Published on
30 May 2006

An Acceptable Degree of Relativity in Moral Reasoning?

By: Prof. Christopher Martin


Prof. Christopher Martin is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas. Seminar on Wednesday 30 May 2006

I must say I gave this title partly to shock people. Famously, just before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke out against moral relativism, and just this last week in Poland the Pope has again spoken out against relativism. What he means by this, I take it, is that we should reject ethical views that relate what is good and bad to their immediate or long-term consequences, or to their circumstances, or still more to subjective attitudes or to a particular culture. I am not going to say anything about that. I think he is perfectly right, and of course he is also perfectly entitled to use the useful short-hand ‘relativism’ for it.

However, I think that there are some issues which are worth looking at and I want to try to make three things clear in this paper. The first one is to claim that goodness is a relative notion and that it should not be understood as something absolute.

The second claim is that the two main errors, as I see them, in contemporary ethical thinking involve trying to see goodness as an absolute notion. These two major errors are first: consequentialism, the notion that an action is good or bad according to whether its actual or intended consequences are good or bad. The other error is that of observing or claiming that there is a strong distinction between factual judgements and moral judgements. Both, as I say, involve an erroneous belief that goodness is an absolute notion.

And the third point that I want to make is to glance at two current theories in ethical thinking which I think are rather good; one being virtue ethics which says that the locus of goodness or badness is human qualities and the other being natural law theory. (There are two varieties of the latter going around at present, called for short ‘the new natural law theory’ and ‘classical natural law theory’, which, with the usual odium theologicum, are deeply and bitterly opposed. I do not suppose that I am making any friends by saying that I think that their differences are less important than their partisans think they are. ) These two good kinds of ethical thinking, I think differ in observing different relativities in the notion of goodness: that is, they make goodness a notion that is relative to different realities.

I think it should be obvious that a good number of important propositions about goodness are relative. If you want to appeal to authority (and I think I will do so here for the moment) Aristotle tells us that ‘good’ is said in all the categories. As a result, he tells us, you have a word like ‘opportunity’ which means ‘good as according to time’ and ‘lodging’ or perhaps ‘accommodation’ which means ‘good as regards place’. In quantity, ‘good’ means ‘the moderate’.

Going a bit deeper, Aristotle tells us that there are roughly three kinds of goodness: there is the noble, the useful and the pleasant. That the useful is a relative notion should be obvious: what is useful is always useful for someone, for some purpose. Otherwise it does not make sense to say that it is useful.

However, the pleasant is also a relative notion; pleasant means pleasant for someone or for some animal of some kind. And of course what is pleasant may be different for different kinds of animal. Heraclitus, long before Aristotle, pointed out that fish like lots of salt water, but it is not pleasant to human beings. In fact, it is fatal in large enough quantities (if you are underneath it of course, which is what he is thinking of). Indeed, Aristotle makes the point that pleasant means pleasant for a healthy animal of some kind. We do not call something pleasant just because it is pleasant to a diseased palate.

This just shows that there are contexts in which good is used in a relative sense; it does not show that good is always used in a relative sense. Someone might say that any absolute notion can be restricted to a context. Take ‘truth’ for example: a proposition is either true or not true, there is no middle ground. Nevertheless you can easily restrict truth to a context. To use a Texan example, I might say: ‘Nearly everyone supports the right to bear arms’. Someone may deny that this is true, and I can defend myself by saying ‘Well, it is true in Texas’ (which I suppose it probably is). The fact is, you can restrict an absolute notion to a certain context. But of course what we want to say is more accurately put by saying that something like ‘In Texas, everyone supports the right to bear arms’ is true in an absolute sense.

However, I want to make a stronger claim with regard to goodness. Goodness is not merely an absolute notion which can be restricted to a context, as might occur with truth. Goodness is a relative notion from the ground up, just as fatherhood is a relative notion. That is, a father is not a father in an absolute sense first, who then gets attached to some offspring, getting relativised or restricted by being the father of this or that child. In order to be a father, a man has to be father of this or that child first, and then he can be said to be a father. Calling a man a father in an absolute sense is to use what my old supervisor, Professor Peter Geach, calls a derelativisation.

