What Do We Mean When We Say 'Good'?


What do we mean when we say that something is ‘good‘? What do we mean when we call a person or an action ‘bad‘? It seems simple, and it’s certainly common. We have all done it, often reflexively. Perhaps we hear of the terrible holocaust committed by the Nazis in 1930s and 1940s Europe, and our initial reaction is to declare the act ‘evil‘ or ‘awful.‘ First, we must investigate what we mean when we call something good or evil, then we will investigate whether naturalistic theories about morality can sustain this type of speech. Finally, we will investigate whether a coherent Christian conception of morality corresponds to what we mean when we talk about good and evil. Ultimately, we will see that only a concept of morality rooted in the transcendent is able to sustain the type of moral speech that most people use on a daily basis.

What do we mean by ‘Good‘ and ‘Evil‘?

Attempting to define moral terms such as ‘good‘ and ‘evil‘ is inherently a difficult endeavor. After all, people could mean a variety of things when they talk about what is good and bad. However, I think we can examine a moral statement and it will provide clarity.

Consider the statement, “Torturing a toddler for fun is evil.” I believe this is true, without qualification, for all people at all times of history. Furthermore, I believe that those who do not agree with this statement suffer from a serious moral or psychological defect.

If you, the reader, agree that this statement is true regardless of the time or place it was uttered, and if you believe that those who do not agree with this statement suffer from a moral or psychological defect, then you agree that this statement is a reflection of objective morality. If this statement is going to be true, if it is going to be binding, then it must correspond to a metaphysically true reality – a real idea. You must also agree that this real idea has something to do with us. We can know it to be true and if we do the opposite, then we have done something truly wrong. We do not need to agree on every piece of moral language. To agree that there is an objective moral good and evil, we must only agree that one moral statement is universally binding to all humans. The rest can be worked out after that point.

If you refuse to believe that these statements may be made objectively, even if you agree with them personally, I would ask a simple question. Is it possible to live like that? Is it possible to exist on this planet and to call things good or evil, yet to also consider moral statements to be something like a preference, or a good idea, or something which we have decided on for ourselves but do not necessarily apply to other cultures? Is it possible to really live such that when someone tortures a toddler for fun, you call it evil, yet you don’t mean that there is a metaphysical law which has been transgressed? I do not think it is. I believe it is a common human experience that when we see the gas chambers of Auschwitz or hear of a young girl who is sexually mutilated for her captors’ pleasure, something arises within us as part of being human that says, “This is really and truly evil.”

Naturalistic Concepts of Good and Evil

Naturalistic concepts of good and evil are those concepts that do not refer to a transcendent ‘right and wrong’. That is, our concepts of right and wrong must be the kind of thing that exists in the universe. Since many people are naturalists for reasons other than morality, we must take a look at a few examples of how naturalist philosophers have tried to explain our moral intuitions.


Relativism is the idea that all morality is relative between two people or systems. Dr. Scott Smith defines it this way: “On [Ethical Relativism], morals may be said to exist…but only in the sense that they are human constructs.”1 There are two primary forms of relativism: individual relativism and cultural relativism. Individual relativism (subjectivism) is the idea that there are no moral truths, and we get to decide what is right and wrong as individual moral agents. Cultural relativism (conventionalism) is the concept that people get their sense of morality from the culture they are raised in, and that culture’s sense of right and wrong is valid for them. Those who support relativism would say that if there are no universal moral truths that apply to all people at all times, then relativism naturally follows.

Objections to Relativism

The primary aim of this paper is to consider whether how we talk morally, saying this or that is ‘good‘ or ‘evil‘, can be held naturalistically. Now, relativism certainly seems to be a possible option for naturalists. It does not require a transcendent moral law, instead we are laws unto ourselves. But, the obvious question begs to be asked: if I get to make my own moral law, then how may I condemn another’s moral choices? Even if relativism sounds good to us because we get to make our own morality that suits our desires, we seem to also desire to call others’ actions right or wrong. Relativism, then, seems to fail from a lack of internal consistency. Dr. Louis Pojman agrees, writing that under subjectivism, “Notions of good and bad…cease to have interpersonal evaluative meaning.”2

