What is Good?

Moran-sunrise -KathrynMapesTurner Moran-Sunrise by Kathryn Mapes Turner

This is the question that was the basis for the only philosophy course I took in college. The course, Philosophy of Art, I had hoped would explore the artist impulse that people have to create. And to be able to define what distinguishes a good piece of art from one that isn't.

Unfortunately, the course was neither about art nor how to distinguish what is good. Instead, it was a course in semantics, of how one talks about art, and why art can't be defined.

It wasn't that the professor spent portion of every class denigrating people who had religious faith. It was rather that we talked around subjects, never about them, and therefore never reaching a point of understanding or resolution.

He would take a seemingly innocent or benign idea, like goodness, and through a process of analytical reductive reasoning show us how there is no true idea of goodness. This simple and effective tactic left most of us in the class scratching our heads about what the class was about rather than questioning what we believed about anything.

For probably ten years, I would occasionally dream about this professor. Dream about us debating in class, and me changing his mind. I don't think the professor was so clever to think that he'd make philsophers of us all by tearing down our belief systems. Rather, I think he was convinced that truth could be understood in the analysis of language. And yet, that truth was not true in a values or universal sense, but true to the use of the words in that context.

I think he was an intellectual nihilist, yet did not live that way. He believed in something, and for him it was his art and athletic endeavors. It was what he truly valued. And I'm convinced they gave him a social context of friendship through which universal values were evident in their interaction.

What I understand today is that my professor's approach to understanding could not produce a kind of understanding that is whole, but rather small and fragmented. 

As a kid, did you ever take a part a toy, and then try to put it back together, only to have some parts remaining? The toy is something whole. Something more than the sum of its parts. Language is something whole, more than grammar and patterns of word usage.  

Say the word tide, and it conjures up a range of images. But you don't know what I mean. If I add high or roll to it, two very different images come to mind. The words are parts. Sentences, paragraphs, essays, chapters, and books are wholes. Not necessarily complete wholes, but some whole none-the less.

Art Loeb - Pisgah trailsTo describe the whole of something, or to describe an object as good, is not to describe its parts, but something else. 

For example, this image is of a portion of a map of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. For many of you, it is just lines, shading, markers and names. You can tell it is a map, but it doesn't go much further than that.

The map can serve as a guide, an introduction, to what a person can find here on a visit.  Come this summer, you can visit the Fish Hatchery or swim in the cold waters at Sliding Rock or hike up to John's Rock. Each place is represented on the map. Each a place that has meaning for people who visit here.

For those of us who have spent time here, the map is much more. It is a visual connection point to memories and images of places, people, situations and experiences that we've had in locations noted on the map.

For example, just off the map image there is a place call Mt. Hardy.  Seen at the center of this picture.  Mt Hardy from Devils Courthouse 1 On the map, it is just a name of one of hundreds of peaks to climb. Yet, on a June night in 2003, it was a place of fascination and horror, as we watched lightning flash and strikes all around as a group of us camped.

The place on the map represents more than a name. It is something whole and complete, because we experienced it as more than a name on a map. It is a place that will forever stay with those of us who camped there that night.

When we say something is good, we are not trying to analyze its component parts to identify what makes it good. We are saying something about the whole of the object.

I'm convinced that human thought is rationalized emotion. We feel something, and our words provide us a way to connect with those deeper parts of our lives that we know exist, but have a hard to time expressing. We use things like maps and art to provide a connection between those parts of us that are only understandable as something whole and complete.

When we talk about what is good, we are talking about values that capture for us something whole and often times something that is greater than us. These connections, to me, represent the emergent reality that I wrote about here. We are not just our thoughts or just our emotions. We are not just a bank of talent or a fulfiller of tasks along an assembly line. We are whole beings who cannot be understood in any complete way by analytical reduction. Our wholeness rather is understood as unrealized potential within a particular setting. Wyoming When we look at a work of art, like this painting of Wyomng, that I found online many years ago, we can get really close and look at the technique of the artist, the picture fades and the brush strokes emerge. Then step back, and the picture takes on its wholeness again.

What is good about this painting can be described on many levels. There is the technique. The thematic material. The use of color and perspective. But all those are only parts of the picture. When they are all combined together, do they create a painting that we can say is good? Possibly, but it has a lot to do with the values that we bring to the experience.  And our values are products of our interaction with people in society.

I believe that our lives can be like this painting. Excellent in the execution of the brush strokes and use of color, but even more significant because of the picture itself. When we find wholeness in our life and work, we are more than the sum of activities that we do each day.  We become a work of art whose life and work is good. Create Goodness picture

When the Five Actions of Gratitude appeared in my mind one morning driving through northern Mississippi, this is the sort of thing I saw in the fifth action, Create Goodness.  A couple quotes from my Weekly Leader column.

The ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle taught his students that “every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good….what is the highest of all practical goods? … It is happiness, say both ordinary and cultured people; and they identify happiness with living well or doing well.” By this he means that the actions born from our individual initiative, through our relationships, in our work and the daily course of our lives aim at goodness, defined as happiness or living or doing well in life and work. ...

Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in describing Aristotle’s thought on this point wrote,  “ What then does the good for… (humanity) … turn out to be? … It is the state of being well and doing well in being well … . “ The word that Aristotle uses is eudaimonia (eu-day-mo-knee-a), traditionally translated as goodness. Its meaning is much more complex that simply as an adjective for describing a piece of pie or last Sunday’s football game. It touches on ideas related to fulfillment, human flourishing, happiness and completeness. The good person is one whose whole life is an integrated combination of thought, feeling, initiative, interaction, and action, resulting a good life or good work, or a better product, community or world.

What is Good?

It is a life that is complete and whole, fulfilled, meaningful and makes a difference that matters. The good life is a complete and happy life.  It is a life connected to others just as their lives are connected to ours. And when we find that completeness, our lives are like a painting that evokes values that create goodness and elevate the lives of others. We also become like a map which is a reference point, an example, of what is possible, and for those who know that we have become a reminder of what the experience of a complete life is like.

Orienteering through Organizational Change


It occurred to me the other day that managing organizational change is like orienteering in the back  country.

Orienteering is a how hikers go from one place to another using a compass and a topographical map.

The map is like a vision for where we want to be. The compass serves as all those conceptual connections like a mission, values and a vision that keeps us oriented in going in the right direction.

Orienteering in the back country is simple, yet requires focused concentration. It allows you to leave the trail, chart your own course, and arrive at your destination. It is quite likely that you know where you are going, but do not know what lies between you and your destination. Particularly, if you are off the trail, you need to pay careful attention to the map and compass in order not to get off track.

Here's how to do it. Identify your destination on the map and then orient the map to the north. There is true north and there is magnetic north. The difference is called declination. It is the number of degrees difference between the two. What this means is that you hold the map in front of you, and turn it until the map until it is facing north according to the compass reading. Identify where you are on the map, and turn until you are facing the direction of your destination. Make sure the map is oriented north. You may be facing south, or southwest.  This will be the direction that you walk.

You look out from the map and find an object that stands along the line that extends to your destination. You walk to it. You look for another object along the path, check your compass and your map, and you proceed forward. You continue to do this until you reach your destination.

Look at this topo map section that I've posted here. This is the topo section covering the ridge line in the banner photo above and the picture in this post. Banner image left is at the top of the map, the foreground of the other picture is off the map at the top. The saddle is Farlow Gap, followed by Sassafrass Knob and then Pilot Mountain, which is in the center of the map image. Pilot Mtn Sassafrass Knob topo

The trail outlined here is the Art Loeb trail. For illustration purposes, let's say you wanted to go directly west (to the left) from Deep Gap to the intersection of Bear Branch and FS Rd140A, you'd need a map and compass to do so, It may look like a short distance, but it is straight down.The closer the elevation lines the steeper the grade. In order to reach your destination, you'd need to make many side turns in order to arrive where you want to be.  To do so requires staying oriented to the north and being clear at all times where you are in relation to where you want to be.

I see this as a great way to understand how leaders manage organizational change.   We need to see that the path we take from where we stand to our envisioned destination is largely unknown. Other people may have gone this way before, and left us a trail to follow. However, we still may not know what obstacles have occurred in the intervening period. It is therefore important that we have a plan that allows for change. This plan allows for detours and side trips in order to find the advantage we need to get where we are going.

My friend Tom Morris talks about how we proceed in towards goals like we are hiking up a mountain. We get to the top and realize that the peak we are on, which required so much effort is really just a little knoll. Out in the distance is a higher peak.  In order to get there, we must go down in order to go up. We must go down to learn new things, jettison certain practices, in order to be prepared to climb to a higher destination.

This scenario played out here on a topo map is a kin to what Lewis & Clark experienced in the their expedition two hundred years ago. Their first year on the trail was up the Missouri River to the Mandan villages.They follow a path known by European trappers. From that point to the coast of the Oregon, they were off the map. Each day they had to make decisions about where they were. The critical juncture came at the Marias Confluence. Here they had to decide which river led them to their destination.  They chose correctly, and within days came another confluence of rivers at Three Forks. It was only on their return that they learned that of a short cut west of Great Falls that would have saved them several weeks.

Managing change, moving into the future along an unknown path, requires us to remain open to what is before us. We constantly must orient ourselves to what we see before us. And make our best decisions about what we must do. For this reason, it is important that we are clear on our desired destination, that our team is unifying around a set of values that will carry through hard times, and that we are passionate about the outcome so that the hardships are worth the investment.

It is one thing to know your destination. It is another to know how to get there each step fo the way. What orienteering has taught me is that we take a step at a time, staying focused on our destination, and by patience and clear thought, we'll figure out how to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.

This is what I do everyday with my clients, and myself.