Ethical Theory Spring 2021

The Objectivity of Good


The two chapters we are discussing today serve as a bridge to the material we will discuss in the next two classes.

What is coming up are two different attempts to base morality on an understanding of human nature.

What we have today is an explanation of how that is connected with the questions about objectivity and subjectivity that we have been discussing.

We’re starting with our old friend Moore and his discussion of “good.” Williams thinks that Moore was wrong about “good” on two points. He was wrong to think that “good” is like “yellow” and he was wrong to think that what makes a thing good has nothing to do with its natural properties.

Williams contends that, in some cases, the nature of a thing determines what makes it good. That is enough to collapse the distinction between fact and value. Then he turns to the question that is most pertinent to morality, namely, what makes a person good. The question here is whether there is any role with two features: first, it is a role that people must occupy and second, it determines the standard for what makes someone a good person.

The next two chapters are going to propose roles for human beings that, they maintain, have both features.


As you may recall, G.E. Moore held that goodness is a simple, indefinable, non-natural property that is the same across all contexts in which the term “good” is used: good apple, good class, good person, good citizen, good doctor, etc.

Williams introduces a distinction between what he calls “attributive” and “predicative” adjectives. He says that Moore treats “good” as a predicative adjective when it is really an attributive adjective.

In this sentence, “yellow” is used as a predicative adjective to describe a bird: “That is a yellow bird.” You can analyze that sentence as, “That is a bird and it is yellow.” You can also draw inferences like this:

  1. “That is a yellow bird.”
  2. “A bird is an animal”
  3. Therefore, “That is a yellow animal.”

“Good” does not work like this. The sentence “He is a good cricketer” cannot be analyzed as “He is a cricketer and he is good.” Nor can you draw an inference similar to the one involving the yellow bird. The third point does not follow from the other two.

  1. “He is a good cricketer.”
  2. “A cricketer is a man.”
  3. Therefore, “He is a good man.”

When adjectives are used in this attributive way, the adjective is metaphorically glued to its substantive, that is, the noun the adjective modifies. The term “good” in “He is a good cricketer” can only describe his cricket skills. It isn’t a property of its own that can be meaningfully abstracted from cricket skills in the way that yellow can be abstracted from the bird.

A canary is yellow in the same way that President Biden’s muscle car is yellow. The word “yellow” is properly used to describe both of them because they both look yellow. By contrast, there are different standards for the proper use of “good” in describing a cricketer and a cook. That is because the qualities that make someone a good cricketer are different than those that make someone a good cook.

For this reason, Williams concludes that Moore is mistaken. Moore treats “good” as if it can be unglued from the thing it modifies but that is not so.

What if “good” is attributive, that is, its meaning is determined by the thing it is applied to? We get objective values! I bet you didn’t see that coming!

This is clearest in the case of artifacts and roles or skilled activities (Williams 1972, 41–42).

Williams follows this observation with discussion of a close relative of Ayer’s view called “prescriptivism.” Ayer said that moral language should be understood as merely expressing emotions. Prescriptivism holds that moral language should be understood as prescribing or commending a course of action. It understands the sentence “telling the truth is a good thing to do” as an exhortation to others to tell the truth rather than saying that telling the truth has the property of being a good thing to do.

This is a digression for our purposes. Williams maintains that moral concepts are used in ways that cannot be understood as exhorting anyone to do anything. He also denies that there is a sharp line between describing and prescribing, contrary to what the prescriptivists hold. We will not have much to say about those points since we have not read any prescriptivists.

The important thing to take from the chapter titled “Good” is that we are heading towards a question about whether human nature gives us objective standards for what counts as a good person analogous to the way that the standards for good clocks and good gardeners are based on the nature of clocks and gardeners.

Goodness and Roles

Social roles are like artifacts: they are created by us and usually for a reason. Do the observations about the goodness of artifacts apply to people in their social roles?

Williams considers several roles which seem to have standards of goodness baked into them. These include: cricketer, bank teller, soldier, and German officer. In each case, he tries to show that someone could occupy that role while, at the same time, being dissociated from it.

The import of this is supposed to be that someone may occupy one of these roles without allowing “the standards that go with that role to be the ultimate, basic, or important assessment of the success or excellence of his life” (Williams 1972, 52). More importantly, the rest of us can view it that way too. We can separate the person from the job, if you will.

What about the role of person or human being? Can a person be aware of what they are while also rejecting the standards that apply to this role? If not, then that might serve as a basis for ethics, that is, a set of standards that necessarily apply to all people, whether they want them to or not.

This leads to the next two chapters. They present two attempts to base ethics on an understanding of human nature. One employs a natural framework based on an empirical description of human nature. The other uses a transcendental framework, placing human beings in a larger scheme beyond human life, such as God’s plan for the universe.

Key Points

  1. The distinction between predicative and attributive adjectives as it applies to “good.”

  2. Cases in which the nature of a thing determines the standards for calling it good.


Williams, Bernard. 1972. Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.