To make a more complicated case which I think comes closer to the notion of goodness; take the case of bigness and smallness. Obviously bigness and smallness belong in the same box; but nevertheless the biggest mouse is smaller than the tiniest elephant. There is no notion of absolute bigness, nothing could be said to be big without qualification except perhaps the Universe. Even then, I think that it is arguable that the Universe is only big relative to its parts or to perhaps the size it used to be (since they tell us that it is expanding) or compared to other imaginable universes. Equally well, at the same time, it can be said to be small compared to other imaginable universes or the size it is going to be after further expansion.

So again here, it is not the case that the elephant is small and then gets qualified by being small for an elephant. If it is not small for an elephant, then it is not small at all. There is of course the complication that with no hesitation we actually say mice are small and elephants are big with no qualification. That is because ‘small’ and ‘big’ in this context are understood to mean ‘small’ or ‘big’ compared to the human being. And again, that is a relative notion. Even if you say that an elephant is big without qualification (you should not, but even if you do) what you mean is it is big compared to us.

I will come in a moment to how I think ‘good’ is said in a relative way. I just want to deal with a possible complication which may have occurred to some people – which certainly occurred to some of my colleagues in Houston – which is, what about God? Isn’t God good without qualification, not in any relative sense, but in an absolute sense? What I want to say about that is I am quite happy to be rather agnostic about possible answers to that question. I will agree to the proposition that God is good but I would ask what you mean by that, except by saying that God does not have any defects found in creatures and that God’s goodness must be without any of the limiting factors found in the goodness of creatures. Those kinds of explanations do give us some understanding of the notion that God is good in an absolute sense. But we actually reached that notion by working from a comparison with creatures since this is where our knowledge starts.

Some of my colleagues in Houston tell me that if I properly understood the metaphysics of being in St. Thomas, I would understand perfectly well that since God is perfect being therefore God is perfect goodness as well – to which I have to reply that I do not understand Thomas’s thesis terribly well. However, if people appeal to the authority of St. Thomas, I would come back by saying even Thomas does not regard the notion of goodness and the notion of being as being synonymous. They are if you like, interchangeable in appropriate contexts, but not synonymous. He actually says explicitly that what the notion of good adds over and above the notion of being is a relation to some will.

Some complications: the big elephant can be big as compared to other elephants (a property which is shared by only a definite subclass of the class of elephants, at most 49% of them). It may be that the elephant is bigger compared to us (a property shared by a much larger subclass of elephants, perhaps all elephants above the age of, say, a year old). In a similar way, and by analogy, a thing can be relatively good in at least two ways. This is the key to what I want to say: a good thing can be a good F (where ‘F’ is a predicable expression signifying some nature or function or role) or it can be a good thing for someone as a stroke of luck might be a good thing for someone.

As an aside, I sent a copy of this paper to a colleague of mine in the USA (not a philosopher) who objected to my speaking of a good ‘F’ because she thought ‘F’ looked like an abbreviation for an obscenity. It is of course the standard letter that is used by logicians and philosophers for some predicable expression; something that you can say about an individual. So a good thing could be a good F, i.e., a good father, good husband or a good academic. On the other hand you could have some event which you could call a good thing for someone, i.e., you find money in the street when you are short of money. I will be arguing at a later stage that the two interesting varieties of contemporary moral thought; virtue ethics and natural law theory (perhaps particularly the new natural law theory) to some extent take their rise in these two different relative notions of goodness.

