Philosophical Studies

, Volume 172, Issue 6, pp 1485–1508 | Cite as

Is anything just plain good?



Geach (Analysis 17: 33–42, 1956) and Thomson (J Philos 94:273–298, 1997, Normativity, 2008) have argued that nothing is just plain good, because ‘good’ is, logically, an attributive adjective. The upshot, according to Geach and Thomson, is that consequentialism is unacceptable, since its very formulation requires a predicative (non-attributive) use of ‘good’. Reactions to the argument have, for the most part, been uniform. Authors have converged on two challenging objections (Ross, The right and the good, 1930; Pidgen, Philos Q 40:129–154, 1990; Arneson, Analysis, 70:731–744, 2010; Smith, Analysis 70:715–731, 2010; Sturgeon, Analysis 70:744–753, 2010; Kraut, Against absolute goodness, 2011). First, although the logical tests that Geach and Thomson invoke clearly illustrate that ‘good’, as commonly used, is an attributive, they don’t show that ‘good’ lacks an intelligible predicative interpretation. Second, even if the English word ‘good’ fails to express the property of goodness, we can just stipulate that ‘good*’ expresses goodness and thus formulate consequentialism accordingly. The second objection is one way of voicing skepticism about the method of drawing substantive philosophical conclusions from considerations about ordinary language. In this essay, we present an argument, inspired by Geach and Thomson, which isn’t susceptible to the same objections but which supports the same conclusion. The significance of our argument for ethics is obvious; it challenges the intelligibility of standard consequentialism, and even certain forms of non-consequentialism. One might be inclined to think that a more sophisticated consequentialism, which relies on ‘good {possible world/state of affairs/outcome}’ instead of just ‘good’, evades the criticism. But we explain why the criticism can’t be so easily evaded.


Attributive adjectives ‘Good’ Goodness Consequentialism Peter Geach Judith Jarvis Thomson 



We’re fortunate to have many supportive friends, colleagues, and teachers. This project was much improved by their questions and comments. We would like to thank Dominic Baily, David Barnett, James Bondarchuk, Ross Cameron, Fabrizio Cariani, Jennifer Carr, Rebecca Chan, Daniel Elstein, Ephraim Glick, Aidan Gray, Sam Fleischacker, Chris Heathwood, Ulrike Heuer, Dave Hilbert, Paul Hovda, Kathrin Koslicki, Tony Laden, Heather Logue, Connie Meinwald, Bernhard Nickel, Graham Oddie, Ben Rohrs, Noël Saenz, Paolo Santorio, Sally Sedgwick, and Robbie Williams. One person deserves special recognition. We were first introduced to the question, is anything just plain good, in the Fall of 2005 at MIT, when Judith Jarvis Thomson taught a graduate seminar about normativity. Our thoughts have been heavily influenced by her work. We’re extremely grateful to have had her as a teacher, and for her written comments on an earlier draft of this paper (though all remaining mistakes are our own). Finally, one author wishes to acknowledge the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at UIC, which supported the final stages of this project by means of an LAS Award for Faculty Research in the Humanities.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Illinois, ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of Colorado, BoulderBoulderUSA

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