Johnny Be Good—An Introduction

by Dennis Buonafede | September 9, 2015 12:04 am

father-son-boy-with-kite-featured-w740x493[1]Every day, in homes around the world and in every language, parents are ushering their children out the door and off to school, camp, a sleep-over or some other parent-free function with the time honoured exhortation: “Have fun and be good!”

Some children, usually the older and more worldly-wise, will mutter under their breath that the two commands “have fun” and “be good” are mutually exclusive; an “oxymoron,” if their vocabulary is developed enough to incorporate that word.

Yet, be that as it may, the parental exhortation to “be good” carries with it a wealth and depth of meaning ranging from “remember your manners” and “brush your teeth” to “be virtuous, of good character and do nothing to tarnish our family’s good reputation.”

Of course, what a child understands to be “good” is the result of many years of training and formation; in the home, in school and in society. The capacity “to be good” depends on all these things as well as the child’s own inner disposition and character. In addition “being good” is not without numerous obstacles or challenges, both internal and external. If we are going to have any success as parents and teachers, and if our children are going to achieve any proficiency in “being good” we need to examine that realm of philosophy that is more practical in nature, what we most commonly refer to as “ethics” or “morality.”

We’ve been down this road before

Before we begin our journey into Ethics and Morality I would like to step aside for a moment to offer a word of encouragement to parents and teachers. In the first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes, verse 9, we read: “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.”

We parents and teachers look around at the social decline that we are experiencing and often feel overwhelmed by it all. We worry about our children, rightly so, and wonder what can we do? If it is any consolation rest assured that we’ve “been there, done that!” As unique and creative as we tend to think we are as human beings, when it comes right down to it, there are only so many ways we can mess things up. While goodness is inexhaustible in its creativity (no two saints are alike), evil really is banal and most of those we call “evil” seem to sing from a limited song-sheet (think Hitler, Stalin, Pol-Pot, Mao, Castro, Che Gueverra, etc.).

A quick glance at history reveals that we are experiencing, philosophically, the same problem encountered by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in Athens, several hundred years before St. Paul ever visited the city. Here is an excerpt from the book The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy. Does this historical description not resonate with our current situation?

“Implicit in the approach of the Sophists [i] to education and culture was a concept of man and knowledge together with their own idea of truth. At the heart of their Paideia (system of education) was the cultivation of a person so polished and powerful with the spoken word that he could persuade and convince an audience on any political proposal or question or its contradiction. Both became equally true. Truth becomes what is advantageous. Thus the seven arts, culminating in the science of rhetoric, which gives this power of persuasion, open the way to leadership and success in all walks of civic life. All this is taught in the context of the traditional virtues of the Greeks, with their paradigms in the heroes of earlier times, centering upon the Homeric literature. This is secularism, the reduction of the human mode of being to the affairs of earthly life, assuming that that is all there is to man. It implies something like the pragmatism of William James in early twentieth-century America. James taught that the truth of an idea is its cash value in practical affairs. For the Sophists man has only one kind of knowledge, the perceptions of his senses. Their view of human nature was not unlike the idea that man is nothing but a more evolved animal, who therefore exhibits a more advanced cleverness. In philosophical terms, the approach of the Sophists implies materialism and skepticism and assumes that there is no difference from the lower animals in the human mode of being and activity, no difference in kind.” [ii]

Replace “rhetoric” with “math, science, technology and economics” and you can probably see a similarity between what was then and what is now. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. Fortunately where the Greeks had Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as voices of wisdom we now have intellects like Augustine, Aquinas, Pope John Paul the Great, Pope Benedict XVI along with countless Saints and Church Doctors. Where sin is present, Grace abounds even more so! To echo Pope John Paul II’s first words as Pope: “Be not afraid!”

Unpacking the word “Good”

For the ancient Sophist or the modern day relativist, the word “good” was essentially meaningless in itself. It was whatever achieved success in a particular endeavor. “Good” really means “advantageous.”

