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On Some Ways in Which A Thing Can be Good*

  • Judith Jarvis Thomson (a1)


There are a great many ways in which a thing can be good. What counts as a way of being good? I leave it to intuition. Let us allow that being a good dancer is being good in a way, and that so also is being a good carpenter. We might group these and similar ways of being good under the name activity goodness, since a good dancer is good at dancing and a good carpenter is good at carpentry. Everything good at doing something D is good in a way, and for each activity D, being good at D-ing falls into the class of ways of being good which I call activity goodness.

Again, let us allow that being a good hammer is being good in a way, and that so also is being a good butter knife. We might group these ways of being good under the name equipment goodness, since a good hammer is good for use in hammering nails and a good butter knife is good for use in buttering bread. Everything good for use in achieving a purpose P is good in a way, and for each purpose P, being good for use in achieving P falls into the class of ways of being good which I call equipment goodness.

Again, let us allow that tasting good is being good in a way, and so also are looking good, sounding good, and so on. The class here is aesthetic goodness.

Is all goodness goodness-in-a-way? Intuitively, the answer is yes: it seems right to think that everything is good only insofar as it is good in one or more ways.

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1 I take the very good idea that we should be attending to the ways in which a thing can be good from Von Wright Georg Henrik, The Varieties of Goodness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), ch. 1. He divides the territory into what he calls forms of goodness. My division into ways of being good is finer-grained: he aims at a list of forms such that no one form is reducible to any other, whereas the ways I will mention include some that are reducible to others.

2 We might well prefer the subjunctive here, thus: “Alfred's drinking lemonade would be good for Alfred”. (And similarly: “Lemonade would be good for Alfred”.) The subjunctive is preferable where the relevant event (Alfred's drinking lemonade) or state of affairs is not currently occurring or obtaining; the indicative is preferable where it is. There will be many cases to come in which the subjunctive would be preferable to the indicative, but I will for brevity and simplicity often use the indicative.

3 I take this example from Feldman Fred, Doing the Best We Can (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Co., 1986), p. 26.

4 The kind of example I have in mind here is discussed by Moore G. E. in Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), ch. 6. An interesting recent discussion is Thomas Hurka's “Virtue as Loving the Good”, in the present volume.

5 Could it be said that the relation in this case is ‘being caused by’, and thus that S is good because it is caused by X? Among the difficulties for that idea is the following. A thing can plainly inherit goodness from what it causes; can a thing inherit goodness from what causes it? I should think not. It is worth noting, however, that my belief is correct only if goodness-from-a-point-of-view is not a class of ways of being good, for it is entirely possible to value a thing because of valuing what caused it. (For example, I might value a dent in my fender because, and only because, it was caused by my car's being driven into by my favorite movie actor.) This possibility issues from the very subjectivity in goodness from this or that point of view, which yields, intuitively, that goodness-from-a-point-of-view is not a class of ways of being good.

6 Von Wright, Varieties of Goodness, p. 18.

7 It is of interest how often one finds it said in the literature that people are intrinsically good. Mostly, I think, the philosopher who says this thinks that the intrinsic goodness of a person is reducible to the intrinsic goodness of the state of affairs that consists in the person's surviving, or to the intrinsic goodness of some other intrinsically good state or states of affairs involving the person. (Sometimes one simply cannot tell what such a philosopher means.) I suppose it possible to believe that people are not merely intrinsically good but irreducibly intrinsically good, but I find it hard to see what one who held this belief could have in mind by it.

8 A rewriting of “has intrinsic value” in terms of the word “ought” turns up in the preface of Moore's Principia Ethica. He says: “I have tried to shew exactly what it is that we ask about a thing, when we ask whether it ought to exist for its own sake, is good in itself or has intrinsic value” (p. viii). But he here implies that “ought to exist for its own sake” and “is good in itself” are trivial rewritings of each other. Thus, his “ought to exist for its own sake” is not a member of the third class of locutions: it is rather a member of the first.

