II. The Meaning of Good and Bad.


Good and Bad, in the sense in which the words are here intended (which is, I believe, their usual sense), are ideas which everybody, or almost everybody, possesses. These ideas are apparently among those which form the simplest concstituents of our more complex ideas, and are therefore incapable of being analysed or built up out of other simpler ideas. When people ask What do you mean by good? the answer must consist, not in a verbal definition such as could be given if one were asked What do you mean by pentagon? but in such a characterization as shall call up the appropriate idea to the mind of the questioner. This characterization may, and probably will, itself contain the idea of good, which would be a fault in a definition, but is harmless when our purpose is merely to stimulate the imagination to the production of the idea which is intended. It is in this way that children are taught the names of colours; they are shown (say) a red book, and told that that is red; and for fear they should think red means book, they are shown also a red flower, a red ball, and so on, and told that these are all red. Thus the idea of redness is conveyed to their minds, although it is quite impossible to analyse redness or to find constituents which compose it. (§ 4 ¶ 1)

In the case of good, the process is more difficult, both because goodness is not perceived by the senses, like redness, and because there is less agreement as to the things that are good than as to the things that are red. This is perhaps one reason that has led people to think that the notion of good could be analysed into some other notion, such as pleasure or object of desire. A second reason, probably more potent, is the common confusion that makes people think they cannot understand an idea unless they can define it—forgetting that ideas are defined by other ideas, which must be already understood if the definition is to convey any meaning. When people begin to philosophize, they seem to make a point of forgetting everything familiar and ordinary; otherwise their acquaintance with redness or any other colour might show them how an idea can be intelligible where definition, in the sense of analysis, is impossible. (§ 4 ¶ 2)


To explain what we mean by Good and Bad, we may say that a thing is good when on its own account it ought to exist, and bad when on its own account it ought not to exist. If it seems to be in our power to cause a thing to exist or not to exist, we ought to try to make it exist if it is good, and not exist if it is bad. When a thing is good, it is fitting that we should feel pleasure in its existence; when it is bad, it is fitting that we should feel pain in its existence. But all such characterizations really presuppose the notions of good and bad, and are therefore useful only as a means of calling up the right ideas, not as logical definitions. (§ 5 ¶ 1)

It might be thought that good could be defined as the quality of whatever we ought to try to produce. This would merely put ought in place of good as our ultimate undefined notion; but as a matter of fact the good is much wider that what we ought to try to produce. There is no reason to doubt that some of the lost tragedies of Aeschylus were good, but we ought not to try to re-write them, because we should certainly fail. What we ought to do, in fact, is limited by our powers and opportunities, whereas the good is subject to no such limitation. And our knowledge of goods is confined to the things we have experienced or can imagine; but presumably there are many goods of which we human beings have absolutely no knowledge, because they do not come within the very restricted range of our thoughts and feelings. Such goods are still goods, even though human conduct can have no reference to them. Thus the notion of good is wider and more fundamental than any notion concerned with conduct; we use the notion of good in explaining what right conduct is, but we do not use the notion of right conduct in explaining what good is. (§ 5 ¶ 2)


A fairly plausible view is that good means the same as desired, so that when we say a thing is good we mean that it is desired. Thus anything is good which we either hope to acquire or fear to lose. Yet it is commonly admitted that there are bad desires; and when people speak of bad desires, they seem to mean desires for what is bad. For example, when one man desires another man’s pain, it is obvious that what is desired is not good but bad. But the supporter of the view that good means desired will say that nothing is good or bad in itself, but is good for one person and perhaps bad for another. This must happen, he will say, in every case of a conflict of desires; if I desire your suffering, then your suffering is good for me, though it is bad for you. But the sense of good and bad which is needed in ethics is not in this way personal; and it is quite essential, in the study of ethics, to realize that there is an impersonal sense. In this sense, when a thing is good, it ought to exist on its own account, not on account of its consequences, nor yet of who is going to enjoy it. We cannot maintain that for me a thing ought to exist on its own account, while for you it ought not; that would merely mean that one of us is mistaken, since in fact everything either ought to exist or ought not. Thus the fact that one man’s desiremay be another man’s aversion proves that good, in the sense relevant to ethics, does not mean the same as deisred, since everything is in itself either good or not good, and cannot be at once good for me and bad for you. This could only mean that its effects on me were good, and on you bad; but here good and bad are again impersonal. (§ 6 ¶ 1)


There is another line of argument, more subtle but more instructive, by which we can refute those who say that good means desired, or who propose any other idea, such as pleasure, as the actual meaning of good. This line of argument will not prove that the things that are good are not the same as the things that are desired; but it will prove that, if this were the case, it could not be proved by appealing to the meaning of the word good. So far, it might be thought that such an argument could only have purely logical importance. But in fact this is not so. Many ethical theories have been based upon the contention that good means so-and-so, and people have accepted consequences of this contention, which, if they had relied upon inspection untrammelled by false theory, they would almost certainly have rejected. Whoever believes that good means desired will try to explain away the cases where it seems as if what is desired is bad; but if he no longer holds this theory, he will be able to allow free play to his unbiased ethical perceptions, and will thus escape errors into which he would otherwise have fallen. (§ 7 ¶ 1)