I will put in a caveat here; it is also true that, by taking these two relative notions of goodness, filling in the blanks in the wrong way can lead to all kinds of serious errors. If you fill in the blank in ‘a good F’ without appropriate restrictions in what is to count as a valid substation of ‘F’, ‘a good F’ might force us to speak of ‘a good Nazi’ or ‘a good member of the Ku Klux Klan’, and so on. Thus we would bump up there against Kant’s ‘intrepidity of the thief’ – is that really courage? – or Aristotle’s more brutal example when he says that ‘adulterers dare many things’. As a result, Aristotle has difficulty establishing the limits of courage. That would be the problem of what counts as the right kind of thing to talk of being good as this kind of thing.

Equally well, if we concentrate on what is good for someone without any restrictions on who that thing is supposed to be good for, on what grounds and in what way, it might lead us to hedonism (good for someone considered simply as pleasurable), other forms of subjectivism (good for someone as an individual subject), other kinds of individualism, social Darwinism, class war, tribalism or nationalism.

I want to guard my back here as it were, by drawing attention to the difficulties that have definitely arisen at least in part from taking goodness to be an absolute notion. The two main errors in recent moral thinking are the making of a strong fact -value distinction and consequentialism. These two errors involve taking goodness to be an absolute notion.

In strong fact-value distinction, people insist that value judgements are different from factual judgements in some important ways. This pans out in popular thought as the claim that ethical moral judgements are subjective. Most philosophers who uphold the fact-value distinction spend a very great deal of time defending themselves against the charge of subjectivism, although some of them have accepted it quite openly. The other erroneous form of moral philosophy which I mentioned is consequentialism which claims that the goodness and badness of an action are to be judged principally in terms of its actual or intended consequences. It is worth noticing that the good forms of moral thinking which I am going to talk about later (virtue theory and natural law theory) agree in opposing these two tendencies.

I think it is quite clear that consequentialism depends on having an absolute notion of goodness. This is because to be a consequentialist, you have to hold that all ‘goodnesses’ can be judged on a single scale. The early utilitarians typically had a single scale which was a scale of pleasure; what gave more pleasure was better and what gave less pleasure was worse. If there are complications, they arise from discussions of whether more pleasure is equal to less pain, and vice-versa.

However, for the consequentialist (and of course there are many more subtle consequentialists than those early utilitarians ), there always has to be a single scale of goodness; that different ‘good’ results have to be valuable and calculable (they often speak of a calculus) on a single scale. This presumes that there is a kind of uniformity of goodness, that all kinds of ‘goodness’ can be reduced to a single kind. If goodness is uniform, I would allege that it presupposes that it is absolute. You cannot be a consequentialist if you want to take seriously the different relativities of goodness because you have to have the single scale, and each one is to count as one and no more than one (I think that is a phrase that Mill uses) – the pleasure of each person is to count no more than the pleasure of another unless it is more pleasurable and more intense.

Consequentialism then demands that we should be able to reach a sum total of good or bad which is achieved or might be achieved by alternative courses of action, and that we could compare the different sum totals of different alternative courses of action. This means that ‘goodness’ must be uniform and it presupposes that it should be absolute. There should be a single form of ‘good’ which would be used to measure all others. This of course is not true, because there are different ‘goods’ that are arguably not reducible one to another. The qualities that make a good F to be a good F may be quite different from the qualities that make a good G to be a good G.

My usual example involves a doughnut and a mole wrench. (This gives me some difficulty in America where no one has heard of the mole wrench. I mention the mole wrench with pride since my home town used to have for many years, a postmark which said ‘Newport – home of the mole wrench’. I would have thought that a town which had no greater occasion for civic pride would keep quiet about it). The properties that make a doughnut a good doughnut are, perhaps, to be freshly baked, soft, spongy and lightly covered with icing sugar or icing – qualities which would make a mole wrench a pretty bad mole wrench. Equally well the rigidity and light lubrication with mineral oil of the moving parts which make a mole wrench a good mole wrench, I would not recommend as a guide for making doughnuts.

