The Nature of Goodness
by George Herbert Palmer

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George Herbert Palmer, (1842-1933)
Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity
Harvard University
Portrait: 1926, 40 x 30 inches, Oil

I. The Double Aspect of Goodness

In undertaking the following discussion I foresee two grave difficulties. My reader may well feel that goodness is already the most familiar of all the thoughts we employ, and yet he may at the same time suspect that there is something about it perplexingly abstruse and remote. Familiar it certainly is. It attends all our wishes, acts, and projects as nothing else does, so that no estimate of its influence can be excessive. When we take a walk, read a book, make a dress, hire a servant, visit a friend, attend a concert, choose a wife, cast a vote, enter into business, we always do it in the hope of attaining something good. The clue of goodness is accordingly a veritable guide of life. On it depend actions far more minute than those just mentioned. We never raise a hand, for example, unless with a view to improve in some respect our condition. Motionless we should remain forever, did we not believe that by placing the hand elsewhere we might obtain something which we do not now possess. Consequently we employ the word or some synonym of it during pretty much every waking hour of our lives. Wishing some test of this frequency I turned to Shakespeare, and found that he uses the word “good” fifteen hundred times, and it’s derivatives “goodness,” “better,” and “best,” about as many more. He could not make men and women talk right without incessant reference to this directive conception.

But while thus familiar and influential when mixed with action, and just because of that very fact, the notion of goodness is bewilderingly abstruse and remote. People in general do not observe this curious circumstance. Since they are so frequently encountering goodness, both laymen and scholars are apt to assume that it is altogether clear and requires no explanation. But the very reverse is the truth. Familiarity obscures. It breeds instincts and not understanding. So inwoven has goodness become with the very web of life that it is hard to disentangle. We cannot easily detach it from encompassing circumstance, look at it nakedly, and say what in itself it really is. Never appearing in practical affairs except as an element, and always intimately associated with something else, we are puzzled how to break up that intimacy and give to goodness independent meaning. It is as if oxygen were never found alone, but only in connection with hydrogen, carbon, or some other of the eighty elements which compose our globe. We might feel its wide influence, but we should have difficulty in describing what the thing itself was. Just so if any chance dozen persons should be called on to say what they mean by goodness, probably not one could offer a definition which he would be willing to hold to for fifteen minutes.

It is true, this strange state of things is not peculiar to goodness. Other familiar conceptions show a similar tendency, and just about in proportion, too, to their importance. Those which count for most in our lives are least easy to understand. What, for example, do we mean by love? Everybody has experienced it since the world began. For a century or more, novelists have been fixing our attention on it as our chief concern. Yet nobody has yet succeeded in making the matter quite plain. What is the state? Socialists are trying to tell us, and we are trying to tell them; but each, it must be owned, has about as much difficulty in understanding himself as in understanding his opponent, though the two sets of vague ideas still contain reality enough for vigorous strife. Or take the very simplest of conceptions, the conception of force–that which is presupposed in every species of physical science; ages are likely to pass before it is satisfactorily defined. Now the conception of goodness is something of this sort, something so wrought into the total framework of existence that it is hidden from view and not separately observable. We know so much about it that we do not understand it.

For ordinary purposes probably it is well not to seek to understand it. Acquaintance with the structure of the eye does not help seeing. To determine beforehand just how polite we should be would not facilitate human intercourse. And possibly a completed scheme of goodness would rather confuse than ease our daily actions. Science does not readily connect with life. For most of us all the time, and for all of us most of the time, instinct is the better prompter. But if we mean to be ethical students and to examine conduct scientifically, we must evidently at the outset come face to face with the meaning of goodness. I am consequently often surprised on looking into a treatise on ethics to find no definition of goodness proposed. The author assumes that everybody knows what goodness is, and that his own business is merely to point out under what conditions it may be had. But few readers do know what goodness is. One suspects that frequently the authors of these treatises themselves do not, and that a hazy condition of mind on this central subject is the cause of much loose talk afterwards. At any rate, I feel sure that nothing can more justly be demanded of a writer on ethics at the beginning of his undertaking than that he should attempt to unravel the subtleties of this all-important conception. Having already in a previous volume marked out the Field of Ethics, I believe I cannot wisely go on discussing the science that I love, until I have made clear what meaning I everywhere attach to the obscure and familiar word good. This word being the ethical writer’s chief tool, both he and his readers must learn its construction before they proceed to use it. To the study of that curious nature I dedicate this volume.


