AN ATHEIST'S VALUES
THE NATURE OF THE QUESTION
We often hear talk of 'Christian values'. Those who use this phrase are confident that everybody knows what the Christian values are. But I do not know what they are. For example, I am puzzled whether thrift is a Christian value in view of the fact that, whereas thrift is often praised by people calling themselves Christian, it is rejected by Jesus in the gospels.
We often hear talk of 'Western values', as if we knew quite well what they are. I find this puzzling too. Do they include capitalism? Do they include promise-keeping? If so, is promise-keeping therefore not an Eastern value?
The Cambridge Journal, iii. 368, wrote of 'the very real conviction of Spaniards that human, and not mechanical, values alone really count'. What is this distinction between human and mechanical values? If you love your mother that is a human value, but if you love your car that is a mechanical value? In that case the Journal was saying that according to the Spaniards your love of your car does not 'really count', and hence may be overridden and disregarded.
In the Sunday Times of 27 July 1958 someone wrote of the 'unshaken belief that values just cannot be the products of evolution'. This also seems mysterious. I value birds, and I believe that birds are products of evolution. I also believe that I the valuer am myself a product of evolution, and that, until the higher animals were evolved, no valuing was done on this earth and nothing was considered a value. These seem to be platitudes which only the rare fundamentalists deny; but I cannot imagine what else the writer can have meant to deny.
Mr Gollancz wrote and published a book which he called Our Threatened Values. But I could not make out what these values were, nor whether the threat consisted in people's ceasing to value them or in their ceasing to be able to realize them
Joyce Cary in a broadcast (The Listener, 17 January 1952) spoke of 'the feeling that values are not secure'; but it was impossible to tell whether he meant the feeling that people are changing their valuations, or that they cannot be sure of preserving the things they value, or that they do not know what to value.
The view that people do not know what to value is expressed in The Rationalist Annual for 1960, p. 78: 'There has perhaps never before been a time when people in the world, and especially in this country, have found it so difficult to know what to believe in and what to value.' This view also seems to lie behind much of the objection taken by some laymen to present Oxford philosophy. They seem to be upbraiding Oxford philosophers for not telling them what to value.
Yet it is very strange if the layman needs Oxford philosophers to tell him that milk and cheese are good, that flowers and butterflies and children dancing in the sun are good, that love and joy and companionship and laughter are good. Is there really anyone who is in the unpleasant condition of not caring about anything and wishing he did care about something?
Well, perhaps there is. After all, we know that small isolated cultures sometimes die when their bearers become aware of European culture, and that this appears to be because they cease to value anything when they see that Europeans, who are much more powerful than they are, do not share their valuations. And nowadays there is something like a quick and never-ending succession of culture-clashes within Europe itself, because of the frequency of communications and the flood of new ideas and inventions and situations. Some people are perhaps rendered very downcast, and dubious about their own valuations, by the discovery that these valuations are not universally shared. And some others, perhaps, who have been shocked by the atomic bomb into belated recognition that we are always liable to lose what we hold dear, have drawn the unwarranted conclusion that what we have held dear is not really dear at all.
With anyone who is in such a position one ought to sympathize, and I do. And he is welcome to listen to me affirming my beliefs as to what is good and what is bad. At the same time I must warn him against some likely disappointments.
First, there is no guarantee that the values I shall defend are precisely those he would like to see defended. The layman who thinks that he wants some authority to tell him the objective truth about good and evil, to provide him with a purpose and a creed, is liable to find if someone takes him at his word, that he already has very strong valuations of his own, and that they clash with those he is offered. From being an earnest pupil he is liable to become an infuriated teacher. He discovers that he already possesses that 'faith to live by' which he thought he was seeking, and that the man who was to give it to him is really a wicked underminer thereof. Thus he is cured of asking philosophers to give a lead, and comes to see that every man must decide for himself what is good. Perhaps also he comes to see that what he really wanted from philosophers was not that they should lead him, but that they should lead others to adopt his convictions.
The second disappointment that such a layman is likely to suffer is similar to the disappointment that many have felt on reading Euclid's geometry. Euclid at first seems to prove his propositions in a gloriously scientific way; but, when we examine one of his proofs minutely, we find that it rests on certain assumptions which he says he proved earlier. If we turn back to examine this earlier proof, we find that it, too, rests on certain assumptions, for which we are referred still further back. Then the disappointing truth dawns on us that the whole book rests on five original assumptions for which Euclid offers no reason whatever. Now this is not a personal defect of Euclid's. It is part of the nature of proof. It therefore applies equally to the recommendation of propositions about good and bad. And in ethics, unfortunately, we come to these first unproved assumptions much sooner than we do in geometry.
