II. The Meaning of Good and Bad.


It is important to realize that when we say a thing is good in itself, and not merely as a means, we attribute to the thing a property which it either has or does not have, quite independently of our opinion on the subject, or of our wishes or other people’s. Most men are inclined to agree with Hamlet: There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.[Hamlet, Act II Scene II] It is supposed that ethical preferences are a mere matter of taste, and that if X thinks A is a good thing, and Y thinks it is a bad thing, all we can say is that A is good for X and bad for Y. This view is rendered plausible by the divergence of opinion as to what is good and bad, and by the difficulty of finding arguments to persuade people who differ from us in such a question. But the difficulty in discovering the truth does not prove that there is no truth to be discovered. If X says A is good, and Y says A is bad, one of them must be mistaken, though it may be impossible to discover which. If this were not the case, there would be no difference of opinion between them. If, in asserting that A is good, X meant merely to assert that A had a certain relation to himself, say of pleasing his taste in some way; and if Y, in saying that Y, in saying that A is not good, meant merely to deny that A had a like relation to himself: then there would be no subject of debate between them. It would be absurd, if X said I am eating a pigeon-pie, for Y to answer that is false: I am eating nothing. But this is no more absurd than a dispute as to what is good, if, when we say A is good, we mean merely to affirm a relation of A to ourselves. When Christians assert that God is good, they do not mean merely that the contemplation rouses certain emotions in them: they may admit that this contemplation rouses no such emotion in the devils who believe and tremble, but the absence of such emotions is one of the things that make devils bad. As a matter of fact, we consider some tastes better than others: we do not hold merely that some tastes are ours and other tastes are other people’s. We do not even always consider our own tastes the best: we may prefer bridge to poetry, but think it better to prefer poetry to bridge. And when Christians affirm that a world created by a good God must be a good world, they do not mean that it must be to their taste, for often it is by no means to their taste, but they use its goodness to argue that it ought to be to their taste. And they do not mean merely that it is to God’s taste: for that would have been equally the case if God had not been good. Thus, good and bad are qualities which belong to objects independently of our opinions, just as much as round and square do; and when two people differ as to whether a thing is good, only one of them can be right, though it may be very hard to know which is right. (§ 8 ¶ 1)