To those who join in the investigation I cannot promise hours of ease. The task is an arduous one, calling for critical discernment and a kind of disinterested delight in studying the high intricacies of our personal structure. My readers must follow me with care, and indeed do much of the work themselves, I being but a guide. For my purpose is not so much to impart as to reveal. Wishing merely to make people aware of what has always been in their minds, I think at the end of my book I shall be able to say, “These readers of mine know now no more than they did at, the beginning.” Yet if I say that, I hope to be able to add, “but they see vastly more significance in it than they once did, and henceforth will find the world interesting in a degree they never knew before.” In attaining this new interest they will have experienced too that highest of human pleasures,–the joy of clear, continuous, and energetic thinking. Few human beings are so inert that they are not ready to look into the dark places of their minds if, by doing so, they can throw light on obscurities there.

I ought, however, to say that I cannot promise one gain which some of my readers may be seeking. In no large degree can I induce in them that goodness of which we talk. Some may come to me in conscious weakness, desiring to be made better. But this I do not undertake. My aim is a scientific one. I am an ethical teacher. I want to lead men to understand what goodness is, and I must leave the more important work of attracting them to pursue it to preacher and moralist. Still, indirectly there is moral gain to be had here. One cannot contemplate long such exalted themes without receiving an impulse, and being lifted into a region where doing wrong becomes a little strange. When, too, we reflect how many human ills spring from misunderstanding and intellectual obscurity, we see that whatever tends to illuminate mental problems is of large consequence in the practical issues of life.

In considering what we mean by goodness, we are apt to imagine that the term applies especially, possibly entirely, to persons. It seems as if persons alone are entitled to be called good. But a little reflection shows that this is by no means the case. There are about as many good things in the world as good persons, and we are obliged to speak of them about as often. The goodness which we see in things is, however, far simpler and more easily analyzed than that which appears in persons. It may accordingly be well in these first two chapters to say nothing whatever about such goodness as is peculiar to persons, but to confine our attention to those phases of it which are shared alike by persons and things.


How then do we employ the word “good”? I do not ask how we ought to employ it, but how we do. For the present we shall be engaged in a psychological inquiry, not an ethical one. We need to get at the plain facts of usage. I will therefore ask each reader to look into his own mind, see on what occasions he uses the word, and decide what meaning he attaches to it. Taking up a few of the simplest possible examples, we will through them inquire when and why we call things good.

Here is a knife. When is it a good knife? Why, a knife is made for something, for cutting. Whenever the knife slides evenly through a piece of wood, unimpeded by anything in its own structure, and with a minimum of effort on the part of him who steers it, when there is no disposition of its edge to bend or break, but only to do its appointed work effectively, then we know that a good knife is at work. Or, looking at the matter from another point of view, whenever the handle of the knife neatly fits the hand, following its lines and presenting no obstruction, so that it is a pleasure to use it, we may say that in these respects also the knife is a good knife. That is, the knife becomes good through adaptation to its work, an adaptation realized in its cleavage of the wood and in its conformity to the hand. Its goodness always has reference to something outside itself, and is measured by its performance of an external task. A similar goodness is also found in persons. When we call the President of the United States good, we mean that he adapts himself easily and efficiently to the needs of his people. He detects those needs before others fully feel them, is sagacious in devices for meeting them, and powerful in carrying out his patriotic purposes through whatever selfish opposition. The President’s goodness, like the knife’s, refers to qualities within him only so far as these are adjusted to that which lies beyond.

