Philosophical Studies

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

Is anything just plain good?

  • Mahrad Almotahari
  • Adam Hosein


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.


  1. Arneson, R. (2010). Good period. Analysis, 70, 731–744.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Broad, C. D. (1930). Five types of ethical theory. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  3. Brown, C. (2011). Consequentialize This. Ethics, 121, 749–771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Devitt, M. (1980). “Ostrich nominalism” or “mirage realism”? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 61, 433–439.Google Scholar
  5. Dewey, J., & Tufts, J. H. (1908). Ethics. New York: Henry Holt.Google Scholar
  6. Foot, P. (1985). Utilitarianism and the virtues. Mind, 94, 196–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Frankena, W. K. (1963). Ethics. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  8. Geach, P. (1956). Good and evil. Analysis, 17, 33–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hinzen, W. (2006). Mind Design and Minimal Syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Kagan, S. (1998). Normative ethics. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  11. Kamm, F. (1992). Non-consequentialism, the Person as an End-in-Itself, and the Significance of Status. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 21(4), 354–389.Google Scholar
  12. Kennedy, C. (2007). Vagueness and grammar: The semantics of relative and absolute gradable adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy, 30, 1–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Kennedy, C. (2012). Adjectives. In G. Russell, & D. G. Fara, (Eds.), Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Language. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Korsgaard, C. (1983). Two Distinctions in Goodness. Philosophical Review, 92, 169–195.Google Scholar
  15. Kraut, R. (2011). Against absolute goodness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Kripke, S. (1980). Naming and necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Langton, R. (2007). Objective and Unconditioned Value. Philosophical Review, 116, 157–185.Google Scholar
  18. Lewis, D. 1980. Mad pain and Martian pain. Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology 1, 216–222. Reprinted in David Lewis, Philosophical Papers I, pp. 122–129. Page reference to this volume.Google Scholar
  19. Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia ethica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Nunberg, G. (1978). The Pragmatics of Reference. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.Google Scholar
  21. Parfit, D. (2011). On what matters (Vol. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Pidgen, C. (1990). Geach on “good”. Philosophical Quarterly, 40, 129–154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Quine, W. V. (1948). On what there is. The Review of Metaphysics, 2, 21–38.Google Scholar
  24. Rawls, J. (1971). A theory of justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Rosen, G. (2012). Review of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s normativity. Journal of Philosophy, 109(11), 676–681.Google Scholar
  26. Ross, W. D. (1930). The right and the good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Schapiro, T. (2001). Three conceptions of action in moral theory. Noûs, 35(1), 93–117.Google Scholar
  28. Scheffler, S. (1982). The rejection of consequentialism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  29. Scheffler, S. (Ed.). (1988). Consequentialism and Its critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Smart, J. J. C. 1973. An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics. In Utilitarianism: For & against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Smith, M. (2010). On normativity. Analysis, 70, 715–731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Sturgeon, N. (2010). Normativity. Analysis, 70, 744–753.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Taurek, J. (1977). Should the numbers count? Philosophy & Public Affairs, 6, 293–316.Google Scholar
  34. Temkin, L. (2012). Rethinking the good. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Thomson, J. J. (1997). The right and the good. Journal of Philosophy, 94, 273–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Thomson, J. J. (2008). Normativity. Chicago: Open Court.Google Scholar
  37. von Wright, G. H. (1963). The varieties of goodness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  38. Willenken, T. (2012). Deontic cycling and the structure of commonsense morality. Ethics, 122, 545–561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Ziff, P. (1960). Semantic analysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

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

Personalised recommendations