The layman tends still to regard philosophy as our founder Plato regarded it, that is, as the enterprise of discovering, with scientific certainty and objectivity, the real natures of good and evil, which, he thinks, are wholly independent of man, and thus fixing good and evil and right and wrong for all time. This enterprise, however, I think we now know to be impossible, because good and ill are not wholly independent of man. Philosophy must therefore abate some of the claims which Plato made for it and the layman still makes for it. It remains, however, still very Platonic and very important after having done so.
Another feature of these lectures that may disappoint a layman is their analytical attention to words. That is and always has been characteristic of philosophy, and I cannot help it. Those who believe that the serious discussion of great questions of good and evil can and should proceed without any criticism of language, are certainly wrong, and certainly not philosophers. Philosophy is essentially a hairsplitting form of religion; and this will always alienate people who dislike finding split hairs in their religion.
The most serious disappointment these lectures may give is that the valuations I express may be found not nearly optimistic enough. My views are, in fact, sometimes bitter medicine, depressing and amazing to many young people brought up in the ordinary English way. One of my former listeners was so amazed that he asked me if I really believed what I said. It may easily be that you are not strong enough to bear what I have to say, and therefore should not come. Perhaps you can judge this from the following summary of what I shall say.
Part I. The Nature of the Question. 1.2: The great question, What is the good?, is an error because there is no such thing as the good (PP. 14-18). 1.3: We must ask instead, What things are good? And we must interpret this not as a search for the property of goodness (pp. 18-24), but (1.4) as an invitation to make our own choice (pp. 24-29), which (1.5) is not the same as a search for ends (pp. 29-35). 1.6: Choice can be wise or foolish (pp. 35-41). 1.7: The process of making wise choices is judgement (pp. 41-43). 1.8: All good things are harmful sometimes; yet it is worth while to make ourselves a list of goods (pp. 43-47).
Part II. Personal Goods. 2.1: The test of goodness and badness is happiness and misery (pp. 48-53). 2.2: Life is a great good (pp. 54-57). 2.31; The word 'beauty' means that which is good in its sensuous aspects (pp. 57-59). 2.32: Beauty is a great good (pp. 59-61), closely related both to art and to sex [2.33] (pp. 61-65). 2.41: Truth, which is a matter of statements (pp. 65-67), is (2.42) a great good (pp. 67-70).
2.501: Virtue is a great good, and the greatest virtue is reason (pp. 70-72). 2.502: The word 'reason' means the good employment of man's capacity to think (pp. 72-73). 2.503: Reason commands that we love truth (pp. 73-74), that (2.504) we believe or disbelieve or doubt in accordance with the balance of the reasons available (pp. 74-77), that (2.505) we seek consistency (pp. 77-80), that (2.506) we note the consequences of our beliefs (pp. 80-81), that (2.507) we distinguish between analytic and synthetic statements, pursuing certainty about the former (pp. 81-84) and (2.508) probability about the latter (pp. 84-87), that (2.509) we respect the weight of the evidence (pp. 88-94), that (2.510) we hold our views tentatively (pp. 94-96), and (2.511) submit them to criticism (pp. 96-98). 2.512: Reason is practical (pp. 98-100). 2.513: Depreciations of reason often arise from thinking that the mind is a toolbox and reason is one of the tools (pp. 100-5). 2.6: The greatest good but one is love (pp. 105-8). 2.7: Conscientiousness must be subordinated to reason and love, but it is a great good (pp. 108-13).
2.81: Religion is more of an evil than a good because it is gravely inimical to truth and reason (pp. 113-18). 2.82: Faith is a vice (pp. 118-23). 2.83: There is no god or afterlife (pp. 123-30). 2.84: Religion provides no good reason for behaving morally (pp. 130-3) and (2.85) is not the only cause which in fact makes people behave morally when they do (pp. 133-40). 2.86: To discover what the Christian values are is a matter for study and interpretation (pp. 140-9). 2.87: The main precepts of Jesus according to the synoptic gospels were: love God, believe in Jesus, love man, be pure in heart and be humble (pp. 149-50). The first two of these are to be rejected; the third is to be accepted; the fourth and fifth are doubtful (pp. 150-5). 2.88: The human race is alone and insecure and doomed. Let us meet this situation with cheerfulness, courage, love, and the affirmation and pursuit of our ideals (pp. 155-7).
Part III. Political Goods. 3.11: Political goods are goods arising out of the existence of governments, and they are genuine goods (pp. 158-60).
3.12: The State is often regarded as a god (pp. 160-1). 3.13: But no State should be worshipped (pp. 161-8). 3.14: States are, however, moral agents (pp. 168-73).
