Further Reflections on the Ethical Objection
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter argues that it is that in all our interactions with all other human beings, we should be guided by our conception of what is good for them rather than by any conception of what is good absolutely. In fact, we should go one step further, since it would be odd to suppose that whereas human pain is objectionable because it is bad for humans, animal pain is objectionable not because it is bad for animals but because it is absolutely bad. Thus, in all our interactions with all other animals (in fact, all creatures) we should be guided by our conception not of what is good period, but of what is good for them. That does not mean that our interaction with other creatures should be governed by no other concepts aside from those of benefit and harm. In our dealings with others, we need to keep track of all sorts of considerations—not only benefit and harm, but also justice, respect, obligation, duty, responsibility, and so on. We do not need, in addition to these familiar sorts of considerations, the concepts of absolute goodness and absolute badness.
I hope readers will grant that the example used in the preceding section has at least this much force: the mother who educates her son without regard to what is good for him, but who is instead guided by her conviction that mathematics is absolutely good, together with her conviction that he has mathematical talent, and that she therefore has sufficient reason to have him learn this subject, is making some kind of mistake. That much I take to be obvious. But it is not obvious, or at least not equally obvious, what her mistake is. I suggested that what leads her astray is her very belief that absolute goodness is a reason-providing property. The very fact that she thinks in these terms, in other words, is already an error. To reach that further conclusion, more needs to be said.
A friend of absolute goodness might claim that the case of the mathematical mother has no force as an objection to absolute goodness; what the example shows, he might say, is that mathematical knowledge is not absolutely good. But, he adds, it hardly follows that nothing is absolutely good, nor does it follow that absolute goodness is not a reason-providing property.
But it is implausible to suppose that we would react differently to this kind of example were we to change it by portraying the mother not as a devotee of mathematics but of some other branch of knowledge instead—history, for example, or science, or literature. No one could reasonably say that it is because mathematics figured in (p.92) the example rather than one of these other subjects that the mother's attitude toward the education of her child could be faulted.
A friend of absolute goodness, granting this, might next say that what the example of the mathematical mother shows is only that knowledge is not absolutely good, not that there is nothing at all that can be put in this category. Pleasure, he might say, and pleasure alone is absolutely good. Alternatively, he might hold that several kinds of things are good—pleasure, virtue, and perhaps several others—but that knowledge is not on this list.
There are two reasons why this would be an ineffective way of depriving the example of the mathematical mother of its force. First, it is not apparent why knowledge should be left off the list of things that are absolutely good, if there is such a thing as absolute goodness. The idea that knowledge or, more generally, being in an excellent cognitive condition is in some way noninstrumentally desirable, and no less so than pleasure, has a long history. Plato, for example, says in the Philebus that the two leading answers to the question, What is good? are knowledge and pleasure (11b-c). Ross holds that both of them are absolutely good.1 So if knowledge is to be omitted from the category of absolutely good things, whereas other items are to be put in this category, some argument must be found for this differential treatment. I conjecture that the only sort of argument that could establish this conclusion is one that claims that pleasure and pleasure alone is absolutely good. Some eminent philosophers (Epicurus, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick) believe as much—assuming, for the sake of argument, that they are properly interpreted as friends of absolute goodness—but it is now generally accepted that their conception of what is valuable is too limited and that many different types of things are (p.93) good. I am assuming throughout this study that if there is such a thing as absolute goodness, several kinds of things have this property, and that knowledge is one of them. (My arguments apply with equal force against the claim that only one type of thing is absolutely good. But the friends of absolute goodness have a more appealing theory if they are pluralists rather than monists. So I criticize the more plausible version of their theory.) The example of the mathematical mother should therefore be taken to indicate not that she goes astray in her idea that knowledge is good (or her more specific conviction that mathematical knowledge is good) but in the very fact that she thinks in terms of absolute goodness.
There is a second reason why it would be implausible to hold that the example of the mathematical mother shows merely that knowledge is not absolutely good and that it is ineffective as an objection to the whole category of absolute goodness. What is problematic about her way of thinking about the education of her son is that it is impersonal. The problem is not that it is mathematics in particular that she is devoted to, nor that what she counts as good is a branch of knowledge rather than some other type of thing. The problem, as we saw, is that in her education of her son, she sees him not as an individual whose needs and interests may differ from those of others, but as a medium in which something absolutely good is to be valued. All theories about which things are absolutely good have that same element of depersonalization: what they are theories about is conceived as something the value of which does not reside in its being good for anyone.
