What is good: About why we think something ought to be

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We people are a judgmental lot. Opinions conduct, art, politics, about others and about ourselves, they are quickly formed, we have an idea of ​​what should be and we like to speak out on these ideas. We are eager to discuss how true or false such judgments are, but how judgment actually works seems to be an open question. In this paper I will be looking for an answer to this question. I will do so in four parts. First of all, I show that our judgments relate to different practices that are connected to a specific idea of ​​what is good. Subsequently I will argue that these ideas are developed from the experiences one has within such a practice, which creates expectations about what is good and less good. In the third part, I will emphasize that these expectations are not so much individual traits, but rather that they are entertained within a community. By sharing expectations, we can coordinate our behaviour. In this paper will I mainly give examples about  music, because an art form such as music is pre-eminently the domain in which judgment plays a role. In the final part I will give more detail on how art works, but this is primarily a step towards explaining the role of politics, because it will be held that a well-functioning democracy offers the opportunity to collectively agree on what we think what is good and about how conflicting judgments are to be resolved. With that we can be more than just a judgmental species, but we can determine for ourselves what the value of our opinions is.


  1. Practices

Michelangelo’s claim that he only had to cut away the surplus stone to make the sculpture of an angel is of course a big cliché. But it is a cliché that indicates that a work of art sparks the flame of eternity. A sculpture, a painting, or pieces of music strive for timelessness. In a sense, the genius of the artist actually comes down to her ability to achieve a platonic ideal.

It is not only in art that we seem to have a clear idea of ​​what is right. In everyday life we ​​are constantly confronted with situations in which we know how ‘it should be’. This can be explained by stating that daily life consists of countless practices. Sometimes these are large, sometimes these are small, and often they run into each other. In each of these practices we have an idea of ​​what should be, an idea of ​​what is good or beautiful, what is important and what values ​​matter in a particular context.

When you enter into a conversation with someone, you choose the appropriate words and the right intonation depending on the context and the nature of the conversation. It makes a lot of difference whether you talk to a cashier at the supermarket or to a good friend. You know what words mean, how you should pronounce them and in which order these words should be uttered. Although some are more gifted in this than others, of course.

Another example. As a musician you know when you play a note correctly, and as a listener you know how a note should sound. But you also know where a melody should go and which harmonic transitions sound good. You also recognize genres, the instrumentation, the melodies, the intonation within a song refer to a larger collection of songs. Try to pay attention when you listen to a song, where have you heard the sounds, harmonies, instruments, etc. before, how have they developed into the norm of a certain genre? Or take a look at a movie and look for the way in which the visual language refers to earlier films.

All these practices are nested layers of ideas about ‘how it should be’. The tone played by a musician is part of a chord, which, in turn, is part of a series of chords and so on. A practice is usually a very complex set of sub-practices that are brought together harmoniously.

In this paper, I will be on the lookout for the question how our judgment is formed and how it is applied. I mainly take examples from the music, because as an art form, music is pre-eminently the domain where judgment plays a role. But at the conclusion, I will also discuss the role of politics, because that domain allows the collective agreement on what we think ‘what is good’ and it allows the resolution of conflicting judgments.


  1. Categories and hypotheses

The fact that we have a fairly well-defined idea of ​‘what is good’ does not mean that there is some Platonic world that provides a kind of library in which all those values ​​that belong to all those practices can be taken from the shelf. Such an idea stems from the way in which our brain interacts with social interactions. What we see and what we hear are turned into categories, which are more or less fixed images that are used to test new impressions. In short, our impressions are organized in such a way that we can process future impressions in an efficient way. As a discussion partner, musician or listener you have experience based on previous, comparable situations which are transformed over time into a practice, including associated values.

For example, in Western culture we use a system of twelve tones (or rather eleven intervals) and frequencies that fall outside are called false. Intervals that form chords have been based on triads since Pythagoras. Other chords are called dissonant. As early as in our fourth year, these patterns have become so ingrained that most of us have difficultly listening to other types of music.

Music genres are already quite volatile. Carrie Underwood sounds very different as Tammy Wynette, although they are both recognizable as country. Black Sabbath sounds very different as Sepultura, while both are metal bands. Through the course of time, such genres develop, sub-genres sometimes arise. You could speak of an evolutionary process in which new subcategories and categories gradually emerge, so new practices with new ideas about what should be.

Experiences within practices lead to the development of a repertoire of expectations that makes it possible to anticipate what someone or something is going to do, what word someone says or what chord follows. People formulate hypotheses that are constantly being tested, they are adjusted when they are falsified, but upon confirmation these hypotheses become stronger and stronger, so much so that they become unshakeable at a given moment. In short, ideas about what is good is not to be based on an extra-worldly reality, but are formed by expectations about what is to come. That game of expectations makes human interaction very efficient. We do not have to explain again in every situation what we mean or what we want to achieve. We know the practice with the associated rules and we know what we want from each other.


  1. Intersubjective reality

In short, experience is our ideas about ‘what is good’. The formation of categories is the outcome of social interactions. Two or more individual voices come to a shared understanding of a certain situation and thereby bring a social practice to life. Such social practices can be seen as implicit – and every now and then also explicit – agreements that come about through our exposure to previous practices: we gradually learn what counts as ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ and adapt our behavior accordingly.