3.21: Equality in political power is impossible, but we should approach it (pp. 173-5). 3.22: Equality before the law is impossible, but we should approach it (pp. 176-8). 3.23: Equality in wealth is a bad ideal (pp. 178-81). 3.24: Equality in dignity is profoundly good, but hardly a political matter (pp. 181-4). 3.25: The basis for equalization in dignity is equality in suffering, and therefore it should be extended to the beasts (pp. 184-7).
3.31: Freedom is a great good (pp. 188-94). 3.32: The concept of freedom is very liable to muddles (pp. 194-8).
3.41: We must not suppress the evil behaviour of other men until reasonable examination has made it very probable that trying to suppress the evil would greatly lessen human misery upon the whole (pp. 198-202). 3.42: Free speech is far more likely to produce a general spread of true opinion than is any suppression of it (pp. 203-6), because (3.43) all men are fallible (pp. 207-13). 3.44: In certain departments the limits of tolerance come sooner than liberals have been inclined to think (pp. 214-19).
3.51: There is no single right purpose of all government at all time (pp. 219-22). 3.52: There is no single right answer to the question what common enterprises a government should undertake (pp. 222-4). 3.53: But the primary ends of all States should be peace and justice (pp. 224-8).
3.61: Democracy is the constitution in which the people can at regular intervals constitutionally dismiss the governors if they so choose (pp. 228-35). 3.62: It is on the whole a great good (pp. 235-43). 3.63: Plato's argument against it fails because government is not a science (pp. 243-8). 3.64: We need to remind ourselves of our duties concerning the maintenance of democracy (pp. 248-53).
1.2. THE SEARCH FOR THE GOOD
Plato propounded the great question: What is the good? The good, he made his 'Socrates' say in the Republic, is the greatest study. We do not know what it is, and yet without this knowledge no other knowledge is of any use. Some think it is pleasure; some think it is knowledge; but it cannot be either. It is the only thing of which we are never content with a mere seeming. Every soul pursues it, and does everything it does for the sake of it, divining that it is something, but doubting and being unable to find out for certain what it is. In his Philebus Plato added that the good is perfect and sufficient and capable of making happy the life of man.
Aristotle said: 'They did well who represented the good as What everything aims at. There must be some end of our actions which we desire for its own sake, while we desire other things for the sake of this end. It cannot be that we desire everything for the sake of something else; for that would give an unending process, so that our impulse would be empty and vain. There must be therefore an end which we desire for its own sake, and this is clearly the good and the best.' (A paraphrase of parts of the first page of the Nicomachean Ethics.)
The followers of Plato and Aristotle have ever since been trying to answer this great question, What is the good?, or else to rewrite it first and then answer it in its rewritten form. These lectures are my attempt to do so.
It is not the question what men actually think good or actually pursue. Perhaps most men actually aim at money or sex or power. Perhaps they do not aim at anything of a general nature, but merely pursue some particular aim today and another tomorrow. This is a question for statistical psychology, or some such observational science. But evidently the question Plato propounded is not a request for statistics.
Is it the question How to be happy? That seems harder to decide. On the one hand, it seems that the good must have some connexion with happiness. Plato said that it is capable of making happy the life of man. We can hardly imagine that the good could possibly be inimical to man's happiness, or even indifferent to it. It seems inconceivable that anyone who had offered an account of the good should then add: 'but we shall be happier if we avoid it.' Aristotle concluded that the good is precisely happiness.
On the other hand, the question how to be happy seems another of these scientific questions, to be answered by observation or experiment. Does regular physical exercise tend to make us happy or not? That seems very little to do with Plato's question What is the good? Anyhow, the question How to be happy? is a question of means, of what means of making ourselves happy are in our power; but the question What is the good? is clearly not a question of means. It appears then that the two questions, What is the good? and How can we make ourselves happy?, are related but distinct.
Now a consideration arises which threatens to put an end to the whole enterprise of discovering what the good is before it can begin. This is that What is the good? is a false question.
A false question is one that implies a falsehood. For example, Why are you twenty feet tall? is an obviously false question. Every question implies some statement or other. People sometimes complain of examiners for asking questions which imply a statement that may not be true; but it is impossible to invent a question that does not do this, as you will find if you try. Hence we may reasonably ask about every question what statements it implies, and whether these implied statements are true or false.
The question What is the good? implies the statement that there is such a thing as the good, and this implies that there is one and only one thing that is good. To talk of the good implies that there is one and only one good thing.
To understand this it is necessary to examine a little the meaning of the word 'the'. It is all right to say that 'the Provost of Oriel spoke' because there is one and only one Provost of Oriel. But it is wrong to say 'the Archbishop of Oriel spoke' because there is no Archbishop of Oriel; and it is wrong to say 'the undergraduate of Oriel spoke', because there is more than one undergraduate of Oriel. It would be correct to say 'the undergraduate of Oriel spoke' if you were describing a group in which there was one and only one Oriel undergraduate.