To see more clearly that it is the impersonal nature of absolute goodness that makes it objectionable for the mathematical mother to look to it as a guide, rather than her conviction that mathematical knowledge is absolutely good, we should look for a different sort of example. Let us now imagine a doctor who devotes himself to the (p.94) alleviation of physical pain in human beings, not because he cares about what is good or bad for human beings, but because he thinks that pain, being a bad thing, should not exist. The pain in an animal is something that he is equally concerned to alleviate or eliminate—although he feels no more love or affection for animals than he does for human beings. He is a cold-hearted enemy of pain itself. Physical suffering, he thinks, is an ugly stain on the universe, a quasi-demonic force that takes up residence in sentient beings, and so he sees himself as making the world a better place by diminishing the amount of pain in it. People and animals are for him only the battleground on which the war against pain must be fought, because pain requires for its existence a host in which it resides. He need not deny that pain is, in addition to being absolutely bad, bad for those who suffer from it. But it is the absolute badness of pain that serves as his reason for opposing it. If he believes as well that people benefit from his efforts, he views that as an incidental side effect of his fight against pain.
The doctor just described is as chilly a person as the mathematical mother—and that criticism of him is justified even if he is as effective in his efforts to alleviate pain as are doctors who have more humane motives. The defects both of them exhibit consist in their impersonal way of interacting with others. She sees her son as someone in whom something that is absolutely good can be inserted; he sees his patients as creatures in which what is absolutely bad takes up residence. She is guided by the assumption that there is such a thing as absolute goodness, that it deserves to be valued, and that mathematical knowledge has this property; he by the assumption that there is such a thing as absolute badness, that it deserves our enmity, and that pain has this property. It would be implausible to suppose that what is defective in the cold-hearted doctor is not his conviction that absolute badness is to be opposed but rather his assumption that pain is absolutely bad. If there is such a thing as (p.95) absolute badness, pain is as plausible an example of it as any. Similarly, if there is such a thing as absolute goodness, knowledge is not an implausible example of it. So the lesson we should learn from the case of the mathematical mother is that what has gone astray in her education of her son is the fact that she looks not to what is good for him but to what is good absolutely.
Why should she look to what is good for her child when she educates him rather than to what is good simpliciter? There is no reason to think that it is only when she educates her child that she should be guided by what is good for him rather than what is good. She should also be guided by what is good for him, rather than what is absolutely good, when she fosters his physical health, his emotional well-being, and so on. All her interactions with him should be governed by reasonable assumptions, not about what is good absolutely, but about what is good for him.
Now, although there are ways of interacting with a child that are peculiarly appropriate to the parent-child relationship, it would be implausible to suppose that her child is the only person with whom her interactions should be governed by reasonable assumptions about what benefits others. It would be difficult to believe that although positing absolute goodness and making assumptions about what is good (period) are out of place when a parent interacts with a child, when adults interact with each other they need to invoke the existence of absolute goodness and make assumptions about which things are absolutely good. The cold-hearted doctor I described is just as chilling a figure as the mathematical mother, and he can easily be imagined as someone whose opposition to pain brings him into frequent contact with adults, as well as children. But he is equally in error in his attitude to both groups. He ought to realize that the pain of human beings is to be alleviated because it is bad for human beings, whether they are children or adults. It would (p.96) be crazy to suppose that a child's pain should be alleviated because that is bad for him, but that an adult's pain is to be alleviated because that is absolutely bad.
The conclusion to which I am drawn, then, when I try to say what lesson should be learned from the example of the mathematical mother, is quite general in scope: it is that in all our interactions with all other human beings, we should be guided by our conception of what is good for them rather than by any conception of what is good absolutely. In fact, I believe that we should go one step further, since I think it would be odd to suppose that whereas human pain is objectionable because it is bad for humans, animal pain is objectionable not because it is bad for animals but because it is absolutely bad. So I believe that in all our interactions with all other animals (in fact, all creatures) we should be guided by our conception not of what is good period, but of what is good for them.
That does not mean that our interaction with other creatures should be governed by no other concepts aside from those of benefit and harm. In our dealings with others, we need to keep track of all sorts of considerations—not only benefit and harm, but also justice, respect, desert, obligation, duty, responsibility, and so on. My thesis is that we do not need, in addition to these familiar sorts of considerations, the concepts of absolute goodness and absolute badness.
There is a still more general thesis that I am proposing: not only should our interactions with others be guided not by absolute but by relative goodness but also all practical thinking should be so guided. Some of my practical problems are self-regarding and do not concern my relationship with others. When, for example, I decide whether to stop smoking, that is a question that concerns my health, not, at least in most circumstances, a question of how I should interact with others. But as we saw in our discussion of smoking (chapter 8), the concept of what is absolutely bad or absolutely good plays no role in (p.97) guiding this decision. In fact, as I noted there, if someone insists that smoking is, quite simply, bad, we would be puzzled about what he could mean. If I should not smoke, that is simply because doing so is likely to be bad for me, not because it is bad. More generally, my hypothesis is that when one makes decisions about what pertains only to oneself, one ought to be guided by a reasonable conception of what is good for oneself, but one does not need to be guided, in addition, by a conception of what is absolutely good.
(1.) The Right and the Good, pp. 134–135.