On Good and Green

how morality is like a color

January 1, 2013

Today I’m thinking about good, and green.

An easy question to ask about a concept: does this exist physically in the world? Collectively, in the mind of society? Or does it exist in my mind alone?

A rock on the side of the road exists physically more than it does mentally or socially. The rock is not a social construct. It’s a rock.

Celebrity is exists socially more than mentally or physically. It takes a whole society to make fame; but it doesn’t necessarily reflect anything physically different about the famed.

Math is mostly mental; two minds, in two worlds, with two societies, could and should come to the same conclusions — though not necessarily with the same ease or in the same order.

But green is more complicated. Green is a range of wavelengths of light — it has a purely physical definition. But that definition is, physically speaking, arbitrary. There is no line between red, green, and radio, except one that is socially defined. (Yes, it’s true that there is a physiological predilection of the human vision system to divide the visual spectrum in specific ways; but a society is — in part — the species from which it’s made.) We learn green from the people around us.

But we don’t learn green on a case-by-case basis forever. We don’t carry a list, in our head, of all green things, like we might with celebrity. Instead, we learn to ken green-ness, and we can recognize it in new situations without society’s help.

Green is partially mental, physical, and social.

I think that Good is like green. Relativists are right — a man alone, without their compatriots, could decide on any principle and call it moral.

Society plays a huge roll in defining Good; but once we learn what’s good, once a person kens goodness, they should no longer need society to list each and every good thing. Once learned, goodness is a quality that can be understood individually.

And, I think, good names something that has a physical reality; not one that is physically differentiated — but, like green, one that can be physically defined in terms of the patterns and qualities of good things: complexity, elegance, adventure, self-awareness, balance.

I’m thinking that good is like green.

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