This is not to say that the word 'the' always means one and only one. It evidently does not mean that in the phrase 'the kings of England', or in any phrase where it is followed by a noun in the plural. Nor does it always mean that when followed by a noun in the singular. The statement that 'the robin is a pugnacious bird' does not imply that there is only one robin, but is a way of saying something about robins in general.
Sometimes, however, the word 'the' does mean one and only one; and it means that in the question What is the good?
But it is obvious that there is more than one good thing in the world. Westminster Abbey is good, and so is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Or, if we turn to generalities, truth is good and so is love. Hence the question, What is the good?, is false. Instead of being answered, it requires to be rejected: many things are good. Thus our enterprise seems to end before it begins, and Plato's question seems a mistake. There is no such thing as the good.
If you find this difficult to believe, and think there must be something wrong with the argument, consider the following supporting evidence.
No one has ever given a satisfactory answer to the question What is the good? Plato in the Republic made his Socrates disclaim knowledge of the answer, and content himself with a comparison of the good to the sun. In the Philebus he seems to be preparing himself to give the answer, and does at the end say something that looks as if it might be meant to be the answer; but it is completely unsatisfactory. The good, we seem to be told, is in the first place measure, secondly symmetry, thirdly mind, fourthly knowledge, and fifthly pure pleasures. I have not yet heard of anyone who felt enlightened by this. No subsequent writer has redeemed the master's failure. The suspicion arises that the question is unanswerable because wrongly put.
Aristotle's argument that the good must exist is a mistake. He shows that there must be at least one thing that we desire for its own sake, and assumes that he has thereby shown that there is only one thing that we desire for its own sake.
It is a very common error to use the word 'the' so as to imply that there is only one thing of a certain kind when in fact there are many. People are always asking What was the cause of the collision? as if it had only one. People are always talking about the aim of education as if all teachers had one and the same aim, or ought to have.
Fairly common also is the opposite error of implying that there is more than one when there is only one by using 'a' when you should use 'the' People write of 'keeping vibration to a minimum', whereas there is only one minimum of vibration, namely no vibration. A British Labour Party pamphlet of August 1951 said that 'the maintenance of the social services is a first charge on the resources of the country'. There can be only one first; so it should have been 'the'. But it is politically convenient to say both that one is putting the social services first and that one is putting some other things equally high.
Such an elementary error maintains itself easily enough if it serves a great human need, and this particular error does so. No good thing or combination of good things is perfectly satisfying to us. In spite of enjoying them all we are often dissatisfied and sad. So we come to hope for a panacea, something that will permanently remove all misery for ever. The doctrine of the good is in a form that makes it possible, for some of us some of the time, to believe that there is such a panacea. The good, then, is that which cures all misery always, that which 'can give all men a happy life'.
Alas! There is no such panacea. Or, rather, there is, but it is death. Death is the only permanent cure for dissatisfaction and misery. While we live we are liable to them.
The idea of the good is among other things a way of shutting one's eyes to the inevitable conflicts of goods, and pretending that they do not exist or need not exist. The good is conceived as being a good that never conflicts with any other good and never has any kind of ill effect. But there cannot be such a good. Nothing is guaranteed never to have any bad effects, and never to interfere with anything desirable. If a man has more than one interest in life (and we all inevitably have) it is always possible for circumstances to arise in which he cannot satisfy one interest without disappointing another. Those who think there is a god may believe that he never has any ill effects, but they cannot show it. On the contrary, it certainly looks as if, if there is a god, he has done and is doing terrible things. When people use the undesirable phrase 'there are no absolute values', this is perhaps one of the things they confusedly mean, namely that everything has some bad effects; and in that sense the phrase is true.
I conclude that the question What is the good? is false, and must be not answered but rewritten.
1.3. THE SEARCH FOR THE PROPERTY GOODNESS
How can we rewrite Plato's question so as to eliminate the falsehood it implied, while retaining as much as possible of its spirit and intention?
The first rewriting that comes to mind is: What is the supreme good?, or What is the best thing? The opening of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism suggests that he thought that this was what had always really been meant: 'From the dawn of philosophy, the question concerning the summum bonum, or, what is the same thing, concerning the foundation of morality, has been accounted the main problem in speculative thought.... And after more than two thousand years the same discussions continue, philosophers are still ranged under the same contending banners, and neither thinkers nor mankind at large seem nearer to being unanimous on the subject.'
