luck involved with our knowledge, and we can’t always know what we know.)
Some people have told me that we can’t really know anything about good and bad, but insist that God is good and can tell us the answers to these questions. They will trust what God tells them. How do they know what God has to say about it? Some people say the Bible tells us, but I think that is far from obvious. Also, even if the Bible was written by God, I think we would still have no choice but to try our best to reason about what is good or bad because the Bible does not answer every question we need answered about ethics. Did God say not to give to a charity unless it helps people, or that we should prefer charities that help people more than others? Even if God did answer that question, did God also tell us exactly what it means to help someone? Does giving to a political campaign that opposes same-sex marriage count as helping people? I think that is far from obvious (and I actually think it would end up hurting people).