The argument in question is this: If anyone affirms that the good is the desired, we consider what he says, and either assent or dissent; but in any case our assent or dissent is decided by considering what the good and the desired really are. When, on the contrary, someone gives us a definition of the meaning of a word, our state of mind is quite different. If we are told a pentagon is a figure which has five sides, we do not consider what we know about pentagons, and then agree or disagree; we accept this as the meaning of the word, and we know that we are getting information, not about pentagons, but merely about the word pentagon. What we are told is the sort of thing that we expect dictionaries to tell us. But when we are told that the good is the desired, we feel at once that we are being told something of philosophical importance, something which has ethical consequences, something which is quite beyond the scope of a dictionary to tell us. The reason of this is, that we already know what we mean by the good, and what we mean by the desired; and if these two meanings always applied to the same objects, that would not be a verbal definition, but an important truth. The analogue of such a proposition is not the above definition of a pentagon, but rather: A pentagon (defined as above) is a figure which has five angles. Whenever a proposed definition sets us thinking whether it is true in fact, and not whether that is how the word is used, there is reason to suspect that we are not dealing with a definition, but with a significant proposition, in which the word professedly defined has a meaning already known to us, either as simple or as defined in some other way. By applying this test, we shall easily convince ourselves that all hitherto suggested definitions of the good are significant, not merely verbal, propositions; and that therefore, though they may be true in fact, they do not give the meaning of the word good. (§ 7 ¶ 2)

The importance of this result is that so many ethical theories depend upon the denial of it. Some have contended that good means desired, others that good means pleasure, others again that it means conformity to Nature or obedience to the will of God. The mere fact that so many different and incompatible definitions have been proposed is evidence against any of them being really definitions; there have never been two incompatible definitions of the word pentagon. None of the above are really definitions; they are all to be understood as substantial affirmations concerning the things that are good. All of them are, in my opinion, mistaken in fact as well as form, but I shall not here undertake to refute them severally. (§ 7 ¶ 3)


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)


One very important consequence of the indefinability of good must be emphasized, namely, the fact that knowledge as to what things exist, have existed, or will exist, can throw absolutely no light upon the question as to what things are good. There might, as far as mere logic goes, be some general proposition to the effect whatever exists, is good, or whatever exists, is bad, or what will exist is better (or worse) than what does exist. But no such general proposition can be proved by considering the meaning of good, and no such general proposition can be arrived at empirically from experience, since we do not know the whole of what does exist, nor yet of what has existed or will exist. We cannot therefore arrive at such a general proposition, unless it is itself self-evident, or follows from some self-evident proposition, which must (to warrant the consequence) be of the same general kind. But as a matter of fact, there is, so far as I can discover, no self-evident proposition as to the goodness or badness of all that exists or has existed or will exist. It follows that, from the fact that the existent world is of such and such a nature, nothing can be inferred as to what things are good or bad. (§ 9 ¶ 1)


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)


We cannot, then, infer any results as to what is good or bad from a study of the things that exist. This conclusion needs chiefly, at the present time, to be applied against evolutionary ethics. The phrase survival of the fittest seems to have given rise to the belief that those who survive are the fittest in some ethical sense, and that the course of evolution gives evidence that the later type is better than the earlier. On this basis, a worship of force is easily set up, and the mitigation of struggle by civilization comes to be deprecated. It is thought that what fights most successfully is most admirable, and that what does not help in fighting is worthless. Such a view is wholly destitute of logical foundation. The course of nature, as we have seen, is irrelevant to deciding as to what is good or bad. A priori, it would be as probable that evolution should go from bad to worse, as that it should go from good to better. What makes the view plausible is the fact that the lower animals existed earlier than the higher, and that among men the civilized races are able to defeat and often exterminate the uncivilized. But here the ethical preference of the higher to the lower animals, and of the exterminators to the exterminated, is not based upon evolution, but exists independently, and unconsciously intrudes into our judgment of the evolutionary process. If evolutionary ethics were sound, we ought to be entirely indifferent as to what the course of evolution may be, since whatever it is is thereby proved to be the best. Yet if it should turn out that the Negro or Chinaman were able to oust the European, we should cease to have any admiration of evolution; for as a matter of fact our preference of the European to the Negro is wholly independent of the European’s greater prowess with the Maxim gun. (§ 11 ¶ 1)

Broadly, the fact that a thing is unavoidable affords no evidence that it is not an evil; and the fact that a thing is impossible affords no evidence that it is not a good. It is doubtless foolish, in practice, to fret over the inevitable; but it is false, in theory, to let the actual world dictate our standard of good and evil. It is evident that among the things that exist some are good, some bad, and that we know too little of the universe to have any right to an opinion as to whether the good or the bad preponderates, or as to whether either is likely in the future to gain on the other. Optimism and pessimism alike are general theories as to the universe which there is no reason whatever for accepting; what we know of the world tends to suggest that the good and the evil are fairly balanced, but it is of course possible that what we do not know is very much better or very much worse than what we do know. Complete suspense of judgment in this matter is therefore the only rational attitude. (§ 11 ¶ 2)