Somebody might want to put in here that I have not really proved that there is anything really wrong with considering ‘good’ as an absolute notion here – that I am just drawing attention to the fact that it should not be considered as uniform – and yes, this is a weak point. I maintain that uniformity implies absoluteness, but it might be possible to regard ‘good’ as absolute without regarding it as uniform. There is a story about a clergyman who found an old sermon which he thought would be useful to preach in the circumstances he found himself in at the moment. Being in a hurry, he did not have time to revise it before using it. He was preaching it in the pulpit and was trying to read his notes in the margin and found at one point, written in a margin: ‘weak argument – shout; thump pulpit’. I wonder whether this is a good moment for me to shout and thump the table.

Consequentialism, I would say, attempts to sum up all the different kinds of ‘goods’ as they relate to all the different kinds of subjects. But this will not do – what is good for you may not be good for me. As, for example, when short of cash I find a $20 bill in the street – that is fine for me – but it is not so good for the person who lost it. The clash of advantage may be irreducible just as the differences of good-making qualities may be irreducible. They say that the slogan of General Motors was ‘What is good for General Motors is good for America. And what is good for America is good for the world’. That might have been true but if it was true, it is pure luck that it happens to be so. Life does not always offer such fortunate coincidences – not frequently.

I seem to remember someone like Alan Donagan or Mrs. Foot casting around for an example of something that was good for everyone, and after some effort (he or she) came up with the eradication of smallpox. But it may be that the inoculation programmes which brought this about, carried out in remote and poor surroundings – where effective sterilisation was difficult – may have contributed to the early spread of AIDS in Africa. Suddenly you find that something that you thought was definitely good for everyone turns out to not be so good for everyone after all.

In practice, consequentialists tend just to extend or contract the range of subjects whom they are willing to consider as being subjects of ‘good’ for the purposes of their calculus, in order to suit the conclusion they wish to draw. They frequently restrict the range by ruling out unborn human beings; others will extend it to reach all sentient beings – often inconsistently. There are those who are consistent on this and say that since what is important is being sentient, if you can show that the child in the womb feels pain, he should be anaesthetised before being destroyed – which at least is consistent and so disgusting that if it were not being said it would be necessary to invent it.

I take it that I have given an arm-waving argument relating consequentialism to an absolutist view of the ‘good’. How the fact-value distinction relates to an absolutist view of the good, however, may not be so clear. The fact-value distinction tends to turn out to inspire a deep scepticism about morals, or at best to subject morals to a cultural relativism which in the end is opposed to any notion of objective rational truth about the good and the bad. What I want to suggest is that where those who believe in the fact-value distinction go wrong is that they are looking for an absolute and objective good, and when they do not find it – because good is not absolute – they reject the notion of objective good.

The trick would be to reject the notion of an absolute good and to find a relative, objective good. I mean, it should be clear from the beginning that there are relative truths that are objective: who is the father of whom is an objective matter, though not always all that easy to find out. (Who is the mother of whom is much easier to find out.) Those truths are certainly relative. But they are also objective, not subjective.

One of the principal arguments for the fact-value distinction is what is called by Mackie (who upholds the fact-value distinction), the argument from queerness. This is the suggestion that goodness and other ethical concepts must be very queer, very odd, very unusual indeed, quite unlike all other concepts. He is quite explicit about this and says that if such objective values existed, they would have to be unlike all other concepts both metaphysically and epistemologically.

Someone told me the other day to never use the word ‘epistemologically’ because people would not understand it. And probably ‘metaphysically’ is just as bad. By ‘metaphysically’ Mackie means in themselves, regarding the kind of quality that goodness and badness are supposed to be. And by ‘epistemologically’ he means as regards the way we get to know them.

Very often when people say that goodness and badness are metaphysically queer, it is just a statement of materialist faith. They start with a metaphysical presupposition that only material things, or only material qualities, truly exist. Thus, since ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ are not material qualities, are not located in time and space, they are unlike all other qualities which do exist, which are material.  This is, I think, just childish. It is just to stamp one’s foot and say ‘I’m not playing this game’. They refuse to play a game in which anything can exist otherwise than in space and time. Well, two can play at the game of ‘I’m not playing’. I could stamp my foot and say I refuse to play a game in which nothing can exist except in space and time. But clearly this doesn’t get anyone any nearer the truth.