This rewriting will not do any better than the original question. Though it no longer implies the obvious falsehood that there is only one good thing, it now implies something not at all obviously true, namely that there is some one thing that is better than all other things. This is not necessarily so. There may be no best thing, either because three things are all equally good and each better than any fourth thing, or because what is best in the universe changes from time to time. Even if there is a best thing, it may be so little better than a host of other good things as to deserve no more attention than any of them. The phrases summum bonum and 'supreme good' are dubious in the same way as the recent phrase 'maximizing total welfare'. It seems probable that there always could be a higher degree of welfare than there is, and always could be a greater good than there is. Anyhow, we hope and believe that it is always possible to have greater goods than we have; and we want all goods, not merely one of them even if it is the best.
It may be that Plato regarded his question, at least in part, as being the search for a standard. The good, he perhaps thought, is that good which is the standard for all other goods. So arises the idea that we might rewrite his question as: What is the standard good?
However, this second rewriting will not do either. It is good to have particular standards for particular purposes. For example, it is a good thing to have standards for eating-apples. But it would not do to take the standard for eating-apples and turn it into a standard for apples in general. We may reject an apple for eating and yet accept it as good for cooking. We insist on using both standards -- the eating standard and the cooking standard. Nor can one say that, if we put the two together, the eating plus the cooking standard, then we have the standard for apples; because we also insist on keeping always open the possibility of adopting yet more standards in the future, perhaps one for cider apples and another one for apples to decorate the house, and always the possibility of yet another some day.
But if the good were a standard it would be a standard for everything. That is what would be meant by calling it the standard. Hence it would involve rejecting now for all time to come everything that did not conform to itself. To answer the question what the good is, in this sense, would be to legislate now for every valuation we are ever to make. That would be foolish, and we intend not to do it. We intend to leave ourselves free to adopt new standards of goodness in the future as events suggest them to us. If we adopted a standard good, we should be rejecting all future novelty and creativeness of the highest sort. We have seen too much already of new kinds of good thing being despised because they did not conform to adopted standards, and we want no more of it. Thus we cannot accept Plato's question in this form either, though I shall later adopt another sort of standard.
Nor can we accept, thirdly, the religious version of Plato's question, as meaning What is the end for man? or What is the purpose of life? There is no one purpose that all of us ought to adopt. A multiplicity of different ways of living may be good, some of them not yet imagined by anybody. People who tell us that the end of human life is so and so are in effect commanding us to do that, choosing our ends for us. But they have no right to do so.
Most of them of course, would reply to me here that they are not issuing their own orders to us but reporting God's orders to us. This reply fails twice, however, once because they have no respectable evidence that there is a god and these are his orders, and once because if there were a god he would have no right to give such orders. It would be wrong for a father to say to his child: 'I begot you in order to have support when I am past work; therefore you ought to support me.' It would be equally wrong for a god to say to his creature: 'I created you in order to do so and so; therefore you ought to do so and so.' If you procreate a child to get a nurse for your old age, or a plaything, or a defender of the State, your intention does not oblige your child to seek the end you had in mind. Similarly, if a god created us human beings for some end which he had in mind, his act does not morally oblige us to pursue that end. No person, human or divine, has a right to prescribe another person's ends.
I come now to a fourth rewriting of Plato's question, namely: What things are good
In this form the question at last seems to presuppose nothing false. It presupposes now only that there are some things and that some of them might possibly be good; and this we are confident enough is true.
On the other hand, this is a disappointing change at first, because the question in losing its falsehood seems also to have lost its thrill. The mystery and holiness of the good have vanished.
Yes, they have vanished, like other imaginary delights. And it is our task to cease regretting them, and to come to take an interest in the true question that has replaced them. We can help ourselves to do so by noticing that this new question, What things are good?, is not, as we may for the first minute suppose, pedestrian or obvious or unimportant. We are often in doubt whether a thing is good; and, when we are sure that it is good, we can often find somebody else who is sure that it is not; and disagreements about whether a thing is good often seem desperately important.
One way to come to take an interest in this question is to observe that there seems to be no good way to answer it. This was first clearly brought out, I believe, by G. E. Moore in his famous Principia Ethica. He wrote that 'no relevant evidence whatever can be adduced' (P.E. viii). He was referring to the question, What kind of things ought to exist for their own sakes?; but he regarded that as equivalent to the question, What kind of things are good in themselves? He held that there can be evidence that a thing is good as a means to something else, because there can be evidence whether it does produce that other thing; but there can be no evidence that it is good in itself. And this certainly seems to be correct. You cannot infer the goodness of a thing from laws of nature, because laws of nature do not mention goodness. Goodness is not a property that we see or hear or smell or taste in the course of observing the world and acquiring evidence.
