Richard Robinson, An Atheist's Values, 1964.


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).


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.


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.


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.


In pursuing the question What is the good?, or What things are good?, thinkers have often brought in the ideas of means and ends, and interpreted the question thereby.

Plato in his Republic made his speakers divide goods into those that we welcome only for their consequences, those that we welcome only for themselves, and those that we welcome both for their consequences and for themselves; and declare that the third kind is the best. He made his 'Adimantus' urge 'Socrates' to show that justice is good in itself, apart from the question whether its consequences are good.

Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics wrote of the good as that which is the end of all things, and as something that is a pure end, and not also a means. There must be such a pure end, he argued; for, if everything were desired for the sake of something else, desire would be empty and vain. This pure end is happiness, which in fact is sought always for its own sake and never as a means.

John Dewey, in his interesting book Human Nature and Conduct, sets himself to oppose Aristotle on this matter, to depreciate ends and praise means. Ends, he says, are only points of redirection. With this may be compared Mr. Harrod's statement that the plain man applies the word 'good' to means only, never to ends (Mind, 1936, pp. 141-2).

Moore in Principia Ethica adopted the distinction between being good in itself and being good as a means to something else, and expressed it as the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goodness (pp. 21-27). He regarded the search for the good as the search for intrinsic goodness only. It is an error, he wrote, p. 187, to suppose that 'what seems absolutely necessary here and now, for the existence of anything good ... is therefore good in itself'.

All of these views are fundamentally mistaken in the same way, however they differ from each other. Neither the question What is the good? nor the question What things are good? is a search for either ends or means or both. The question cannot be accurately expressed with these words. 'Good' is an evaluative word; but 'ends' and 'means' are not evaluative words, or not nearly to the same extent as 'good'. Hence to rewrite the question by omitting 'good' and introducing 'end' is to ask a different question. Even if, like Moore, you retain the word 'good', but covertly introduce the notion of an end by talking of 'intrinsic good', you are still changing the question; for in calling a thing good, or wondering whether it is good, we are not thinking either of ends or of means or of their difference. To say positively what we are doing, the only accurate expression is just this, that we are judging it good, but more loosely we can also say that we are evaluating it, appraising it, giving ourselves the principle of furthering its existence, contemplating it with satisfaction, or deciding to recommend it.

The following consideration helps to show that the distinction between means and end is irrelevant to the question what things are good. It could logically happen, and probably does happen, that two persons agree that a certain thing is good, while one of them regards it purely as a means and the other purely as an end. For example, perhaps there are two men who both think that equality is a great good; but one of them regards it merely as an end; he is passionately attached to equality as such, and does not care what the consequences are; while the other has no love for equality as such, but thinks it a very necessary and efficacious means to various highly important results. It would be a mistake to belittle the agreement existing between these two men. Each of them will say that equality is a great good. Each of them will work hard for equality. They may both be earnest members of the British Labour Party for life and never come to any disagreement with the Party or each other on the matter of equality.

The relation of means to end is the relation of cause to effect regarded by someone who intends the effect. It entails both causation and intention, and is non-existent when either of them is absent. A match is a means of lighting a fire only if both a match causes the fire to light and somebody intends the fire to light. If the match by some strange accident lights the fire without anyone's intending to light the fire, it is not a means to the lighting but merely a cause thereof. The cause of an effect becomes the means to it when it is intended by somebody to cause it. The effect becomes an end when someone introduces the cause with the intention of producing that effect.

Thus an end is an effect which somebody intends to produce by means of some cause. But this is not the same as a good. In thinking that something is good, we do not necessarily have the notion of cause and effect in our minds. It may be a good effect, or a good cause, but more often it is just a good. If we rephrase the question what things are good as something about ends, we introduce the notion of causation, which was not there before, and thus alter the question.

There is, however, another and wider sense of the word 'end' to which the argument does not apply. An end is not always something which we intend to effect by means of some cause. It can be anything which we intend, whether we require some means in order to produce it, or can produce it directly without any means. Your intention and end may be to light a fire, in which case you will have to look for some means, such as a match. But it may also be to sing, in which case you will not have to look for any means; you will just sing. Thus ends and means are not correlative. Every means is the means to some end; but not every end is the effect of some means.