I think that my petulant foot-stamping is a little more reasonable than my opponent’s, all the same. For it’s very hard to maintain that only what exists in space and time can exist at all. For example, does space exist? If it exists at all, it can’t exist in space. And likewise time doesn’t exist in time. For the matter of that, necessity and possibility, the past and the future certainly aren’t material things and don’t exist in space and time

I have called the profession of a materialist faith in this context ‘childish’. It is true that goodness is not located in space and time, but good people are. We could draw a parallel and say that even such an apparently material property as weighing thirteen stone three pounds is not located in any single space or time but each individual person who does weighs thirteen stone three pounds: and these people are located in an individual space and time. I might throw in, by the way, something that might not have occurred to you (it didn’t occur to me until a couple of days ago), that even such a material and apparently absolute property as weight is, like goodness, in fact a relative property. Weight (I think) is a relation between the mass of an object and the mass of other nearby objects. This is why if you are far enough from the Earth, you are to all intents and purposes weightless, and why on the surface of the Moon you weigh only a sixth (is it?) of what you weigh here.

Equally childish I think is the claim that goodness and the like must be epistemologically queer, queer as regards the way we get to know them. This claim is no more than a profession of empiricist faith, a faith that we cannot get to know anything except pretty directly through the five senses. The only reply to this is: stop being an empiricist. Empiricism cannot account for very many of the things that we know. The property of being an American is not directly accessible to any of the five senses or to all of them together, but there is no difficulty about knowing who is American and who is not, for the most part.

The only sensible meaning I can attach to the claim that goodness is metaphysically queer is precisely the point that I had made already: that different good things are good in different and sometimes inconsistent ways. This is something I have already admitted and proclaimed as my thesis; it does not make this notion queer – it just makes it a relative notion. It is not at all surprising that a doughnut should be good in virtue of certain properties which would make a mechanical wrench a pretty bad mechanical wrench, any more than it is surprising that an elephant should be small in virtue of dimensions which would make a mouse an enormous monster. It is only if we begin – as  upholders of the fact-value distinction did in the early 20th century, with Moore – by looking for goodness as an absolute notion, that we find ourselves saying that it must be ‘queer’ or ‘non-natural’ and not related in any comprehensible way to other properties. Admitting the relativity of goodness at the beginning saves us from falling into the relativism engendered by the fact-value distinction at the end.

Those are two bad theories that involve thinking of ‘good’ as absolute. There are two good theories, I want to suggest, which differ in thinking of good as being a relative notion in different ways. These theories are virtue ethics and natural law theory. These should be reconcilable: Thomas Aquinas certainly seems to think they are. In the First part of the Second part of the Summa Theologiae we find a key text for classical natural law theory, and also the list of goods which are so central to what is called ‘the new natural law theory’. But in the Second part of the Second part Thomas articulates the major part of his ethical thought in terms of Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Both of these schools of thought come up with the same kind of conclusions, at least to the extent that both are radically opposed to consequentialism and the fact-value distinction.

Perhaps the new natural law theory is more direct in its rejection of consequentialism while virtue theory is more direct in its rejection of the fact-value distinction. Nevertheless, that does not matter very much. I think that the natural law theories have at their basis what is good for someone coming from a set of ‘goods’ which were listed by Thomas. These are given a greater importance in the new natural law theory, but they are still of importance in classical natural law theory. Virtue ethics, on the other hand, has as its basis the qualities that make a person into a good person or a good human being. This relativisation enables us to rule out the false relativisations I referred to earlier: those of being a person with enjoyable feelings, of being a good and the like.

Natural law theorists say that ‘goods’ are the things that are good for someone insofar as that person is a person, a human being. These are the constituents of a good human life: for example, the goods of family, practical reasonableness and of fairness.