Although Moore held that there cannot be evidence whether a thing is intrinsically good, he did not think that there was no method whatever of determining whether a thing is intrinsically good. On the contrary, he possessed and practised what he called 'the method of isolation'. 'It is absolutely essential', he wrote, 'to consider each distinguishable quality, in isolation, in order to decide what value it possesses' (§ 55). And again: 'In order to arrive at a correct decision on the (question what things have intrinsic value), it is necessary to consider what things are such that, if they existed by themselves, in absolute isolation, we should yet judge their existence to be good; and, in order to decide upon the relative degrees of value of different things, we must similarly consider what comparative value seems to attach to the isolated existence of each' (§ 112, p. 187).
The method of isolation is thus a sort of experiment in imagination. In order to test whether a thing is intrinsically good, one imagines the universe as consisting in nothing but that thing, existing quite alone, and then asks oneself whether it is good. In order to test whether one thing is intrinsically better than another, one imagines first a universe consisting solely of the one, and then a universe consisting solely of the other, and compares them. Moore's famous comparison of the two worlds, one very beautiful and one very ugly, and neither of them containing any sentient being, is, I suppose, an example of the method, though it occurs before he has described it (pp. 83-84). Thus the method can tell us, he thought, whether beauty is good in itself.
It is clearly a method for obtaining reliable intuitions, intuition being knowledge obtained without inference. It is not a way of inferring that a thing is good in itself, but a way of getting oneself into a position to see that it is good in itself. It is a method for producing sharp mental vision, just as opening one's eyes and adjusting the light are methods for producing sharp physical vision.
But have you any confidence in this method of isolation, or in the intuition that is supposed to result? For my part, I have none; and I find it very odd that Moore writes as if, when he employed this method of determining whether anything is intrinsically good, he usually became confident what the true answer was. When I place myself in one of these imaginary situations, I find that all my confidence evaporates, and I no longer seem to have any intuition whatever as to what things are good in themselves. I feel rather as if I were being asked to keep quite still while somebody removed the floor on which I was standing.
In order to see better the true colour of a patch, it is sometimes useful to isolate the patch from surrounding patches. For this purpose people take a neutral grey card with a little window cut in it, and hold it so that the patch they wish to see better shows through the window and nothing else does. Thus a certain method of isolation really is useful in examining colours. It seems to me, however, that there is no corresponding useful method in the non-physical examination of a thing as to its goodness. Goodness seems rather to be something that cannot appear by itself as yellow can. The physical isolation of a patch of colour makes more clear whether it is yellow; but the mental isolation of anything makes less clear whether at is good.
Moore does not suggest that there is any other method of discovering what things are good in themselves. If, therefore, the method he offers is a failure, and if he is right in thinking there can be no evidence that a thing is good in itself, the conclusion seems to be that the question What things are good? is no more answerable than the previous questions which we have rejected. Whereas, however, the previous questions were unanswerable because they implied falsehoods, this one seems to be unanswerable because we have no means of finding the answer.
I wish now to suggest that the unanswerability of Moore's question is really of the same kind as before, that is, due to its implying a falsehood, only in this case the question does not necessarily imply a falsehood but was merely misinterpreted by Moore to do so. Moore regarded the question What things are good? as being the question what things possess a certain property. He thought of goodness as a property which certain things possessed. Furthermore, he thought that a thing's possession or non-possession of the property goodness was quite independent of its relations to everything else and intrinsic to itself. (For this see also his essay on The Conception of Intrinsic Value.) It was precisely this independence and intrinsicality of the property that made it impossible to discover a reliable method of determining its presence. If the property is independent of all else, there is no law governing its presence or absence; but inference and evidence work by means of laws. Since the property was also insensible, there remained nothing but a supposed inner intuition as a means of detecting it.
Interpreted in this way, the question What things are good? is false. Since there is no means of reliably deciding what things possess the property goodness, it is highly probable that the property does not exist. Anyhow, we have no good reason to suppose the occurrence of a property which we can never detect.
Furthermore, the presence or absence of such an independent property would be of no practical interest to us. Since it was completely independent, it could make no difference to any of our concerns. If the decision that a thing was good were the decision that it possessed this inert property, it could not reasonably affect our actions. Or at any rate we should still have to choose either to pursue or not to pursue this inert property. No matter how much we might believe a thing to possess the independent property of goodness, the question whether to aim at that thing would still be another question, a question of choice. And if someone says that the only rational action then would be to aim at the thing, we can properly ask him why it would be rational, and point out that he can give no reason why we ought to pursue a thing discovered to possess the property of independent goodness. He may think that no reason is required, that it is selfevident that we ought to pursue what is good. I answer that perhaps it is selfevident if the statement that the thing is good is rightly understood, for to decide that a thing is good is something very like deciding that, other things being equal, we will pursue it; but it is not selfevident if the statement that the thing is good is understood as a factual report that the thing has a certain property which, since there can be no evidence for it, can have no regular connexion with anything else, and therefore must be inert and unimportant. To choose goods for whose warrant we had only the method of isolation would be unreasonable. There is nothing to prevent it from pronouncing good something that we all abhor.