In this wider sense of 'end', however, it is still true that you alter the question if you use it to explain what you mean by What things are good? Although you no longer have the inappropriate notion of cause and effect, you still have something inappropriate, namely a much too direct and specific purposiveness. To call a thing an end is to imply that you, or somebody else, is going after it, or ought to go after it, in a very definite and particular way; but to call it good is far more indefinite. To call it good implies that one would or should go after it under certain circumstances, but not that the circumstances are present, or ever will be present. Hence even in this wider sense it is a mistake to use the word 'end' to express our question; and, of course, there is always the danger of falling back into the still less appropriate narrow sense.

Men value means as well as ends, and call both of them good. Not merely does the blazing fire seem a good thing to them, but also the match that is a means thereto.

Men come to value things as ends just because they recognize them as effective means. This has often been insisted on; and may be summed in the phrase that means often become ends. If you ask a man to give you a reason why a thing is good, or to justify his praise of it, nine times out of ten his reason consists in representing the thing as a means to something else. Democracy, he may say, is good because it makes the government look sharp to remedy the people's miseries. Nine times out of ten there is nothing that you can say, to bring a man to value something which he does not yet value, except that it is a means to something. A famous example of this is the discussion of the goodness of justice in Plato's Republic. 'Adimantus' proposes, and 'Socrates' undertakes, the task of showing that justice is good in itself, regardless of its consequences. Yet in the very act of proposing this task 'Adimantus', without realizing that he is doing so, also represents it as the task of showing that being just has good consequences in a man's soul; and it is this latter task that 'Socrates' actually fulfils.

If you are asked to show that justice possesses some intrinsic property wholly independent of man, whose name is 'goodness', it is futile for you to argue that justice is a means to a desirable state of the soul; your premiss would be quite irrelevant to your conclusion. It is absurd to try to prove that justice is good in itself from the premiss that it is a good means to something.

On the other hand, it is sensible to try to get a man to love justice by showing him that justice is a means to a happy state of the soul. If someone says to you 'Make me love justice, make me value it highly and be sure that it is good', then it is very useful to point out to him that justice is a means to something he already loves. And the question, Is justice good?, is in fact far more like the request, 'Make me love justice!', than it is like the question, Does justice possess a certain property?

For this reason, if we represent the question What things are good? as a search for ends rather than means, or for intrinsic rather than extrinsic goodness, we cut ourselves off from the chief way of answering it. We have satisfactorily answered the question What things are good? when and only when we have achieved stable and confident valuations of things. But the main way to achieve stable and confident valuations of things is to discover their consequences; and we discourage ourselves from doing this if we say we are looking for ends. For an end, as an end, is something with whose consequences if any we are not concerned.

Since nine tenths of our actual reasons for thinking a thing good are its consequences, those who say they are looking for ends, and decline to consider consequences, find very few things good. They impoverish the world. They come out with a disappointingly small set of things worth having or doing. Thus G. E. Moore, who is perhaps the most resolute excluder of all consequences and all 'extrinsic' goodness, comes to the strange conclusions that virtue is not much of a good, and that in fact only two things are very good, the perception of beauty and personal affection. To insist on the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic is to be in danger of emptying life of interest and satisfaction. It is a great pity to be reduced to saying that, for example, 'the individual personality of man alone has intrinsic and ultimate worth' (Ernest Barker, Reflections on Government, pp. 15-16). It is a great pity to say of anything that it is the only ultimate good.

If you go as far as Aristotle, and demand a good that is a pure end and in no way also a means, you are demanding an impossibility, and will be left with no good at all. Aristotle thought he was left with happiness, which, he said, is sought always for its own sake and never as a means to something else. But happiness is often sought as a means to something else. The manager of a factory tries to make the workers happy in order to get greater production. The politician tries to make the voters happy in order to stay in power. A man may try to make himself happy in order to make himself more efficient, or more conscientious, or in order to make his family happier. Everything whatever logically could be sought by someone as a means to something else. And it seems very probable that everything that is sought by anybody is sought by somebody as a means to something else. And, if that is so, Aristotle's good is non-existent.