You can make a similar kind of comment on the virtues; virtues are the qualities (in a loose sense) which constitute a human being as a good human being. There is some way of tying these two key relativisations together: a good human person leads a good human life and a good human life can only be led by a good human being. So the things that are good for a human being can only be achieved by a human being who is good. As such, we see a connection between those ‘goods’ which are pursued and the qualities that are required for the pursuit and achievement of these ‘goods’.

That may look like a bit of verbal juggling and indeed it is perhaps not very important. I can use that juggling with any serious ethical theory, no matter how erroneous, to re-express any other serious ethical theory in its own terms. To take an example which is beloved of consequentalists and people who discuss with consequentalists: the fat pot-holer. The pot -holing team have unwisely allowed the fat man to lead the team as they are leaving the cave, and almost inevitably, he gets stuck in the mouth of the cave. No problem here, you might say, they need only to sit there and wait until the fat man gets thin. But rogue moral philosophers have arranged for floodwaters to be rising in the cave behind. Fortunately or unfortunately, the party of pot-holers have a small number of blasting charges with them. Should they or shouldn’t they use the blasting charges to blow the fat pot-holer to smithereens so that the rest of them can escape from drowning?

So you have got nine lives, the lives of the rest of the party, say, against one. And the consequentalist would say ‘Yes, blow him to pieces’. And the non-consequentialist would usually say ‘Do not blow him to pieces’. The consequentalist would then say to the non-consequentialist ‘Whatever your theory, whether it is a Kantian theory, or an Aristotelian theory, or Divine Law theory (i.e., God forbids the taking of innocent life), what you are really saying is the consequence of the nine men drowning and the one man not being blown to pieces (and additionally, God’s law being observed) is better than the consequence of the one man being blown to pieces and the nine men not drowning.

What is not often noticed is that the most naïve of Divine Law theorists can make the exactly same comment as the consequentialist. He can say to the consequentialist: ‘I know you do not believe in God, but if you did believe in God, all you are really saying is if there were a God and God cared about human activities, God would command you to blow the fat pot -holer to pieces and let the other men escape’. So you can always re-express one theory in terms of another. The fact that the consequentialist can re-express the view of the naïve Divine Law theorist in his own terms, and that the naïve Divine Law theorist can re-express the view of the consequentialist in his own terms, is not really very important. All it shows, I think, is that both are serious moral positions which serious people can genuinely take up.

I think however we have something more than that. We are not just rewriting the conclusions of one theory in terms of another. I think that there is a genuine connecting link and we should look for it in the context of human need. Human beings need the goods to which natural law theory draws our attention. We need them if we are to lead good lives and if we are to show the good qualities that virtue ethics speaks of. But we also need the virtues if we are to be good human beings, to lead good lives, to attain the goods to which the new natural law theory draws our attention.

So, if we concentrate on need, I think that by working on the notion of goodness as being something relative to need, we can connect these two apparently different ethical theories and present them on a united front against the errors.

The above is a version based on a recorded transcript of Professor Martin’s paper as delivered

Discussant [informal response]

Dr. Mary Geach: The person who coined the term ‘consequentialist’ was my mother, G.E.M. Anscombe, in her paper, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ (1958). If you read her paper carefully, you will find that she is not just talking about utilitarian -type theories. Nowadays, this word is used (as Prof. Martin uses it) to mean a theory which explains what is good in human action in terms of its consequences. She does not use the word ‘consequentialist’ in that way. Rather, she uses it of any theory by which no kind of action, however evil in itself, is ruled out because you might always think of a set of consequences to justify it.

Now you might say that the two things are pretty much identical but I think you do not have to be a consequentialist either in my mother’s or in Prof. Martin’s sense to think that nothing is ruled out. Virtue ethics might be used to justify some disgraceful thing. You might be a consequentialist in Prof. Martin’s sense and look at the world and come up with a pretty good set of moral rules. The important thing is thinking that nothing is ruled out.