Or take something not so palpable. What glorious weather! When we woke this morning, drew aside our curtains and looked out, we said “It is a good day!” And of what qualities of the day were we thinking? We meant, I suppose, that the day was well fitted to its various purposes. Intending to go to our office, we saw there was nothing to hinder our doing so. We knew that the streets would be clear, people in amiable mood, business and social duties would move forward easily. Health itself is promoted by such sunshine. In fact, whatever our plans, in calling the day a good day we meant to speak of it as excellently adapted to something outside itself.

This signification of goodness is lucidly put in the remark of Shakespeare’s Portia, “Nothing I see is good without respect.” We must have some respect or end in mind in reference to which the goodness is reckoned. Good always means good for. That little preposition cannot be absent from our minds, though it need not audibly be uttered. The knife is good for cutting, the day for business, the President for the blind needs of his country. Omit the for, and goodness ceases. To be bad or good implies external reference. To be good means to further something, to be an efficient means; and the end to be furthered must be already in mind before the word good is spoken.

The respects or ends in reference to which goodness is calculated are often, it is true, obscure and difficult to seize if one is unfamiliar with the currents of men’s thoughts. I sometimes hear the question asked about a merchant, “Is he good?"–a question natural enough in churches and Sunday-schools, but one which sounds rather queer on “’change.” But those who ask it have a special respect in mind. I believe they mean, “Will the man meet his notes?” In their mode of thinking a merchant is of consequence only in financial life. When they have learned whether he is capable of performing his functions there, they go no farther. He may be the most vicious of men or a veritable saint. It will make no difference in inducing commercial associates to call him good. For them the word indicates solely responsibility for business paper.

A usage more curious still occurs in the nursery. There when the question is asked, “Has the baby been good?” one discovers by degrees that the anxious mother wishes to know if it has been crying or quiet. This elementary life has as yet not acquired positive standards of measurement. It must be reckoned in negative terms, failure to disturb. Heaven knows it does not always attain to this. But it is its utmost virtue, quietude.

In short, whenever we inspect the usage of the word good, we always find behind it an implication of some end to be reached. Good is a relative term, signifying promotive of, conducive to. The good is the useful, and it must be useful for something. Silent or spoken, it is the mental reference to something else which puts all meaning into it. So Hamlet says, “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” If I have in mind A as an end sought, then X is good. But if B is the end, X is bad. X has no goodness or badness of its own. No new quality is added to an object or act when it becomes good.


But this result is disappointing, not to say paradoxical. To call a thing good only with reference to what lies outside itself would be almost equivalent to saying that nothing is good. For if the moment anything becomes good it refers all its goodness to something beyond its own walls, should we ever be able to discover an object endowed with goodness at all? The knife is good in reference to the stick of wood; the wood, in reference to the table; the table, in reference to the writing; the writing, in reference to a reader’s eyes; his eyes, in reference to supporting his family–where shall we ever stop? We can never catch up with goodness. It is always promising to disclose itself a little way beyond, and then evading us, slipping from under our fingers just when we are about to touch it. This meaning of goodness is self-contradictory.

And it is also too large. It includes more to goodness than properly belongs there. If we call everything good which is good for, everything which shows adaptation to an end, then we shall be obliged to count a multitude of matters good which we are accustomed to think of as evil. Filth will be good, for it promotes fevers as nothing else does. Earthquakes are good, for shaking down houses. It is inapposite to urge that we do not want fevers or shaken houses. Wishes are provided no place in our meaning of good. Goodness merely assists, promotes, is conducive to any result whatever. It marks the functional character, without regard to the desirability of that which the function effects. But this is unsatisfactory and may well set us on a search for supplementary meanings.


