II. The Meaning of Good and Bad.


The belief that the world is wholly good has, nevertheless, been widely held. It has been held either because, as a part of revealed religion, the world has been supposed created by a good and omnipotent God, or because, on metaphysical grounds, it was thought possible to prove that the sum-total of existent things must be good. With the former line of argument we are not here concerned; the latter must be briefly dealt with. (§ 10 ¶ 1)

The belief that, without assuming any ethical premiss, we can prove that the world is good, or indeed any other result containing the notion of good, logically involves the belief that the notion of good is complex and capable of definition. If when we say that a thing is good we mean (for example) that it has three other simpler properties, then by proving that a thing has those three properties we prove that it is good, and thus we get a conclusion involving the notion of good, although our premisses did not involve it. But if good is a simple notion, no such inference will be possible; unless our premisses contain the notion of good, our conclusion cannot contain it. The case is analogous to the case of elements and compounds in chemistry. By combining elements or compounds we can get a new compound, but no chemical operation will give an element which was not present in the beginning. So, if good is simple, no propositions not containing this notion can have consequences which do contain it. (§ 10 ¶ 2)

As a matter of fact, those who have endeavoured to prove that the world as a whole is good have usually adopted the view that all evil consists wholly in the absence of something and that nothing positive is evil. This they have usually supported by defining good as meaning the same as real. Spinoza says: By reality and perfection I mean the same thing[ETHICS, pt. ii df. vi]; and hence it follows, with much less trouble than metaphysicians have usually taken in the proof, that the real is perfect. This is the view in Abt Vogler: The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound.[Abt Vogler] (§ 10 ¶ 3)

Whenever it is said that all evil is limitation, the same doctrine is involved; what is meant is that evil never consists in the existence of something which can be called bad, but only in the non-existence of something. Hence everything that does exist must be good, and the sum-total of existence, since it exists most, must be the best of all. And this view is set forth as resulting from the meaning of evil. (§ 10 ¶ 4)

The notion that non-existence is what is meant by evil is refuted exactly as the previous definitions of good were refuted. And the belief that, as a matter of fact, nothing that exists is evil, is one which no one would advocate except a metaphysician defending a theory. Pain and hatred and envy and cruelty are surely things that exist, and are not merely the absence of their opposites; but the theory should hold that they are indistinguishable from the blank unconsciousness of an oyster. Indeed, it would seem that this whole theory has been advanced solely because of the unconscious bias in favour of optimism, and that its opposite is logically just as tenable. We might urge that evil consists in existence, and good in non-existence; that therefore the sum-total of existence is the worst thing there is, and that only non-existence is good. Indeed, Buddhism does seem to maintain some such view. It is plain that this view is false; but logically it is no more absurd than its opposite. (§ 10 ¶ 5)