Good from Bad, Right from Wrong


Shattering improper linguistic overlap

Today I attempt to clarify five popular terms.

Morality concerns proper or improper human behaviour.

Morality targets those issues that can be deemed “right” or “wrong,” “moral” or “immoral.” For example, it is a matter of right or wrong whether someone ought to take another’s property without permission. Contrariwise, electing to put your left sock on before your right has no moral significance.

So what of the terms good and bad? It is my contention that these terms have been too buddy-buddy with their (almost) moral counterparts, right and wrong.

Good should be understood as being synonymous with such terms as “pleasant,” “desirable,” “commendable.” Cake is good. To earn a high GPA is good. Earning a medal in the Olympics is good. Yet none of these are moral matters; none of these are necessarily “right.”

Right should be understood as reasonably acceptable behavior that adheres to an ethical system, such as a cultural norm, or the Golden Rule. Most would agree someone repays what he borrows from a friend does “the right thing.”

Bad is typically understood as being synonymous with “unpleasant,” “undesirable,” “blameworthy.” Food often “goes bad.” It is a bad idea to attempt a one-fingered handstand. But when it comes to blameworthiness, we run into the very confusion I attempt to address. [I am indebted to Dr. Luise Morton for revealing that “confusion” is con- , which means together; and fuse, which means join, therefore, confusion means “to join together”– simple yet helpful.]

A child is sometimes told they were “being bad.” However, this typically concerns behavior of moral import (e.g., little Johnny kicked little Susie): violence is a moral principle often condemned. If bad ought to be understood as a term with no moral significance, we must reject this overlap in use. Johnny’s behavior was wrong — not simply bad.

Wrong, as should now be fairly identifiable, ought to be understood as behavior that chafes against the proper conduct moral systems are typically created to discourage. Many would agree it is wrong to steal.

With this assessment it appears reasonable to make the following claims: (1) All right things are good, but not all good things are right. (2) All wrong things are bad, but not all bad things are wrong. This works generally speaking, but isn’t intellectually weatherproof:

Just because something is right, wrong, good, or bad, it does not follow that we of necessity must prefer, avoid, praise, or condemn it. Labeling something is merely identifying it — considerations of what behavior we should choose or judge in a particular way is a whole other subject. I think.