Now, Prof. Martin compares goodness to bigness and sees both as examples of concepts of being relative. Goodness and bigness are alike in that whether something is to be called good or big depends on what it is. You know the story of the elephant that meets a mouse and it says to the mouse, ‘You are very small’. The mouse then replies, ‘I have not been feeling very well lately’. The two different ways in which you might say that the mouse is small are brought out there: is it a bit small for a mouse or is it just that mice are small?

Now, goodness and bigness are alike in that whether a thing is to be called good or big depends on what it is. However, the reasons in each case are different. Big is a de-relativised comparative. So, a big mouse is a mouse that is bigger than other mice. A big animal is an animal that is bigger than other animals. Prof. Martin said that an elephant is big in some apparently absolute sense, meaning that it is bigger than human beings. I think his point is that it is bigger than other animals.

Good is not a de-relativised comparative. A good house does not have to be better than the other house. Nor a good man better than the other man. If he does have to be, this is only because of the Fall. It does not belong to the essence of being good to be superior. A good human action does not have to be better than other human actions. Of course, there are lots of bad human actions but a human action is good as long as it is not a sin. In this way, then, bigness appears to be more relative than goodness.

In another way, however, goodness is more relative. One can ask the question whether a small newborn elephant is as big as a very large rodent. There are common scales of mass and volume, which make that question intelligible. I cannot ask if a bad hammer is as good as a good drill unless there is some particular purpose, some end (like making holes in something) in relation to which one is asking the question. There is not a measure allowing one to say which has more of goodness that is common to both whereas you can ask which has more of mass or volume (which is common to both) in the case of bigness. Does this apply also to natural kinds? Can you say that a sickly kangaroo is better than a healthy grasshopper? I am going to come back to that.

Prof. Martin sees the two ways in which an animal may be called big (it is big compared to other animals of the same species and big compared to us) as analogous to the two ways a thing may be called good (good of its kind and good for a person). Now, we can say of one species of animal that it is bigger than another species and if we say that elephants are big, we may be comparing them to another species of animal, not necessarily to ourselves. Or, we may say of a particular elephant that he is big – meaning that he is big for an elephant. Analogously to this, we can say if one species is better and nobler than another or we can say of an individual, that it is good of its kind. That seems to me to be a fairer analogy then the one Prof. Martin drew.

These are two dimensions of goodness and Prof. Martin seems to have neglected one of these because he has an axe to grind: he does not so much wish to investigate goodness in general as to address the question of reconciling two different approaches to ethics. But the fairer analogy to ‘an elephant is a big animal’ is in the case of goodness not ‘this rain is good for Farmer Jones’ but rather ‘man is a noble animal’ (that is, an animal with a high degree of goodness). As the elephant is higher in the scales of weight and volume, man is higher in the scale of being. In this analogy, the question of whether a man is a good man, or a tree is a good tree, is analogous to the question whether a man is a big man or a tree is a big tree.

I have used the word dimension about these two ways of saying how good things are and I envisage a scale of being represented by a line and at right angles to this line is the measure of the thing’s goodness, being its conformity to what that kind of thing should be. If we see it in this way, we cannot ask whether a wicked man is better than a good horse. His nature is nobler but he is bad of his kind. This as I have already indicated, does not seem to allow us to look for a common scale. Such a scale used to be indicated by the saying that ‘the corruption of the best is the worst’. I do not know if you know that saying but it is the principle lying behind Tolkien’s mythology. And it is instantiated in reality by the devil.

Leaving aside goodness as something which one species may possess more than another, we turn to Prof. Martin’s two kinds of relative goodness: goodness of its kind, and goodness for a person. We might remark within the case of human artefacts that these two seem to run together, in that what is good among human artefacts is what is good for people (or at least for the people who make use of them). Generally, an artefact that is better of its kind is better for people, unless it is a bad kind of artefact like an idol or poison or a contraceptive.