To recommend anything as the sole end must be ineffective in so far as it is selfconsistently done. For we can get a man to adopt an end only by starting from other ends which he already has, and we must therefore acknowledge those other ends in order to move him.

Most persons assume that every good is a means to some other good, and derives at least part of its goodness from its being a means to other goods. The common man is accustomed to ask about any proposed good: What is the use of it? And this is equivalent to asking what it is a means to. He is disconcerted or sceptical if he is told that some goods are useless and not means to any other good.

There is nothing selfcontradictory in the common man's opinion, though followers of Aristotle sometimes think that there is. It is perhaps selfstultifying to say that every good thing derives all of its goodness from being a means to some other good; for from this it perhaps follows that there are no goods at all. But there is nothing foolish about saying that every good derives at least part of its own goodness from being a means to some other good. And it is probably true; for it is probably true that every good may lead to some further good, and if it does so it is a better good in virtue of that. Plato's characters were right when they agreed that the best kind of good is that which we welcome both for itself and for its consequences; and Aristotle was completely wrong in arguing that there must be a good which is to no degree good in its consequences, because otherwise all desire would be empty and vain.

It is a great mistake to say 'So and so is merely a means; therefore it has no fundamental value. We do, in fact, value profoundly a number of things which, when we examine them, we seem to be valuing purely for their results. Political goods like democracy are notable examples. Our whole recommendation of them may consist in pointing out that they are means to other goods. Yet we consider them also very great goods in themselves. They engage our emotions profoundly. And it is sometimes good that they should do so. It is sometimes an error to try to loosen our affection for them by saying that they are mere means, or merely extrinsic goods. In my recital of goods I shall therefore not reject anything on the ground that it is merely extrinsic, and I shall frequently recommend things by their consequences.

It is also a great pity to make the opposite error, the error of declaring that only means are good and ends are worthless, as Dewey appears to have done and as the common man tends to do. This mistake often lurks in the gospel of progress; the present is considered to be good only so far as it is leading to some better future and so on for ever; the jam is always for tomorrow. The beginning of wisdom is to recognize and embrace the possibility of finding good things here and now. It is a mistake to value literature only as a means to political improvements, or to value knowledge only as a means to the prevention of disease, or to value music only as a means to the glory of one's State. It is better to love them all for themselves.

The beginning of wisdom is to value something for itself. (And the second step in wisdom is to value a second thing for itself.) This first step is hard for the simple-minded. They go wrong from the beginning by looking for 'the ultimate purpose of existence', an enterprise destructive of happiness and integrity. We must say to them: 'You love some things. Keep on loving them. Approve of your loving them. It is a good thing that you love them. Do not let the indifference or the disapproval of others weaken your love or your approval of your love. Nothing should weaken it except the discovery that one of your loves is on the whole harmful to you or others. Add to your loves.'

To this discussion of ends and means I will append some comment on the common phrase 'the end justifies the means'. It is a common gambit in argument to suggest that your opponent is implying the doctrine that the end justifies the means, and to infer from this that he is wrong, because this doctrine is odious.

This gambit is always bad and should never be used. The doctrine that the end justifies the means is not odious; it is meaningless. What end? And what means? It is obviously true that some ends justify some means; for example, if you want to smoke a cigarette, that justifies you in making a spill out of yesterday's newspaper and setting it alight. It is obviously false that all ends justify all means; for example, if you want to smoke a cigarette, that does not justify you in making a spill out of a five-pound note and setting it alight. Sometimes the proposed means is justified and sometimes it is not. We have to judge separately for each given case whether it is justified. The blanket condemnation of an opponent, on the ground that he has allowed the end to justify the means, is therefore absurd. One might as well issue a blanket condemnation of eating, because people sometimes eat when they ought not to.


What kind of a choice is it to ask in general what things are good? For evidently it is not what we most commonly call choice, such as choosing between two plays after deciding to go to a theatre. I proceed to characterize the kind of choice or evaluation expressed in an answer to the question What things are good?

