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- The Nature of Goodness - 2/23 -

we might obtain something which we do not now possess. Consequently we employ the word or some synonym of it during pretty much every waking hour of our lives. Wishing some test of this frequency I turned to Shakespeare, and found that he uses the word "good" fifteen hundred times, and it's derivatives "goodness," "better," and "best," about as many more. He could not make men and women talk right without incessant reference to this directive conception.

But while thus familiar and influential when mixed with action, and just because of that very fact, the notion of goodness is bewilderingly abstruse and remote. People in general do not observe this curious circumstance. Since they are so frequently encountering goodness, both laymen and scholars are apt to assume that it is altogether clear and requires no explanation. But the very reverse is the truth. Familiarity obscures. It breeds instincts and not understanding. So inwoven has goodness become with the very web of life that it is hard to disentangle. We cannot easily detach it from encompassing circumstance, look at it nakedly, and say what in itself it really is. Never appearing in practical affairs except as an element, and always intimately associated with something else, we are puzzled how to break up that intimacy and give to goodness independent meaning. It is as if oxygen were never found alone, but only in connection with hydrogen, carbon, or some other of the eighty elements which compose our globe. We might feel its wide influence, but we should have difficulty in describing what the thing itself was. Just so if any chance dozen persons should be called on to say what they mean by goodness, probably not one could offer a definition which he would be willing to hold to for fifteen minutes.

It is true, this strange state of things is not peculiar to goodness. Other familiar conceptions show a similar tendency, and just about in proportion, too, to their importance. Those which count for most in our lives are least easy to understand. What, for example, do we mean by love? Everybody has experienced it since the world began. For a century or more, novelists have been fixing our attention on it as our chief concern. Yet nobody has yet succeeded in making the matter quite plain. What is the state? Socialists are trying to tell us, and we are trying to tell them; but each, it must be owned, has about as much difficulty in understanding himself as in understanding his opponent, though the two sets of vague ideas still contain reality enough for vigorous strife. Or take the very simplest of conceptions, the conception of force--that which is presupposed in every species of physical science; ages are likely to pass before it is satisfactorily defined. Now the conception of goodness is something of this sort, something so wrought into the total framework of existence that it is hidden from view and not separately observable. We know so much about it that we do not understand it.

For ordinary purposes probably it is well not to seek to understand it. Acquaintance with the structure of the eye does not help seeing. To determine beforehand just how polite we should be would not facilitate human intercourse. And possibly a completed scheme of goodness would rather confuse than ease our daily actions. Science does not readily connect with life. For most of us all the time, and for all of us most of the time, instinct is the better prompter. But if we mean to be ethical students and to examine conduct scientifically, we must evidently at the outset come face to face with the meaning of goodness. I am consequently often surprised on looking into a treatise on ethics to find no definition of goodness proposed. The author assumes that everybody knows what goodness is, and that his own business is merely to point out under what conditions it may be had. But few readers do know what goodness is. One suspects that frequently the authors of these treatises themselves do not, and that a hazy condition of mind on this central subject is the cause of much loose talk afterwards. At any rate, I feel sure that nothing can more justly be demanded of a writer on ethics at the beginning of his undertaking than that he should attempt to unravel the subtleties of this all-important conception. Having already in a previous volume marked out the Field of Ethics, I believe I cannot wisely go on discussing the science that I love, until I have made clear what meaning I everywhere attach to the obscure and familiar word _good_. This word being the ethical writer's chief tool, both he and his readers must learn its construction before they proceed to use it. To the study of that curious nature I dedicate this volume.


To those who join in the investigation I cannot promise hours of ease. The task is an arduous one, calling for critical discernment and a kind of disinterested delight in studying the high intricacies of our personal structure. My readers must follow me with care, and indeed do much of the work themselves, I being but a guide. For my purpose is not so much to impart as to reveal. Wishing merely to make people aware of what has always been in their minds, I think at the end of my book I shall be able to say, "These readers of mine know now no more than they did at, the beginning." Yet if I say that, I hope to be able to add, "but they see vastly more significance in it than they once did, and henceforth will find the world interesting in a degree they never knew before." In attaining this new interest they will have experienced too that highest of human pleasures,--the joy of clear, continuous, and energetic thinking. Few human beings are so inert that they are not ready to look into the dark places of their minds if, by doing so, they can throw light on obscurities there.

