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- The Nature of Goodness - 5/23 -

And such a meaning they certainly may possess. As the term greater good is employed to indicate the degree in which a quality serves as a means, so may the higher good show the degree in which it is an end. Digestion, which was just now counted a greater good than sight, might still be rightly reckoned a lower; for while it contributes more largely to the constitution of the human organism, it on that very account expresses less the purposes to which that organism will be put. It is true we have seen how in any organism every power is both means and end. It would be impossible, then, to part out its powers, and call some altogether great and others altogether high. But though there is purpose in all, and construction in all, certain are more markedly the one than the other. Some express the superintending functions; others, the subservient. Some condition, others are conditioned by. In man, for example, the intellectual powers certainly serve our bodily needs. But that is not their principal office; rather, in them the aims of the entire human being receive expression. To abolish the distinction of high and low would be to try to obliterate from our understanding of the world all estimates of the comparative worth of its parts; and with these estimates its rational order would also disappear. Such attempts have often been made. In extreme polytheism there are no superiors among the gods and no inferiors, and chaos consequently reigns. A similar chaos is projected into life when, as in the poetry of Walt Whitman, all grades of importance are stripped from the powers of man and each is ranked as of equal dignity with every other.

That there is difficulty in applying the distinction, and determining which function is high and which low, is evident. To fix the purposes of an object would often be presumptuous. With such perplexities I am not concerned. I merely wish to point out a perfectly legitimate and even important signification of the terms high and low, quite apart from their popular employment as laudatory or depreciative epithets. It surely is not amiss to call the legibility of a book a higher good than its shape, size, or weight, though in each of these some quality of the book is expressed.


A further point of possible misconception in our diagram is the number of factors represented. As here shown, these are but four. They might better be forty. The more richly functional a thing or person is, the greater its goodness. Poverty of powers is everywhere a form of evil. For how can there be largeness of organization where there is little to organize? Or what is the use of organization except as a mode of furnishing the smoothest and most compact expression to powers? Wealth and order are accordingly everywhere the double traits of goodness, and a chief test of the worth of any organism will be the diversity of the powers it includes. Throughout my discussion I have tried to help the reader to keep this twofold goodness in mind by the use of such phrases as "fullness of organization."

Yet it must be confessed that between the two elements of goodness there is a kind of opposition, needful though both are for each other. Order has in it much that is repressive; and wealth--in the sense of fecundity of powers--is, especially at its beginning, apt to be disorderly. When a new power springs into being, it is usually chaotic or rebellious. It has something else to attend to besides bringing itself into accord with what already exists. There is violence in it, a lack of sobriety, and only by degrees does it find its place in the scheme of things. This is most observable in living beings, because it is chiefly they who acquire new powers. But there are traces of it even among things. A chemical acid and base meeting, are pretty careless of everything except the attainment of their own action. Human beings are born, and for some time remain, clamorous, obliging the world around to attend more to them than they to it. There is ever a confusion in exuberant life which bewilders the onlooker, even while he admits that life had better be.

The deep opposition between these contrasted sides of goodness is mirrored in the conflicting moral ideals of conservatism and radicalism, of socialism and individualism, which have never been absent from the societies of men, nor even, I believe, from those of animals. Conservatism insists on unity and order; radicalism on wealthy life, diversified powers, particular independence. Either, left to itself, would crush society, one by emptying it of initiative, the other by splitting it into a company of warring atoms. Ordinarily each is dimly aware of its need of an opponent, yet does not on that account denounce him the less, or less eagerly struggle to expel him from provinces asserted to be its own.

By temperament certain classes of the community are naturally disposed to become champions of the one or the other of these supplemental ideals. Artists, for the most part, incline to the ideal of abounding life, exult in each novel manifestation which it can be made to assume, and scoff at order as Philistinism.

Moralists, on the other hand, lay grievous stress on order, as if it had any value apart from its promotion of life. Assuming that sufficient exuberance will come, unfostered by morality, they shut it out from their charge, make duty to consist in checking instinct, and devote themselves to pruning the sprouting man. But this is absurdly to narrow ethics, whose true aim is to trace the laws involved in the construction of a good person. In such construction the supply of moral material, and the fostering of a wide diversity of vigorous powers, is as necessary as bringing these powers into proper working form. Richness of character is as important as correctness. The world's benefactors have often been one-sided and faulty men. None of us can be complete; and we had better not be much disturbed over the fact, but rather set ourselves to grow strong enough to carry off our defects.

