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Searching for Bedrock: What Makes Something Good?

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 Chapter 1 of this book --and autobiographical account of those youthful experiences of mine that shook me to my moral foundations-- was posted here, in two installments, at click here and at


Chapter 2
<em>Searching for Bedrock:
What Makes Something Good?</em>

    These days I enjoy the privilege of talking with a great number of people about the moral challenges we face.  When I argue that knowing what's right and wrong is a difficult challenge, I encounter two main groups who disagree with me, one on each side of the chasm of our current culture war.  To one --we might call them the moral traditionalists-- morality is easy because there is a clear-cut answer, one that has been handed down to us.   To the other --the counterculture moral relativists-- morality is easy because the answer is whatever you want it to be.  

    From one point of view, the two groups are diametrically opposite:  one answer vs. many answers, an answer from external authority vs. an answer from internal preference.  But from my point of view, the two groups have something quite fundamental in common.   Neither group has successfully met the challenge of carrying their thinking down to what I would call "moral bedrock."

    Here's what I mean by bedrock.  If someone says that something is "morally good," the question can always be asked, "What makes that good?"  And then some answer is given, "It is good because....."  And then the question can again be asked, "But what is good about that."  And again an answer, "It's good because...."  And so on.  Where can that process of digging stop?  The only way it can stop, it would seem, is for the answer to be "It just is."  The challenge is to find a place at which "It just is" is not arbitrary, to find something whose goodness can stand on its own without needing further explanation and justification.  Without such a "bedrock," it seems to me impossible to speak meaningfully about morality.  

    A first condition of a satisfactory moral philosophy, therefore, must be that it is not arbitrary, that it rests upon a bedrock of something whose goodness does not need to be explained.  It just is.

    Neither the traditionalists nor the relativists, in my experience, have thought down to bedrock.

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<em>God said it.   </em>

    I do talk radio where I live, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  For four hours each month for the past three years, I've discussed with a listening audience of several tens of thousands of people the moral and cultural issues that we face in our own lives and as a nation.  This is a conservative area of a conservative state, with a large and vocal component of fundamentalist Christians.  As you might imagine, the worldview of the fellow with the microphone, i.e. me --who used to be the young man who tuned in, turned on and dropped out in Berkeley twenty-some years ago-- and that of the people calling in to talk with him on the air are not always identical.  Nonetheless, we enjoy our conversations together.

    My fundamentalist interlocutors would certainly contest my assertion that their moral position lacks bedrock.  Bedrock, they think, is their specialty.  If we are discussing homosexuality, for example, their position is clear and stated in a tone in which you can almost hear their argument go "clunk" as it strikes bedrock.  God says homosexuality is an abomination, therefore --clunk!-- it is wrong, and it is our moral responsibility to condemn it.  (Some go so far as to endorse the penalty God is quoted as giving for sodomists-- to stone them to death.)  The clunk of supposed bedrock is captured well by the bumpersticker I've seen that reads, "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."  

    God said the husband is to be the lord of his wife, and clunk, that settles it.  Why is that a good way for roles to be apportioned?  Because the Almighty God, who created the whole set-up, has so decreed it.  To many of my callers, if God's word isn't bedrock, if the commandment from the One in charge isn't good enough for "It just is," what possibly could be?  That it settles the question seems to them self-evident.

    We all had a wonderful conversation in the summer of 1994 about the question of how one can feel so sure just what God said  --especially in view of the fact that the adherents of different traditions are equally sure about God's having said different things-- and about whether we should assume that what God said at one time was necessarily His last word on the subject.  But for the present issue, let us set those concerns aside --however important they may be-- and assume that we do know what God has commanded.   
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    Would the fact that God said we should do something be sufficient to establish that it would be morally good for us to do it?  When I asked that question, in a particular episode of my program I called "Knowing What's Right and Wrong is not a No-Brainer," my fundamentalist callers seemed genuinely puzzled that I could even ask such a thing.  "Well," I'd venture further, "are you saying that if there were some All-Powerful Being that created the universe, no matter what he might be like, even with one we would call an evil nature, whatever He might say was good would be good by definition?"   It seems hard for them to see that there's an issue:  "Our God is a completely good one," they contend, "so if He tells us 'This is good,' we know it's so."

    Wait a minute.  There's a problem here.  This argument isn't resting on bedrock.  It's floating in mid-air.  For people who have spent their entire lives putting the idea --the absolutely unquestioned idea-- of an all-good God at the center of their worldview, it might be difficult to imagine a God who was not good.  But a God who is not good is not logically impossible.  Indeed, the idea of an Evil Creator has been believed by some religious groups in history.   What some people have deeply believed we should at least be able to imagine.  

    So, if we were to imagine the Cosmos as ruled by some Being with a character like Saddam Hussein, would we then say that obedience to such a God was morally good?  I can imagine saying that it is prudent --just as I can imagine keeping my head down if I lived in Saddam's Iraq-- but if you asked me what is "good" about upholding a murderous regime, say, or ratting on my neighbors, or seizing what belongs to someone else, all because I am ordered by a tyrant to do so, I could not find any acceptable answer.  No "clonk" of bedrock just because the Guy with the power commands it.  To say otherwise would be to say that might makes right, which is to say that we are not talking about right at all.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The (more...)

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It is fun, I must say, reading your attempt to set... by martinweiss on Sunday, Oct 5, 2008 at 8:20:13 PM