In the first place, it is a pure choice. The word 'good' is being used here purely evaluatively, without any descriptive dimension at all. We are simply trying to decide where to put our love and praise.

In the second place, choices may be particular or general. We may choose to put this particular yellow flower in just here, or we may choose to put some kind of yellow flower somewhere about here. Our question, What things are good?, is an invitation to general, not to particular, choice. It is not like saying 'What shall I do now?' but more like saying 'What shall be my general line of action in a certain sphere?' It is a choice, but a choice that does not lead to any particular action without some further choice and some particular occasion. It is a general decision that will influence a great many particular decisions but not suffice to determine any. Or, if the notion of a general decision is objectionable, we may say that it is an evaluation rather than a decision.

In the third place, this kind of general choice, this activity of answering the question What things are good? is one that goes on throughout our lives. The child tries to learn from its elders what to approve and what to disapprove. That is the point of the recurrent joke in 1066 And All That: 'He was a good king' and 'He was a bad king'. We want so much to judge each king. When we grow up we do not abandon this childish activity; nor do we think that we have completed it. We do it continually, but more complicatedly and critically and generally. It is one of our main interests in life. Or perhaps I should say: it is our interest in life. We long to be confident and abiding in our valuations instead of uncertain and bewildered.

Thus our question What things are good? is an expression of one of the most pervasive and important aspects of our life, our evaluating activities. But it is not merely an expression of this. It is also, in the fourth place, a criticism of this.

For, strange as it seems, we often evaluate our own evaluations, and approve or disapprove our own tastes. Many men are proud of themselves for disliking milk, or approve of themselves for thinking their country better than other countries, or thank God that they value Beethoven and not jazz. The exhortation to 'lay not up for yourselves treasures ... where moth and rust doth corrupt' is an evaluation of an evaluation. One can have a sneaking approval of something, that is, approve of it and disapprove of oneself for approving of it. We wish to approve of our own approvals, and to be pleased with ourselves as appraisers of the world. We thus become critical of our own evaluations, and interested in putting the question what things are good although we already have a set of answers to it. We distinguish what we do value from what we will try to value, because we recognize the truth of Bosanquet's opinion that 'to like and dislike rightly is the goal of all culture worthy of the name' (Three Lectures on Aesthetics. I recommend this little book to you).

While we have all already made many valuations which we are never going to change, yet we are also all engaged all the time in making further evaluations and in reconsidering those we have made. A general choice can always be reconsidered just because it is general. A particular choice, such as to go to a theatre this evening, can no longer be reconsidered when this evening is passed. We can, of course, condemn or approve ourselves for having gone to the theatre yesterday; but the decision itself is completely exhausted; the actions which it potentially contained are all done. A general choice, on the other hand, may always bear on further possible actions, so long as the chooser lives. The opinion, for example, that Bach is a good composer, bears on all future occasions when I might hear or avoid hearing Bach. At all times of my life, therefore, this opinion retains some practical force. At all times of my life, therefore, the reconsideration of this opinion will itself be a practical matter.

General choices which can be reconsidered will be reconsidered from time to time. A man will sometimes reconsider his evaluations if they are challenged, or if unpleasant consequences of them force themselves upon his nonce more strongly than before, or if his tastes change, or simply because he has the habit of evaluating his own evaluations.

Choice can be wise or foolish. We desire to answer the question What things are good? wisely rather than foolishly.

Wise choice proceeds upon principles. Placing an action under a principle relates it to all the other possible actions flowing from that principle. Practical principles include moral laws, maxims of prudence, statements of standards, and the individual's private rules. Practical principles are themselves choices. That is, to have one and act on it is to have adopted and be carrying out a general choice.

Our practical principles often take the form of setting up standards. And whether a certain thing meets a certain standard is a question of fact, not of choice. This point was very illuminatingly made by Mr. Urmson in his article 'On Grading' in Mind for 1950. It was also made by a number of other writers during the years 1949-52, usually with the intention of rebutting the subjectivism of Professor C. L. Stevenson's Ethics and Language. But these writers all failed to mention that a standard becomes your standard only when you adopt it, and an adoption is a choice. Before you can answer the question of fact, whether the thing meets your standard, you must answer the question of choice, what standard you adopt.