I ought, however, to say that I cannot promise one gain which some of my readers may be seeking. In no large degree can I induce in them that goodness of which we talk. Some may come to me in conscious weakness, desiring to be made better. But this I do not undertake. My aim is a scientific one. I am an ethical teacher. I want to lead men to understand what goodness is, and I must leave the more important work of attracting them to pursue it to preacher and moralist. Still, indirectly there is moral gain to be had here. One cannot contemplate long such exalted themes without receiving an impulse, and being lifted into a region where doing wrong becomes a little strange. When, too, we reflect how many human ills spring from misunderstanding and intellectual obscurity, we see that whatever tends to illuminate mental problems is of large consequence in the practical issues of life.

In considering what we mean by goodness, we are apt to imagine that the term applies especially, possibly entirely, to persons. It seems as if persons alone are entitled to be called good. But a little reflection shows that this is by no means the case. There are about as many good things in the world as good persons, and we are obliged to speak of them about as often. The goodness which we see in things is, however, far simpler and more easily analyzed than that which appears in persons. It may accordingly be well in these first two chapters to say nothing whatever about such goodness as is peculiar to persons, but to confine our attention to those phases of it which are shared alike by persons and things.


How then do we employ the word "good"? I do not ask how we ought to employ it, but how we do. For the present we shall be engaged in a psychological inquiry, not an ethical one. We need to get at the plain facts of usage. I will therefore ask each reader to look into his own mind, see on what occasions he uses the word, and decide what meaning he attaches to it. Taking up a few of the simplest possible examples, we will through them inquire when and why we call things good.

Here is a knife. When is it a good knife? Why, a knife is made for something, for cutting. Whenever the knife slides evenly through a piece of wood, unimpeded by anything in its own structure, and with a minimum of effort on the part of him who steers it, when there is no disposition of its edge to bend or break, but only to do its appointed work effectively, then we know that a good knife is at work. Or, looking at the matter from another point of view, whenever the handle of the knife neatly fits the hand, following its lines and presenting no obstruction, so that it is a pleasure to use it, we may say that in these respects also the knife is a good knife. That is, the knife becomes good through adaptation to its work, an adaptation realized in its cleavage of the wood and in its conformity to the hand. Its goodness always has reference to something outside itself, and is measured by its performance of an external task. A similar goodness is also found in persons. When we call the President of the United States good, we mean that he adapts himself easily and efficiently to the needs of his people. He detects those needs before others fully feel them, is sagacious in devices for meeting them, and powerful in carrying out his patriotic purposes through whatever selfish opposition. The President's goodness, like the knife's, refers to qualities within him only so far as these are adjusted to that which lies beyond.

Or take something not so palpable. What glorious weather! When we woke this morning, drew aside our curtains and looked out, we said "It is a good day!" And of what qualities of the day were we thinking? We meant, I suppose, that the day was well fitted to its various purposes. Intending to go to our office, we saw there was nothing to hinder our doing so. We knew that the streets would be clear, people in amiable mood, business and social duties would move forward easily. Health itself is promoted by such sunshine. In fact, whatever our plans, in calling the day a good day we meant to speak of it as excellently adapted to something outside itself.

This signification of goodness is lucidly put in the remark of Shakespeare's Portia, "Nothing I see is good without respect." We must have some respect or end in mind in reference to which the goodness is reckoned. Good always means good _for_. That little preposition cannot be absent from our minds, though it need not audibly be uttered. The knife is good for cutting, the day for business, the President for the blind needs of his country. Omit the _for_, and goodness ceases. To be bad or good implies external reference. To be good means to further something, to be an efficient means; and the end to be furthered must be already in mind before the word good is spoken.

The respects or ends in reference to which goodness is calculated are often, it is true, obscure and difficult to seize if one is unfamiliar with the currents of men's thoughts. I sometimes hear the question asked about a merchant, "Is he good?"--a question natural enough in churches and Sunday-schools, but one which sounds rather queer on "'change." But those who ask it have a special respect in mind. I believe they mean, "Will the man meet his notes?" In their mode of thinking a merchant is of consequence only in financial life. When they have learned whether he is capable of performing his functions there, they go no farther. He may be the most vicious of men or a veritable saint. It will make no difference in inducing commercial associates to call him good. For them the word indicates solely responsibility for business paper.

A usage more curious still occurs in the nursery. There when the question is asked, "Has the baby been good?" one discovers by degrees that the anxious mother wishes to know if it has been crying or quiet. This elementary life has as yet not acquired positive standards of measurement. It must be reckoned in negative terms, failure to disturb. Heaven knows it does not always attain to this. But it is its

The Nature of Goodness - 2/23

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