1.4. THE CHOICE OF GOODS
This shows that we have been misinterpreting the question What things are good? For we know very well that it is a practical question, that answers to it make a difference to actions.
What sort of question is it, then? We have already given the reply. The answer lies in the word 'practical'. It is a practical question, that is, a question of practice, of action, of what to do. To wonder whether a thing is good is to wonder what to do with regard to it, as whether to pursue it, to praise it, to preserve it. To conclude that it is good is not to reach a belief as to its qualities and peculiarities, but rather to reach an attitude towards it, an evaluation of it, and a decision how to behave with regard to it. It is to choose it.
The question What things are good? is not scientific; and no science gives a true answer to it; and no study that offers to tell us what things are good is properly called a science. For science is the reasonable and methodical attempt to give general descriptions of the world. But calling things good is not describing the world; it is judging the world. In this inquiry we are not scientists but judges, because we are choosing what is to be done rather than discovering what is the nature of the world. Goods exist by choice rather than by nature, and we are our own architects of the end, as Aristotle implies (Nicomachean Ethics 1152b2, cf. 1094b16).
Making such a choice is different from reporting other people's choices, and also from reporting one's own choices. It is not reporting at all. It is a kind of generalized action or preparation for action; and it is possible only for beings who have the instrument of generality, which is language.
This observation helps very much to restore the interest and importance of the question, which seemed to disappear when we were obliged to abandon the original form, What is the good? Anyone who tries to answer the question What things are good? is doing something of great importance and interest, namely appreciating the actualities and possibilities of life and taking general decisions about his future actions.
That our question What things are good? is a search for evaluations and not for facts, has a linguistic side, and may be truly represented as a fact about language. It is one of the essential jobs of language to formulate and express our general evaluations; and in discharging this job language often uses words that are designed precisely or mainly for this purpose. Such words may fairly be called evaluative words in contrast to descriptive words whose main task is to help us in describing the world and reporting facts. One such evaluative word is 'good'. To call a thing good is not to describe it, or register it as possessing a certain property, but to appraise it, or reaffirm one's appraisal of it.
This character of the word 'good' is the cause of its sounding very odd to say that a thing's being good is no reason why we should pursue it. To say that a thing is good is in fact very like deciding to pursue it, other things being equal; and therefore it is something very like a selfcontradiction to say that a thing's being good is no reason why we should pursue it. But if, as Moore thought, to say that a thing is good were to describe it as possessing a certain property, then a thing's being good would be no reason why we should pursue it; and so it was fair of me to use this as an argument against Moore's view.
It is not the case that 'good' is a purely evaluative word, and never has any descriptive function at all. Its uses vary all the way from pure evaluation to pure description, and include every proportion of mixture. Thus, if you ask 'Is that a wormy apple or a good one?', you are clearly using the word 'good' mainly in order to describe an apple as not wormy. On the other hand, if, after listening to a piece of music of an utterly new kind, you say you think it is good, you are almost solely evaluating it. For the only properties or descriptions that a hearer can reasonably infer from your statement are descriptions of somebody's actual or possible evaluations, as that future critics will judge it good.
This evaluative, non-descriptive business of language is very important. To overlook it, and assume that all statements are descriptive, is a big mistake, and one that breeds many other mistakes. It is a mistake that is often made, and has been made in some very high quarters. For example, Bertrand Russell wrote in his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus that 'the essential business of language is to assert or deny facts'.
The view, that the question What things are good? is one of choice rather than one of objective fact, arouses various objections, among which are the following.
1. It is sometimes objected that the view is wicked. To hold it, and to deny that there is such a thing as an objective property of goodness, is thought to be wrong in itself. Thus Professor H. J. Paton defined the good man precisely as 'one who acts on the supposition that there is an unconditioned and objective moral standard holding for all men in virtue of their rationality as human beings' (The Moral Law, p. 7). From this it follows that he who does not act on the supposition of an objective standard is by definition not a good man.
2. Secondly, it is often felt that the subjective view is intensely depressing. If there is no objective good to pursue, then, some people think, all our choices are pointless and futile, and therefore life itself is futile. Whatever we choose, we might just as well have chosen something else.