It is a fact, perhaps, that the motor-cars of 1960 satisfy most people's standards better than the motor-cars of 1930. But that does not make everyone call the motor-cars of 1960 better, because not everyone adopts the standards by which they are better. There are some oldfashioned codgers who cling to other standards, and by those standards correctly call the motor-cars of 1930 better than those of 1960. The man who calls those of 1930 better, and the man who calls those of 1960 better, may both be quite correct on their respective questions of fact, namely Which car meets my standard better?, and may be differing merely in their choice of standard. It is important neither to represent the question whether a thing is good as a mere question of choice, by suppressing the question whether it in fact meets your standard, nor to represent it as a mere question of fact, by suppressing the question what standard you have chosen.

The rebutters of Professor Stevenson round the year 1950 made the mistake of soft-pedalling the question of the choice of standard. For example, Professor Toulmin, in his The Place of Reason in Ethics, 1950, can be seen on close inspection to be adopting some kind of vaguely utilitarian standard of right and wrong, but drawing no attention to the fact and concentrating interest on the derivation of particular duties from the standard. One of these writers, Mr. Tomas (Mind, 1951), actually shows, though it is contrary to his intention to do so, that the element of choice is far more pervasive even than Stevenson said.

There are good reasons for adopting one standard to the exclusion of another. Certain choices of standard may properly be called wise. Others may properly be called foolish, or even insane. Wise men look for standards, perhaps, that correspond to our natural propensities, or help us to achieve our purposes, or tend to make us happy rather than unhappy, or are likely to be generally adopted. All that is true and should not be overlooked. Nor should it cause us to overlook the fact that the wise man is still adopting a standard, however wisely; he is not just reading off a fact.

Ultimate choices must occur, in one sense of the phrase. That is, at any given time any given person must have principles which he is not deducing from any ulterior principle. Even if there could be an infinite regress of practical principles, none of us could actually have the whole infinite series in mind. We all inevitably have, at every moment, some principles behind which we have not gone; and those are our ultimates for the moment.

Each of us naturally tends to find other people's ultimate principles highly arbitrary and insecure. A few of us find all ultimate principles as such highly arbitrary and insecure, and wish there were some way of avoiding them. But, since we cannot hold in mind or run through an infinite deduction of principles, the only way to avoid having a first principle is to have no principle at all, like a lizard perhaps.

If we conclude that we must have at least one underived principle, we next hope that at any rate it may be selfevident and certain. But even that is too much to hope; for a practical principle cannot be selfevident. There are only two kinds of selfevidence, the perceived truth and the analytic truth; and neither of these can be a practical principle. That I am now talking, which is a truth I now perceive, is not a practical principle but a description of fact. And no analytic truth is a practical principle because analytic truths are compatible with any and every state of affairs. The command, 'Thou shalt do no evil', sounds like an analytic but practical precept; but it is not practical, for it does not tell us what is evil. 'Thou shalt do no murder' is selfevident but analytic. 'Thou shalt not kill' is practical but dubious.

It is inevitable, then, to have at every moment practical principles which for the moment are neither derived nor selfevident. But it is not inevitable to be uneasy and insecure about this, nor is it necessarily an unreasonable state of mind. The way to ease and reasonableness lies in the examination of consequences.

It is wise to choose in view of probable consequences, and foolish to choose without considering consequences. In order to decide whether a thing is good, the wise man ascertains the facts of its nature, connexions, conditions and effects. He does not call democracy good, or television bad without having reached firm views as to their consequences. He differs from the fool in paying more attention to facts before he makes his choices, in being more of a scientist in his practice. Thus the question What things are good?, though not a question of fact, yet ought to be decided by reference to facts.

This characteristic of the wise chooser, that he ascertains facts more than does the fool, helps to make many people believe that the question What things are good? is itself a question of fact. And, when they hear someone say it is not a question of fact, they tend to infer wrongly that he means that no attention need be paid to facts in answering it. They tend to assume wrongly that to deny that it is a question of fact is to recommend that it should be decided carelessly and irresponsibly. On the other hand, people who see clearly the element of choice or decision in the question What things are good? occasionally assume that therefore the question may be or even must be answered without consulting the facts. The double truth is that What things are good? both is a question of choice and ought to be answered only after careful examination of facts. We wish to make our decisions and evaluations in view of the world as it is, not in view of some imaginary world which we erroneously suppose to be the real world, nor in view of nothing at all.