Elsewhere, Moore produces a sentence-form containing thex word “duty” which he thinks is equivalent to (though not a definition of) a certain sentence-form containing the expression “intrinsically good”, but it ascribes no duty to people. Rather, it tells us what would have been or was the duty of a creator, if there had been or was such a thing. What he has in mind by his sentence-form containing the word “duty” is therefore probably best understood as an explication of goodness in itself; it falls, not into the third class of locutions, but into the first. See Moore G. E., “A Reply to My Critics”, in The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, ed. Schilpp P. A. (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1942), pp. 608–9.

9 See Korsgaard Christine, “Two Distinctions in Goodness”, The Philosophical Review, vol. XCII, no. 2 (April 1983).

10 Those who say that my feeling pleased at the alleviation of your cold is intrinsically good, and that it possesses more intrinsic goodness if the alleviation of your cold is good than if the alleviation of your cold is not good, will have to modify this construal of intrinsic goodness. A number of possible revisions are available; I will not canvass them.

11 We will get to Moore's own use of this term in the following section.

12 Moore, Principia Ethica, ch. 3, pp. 98–102.

13 A third possibility is that it is goodness-for-its-own-sake-from-a-point-of-view that Moore concludes is reducible to absolute goodness. (After all, the man who says “Money is my good” presumably does not mean merely that he values money: he presumably means that he values money for its own sake.)

A fourth possibility is that Moore's conclusion is a denial that there is any such thing as goodness-for, or goodness-from-a-point-of-view: under this interpretation, he is saying that the only goodness is absolute goodness. I think this is how Eric Mack interprets the conclusion in “Moral Individualism: Agent-Relativity and Deontic Restraints”, Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1989), p. 85. But I find it hard to believe that Moore would deny that a state of affairs might be in a person's interest, or that a person might value this or that. If one or other of those concepts is his target here, then surely his point is derivativeness and not denial.

But perhaps Moore has nothing like this in mind at all. Under a fifth interpretation, his target is neither goodness-for nor goodness-from-a-point-of-view, but rather a first cousin of what students have in mind when they say “Ah, that proposition may be true-for-you, but perhaps it isn't true-for-others”, and reject the following gloss on their words: “Ah, you may think that proposition true, but perhaps others don't”. Among its first cousins is: “Ah, that state of affairs may be good-in-way-W-for-you, but perhaps it isn't good-in-way-W-for others”. I think there is much to be said for the idea that this is what concerns Moore here, and that he does not mean that goodness-in-way-W-for-a-person is derivative, but that there is no such thing. For he thinks it relevant to say: “The good [of a thing] can in no possible sense be ‘private’ or belong to me; any more than a thing can exist privately or for one person only”. He might as well have said: “any more than a proposition can be true privately or for one person only”.

14 The underlying idea here is widespread in current ethical writing. Here, for example, is Shelly Kagan:

To say that from the moral standpoint one outcome is objectively better than another, is to say that everyone has a reason to choose the better outcome.

See Kagan , The Limits of Morality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 61.

15 See, for example, Taurek John M., “Should the Numbers Count?Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 6, no. 4 (Summer 1977). But I am not absolutely clear whether Taurek thinks that there is no such concept at all, or merely that the survival of more people is not to be considered intrinsically better just by virtue of being the survival of more people.

See also Foot Philippa, “Utilitarianism and the Virtues”, Mind, vol. XCIV, no. 374 (April 1985); her target is plainly the concept ‘intrinsic goodness’ itself.

16 Foot, “Utilitarianism and the Virtues”, p. 198.

17 This fact has an obvious connection with the temptation to define intrinsic goodness in terms of what people ought to do.

* I am grateful to the other contributors to this volume — and to its editors — for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay. Many others made helpful comments on a later version; I am particularly indebted to Jonathan Bennett and David Gauthier.

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