However, as we have seen in our examination of Metaphysics and Human Nature, there is a reality, independent of our concepts, within which we have been embedded. Our human intellect can grasp, discover and reflect upon the truths inherent to this reality. These insights, insofar as they conform to reality, are called “truth.”

Associated with “truth” is the concept of “good.” What is true is good, what is good is true. Indeed, we can also say that what is good and true is also beautiful, and vice versa. These realities: GOOD, TRUE, BEAUTIFUL are called Transcendentals—they transcend the particular instances in which they are found and can be understood in themselves. When it comes to God we say that God IS Good, God IS Truth, God IS Beauty, God IS One.

(1) Ontological goodness

In the material universe—and from our human perspective—the “good” has several distinctions to it that need be understood. First of all, we understand “good” in its ontological sense. That is in the sense of “being” as such. St. Thomas explains it like this in his Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 5, Article 3.

“I answer that, Every being, as being, is good. For all being, as being, has actuality and is in some way perfect…”

In other words, every “thing” that exists, insofar as it exists, is good. God is the Supreme Being, therefore God is the Greatest Good. The higher the nature of being that something possesses, the more “good” it is. So, an insect is “more ontologically good” than a rock, an animal more than an insect, a human more than an animal, an angel more than a human. [iii]

NOTE: This is the ONLY sense in which we can attribute the word “good” to Satan and the fallen angels, for they do not lose their “being.” For them to lose “being” would be for them to not exist.

(2) Natural or essential goodness

Next we understand “good” in the natural sense, that is, “good” insofar as it is in the nature or essence of a thing. This can be understood both in the sense of a thing’s attributes and insofar as it fulfills, or helps fulfill, its purpose.

For example, an “ontologically good” pencil is one that exists. It is “naturally good” insofar as it is sharp, has lead within it, and an eraser at the other end (what we call “attributes” or “accidents” in metaphysics) and that it writes well (fulfills its purpose). A pencil sharpener is “a good” for a pencil since it helps the pencil stay sharp and thus fulfill its purpose.

When we apply this to humanity, we can take all the elements we discussed previously and say that a human being is “naturally good” when he or she possesses the elements that are associated with being human: they are rational and volitional, they possess both body and soul, they are either male or female, they are social, etc. Also, those things that are needed for human beings to actualize these elements are also called “natural goods.” For example, food, clothing, shelter, books, social activities, marriage, etc are “natural goods” because they aid human beings in sustaining their existence and fulfilling their purpose.

This natural goodness can be applied to everything that exists in the physical world. They can be naturally good insofar as it refers to them specifically or as they are desired by other beings for the fulfillment of their purpose; for example, good grass understood in itself or as pasture for cattle.

(3) Moral goodness

Finally, we can speak of “moral goodness.” This is what we typically mean when we tell our children, “now be good,” as we are herding them out the door.

Moral goodness only applies to human beings since we are the only creatures that possess free will, can make deliberate choices and act upon those choices. We are morally good when our actions conform to “the good,” morally evil when they do not. (We will discuss what constitutes morally good and bad in future articles.) [iv]

What do we mean by “EVIL?”

Now that we’ve seen the three ways by which the word “good” can be understood, we can also see the three ways the word “EVIL” can be understood. Evil is not something that is real “in itself,” but rather it is something that is lacking in reality that ought to be there.

(1) Ontological Evil

Hamlet’s question “To be or not to be” is a “no-brainer” in the ontological sense. To be is good; to not be is an absence of good. “Not to be” then can be said to be an evil, an absence of something that ought to exist. We can best see this evil present in the act of artificial contraception. Insofar as a couple artificially prevents the fertilization of a human egg, they are committing an act which results in an “ontological evil” (as well as being morally evil); they are preventing a human being, who ought to exist, from ever existing. This “ontological evil” is a consequence of a moral decision and the action deriving from that decision, but nonetheless it has an ontological consequence: Life that ought to “be” does not.