The wise man's particular choices are guided both from below by the consequences which he expects and from above by his principles or general choices. The reasons for a choice are both the consequences which it would produce and the principles under which it can be placed. The higher and nearer to ultimacy the choice is, the fewer principles it can be placed under, but also, in compensation, the more consequences it involves. Ultimate choices can be recommended only by their consequences, but their consequences are enormous. Thus no choice of any importance need be without its reasons; for either it falls under principles, or it involves grave consequences, or it is unimportant. A good paradigm of ultimate choosing, where everything depends on the consequences because there are no ulterior principles to appeal to, is the choice which, in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, the controller sets before the savage.

Ultimate principles are no more undiscussable than ultimate laws of nature or axioms in geometry. They are endlessly discussable. They merely have the peculiarity that the discussion of them consists entirely in the consideration of their consequences. They can be discussed and they ought to be discussed. We ought to criticize them. We ought to make ourselves conscious of their existence, their natures, and their bearings.

In another sense of the phrase 'ultimate principle' there are no ultimate principles. For every man can always reconsider tomorrow the principle which he takes as ultimate today. Tomorrow he may decide to drop the principle, or he may deduce it from an ulterior principle. In either case it will no longer be an ultimate principle.


The process of making a wise choice, in view of principles and consequences, is judgement rather than deduction or induction or inference or intuition. Deduction plays a part in it, for example in seeing what a given principle implies in a given situation. But deduction never forms the whole of deliberation and judgement. There is in addition at least the choice to apply this principle to this situation. Induction also plays a part; for in predicting the consequences of a proposal we must use our inferences as to what the laws of nature are. But induction, too, never forms the whole of deliberation and judgement, because prediction is not choice. Both deduction and induction are radically distinct from judgement in that they are abstractive, separative, analytical, whereas judgement is concretive and synthetical. We judge what is best to do in this whole concrete situation. The wise man tries to see all the relevant principles and all the important consequences, and then to make a judgement on the whole.

Thus an important choice has far more grounds than an inference has. In an inference you can say quite shortly what the whole of your reason is for your conclusion. But in a wise judgement it is a very long business to give your reason, because your reason ought to be nothing less than the whole of the principles relevant to your choice and the whole of the consequences of your choice, and the whole situation in which it occurs. Hence in practice people sometimes renounce the effort to give a reason for their choice. They feel that they could only say part of it, and that to represent a part of it as the reason would be to misrepresent the choice. Hence choice often looks like intuition, that is, like something totally unreasoned. It often looks like intuition even to the wise chooser himself, who has really reviewed a great deal of matter in making it. Good choice is all-considering; and the all-considering sometimes looks like the nothing-considering.

The all-consideringness of wise choice is not well brought out in ordinary speech. We tend to speak of deliberation on the model of deduction, where the conclusion is drawn from quite a small number of quite abstract premisses. Thus a minister of the Crown, when declining to do something suggested by a member of parliament, will often say that he sees no reason for it. This is nearly always absurd. There is some reason for almost every possible line of action; and the fact that a member of parliament wants it done is quite a strong reason for doing it. The truth is that the minister has judged that upon the whole the reasons for not doing it are much stronger than the reasons for doing it; but we are reluctant, I do not know why, to talk like that.

Similarly, we are prone to ask 'What is your reason for that decision?', as if he had only one. It seems that the best answer would be: 'If I made this decision for only one reason I should be injudicious. I have made it, I hope, in view of the whole situation and the whole of my general principles, since that is the judicious way to reach a decision. If so, my reason for it is my view of the whole situation plus all my relevant principles.'

The worst of defending your abstention from something by saying that you see no reason for it is that you make some people think that, if there is some reason for doing it, it should be done; and that is folly.