3. Thirdly, it is often thought that the subjective view has the depressing consequence that we shall never reach agreement about the good and the bad, because there is no objective fact to control our thoughts and bring them into agreement, while there is a strong force tending to make us disagree, namely the private and exclusive interest of each one of us. The prospect of eternal disagreement is depressing in itself; and it is likely to lead to desperate and endless fighting, because men feel so strongly about the good and the bad.
Let us consider these three objections. The first of them, namely that the subjective view is as such wicked, is to be rejected as false. The good man is not to be defined as he who believes some complicated and learned proposition, whether this is Professor Paton's Kantian proposition, or the Athanasian creed, or any other. It has been a recurring temptation of theologians and moralists to place human goodness in the act of believing some sophisticated proposition beyond the comprehension of most people. Yet it has always been obvious that a good person may be incapable even of understanding these creeds, while, on the other hand, some who believed them have been wicked men and acted horribly. It is perfectly plain that the good man is not this. The good man is he who displays the virtues. That is to say, the good man is he who is brave, temperate, just, wise, benevolent, and so on. Of course! What could be more obvious?
The other two objections are both to be dismissed as irrelevant. They both urge that the subjective view is depressing, as if that were relevant to the question whether it is true. But whether a view is depressing or not has, evidently, nothing to do with whether it is true. And that is the end of that.
The points raised by these objections are, however, interesting for their own sakes. Let us consider them a little.
People are often alarmed when they begin to entertain the idea that they might some day have to adopt the subjective view. And, if they do come to adopt it, they are sometimes depressed by it at first. Life in general, and their choices in particular, do often seem to them at first quite futile. A man's zest for life is often connected with certain beliefs that he holds. It may mean a lot to him, for example, to believe that his wife is a fine woman, or that his country is the best country. Above all, it means a great deal to many a man to believe that he himself is a decent and successful person; and the loss of this particular belief is probably the most depressing loss of belief there can be.
Yet I hardly think there can be a law of human nature that people must believe certain things in order to be happy. Even the most desirable belief of all, namely that oneself is decent and successful, is probably dispensed with by certain happy tramps and scamps. As to a general proposition expressing a learned opinion, such as our proposition that there is no objective property of goodness, we can always learn to dispense with it, and attach our happiness to other propositions, or, better, not attach it to belief in any particular proposition at all. Though it may take us some time to get used to some particular changes of belief, there is one consolation that we can have immediately, namely the thought that we are reverencing the ideal of truth, in that we are trying to hold the more probable opinion, and sacrificing some happiness to that end.
Depression caused by adopting a subjectivist doctrine of goodness is sometimes partly due to false views about its consequences. This brings us to the last objection, for it rests on a false view about the consequences of the view that the question what things are good is a matter of choice. The prospect of our agreeing with each other as to what things are good is better if this is believed to be a question of choice than if it is believed to be a question of fact, and not the reverse as is sometimes held. It is common experience that in deliberative bodies, where practical choices have to be made, those who see the matter as one of objective right and wrong are much more likely to remain in disagreement with each other than those who see it as a question of compromising between different people's wishes. As Professor Nowell Smith has written, it is no accident that all the great persecutors have been objectivists. Furthermore, the general proposition that goodness is an objective fact does nothing to settle any of the infinite particular questions whether so and so is good. It remains perfectly possible for two persons to agree in holding that goodness is objective, and yet to disagree as to which things are good; and if they disagree they have no method of convincing each other, no reasons to give.
The greatest measure of agreement as to what things are good is likely to be found among those who both believe that this is a question rather of choice than of fact and also desire to be in agreement with other men. If we wish men to agree on what is good and what is bad, what we can do about it is to train them to wish to agree with each other and to teach them that it is a question of choice rather than of fact.
It does not follow from this subjectivist view that the statement that something is good is neither true nor false. On the contrary, the statement that this thing is good is exactly like the statement that this thing is round in that it calls for general acceptance or rejection. Every statement by its nature invites general acceptance or rejection. If we declare it false, we imply that all men should reject it. If we declare it true, we imply that all men should accept it. That is the primary function of the words 'true' and 'false'. They indicate the adoption and rejection of statements.
Statements differ from each other in the criteria by which the reasonable man decides whether to accept or to reject them. For statements about nature the main criterion is, of course, nature herself, as observed in our best efforts of observation and experiment. For statements about value the criterion is unfortunately not universally agreed. But, whatever the criterion by which we decide that a certain sort of thing is good or bad, and however different this criterion may be from that of scientific statements, the fundamental meaning of the words 'true' and 'false' is the same when they are applied to statements of value as when they are applied to those of science, namely that the statement should be generally accepted or rejected. Every man who calls a statement true thereby implicitly calls on all men to adopt it; and that is what I am doing when in what follows I call a statement of value true.