What about cultural relativism? This seems to carry the same problem as individual relativism. Under conventionalism, how can the people of one culture condemn the actions of another? For example, how could America criticize, much less go to war with, Nazi Germany for their atrocities against the Jewish people? Pojman writes: “If Conventional Relativism is accepted, racism, genocide of unpopular minorities, oppression of the poor, slavery, and even the advocacy of war for its own sake are equally moral as their opposites. And if a subculture decided that starting a nuclear war was somehow morally acceptable, we could not criticize those people.”3

Furthermore, if culture decides morality, then how can a culture ever change morality? We would be forced to condemn the actions of emancipators during the great evil that was slavery in America. Even those who believe in cultural relativism are inconsistent in this regard. For example, a recent group of American reformers sought to overturn laws forbidding homosexual marriage, yet after their success, those same people told counter-reformers they should not seek to alter pro-homosexual-marriage laws because it’s the law. Each form of relativism we have looked at is internally inconsistent, unsustainable, and does not accord with our moral intuitions and speech.


David Hume is a key naturalistic and empirical thinker who proposed a kind of emotivism. Emotivism is the idea that when we make moral statements, we are really just saying, for example, “Murder, gross!” Hume explains it this way:

Take any action allowed to be vicious: wilful murder, for instance….In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case….So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.4

According to Emotivism, our moral sense is a function of our feelings on the matter, they are not true or false. But this is just relativism. There is no reason to think that one persons’ feelings on a moral subject will be the same as all others’. Even if they were, those feelings are just that, feelings, and they have no objective significance. In emotivism, we are simply describing our feelings (an is), not providing a moral imperative (an ought).

This does not seem to accord with how we use our moral language. As noted above, we say things are right or wrong to impose true moral statements on actions. Emotivist language does not allow us to do this, as we are merely describing our feelings on the matter rather than providing a moral ought.


Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill pioneered the view called Utilitarianism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Utilitarianism is the idea that what is ‘good‘ is what brings the most pleasure (Bentham) or happiness (Mill) to the most people and what is ‘evil‘ is that which brings pain. Some pleasures, like the intellectual, are considered longer lasting and better than others, such as sensual pleasures. Mill explains his view thusly, “According to the Greatest Happiness Principle…the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.”5

But does this view fit our common language surrounding morality? There are certainly some problems. First, we may notice that pain, under Utilitarianism, is always to be avoided, but sometimes we may call pain good. For example, pain often brings forth and refines our deepest and most wonderful character qualities. Fear allows us to display bravery, pain, our compassion and love, and so forth. We may call it good that a criminal receives a prison sentence even though this will not bring them happiness and cannot erase their past mistakes. Second, Smith points out that under Utilitarianism, some immoral acts could become good, such as the punishment of an innocent to prevent further crime, or the enslavement of a minority to bring more happiness to the majority.6 Third, Utilitarians don’t take into account character. All that matters is the end result, and even if we could know for certain the end result, our motives wouldn’t seem to matter.7 Finally, we may wonder what the basis for this morality is, other than our preferences. Preferring happiness doesn’t seem to make it intrinsically good, yet that is what Utilitarianism claims. But what if someone else doesn’t prefer happiness for the most people, why can’t their belief also be true?


Postmodernism is a wide-ranging moral philosophy, but at its core, postmodern philosophers talk about moral language and our inability (or difficulty) to escape our cultural contexts. This is similar to cultural relativism, but with a strong focus on language and an inability to understand rather than simply disagreeing. But based on the moral language laid out, we wish to call things really ‘good‘ or ‘evil‘, and there does not seem to be cultural misunderstanding. To be sure, culture and upbringing help to shape both our morality and the outworking of morality, but I do not need to be immersed in or deeply understand the mentality of ISIS fighters to know if their sexual mutilation of young girls is right or wrong. It is absolutely wrong, no matter your culture, upbringing, or language, and to say otherwise is a serious moral failing. So our common moral language seems to cross languages and cultures, at least in some cases. And if it does, Postmodernism fails to adequately account for at least some moral language.

