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- The Nature of Goodness - 4/23 -

whole represented in which every part is good for every other part. But this is merely a pictorial statement of the definition which Kant once gave of an organism. By an organism he says, we mean that assemblage of active and differing parts in which each part is both means and end. Extrinsic goodness, the relation of means to end, we have expressed in our diagram by the pointed arrow. But as soon as we filled in the gap between D and A each arrow was obliged to point in two directions. We had an organic whole instead of a lot of external adjustments. In such a whole each part has its own function to perform, is active; and all must differ from one another, or there would be mere repetition and aggregation instead of organic supplementation of end by means. An organism has been more briefly defined, and the curious mutuality of its support expressed, by saying that it is a unit made up of cooperant parts. And each of these definitions expresses the notion of intrinsic goodness which we have already reached. Intrinsic goodness is the expression of the fullness of function in the construction of an organism.

I have elsewhere (The Field of Ethics) explained the epoch-making character in any life of this conception of an organism. Until one has come in sight of it, he is a child. When once he begins to view things organically, he is--at least in outline--a scientific, an artistic, a moral man. Experience then becomes coherent and rational, and the disjointed modes of immaturity, ugliness, and sin no longer attract. At no period of the world's history has this truly formative conception exercised a wider influence than today. It is accordingly worth while to depict it with distinctness, and to show how fully it is wrought into the very nature of goodness.


Alexander's Moral Order and Progress, bk. ii. ch. ii.

Bradley's Appearance and Reality, ch. xxv.

Sidgwick's Methods, bk. i. ch. ix.

Spencer's Principles of Ethics, pt. i. ch. iii.

Muirhead's Elements of Ethics, bk. iv. ch. ii.

Ladd's Philosophy of Conduct, ch. iii.

Kant's Practical Reason, bk. i. ch. ii.

The Meaning of Good, by G.L. Dickinson.




Our diagram of goodness, as drawn in the last chapter, has its special imperfections, and through these cannot fail to suggest certain erroneous notions of goodness. To these I now turn. The first of them is connected with its own method of construction. It will be remembered that we arbitrarily threw an arrow from D to A, thus making what was hitherto an end become a means to its own means. Was this legitimate? Does any such closed circle exist?

It certainly does not. Our universe contains nothing that can be represented by that figure. Indeed if anywhere such a self-sufficing organism did exist, we could never know it. For, by the hypothesis, it would be altogether adequate to itself and without relations beyond its own bounds. And if it were thus cut off from connection with everything except itself, it could not even affect our knowledge. It would be a closed universe within our universe, and be for us as good as zero. We must own, then, that we have no acquaintance with any such perfect organism, while the facts of life reveal conditions widely unlike those here represented.

What these conditions are becomes apparent when we put significance into the letters hitherto employed. Let our diagram become a picture of the organic life of John. Then A might represent his physical life, B his business life, C his civil, D his domestic; and we should have asserted that each of these several functions in the life of John assists all the rest. His physical health favors his commercial and political success, while at the same time making him more valuable in the domestic circle. But home life, civic eminence, and business prosperity also tend to confirm his health. In short, every one of these factors in the life of John mutually affects and is affected by all the others.

But when thus supplied with meaning, Figure 3 evidently fails to express all it should say. B is intended to exhibit the business life of John. But this is surely not lived alone. Though called a function of John, it is rather a function of the community, and he merely shares it. I had no right to confine to John himself that which plainly stretches beyond him. Let us correct the figure, then, by laying off another beside it to represent Peter, one of those who shares in the business experience of John. This common business life

[Fig. 4]

of theirs, B, we may say, enables Peter to gratify his own adventurous disposition, E; and this again stimulates his scientific tastes, F. But Peter's eminence in science commends him so to his townsmen that he comes to share again C, the civic life of John. Yet as before in the case of John, each of Peter's powers works forward, backward, and across, constructing in Peter an organic whole which still is interlocked with the life of John. Each, while having functions of his own, has also functions which are shared with his neighbor.

Nor would this involvement of functions pause with Peter. To make our diagram really representative, each of the two individuals thus far drawn would need to be surrounded by a multitude of others, all sharing in some degree the functions of their neighbors. Or rather each individual, once connected with his neighbors, would find all his functions affected by all those possessed by his entire group. For fear of making my figure unintelligible

[Fig 5.]

through its fullness of relations, I have sent out arrows in all directions from the letter A only; but in reality they would run from all to all. And I have also thought that we persons affect one another quite as decidedly through the wholeness of our characters as we do through any interlocking of single traits. Such totality of relationship I have tried to suggest by connecting the centres of each little square with the centres of adjacent ones. John as a whole is thus shown to be good for Peter as a whole.

We have successively found ourselves obliged to broaden our conception until the goodness of a single object has come to imply that of a group. The two phases of goodness are thus seen to be mutually dependent. Extrinsic goodness or serviceability, that where an object employs an already constituted wholeness to further the wholeness of another, cannot proceed except through intrinsic goodness, or that where fullness and adjustment of functions are expressed in the construction of an organism. Nor can intrinsic goodness be supposed to exist shut up to itself and parted from extrinsic influence. The two are merely different modes or points of view for assessing goodness everywhere. Goodness in its most elementary form appears where one object is connected with another as means to end. But the more elaborately complicated the relation becomes, and the richer the entanglement of means and ends--internal and external--in the adjustment of object or person, so much ampler is the goodness. Each object, in order to possess any good, must share in that of the universe.


But the diagram suggests a second question. Are all the functions here represented equally influential in forming the organism? Our figure implies that they are, and I see no way of drawing it so as to avoid the implication. But it is an error. In nature our powers have different degrees of influence. We cannot suppose that John's physical, commercial, domestic, and political life will have precisely equal weight in the formation of his being. One or the other of them will play a larger part. Accordingly we very properly speak of greater goods and lesser goods, meaning by the former those which are more largely contributory to the organism. In our physical being, for example, we may inquire whether sight or digestion is the greater good; and our only means of arriving at an answer would be to stop each function and then note the comparative consequence to the organism. Without digestion, life ceases; without sight, it is rendered uncomfortable. If we are considering merely the relative amounts of bodily gain from the two functions, we must call digestion the greater good. In a table, excellence of make is apt to be a greater good than excellence of material, the character of the carpentry having more effect on its durability than does the special kind of wood employed. The very doubts about such results which arise in certain cases confirm the truth of the definition here proposed; for when we hesitate, it is on account of the difficulty we find in determining how far maintenance of the organism depends on the one or the other of the qualities compared. The meaning of the terms greater and lesser is clearer than their application. A function or quality is counted a greater good in proportion as it is believed to be more completely of the nature of a means.


Another question unsettled by the diagram is so closely connected with the one just examined as often to be confused with it. It is this: Are all functions of the same kind, rank, or grade? They are not; and this qualitative difference is indicated by the terms higher and lower, as the quantitative difference was by greater and less. But differences of rank are more slippery matters than difference of amount, and easily lend themselves to arbitrary and capricious treatment. In ordinary speech we are apt to employ the words high and low as mere signs of approval or disapproval. We talk of one occupation, enjoyment, work of art, as superior to another, and mean hardly more than that we like it better. Probably there is not another pair of terms current in ethics where the laudatory usage is so liable to slip into the place of the descriptive. Our opponent's ethics always seem to embody low ideals, our own to be of a higher type. Accordingly the terms should not be used in controversy unless we have in mind for them a precise meaning other than eulogy or disparagement.

The Nature of Goodness - 4/23

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