The final judgement, after we have made our review of all the relevant considerations, is always a risk and often feels like a risk. Judgement is riskier than either deduction or induction. Deduction is safe and sure, a pleasant occupation for the timorous, because the premisses entail the conclusion. Induction is unsure, because the premisses do not entail the conclusion; but still it is theoretical; we are risking only a theory. Judgement is neither sure nor theoretical. It is risking our lives.

Though I have here discussed judgement in reference to choice, and contrasted it with induction, judgement is often required not merely for deciding what to do but also for deciding what the particular facts of the world are. It is a matter of judgement whether you can safely overtake another car or not, a question of deciding what emerges from the whole concrete situation which you perceive. Induction is more our process of adopting abstract and general statements about the world, than our process of deciding the nature and course of any concrete event. Whether there is a god, for example, a particular concrete question about the world, is a matter for judgement rather than for induction or deduction.

Judgement is not the same as skill or cleverness; and little skill or cleverness is required in order to make judicious choices. In card-games the great superiority of poker over bridge lies largely in the fact that poker requires little cleverness and much judgement; whereas bridge requires little judgement and much cleverness.

What Wittgenstein says about learning to judge the genuineness of an expression of feeling will do very well as a statement about acquiring good judgement an general. It runs as follows an Miss Anscombe's translation of Philosophical Investigations, p. 227: 'Can one learn this knowledge? Yes; some can. Not, however, by taking a course in it, but through "experience" -- Can someone else be a man's teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip. -- This is what "learning" and "teaching" are like here. -- What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgements. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculation rules.'

I believe that to be correct. I will add only that there is one sort of experience that is common to all judgement, in whatever sphere, and important for all good judgement; and that is simply the experience of seeing the need for judgement, and wanting to judge well, and forcing oneself to make a judgement. I believe that most people come to make fairly good judgements in every sphere with which they are acquainted, if they force themselves to judge and want to judge prudently and well. What makes us judge badly is rarely a lack of the capacity to judge well. It is usually a lack of strong desire to judge well, or the presence and triumph of some partial emotion.


What is it that makes judgement essential to practice and choice? What is it that makes the abstract reasoner and inferrer a dangerous politician? It is, of course, that all things are connected together by cause and effect, and therefore every good thing is connected to many bad things.

Every good thing is connected to many bad things. There hardly is such a thing as an 'innocent' pleasure. There hardly is a pain unrelated to any good. At any rate all great goods, all goods that count a lot in men's lives, are great evils too. What do you consider a great good? Religion? Political equality? Love? The good will? Each of these has done terrible harm. Any person who sets up some one good as a perfectly safe end, who thinks that this end justifies any means and any consequences, like Madame de Maintenon thinking that religion justifies the killing of Protestant Christians, is a grave danger to the world.

How then can it be wise to set up any goods for oneself at all if they are all evils too? How can it be prudent to offer any answer to the question What things are good? if all things do harm? Since all great goods are greatly harmful sometimes, it seems foolish to affirm them and set them up as objects of enthusiasm and pursuit.

Furthermore, there seems to be something wrong about the very idea of a list of goods. Such a list must, it seems, be endless and it must co-ordinate things that are not on the same level. Freedom, equality, reason, beauty, love, truth, morality, worship, justice, life, pleasure, happiness, democracy, virtue, power, progress, art, importance -- it seems that this can never come to an end, and that anyhow it destroys a certain differentiation and articulation of factors and aspects in the good.

We must admit, I think, that there is something essentially inadequate about a list or creed of great goods. We must admit that there can be no systematic list, because goods are on different levels and in different dimensions, and no complete list, because we do not want our ideal to be finished. A list of great goods, therefore, can only be a list of those things which at the time seem most important or specially engage the author's devotion; and such is the present course.

We must admit too, I think, that all good things are harmful sometimes. But, if so, we are compelled to choose between affirming goods that are sometimes harmful, and not affirming any general goods at all; and the former is clearly the better. It is foolish to decline ever to love a dog because dogs have some nasty habits. It is foolish never to love a cat or a woman because they sometimes scratch. It is foolish to deny the goodness of wine because of the terrible evils of alcoholism.