(2) Natural Evil

Evil in the natural sense is when something doesn’t have what it ought to have. For example, a basketball that doesn’t bounce can be said to be naturally evil because it is lacking in the air it needs to bounce. We don’t call it evil though, we just say that it is a “bad basketball” or a basketball that isn’t very good.

We would describe natural disasters like droughts, hurricanes, floods or tornadoes as natural evils. They are a result of some lack in nature. We would categorize diseases and disabilities as natural evils too. If we examine each essential element that is proper to a human being we can see that some people lack the capacity for Reason (i.e. severe Down’s Syndrome), volition (some people are naturally lacking in the ability to make choices), corporeally (birth defects, missing limbs, lack of health, etc.), sexually (hermaphrodites, gender identity issues), socially (sociopaths, psychopaths, the imprisoned, etc). [v]

(3) Moral Evil

When we say that someone is “evil” or that something that someone does is “evil,” we’re saying that there is something morally lacking in either the person or the action. We recognize that people ought to be kind, considerate, peaceful, loving, gentle, honest, unselfish, etc. When we are not what we ought to be, the absence of these qualities manifests themselves in actions that are mean, inconsiderate, violent, hateful, harsh, dishonest, selfish, etc.

We also recognize that the more someone acts in ways that are contrary to the moral order the more we attribute that characteristic to the person. We don’t say “Johnny tends to say untruthful things,” what we usually say is “Johnny is a liar!”

Ideas Have Consequences

We have only scratched the surface in our examination of “the good” insofar as it applies to practical philosophy, but the limits of time and space require that I stop here. We will next examine the link between “the good” and “happiness.” Yet I do not want to end without acknowledging the fact that the problem of evil is the greatest stumbling block that young people have in terms of their faith and it is the most common argument against the existence of God that they will encounter in University or in the workplace. We can make distinctions regarding ontological, natural and moral goodness… and the relative absence of each, but that will not ease the confusion young people experience when trying to reconcile the idea of a good God with so much suffering in the world.

Therefore, I highly recommend that parents and teachers go online and print out an excellent article entitled “The Problem of Evil” written by Dr. Peter Kreeft. [vi] He addresses the topic more capably than I could hope to achieve.


[i] Sophist is the name given to someone who charged a fee in return for an education. Their focus was on rhetoric (public speaking.) The Sophists represented an approach in education that confined it to the preparation of youth for success in the political and economic life of the Greek city-states.

[ii] Chervin, Ronda, Ph.D. & Kevane, Msgr. Eugene, Ph.D; “Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy”; Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988; p34-35.

[iii] For more information on Ontological Goodness see: “On The Goodness of Being According To St Thomas” by G Deegan at[2].

[iv] Angels are “morally good” only insofar as they made that one, definitive choice for God. Since the nature of angels is strictly spiritual and not corporeal their existence is outside of time and not subject to change or repentance. Human beings can choose to act either morally or immorally, angels cannot: they are what they are for all eternity, either pure good or pure evil.

[v] The soul is unique. In a philosophical sense it cannot suffer any defect since it is immaterial and immortal. If a human being is lacking in Reason, there is a biological or neurological reason for this lack. The same is true with a defect in Will; there is usually a neurological or psychological reason. Only Revelation could make us aware that a soul suffers what could be called a ‘natural evil’ when it is separated from the Grace of God (or Sanctifying Grace or the Indwelling of the Holy Trinity), since it was created, in nature, for union with God (even though it could not achieve this end through nature, but only by Grace). So we could say that naturally speaking, separation from God is an evil experienced by the soul, even though we have to accept this truth by faith.

[vi] Dr. Peter Kreeft; “The Problem of Evil”; Catholic Education Resource Center;[3].

Editor’s Note: This is the fifteenth article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences[4] by Dennis Buonafede. It originally appeared on ICL in 2011. Check back next Wednesday for another article.

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