Naturalism is Incompatible With Objective Morality

Every attempt we have seen to build a moral framework compatible with naturalism has failed to explain our moral intuitions and speech. Relativism seems attractive, because so much of the time we wish to create our own moral imperatives, when they apply to ourselves. However, we seem to make definitive moral statements about other people’s actions and motivations and this is incongruous with relativism. Emotivism puts us in a similar situation. It does not accord with the language we use, and when we make a moral proclamation that murder is wrong, that is not the same thing as describing our dislike of murder. Utilitarianism likewise fails, focusing too much on a calculus that can rarely be made without knowing the future and without foundation. Postmodernism is similar to cultural relativism, and similarly fails to account for a common moral language across cultures.

The Christian Concept of Good and Evil

We have seen that naturalistic concepts of moral intuition seem to fail because they cannot provide us with an adequate basis to justify our moral language. But can Christianity fare better?

Transcendence and Morality

Morality in Christianity has historically been founded on the idea that morality is based upon a transcendent Being. This Being, God, lives outside the universe and indeed created the universe and all that is within it. Further, God sustains the being of everything that is. We have seen that objective morality – morality that really exists – cannot work if this natural universe is all there is. What is our remaining option then? Morality must be rooted in something real.

When we say that morality is rooted in the something real, we mean that our moral statements correspond to (or fail to correspond to) real moral truths that exist. However, we still have a problem. Why would these moral truths have anything to do with us, and furthermore, why shouldn’t we transgress them? In other words, even if these morals do exist somewhere out there, why do we know about them, and what happens if we fail to hold to them?

Grounded in God’s Character

On the Christian concept of God, his character is the grounding for our morality, it is the real thing our moral intuition refers to. When we say “it is wrong to torture a toddler for fun,” it is wrong because to do so is outside of God’s character. This explains why moral objects have something to do with us. They do not just exist abstractly, they are connected to a Being, and furthermore, that Being created us and implanted us with a moral intuition, a conscience. Of course, Christians also believe that conscience may be corrupted, but nonetheless, we are moral beings because we were created so.

Christian Final Judgment

The second question to be answered is, “Why should I care about these morals?” In a naturalistic framework there is simply no reason why, eschatologically or teleologically, we should follow these morals even if they do exist. But on the Christian conception of reality, there is the concept of a final judgment where people are judged based on their works and how they responded to God.8

There is also the Christian concept of salvation. We have discussed9 that we are moral beings, but it seems to be an additional common human experience that we cannot measure up to the morality we believe is right. We see flaws in the world and in ourselves. This is why God took human flesh and comes to us,10 so that we might have a way to salvation,11 and enjoy Resurrection life with God rather thant face judgment.12

How Can A God of Love Be Compatible with Evil?

Many critics of Christianity will protest here, however. They may bring forward the classic problem of evil, questioning whether it is reasonable, or even possible, for a God to be both omnipotent and loving simultaneously in a world filled with pain.

There have been many responses to this question from brilliant Christians, and this question is not the focus of this paper, however, consider two quick responses. First, consider that if human beings are truly free beings as many Christians believe, then God is no more at fault for the evil they do than a human parent is responsible for their child’s wrongdoing. Much of the evil in the world can be traced to human beings using their free will wrongly. Second, consider that pain and evil are not always equivalent and that God may be able to use our pain for good, even if he is not the author of that pain. A parent’s heart may break to see their child in pain, but neither do they want them to live a life devoid of pain. Many great character qualities are only possible after being forged in the fire of suffering, and through pain we learn to avoid what will harm us.


The only system of morality that seems to accord with our moral language is the system of Christian morality.13 Upon examining several systems of naturalistic morality, none seem to accord with our common moral language that actions can be good or evil. Only a Christian morality gives us the foundation to look at the various 20th century genocides and declare that each is absolutely wrong. There are other reasons to reject naturalistically based morality and the fact-value split so prevalent today, but a simple look at our moral language can help us realize that naturalistic morality fails before it starts.

  1. Smith, 157. Brackets mine. 

  2. Pojman, 46. 

  3. Pojman, 47. 

  4. Hume, Pojman, 506. 

  5. Mill, Pojman, 202. 

  6. Smith, 99-100. 

  7. Ibid., 101. 

  8. Romans 2:6 

  9. See: “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’?” 

  10. Philippians 2:7 

  11. John 3:16 

  12. 1 Corinthians 15:21-28 

  13. Other religious systems may work, but I would argue that those religions are false.