Because ethics has not always kept its eyes open to this obvious duality of goodness it has often incurred the contempt of practical men. The ethical writers of our time have done better. They have come to see that the goodness of a person or thing consists in its being as richly diversified as is possible up to the limit of harmonious, working, and also in being orderly up to the limit of repression of powers. Beyond either of these limits evil begins. What I have expressed in my diagram as the fullest organization is intended to lie within them.


It remains to compare the view of goodness here presented with two others which have met with wide approval. The competence of my own will be tested by seeing whether it can explain these, or they it. Goodness is sometimes defined as that which satisfies desire. Things are not good in themselves, but only as they respond to human wishes. A certain combination of colors or sounds is good, because I like it. A republic we Americans consider the best form of government because we believe that this more completely than any other meets the legitimate desires of its people. I know a little boy who after tasting with gusto his morning's oatmeal would turn for sympathy to each other person at table with the assertive inquiry, "Good? Good? Good?" He knew no good but enjoyment, and this was so keen that he expected to find it repeated in each of his friends. It is true we often call actions good which are not immediately pleasing; for example, the cutting off of a leg which is crushed past the possibility of cure. But the leg, if left, will cause still more distress or even death. In the last analysis the word good will be found everywhere to refer to some satisfaction of human desire. If we count afflictions good, it is because we believe that through them permanent peace may best be reached. And rightly do those name the Bible the Good Book who think that it more than any other has helped to alleviate the woes of man.

With this definition I shall not quarrel. So far as it goes, it seems to me not incorrect. In all good I too find satisfaction of desire. Only, though true, the definition is in my judgment vague and inadequate. For we shall still need some standard to test the goodness of desires. They themselves may be good, and some of them are better than others. It is good to eat candy, to love a friend, to hate a foe, to hear the sound of running water, to practice medicine, to gather wealth, learning, or postage stamps. But though each of these represents a natural desire, they cannot all be counted equally good. They must be tried by some standard other than themselves. For desires are not detachable facts. Each is significant only as a piece of a life. In connection with that life it must be judged. And when we ask if any desire is good or bad, we really inquire how far it may play a part in company with other desires in making up a harmonious existence. By its organic quality, accordingly, we must ultimately determine the goodness of whatever we desire. If it is organic, it certainly will satisfy desire. But we cannot reverse this statement and assert that whatever satisfies desire will be organically good. My own mode of statement is, therefore, clearer and more adequate than the one here examined, because it brings out fully important considerations which in this are only implied. Whatever contributes to the solidity and wealth of an organism is, from the point of view of that organism, good.


A second inadequate definition of goodness is that it is adaptation to environment. This is a far more important conception than the preceding; but again, while not untrue, is still, in my judgment, partial and ambiguous. When its meaning is made clear and exact, it seems to coincide with my own; for it points out that nothing can be separately good, but becomes so through fulfillment of relations. Each thing or person is surrounded by many others. To them it must fit itself. Being but a part, its goodness is found in serving that whole with which it is connected. That is a good oar which suits well the hands of the rower, the row-lock of the boat, and the resisting water. The white fur of the polar bear, the tawny hide of the lion, the camel's hump, giraffe's neck, and the light feet of the antelope, are all alike good because they adapt these creatures to their special conditions of existence and thus favor their survival. Nor is there a different standard for moral man. His actions which are accounted good are called so because they are those through which he is adapted to his surroundings, fitted for the society of his fellows, and adjusted with the best chance of survival to his encompassing physical world.

While I have warm approval for much that appears in such a doctrine, I think those who accept it may easily overlook certain important elements of goodness. At best it is a description of extrinsic goodness, for it separates the object from its environment and makes the response of the former to an external call the measure of its worth. Of that inner worth, or intrinsic goodness, where fullness and adjustment of relations go on within and not without, it says nothing. Yet I have shown how impossible it is to conceive one of these kinds of goodness without the other.

But a graver objection still--or rather the same objection pressed more closely--is this. The present definition naturally brings up the picture of certain constant and stable surroundings enclosing an

The Nature of Goodness - 5/23

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