When we ask if the Venus of Milo is a good statue, we have to confess that it is good beyond almost any object on which our eyes have ever rested. And yet it is not good for anything; it is no means for an outside end. Rather, it is good in itself. This possibility that things may be good in themselves was once brought forcibly to my attention by a trivial incident. Wandering over my fields with my farmer in autumn, we were surveying the wrecks of summer. There on the ploughed ground lay a great golden object. He pointed to it, saying, “That is a good big pumpkin.” I said, “Yes, but I don’t care about pumpkins.” “No,” he said, “nor do I.” I said, “You care for them, though, as they grow large. You called this a good big one.” “No! On the contrary, a pumpkin that is large is worth less. Growing makes it coarser. But that is a good big pumpkin.” I saw there was some meaning in his mind, but I could not make out what it was. Soon after I heard a schoolboy telling about having had a “good big thrashing.” I knew that he did not like such things. His phrase could not indicate approval, and what did it signify? He coupled the two words good and big; and I asked myself if there was between them any natural connection? On reflection I thought there was. If you wish to find the full pumpkin nature, here you have it. All that a pumpkin can be is set forth here as nowhere else. And for that matter, anybody who might foolishly wish to explore a thrashing would find all he sought in this one. In short, what seemed to be intended was that all the functions constituting the things talked about were present in these instances and hard at work, mutually assisting one another, and joining to make up such a rounded whole that from it nothing was omitted which possibly might render its organic wholeness complete. Here then is a notion of goodness widely unlike the one previously developed. Goodness now appears shut up within verifiable bounds where it is not continually referred to something which lies beyond. An object is here reckoned not as good for, but as good in itself. The Venus of Milo is a good statue not through what it does, but through what it is. And perhaps it may conduce to clearness if we now give technical names to our two contrasted conceptions and call the former extrinsic goodness and the latter intrinsic. Extrinsic goodness will then signify the adjustment of an object to something which lies outside itself; intrinsic will say that the many powers of an object are so adjusted to one another that they cooperate to render the object a firm totality. Both will indicate relationship; but in the one case the relations considered are extra se, in the other inter se. Goodness, however, will everywhere point to organic adjustment.

If this double aspect of goodness is as clear and important as I believe it to be, it must have left its record in language. And in fact we find that popular speech distinguishes worth and value in much the same way as I have distinguished intrinsic and extrinsic goodness. To say that an object has value is to declare it of consequence in reference to something other than itself. To speak of its worth is to call attention to what its own nature involves. In a somewhat similar fashion Mr. Bradley distinguishes the extension and harmony of goodness, and Mr. Alexander the right and the perfect.


When, however, we have got the two sorts of goodness distinctly parted, our next business is to get them together again. Are they in fact altogether separate? Is the extrinsic goodness of an object entirely detachable from its intrinsic? I think not. They are invariably found together. Indeed, extrinsic goodness would be impossible in an object which did not possess a fair degree of intrinsic. How could a table, for example, be useful for holding a glass of water if the table were not well made, if powers appropriate to tables were not present and mutually cooperating? Unless equipped with intrinsic goodness, the table can exhibit no extrinsic goodness whatever. And, on the other hand, intrinsic goodness, coherence of inner constitution, is always found attended by some degree of extrinsic goodness, or influence over other things. Nothing exists entirely by itself. Each object has its relationships, and through these is knitted into the frame of the universe.

Still, though the two forms of goodness are thus regularly united, we may fix our attention on the one or the other. According as we do so, we speak of an object as intrinsically or extrinsically good. For that matter, one of the two may sometimes seem to be present in a preponderating degree, and to determine by its presence the character of the object. In judging ordinary physical things, I believe we usually test them by their serviceability to us–by their extrinsic goodness, that is–rather than bother our heads with asking what is their inner structure, and how full of organization they may be. Whereas, when we come to estimate human beings, we ordinarily regard it as a kind of indignity to assess primarily their extrinsic goodness, i. e., to ask chiefly how serviceable they may be and to ignore their inner worth. To sum up a man in terms of his labor value is the moral error of the slaveholder.

If, however, we seek the highest point to which either kind of excellence may be carried, it will be found where each most fully assists the other. But this is not easy to imagine. When I set a glass of water on the table, the table is undoubtedly slightly shaken by the strain. If I put a large book upon it, the strain of the table becomes apparent. Putting a hundred pound weight upon it is an experiment that is perilous. For the extrinsic goodness of the table is at war with the intrinsic; that is, the employment of the table wears it out. In doing its work and fitting into the large relationships for which tables exist, its inner organization becomes disjointed. In time it will go to pieces. We can, however, imagine a magic table, which might be consolidated by all it does. At first it was a little weak, but by upholding the glass of water it grew stronger. As I laid the book on it, its joints acquired a tenacity which they lacked before; and only after receiving the hundred pound weight did it acquire the full strength of which it was capable. That would indeed be a marvelous table, where use and inner construction continually helped each other. Something like it we may hereafter find possible in certain regions of personal goodness, but no such perpetual motion is possible to things. For them employment is costly.


