All statements about values can be restated as statements of facts. The truth or falsity about value claims can be discovered by investigations of facts. Goodness is a word that can be defined by reference to certain kinds of factual relationships in the world. Whether or not something deserves to be called good can be determined by investigating the relevant factual relationships in the world to see if they are rightly instances of good or not. The same goes for “bad”.
In short, I reject the notion that there is a fundamental distinction between facts and values. Values are kinds of facts. I also reject the wide interpretation of the naturalistic fallacy which claims that one can never derive an “ought” statement from an “is” statement, i.e., that a statement of facts can never tell anyone about how things ought to be. There are indeed fallacious inferences that endorse certain factual relationships as truly valuable when they are not and that make this erroneous judgment from a simplistic and mistaken equation of certain kinds of facts with certain kinds of values which are not actually directly (or at all properly) entailed by them. Some of these cases of fallacious inference would properly be accused of committing what is known as the “naturalistic fallacy”, insofar as that fallacy refers to hasty inferences from “is” to “ought”.
But not all inferences from “is” to “ought” are fallacious and therefore not all of them deserve to be accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy.
In what follows I will lay out systematically my case for calling goodness a matter of objective fact.
The most factual sense of the word “good” we have is the sense of effectiveness. Effectiveness is a matter of straightforward fact. My heart right now is effective at pumping blood. Many rivers have been effective at carving valleys. The sun is effective in innumerable ways at sustaining life on Earth.
To say that x is good at y is to make a verifiable or falsifiable fact claim that x is effective at y-ing.
To say that x is good for y is to make a verifiable or falsifiable fact claim that y is able to do what it does more effectively when x contributes in some specifiable way to y‘s activity. Sometimes this means that y‘s effective performance is, as a matter of fact, enhanced in a particular way by x. Sometimes it could mean that y‘s existence is in some or all instances, as a matter of fact, preconditioned by x, such that y only happens in some or all instances if x is present.
This sense of goodness, as sheer effectiveness, is the most basic kind because it is the only factual kind. It is the kind which refers to naturally occurring and objectively describable relationships and all the other, more complicated senses of “goodness” which we use can be analyzed in terms of how they relate to fundamental relationships of effectiveness.
Every being is a function of its components parts working together in the characteristic way definitive of that kind of being. Every component part is a further function of its own constitutive parts down to the most basic rudiments of existence. In this way, beings are essentially describable as functions of the parts which compose them as engaged in particular processes which occur when they are combined in particular quantities and arrangements. Increasingly complex beings are essentially increasingly complex functions made up of constitutive beings, each of which are functions themselves.
Given the nature of being as functionality, there are two basic kinds of effectiveness. The first kind of effectiveness is the successful functioning of a function itself. A function exists through its functioning effectively. There is no function apart from the act of functioning. Ceasing to function makes a function cease to be. Since a being is a function, a being’s ceasing to function entails necessarily its ceasing to be.
So any being’s intrinsic good is to function effectively according to that function that the being is. Of course, as has already been described, each being is composed of many parts, each of which itself is a function composed of further parts. This means that increasingly complex beings are composed of increasingly numerous functions on increasingly numerous levels.
So for every being to do well as the being that it is, it must function according to its characteristic activity well, i.e., effectively. What each function is can be characterized in objective terms as a description of its essential functions and therefore its objective good, its effective functioning, can be described in terms of the conditions by which it functions well as the function it is.
Let me stop to stress that functions are not defined by consciously given purposes. A river is a river because it functions in a river way, not because any intelligent being purposed it to act in that way. A heart is a heart because it functions in a heart way, not because any intelligent being decided it should act in that way.
Goods in this way need no being to declare a preference for them in order for them to be good. A thing’s goodness does not come from a god or any other person declaring it good. Its goodness is in its functioning as what it is. Neither is goodness the same thing as pleasantness. We call many pleasant things “good” as a shorthand way of saying they are effective for a purpose we have an interest in. Some of these things are objectively good for us insofar as whether through their pleasantness or something else they contribute to our effective functioning. But their pleasantness is not by itself their goodness.
Our conscious interests are also not the arbiter of “goodness”. Often when we refer to things being good or not good (bad) by reference to our interests, we refer simply to their being effective or ineffective for attaining what we want. In these cases we use the word good in a shorthand way. What we really mean is that x is effective at satisfying our conscious desire for y. Whether x is actually good for us is an objective matter, which hinges on what our objective interests are. Our objective interests, which may be completely independent in some cases of our conscious desires, involve what is objectively effective at constituting or increasing our own functioning through which we have our being.
What best advances our functioning, best advances our being, and is thereby our objectively greatest interest. This can be theoretically be determined according to facts about the nature of our characteristic functioning and facts about what effectively constitutes or advances that functioning the most.
There is much more to say on this topic, of course, but I will end this post at a reasonable length and return to related topics in coming posts.
Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on these and related problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular:Can Good Teaching Be Measured?