The Good: Good For, Good At (shan 善), and Benefit (li 利)
Let’s see; I’m trying to figure out how to think about the ancient Chinese term shan 善, roughly “good,” in relation to the various senses of “good” that we as philosophers try to distinguish these days. This has a bearing on, among other things, what to make of the pre-Qin positions on human-nature-is-good (ren xing shan ye), bad (e 惡), neither, or both. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that shan means something more like “good at” (“competent”?), but I can’t recall exactly where–Graham? Nivison? Anyway, here are some senses of good that I’m used to hearing philosophers distinguish from among:
- “Good for” – this seems to be the primary “non-moral” sense of “good” that is used in discussing goods that can be indexed to individuals, groups, or things. X can be good for Y in the sense that X is of value to some end or interest of Y. We often speak of something good in this sense as a good or as goods. Such goods seem always quantifiable in this way.
- “Good at” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that tracks something like the Greek term for “excellence,” arete (αρετη–sorry for leaving out diacriticals; can’t seem to do them right now). X is good in this sense if X is capable or competent at doing or being something. Example: “As a golfer, Woods is really good.”
- “Morally or aesthetically good” – this seems to be a sense of “good” that has something to do with worth that “has no price” (to use a Kantian expression). X is good in this sense if it/he/she is praiseworthy for its/his/her own sake, not for its/his/her value to something else or at doing or being some particular thing. Examples: “That painting is good.” “She wasn’t good but she had good intentions.”
I’m pretty sure these are significantly distinct, non-overlapping senses of “good,” although something, or someone, might be good in all three senses. So, let me say or ask a few things.
First, are there more senses of “good” than this that are significantly different from any of them?
Second, it seems to me like we need to figure out which sense or senses of “good” shan overlaps with or else say what other sense it has; otherwise, obviously, we don’t have a handle on what the ren xing debate is about.
Third, it seems to me like li, “benefit,” is closely allied to the first sense, “good for.”
Some initial thoughts that I have: Shan never struck me as meaning “good at” mainly because I haven’t really seen uniformly in the contexts of its use that there is an indication of what something is “shan at.” If so, then it seems like we have to settle on either 1 (good for), 3 (morally/aesthetically good), or some overlap between them. But “good for” suffers from the same contextual problem as “good at”–e.g. it isn’t uniformly clear that there is something a shan thing is “shan for.” Could shan mean something more like morally or aesthetically good? Here is a reason not to go that way too quickly, though we might end up there eventually:
It seems to me like Xunzi, in his discussion of ren xing could be understood as investigating whether it is good at producing order and harmony (which seem themselves on the other had to be li 利, goods in the good for (humans) sense); Xunzi finds that ren xing is not at all good at producing them. However, that moves Xunzi to conclude that ren xing is e 惡, which seems pretty clearly to mean that it is unseemly or ugly. But that suggests either (a) that shan overlaps in meaning between “good at” and “morally/aesthetically good” and Xunzi is equivocating between his criticism of Mencius and his conclusion about ren xing; or (b) Xunzi’s criticism isn’t really about the incompetence of innate disposition to produce order and harmony. I think I prefer (a), but could it really be that shan is so much like the contemporary English term “good” that it has that much similarity in equivocation potential? My instinct here is to be suspicious about that. Any suggestions, comments, critical remarks, interlocutory agreement?
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