I have already strained my readers’ attention sufficiently by these abstract statements of matters technical and minute. Let us stop thinking for a while and observe. I will draw a picture of goodness and teach the eye what sort of thing it is. We have only to follow in our drawing the conditions already laid down. We agreed that when an object was good it was good for something; so that if A is good, it must be good for B. This instrumental relation, of means to end, may well be indicated by an arrow pointing out the direction in which the influence moves. But if B is also to be good, it too must be connected by an arrow with another object, C, and this in the same way with D. The process might evidently be continued forever, but will be sufficiently shown in the three stages of Figure 1. Here the arrow always expresses the extrinsic goodness of the letter which lies behind it, in reference to the letter which lies before.

But drawing our diagram in this fashion and finding a little gap between D and A, the completing mind of man longs to fill up that gap. We have no warrant for doing anything of the sort; but let us try the experiment and see what effect will follow. Under the new arrangement we find that not only is D good for A, but that A, being good for B and for C, is also good for D. To express these facts in full it would be necessary to put a point on each end of the arrow connecting A and D.

But the same would be true of the relation between A and B; that is, B, being good for C and for D, is also good for A. Or, as similar reasoning would hold throughout the figure, all the arrows appearing there should be supplied with heads at both ends. And there is one further correction. A is good for B and for C; that is, A is good for C. The same relation should also be indicated between B and D. So that to render our diagram complete it would be necessary to supply it with two diagonal arrows having double heads. It would then assume the following form.

Here is a picture of intrinsic goodness. In this figure we have a whole represented in which every part is good for every other part. But this is merely a pictorial statement of the definition which Kant once gave of an organism. By an organism he says, we mean that assemblage of active and differing parts in which each part is both means and end. Extrinsic goodness, the relation of means to end, we have expressed in our diagram by the pointed arrow. But as soon as we filled in the gap between D and A each arrow was obliged to point in two directions. We had an organic whole instead of a lot of external adjustments. In such a whole each part has its own function to perform, is active; and all must differ from one another, or there would be mere repetition and aggregation instead of organic supplementation of end by means. An organism has been more briefly defined, and the curious mutuality of its support expressed, by saying that it is a unit made up of cooperant parts. And each of these definitions expresses the notion of intrinsic goodness which we have already reached. Intrinsic goodness is the expression of the fullness of function in the construction of an organism.

I have elsewhere (The Field of Ethics) explained the epoch-making character in any life of this conception of an organism. Until one has come in sight of it, he is a child. When once he begins to view things organically, he is–at least in outline–a scientific, an artistic, a moral man. Experience then becomes coherent and rational, and the disjointed modes of immaturity, ugliness, and sin no longer attract. At no period of the world’s history has this truly formative conception exercised a wider influence than today. It is accordingly worth while to depict it with distinctness, and to show how fully it is wrought into the very nature of goodness.


Alexander’s Moral Order and Progress, bk. ii. ch. ii.

Bradley’s Appearance and Reality, ch. xxv.

Sidgwick’s Methods, bk. i. ch. ix.

Spencer’s Principles of Ethics, pt. i. ch. iii.

Muirhead’s Elements of Ethics, bk. iv. ch. ii.

Ladd’s Philosophy of Conduct, ch. iii.

Kant’s Practical Reason, bk. i. ch. ii.

The Meaning of Good, by G.L. Dickinson.


Preface.  •  I. The Double Aspect of Goodness  •  II. Misconceptions of Goodness  •  III. Self-Consciousness  •  IV. Self-Direction  •  V. Self-Development  •  VI. Self-Sacrifice  •  VII. Nature and Spirit  •  VII. The Three Stages of Goodness

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Nature of Goodness
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