We might say that man needs slogans. This is a low and inaccurate way of putting it, but has its value. Slogans like 'liberty, equality, fraternity', or 'truth, beauty, goodness', can give life enormously greater interest and elevation. It is a question of choosing them rightly, and of deepening as much as possible our understanding of what they involve. An answer to the question What things are good? is, from this point of view, a choice of slogans for living, and an attempt to see far into the consequences of these slogans, their harm as well as their benefit.

Or we might say that man needs ideals. This also is a useful way of putting it, and higher than the former. But it is still inaccurate. For the word 'ideal' suggests something never yet realized, whereas beauty and truth and other great goods are often realized around us. We need goods that are always realized in part and unrealized in part, goods that both confirm the worth of some things that have already happened and guide us for the future.

Such goods, or such slogan-words, are to be found; and it is good that they should be from time to time examined and rejected or affirmed. It is good that we should start at once to value according to some general conceptions the actualities and possibilities of our existence. Though we shall never know enough to do so with final rightness, we ought to begin doing so at once. The enterprise helps to unify and give significance to all our petty evaluations of every day, and to make our lives as a whole firmer and better.

'But is it proper to conduct this enterprise in public? Why should I, or any man, publish his choices in a course of lectures and invite others to listen to them? A man's personal evaluations of life seem to be a private matter, not suitable for a public lecture. The question What things are good? was suitable for public discussion so long as it was thought to be a fact-finding or scientific question. But now that we see it to be a question of choice, it appears no more suitable for public discussion than the question whether to make or accept a proposal of marriage. It seems that the public inquiry should end with the discovery that Plato and his successors have been regarding as a public and scientific question what is really a matter of private choice.'

This reflection overlooks the social setting of our evaluations. Most of us desire to be in agreement with our fellows as to what is good and what is bad. To find good what everyone else finds bad is apt to be uncomfortable or worse. Most of us welcome the evaluations of others as a means of forming our own. Even when a man offers no reason in support of his opinion, we may still welcome it as giving us a new idea, or enlarging our conception of the possibilities. For example, suppose a man to say that flowers are out of place in a garden, which should contain only trees and grass. Even if he gives no reason for this judgement we may be glad to hear it. It may strike us as a novelty and worth considering. We may like to imagine ourselves maintaining such a garden and rejecting flowers, and to ask ourselves whether that would be a change for the better. Therefore it may be reasonable to publish personal evaluations as a service to others.

Furthermore, when we have achieved any stable and general evaluations, we desire to convert others to them; and it is permissible and reasonable to recommend them publicly.

Thus we may meet the difficulty by saying that, while the question what things are good is personal, it is not purely personal. The point of the word 'purely' is to suggest that each man ought to keep to himself his personal decision as to what things are good. And that suggestion is wrong. He will help both himself and others to decide better if he communicates his decisions and gets them criticized. Our choices can be wise or foolish; and they have more chance of being wise if they submit to criticism from others, and use the choices of others as a means of criticizing themselves.

When the question What things are good? is regarded as a mere question of objective fact, like What metals are lighter than iron?, personal preferences are disguised as objective facts, and private valuations are imposed on other persons by being represented as objective facts. We can now see that to do this is to be inadequately sincere. We must be as honest as possible; and it is no longer possible honestly to present our answers to the question What things are good? as scientific statements of independent facts which the uninstructed hearer ought to believe. Instead we must confess that they are private valuations and recommend them as such.

The answers which I shall give, to the question What things are good?, are my personal choices and evaluations. But they are also invitations to you. I try to find reasons to recommend them to you, and I try to carry you along with me in my choices, or at least to stimulate you into making your own.

You can find other lecturers on the question What things are good?, particularly in churches, who will assure you that they are not giving you their subjective opinions, but objective truths about good and evil independent of man, something much better, therefore than the private and unauthorized opinions of an impudent individual. If you think they are right, it is wise for you to go to them and leave me. But I think, you see, that the difference is that from them you get unconfessed choices instead of confessed ones, choices pretending to be scientific discoveries instead of admitting their nature. I believe myself to be doing consciously, and to that extent better, what some other people do under the false impression that they are not choosing policies but ascertaining facts.