Such ideas form an intersubjective reality, they come about through interactions between individuals within the context of certain practices. This creates ‘social facts’, a reality that is shared by a group of people and that also depends on those people for its survival. Language is the best example of this. A language is not an objective reality as long as it is not spoken by people. A language is also meaningless if it is only spoken by one person, it is not dependent on an individual, but on a group. Language is therefore not subjective, but it is something that exists between subjects.

That practices refer to an intersubjective reality does not mean that we do not play a role as individuals and that our motivations and convictions do not matter. As mentioned, a practice requires experience and as experience increases, the skill to recognize ‘what should be’ grows, and especially what it means to pursue these norms in concrete actions. People differ in skills, not necessarily from their lack of experience, but especially from their innate qualities. Some people are better speakers or listeners and for some, learning to master a musical instrument simply costs less effort than others.

I mentioned earlier the creation of sub-genres within music. This evolution of categories shows that ideas about ‘what should be’ change over time. Such changes are the result of the activities of people. New words or phrases are sometimes the result of creative language innovators. But mostly it is about creeping processes of which hardly anyone is aware. Changes then emerge as a dialogical process, in which several individuals come together and come together to create something new: a sharpening or adaptation of an existing practice.


  1. Social domains

We have divided our social life into different ‘social domains’ within which a collection of practices is brought together. Art, politics, economics, science, religion, sports and so on. Those domains are limited and have their own rules about ‘what should be’. Moreover, these domains have their own rules about how changes in judgments take place.

In this way, art is, above all, the pursuit of an aesthetic ideal. As can be deduced from what I have written above, this aesthetic ideal is actually formed by the expectations that have been formed by the countless experiences with earlier artistic expression. The package of expectations includes that art must be something new, the expression of an individual fantasy and the ability to concretize that fantasy in the form of a work of art.

However, not all art influences the aesthetic experience. Every work of art is an attempt by the artist to satisfy the tension between existing expectations and surprise. If a work of art only tries to evoke aesthetic pleasure, it quickly becomes kitsch, if art only tries to surprise it will be quickly misunderstood. Interestingly, art has evolved into a collection of practices that play a game around expectations about art itself.

We have an idea of ​​what turns art into art and based on that idea we will assess art. Some art deals with the idea of ​​art itself, avant-garde art tries to consciously probe the boundaries of our expectations – especially since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal a hundred years ago. The funny thing is that we have accepted this as a form of art that is indeed part of the art. Art has therefore become a reflexive social domain.

Another social domain that can be said to be reflexive is that of democratic politics. This form of politics aims to come to collective agreements about what expectations we have of each other. A such, politics as the domain in which we consciously and explicitly reach agreement about what we share, what we find valuable, which practices we want to change and which practices which we want to keep.

Politics is not only the domain of agreement, but also of the conflict. Our expectations about ‘what should be’ are not always corresponding, and to allow living together it is necessary that such conflicts can be settled by applying generally applicable rules. These two characteristics of politics ensure that it has a special, overarching position within our social system. Ultimately, it is here that we can consciously and autonomously deliberate not only about what is good, but also on what should be considered good, a reflexive feature which allows us to rise above ourselves.

Of course, this definition of politics is somewhat naïve when you look at everyday political machinations which have little to do with the collective pursuit of shared values. It should be primarily seen as a guiding image about how to think about the organization of a political system, not a blueprint. The state is only a means, not an end in itself.

In conclusion, there is one more point that I want to make here. Politics as described above is all-encompassing, since it is there where we agreed what we think should be heard. But, paradoxically, these agreements mean that politics should not interfere with all aspects of life. There are matters that belong to the private sphere, which offers the possibility to individuals, smaller groups or other social domains to make their own arrangements about ‘what should be’. You may follow your own religious rules, start a sect, or decide for yourself which art you like. In short, there are boundaries that need to be respected, and of course these boundaries are themselves categories that are susceptible to revision. It is important to note that boundaries are not determined by reasoning from the core of a social domain, but by starting from the fact that there are given boundaries it is determined which practice belongs to which domain. This leads to tensions because of the paradox that politics is both all-embracing and bounded. For example, with every Olympic Games or at every World Cup that is held in a non-democratic country, there is a discussion as to whether that should be allowed. This discussion is dismissed by stating that sport and politics must be separate. The same applies to protest songs or engaged art. Is that any good?

Yes, it is good. It is the great achievement of modernity that we have managed to organize our social world in such a way that we can decide for ourselves ‘what should be’. In fact, we have given ourselves the freedom to create new values ​​and categories against the background of historically developed values ​​and categories that hand over meaning and stability. This may sound paradoxical and in any case it is extremely difficult, because some people like to change while others are more conservative. At no moment in time, everybody will be satisfied, but, as said, politics is also the domain that helps to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way – and that really is good.

Further reading:

Benhabib, Seyla. “I. Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought.” Political theory 16, no. 1 (1988): 29-51.

Dewey, John. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought. SIU Press, 2007.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “Wahrheit Und Methode: Grundzüge Einer Philosophischen Hermeneutik.” Gesammelte Werke J 5 (1960).

Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Penguin, 2006.

Rosch, Eleanor. “Principles of Categorization.” Concepts: core readings  (1999): 189-206.

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. Vintage Canada, 2010.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press, 2008.


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