Prof. Martin’s main concern however is with the ethics of reconciling the new natural law theory and virtue ethics. This seems to be a vague goal, especially as the natural law theorists do not all agree. I understand that Prof. May regards virtue as one of the basic goods and this would be a reconciliation of sorts. It brings us up against the central problem of virtue ethics which is: ‘What does the virtuous man aim at?’. If it is virtue, we seem to be heading towards a vicious circle. This is because to be virtuous we need to aim at what the virtuous man is aiming at. If that is virtue then what does virtue consist in? Does it mean aiming at the right things? You can see how this will go round and round.

Perhaps May’s idea of making virtue just one of the basic goods has in it the makings of a solution to this problem. There is another solution which is hinted at in Aristotle: that the virtuous man is trying to be like someone better who does not aim at virtue but has it. But what is it that this man aims at?

I find myself in disagreement with the new natural law theorists’ attempt to explain a bad action as a direct attack on a basic good. A great deal of this ethical system depends on supposing that to kill a human being intentionally is objectionable not as an injustice but as an attack on the basic good of life. The basic goods are, as I see it, what we naturally aim at and see to be good, but surely it is only our own lives which immediately have this basic relation to us, that are what we naturally aim at and see to be good. The inclination which makes us not kill others is surely not directly related to the desire to protect our own lives. We need some concept of justice to let us know not to kill others. People might say that surely this could be achieved by the principle ‘do as you would be done by’. However, justice is more basic if you are going to understand ethics. The ‘doing as you would be done by’ is for fine tuning, I think, and presupposes some concept of justice. What we want is to be treated justly.

The word ‘good’ has, as Prof. Martin says, some relation to a will. We apprehend what is good as an end – as something to be aimed at. Our appreciation of it as an end where it is a human good ordinarily derives from our being rationally inclined towards it, though not only human beings act for an end. I think this is where I quite firmly place myself down on the side of the people who are opposed to the new natural law theory: everything is inclined towards an end which is proper to it. Nevertheless, the end does not have to come at the end in time anymore than the intention which informs a human action does: the end does not have to be a future state of affairs separate from the act itself – this is obvious in the case of dancing.

We say that the thing is good of its kind to the extent that it is fitted for the end of its being: in the case of an organism, to live the life proper to that organism. In the case of human beings, the life proper to that organism is a rational life and a man’s actions are good insofar as they are consistent with the qualities which enable him to act in a way which is congruent with that life. As it is a rational life, the basic goods required by a natural law theory are to be found in the conduct of that life as a rational life, that is in that pursuit and attainment of ends which itself constitutes rational life. Perhaps these ends of which I speak are the same as Prof. Martin’s needs – at least through this idea that each thing is good of its kind insofar as it has the qualities which make it act in a way which is congruent with the end which defines it. These may enable us to see in what way the theories are related.

Prof. Christopher Martin: To add a couple of comments to Dr. Geach’s major points in her discussion. Prof. Anscombe did coin the word ‘consequentialism’ to mean exactly what Dr. Geach says. But is has indeed been forced into another meaning – that of ‘the genus to which, e.g., utilitarianism belongs’. Dr. Geach is right to say that one might be a consequentialist in the second sense without being a consequentialist in her mother’s sense. A strict and decent rule -consequentialist – one thinks of John Stuart Mill – would be a good example. But I have my doubts about how easy it will be to be such a person. As Prof. Anscombe pointed out, what happens to rule-utilitarianism in the case of a clash of rules? It seems to collapse into act-utilitarianism. And it is very hard to see how an act-utilitarian can avoid being a consequentialist in Prof. Anscombe’s sense.

Then, a word about the idea of things being better than others by being further up the chain of being. I think that if I had wanted to be consistent I should have pretended that I could not understand this notion. But I certainly think I can understand it, so that would have been dishonest. It is not, perhaps, so dishonest if I say that on reflection I am not sure. Perhaps I just think I understand it, but I am mistaken. I say this because I have an equally strong impression that I understand what it means to say ‘corruptio optimi pessima’. And as Dr. Geach pointed out, these two ideas cannot both be true. So the fact that I think that I can assent to both of them is clearly problematic. I will have to drop one of them: which?