Truth, Goodness, and Beauty





 Truth, Goodness, and Beauty



The members of this hallowed platonic trinity are supposed to belong tightly together like a family. What I want to point out is that theories of these three things also form a family; in particular, theories of truth find counterparts in theories of goodness and beauty. There are analogies between the various theories of the members of the platonic trinity.

            In the case of truth we can distinguish five types of theory: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, the pragmatic theory, the simple property theory, and the deflationary theory. The correspondence theory ventures an analysis of the concept of truth that treats it as a genuine substantive concept, while the other theories are all more or less suspicious of this approach—they resist the idea that truth is a (monadic) property with a hidden structure that can be revealed by analysis. They all suggest that truth is something less than we naively suppose—that it is not as robust as other properties are. This is particularly true of deflationist theories, which deny that truth is a property in good standing. Coherence theories treat truth as mere agreement among beliefs, not as an absolute property that could apply to a belief in isolation. Pragmatic theories regard truth as just a highfalutin way to talk about what is useful in belief or assertion; we should replace truth with utility. Simple property theories reject all attempts at informative definition but seek to retain the ordinary notion of truth, holding that truth is a primitive notion. Four out of the five theories deny that truth is a rugged full-bodied property equipped with a substantial nature.

            How goes it with goodness? We speak as if goodness were a real property of things—states of affairs, actions, and people–so it is a question what sort of property it is. Some theorists attempt to analyze the concept, specifying in what exactly goodness consists—obedience to the will of God, maximum utility, respect for the rights of persons, conformity to the categorical imperative, fidelity to the social contract, and so on. We are offered bi-conditionals of the form “x is good if and only if x is….”, where the blank is filled by a substantive analysis. This is what the property of goodness involves, its underlying constitution, what we implicitly grasp when we employ the concept (as knowledge is true justified belief, water is H2O, etc). We take goodness to be a hearty property in good standing and we try to say what its constituent elements are. We don’t entertain skepticism about the status of the word “good” as a description of the world (even if it is a supernatural world). Of course, there are disputes about what is the correct analysis, but it is accepted that there is an analysis—that the concept is a fit subject for analysis. Goodness is as much a real property as shape.

            By contrast, we have other approaches to goodness that are more or less suspicious of the straightforward approach just described. Thus we have different sorts of relativism that question the absoluteness of goodness: to be good is just to be accepted in a given society or group—it is what most people take to be good. What is good is what people agree to be good, and different groups can disagree on what they agree on. Goodness is a relational property: for something to be good is for it to be endorsed by a group of people who stand to each other in the relation of agreement. Goodness is relative to a society and relations of agreement are what make something good for that society. This is abstractly analogous to the coherence theory of truth: the truth of a proposition is relative to a set of beliefs, and these beliefs must stand in a relation of agreement with one another. If I call something good, I must stand ready to specify the society in which it is deemed good, and I must assume that that society agrees about the goodness of the thing in question; similarly, if I call something true, I must stand ready to specify the set of beliefs in which it is taken to be true, and I must assume that there is agreement between the belief in question and other beliefs.

            Then we have a kind of pragmatic theory of goodness: to be good is just to conduce to pleasure or well-being or preference satisfaction. We could get rid of the concept of goodness and simply talk about what is useful—what satisfies our goals. Goodness is a kind of instrumental or functional property: it is simply whatever leads to human flourishing. There is no “queer” property of goodness inhering in states of affairs; nor is it a matter of what people generally think is good: talk of goodness is just a misleading way to record the fact that some actions and policies get us what we want. What’s good is what works. In fact the pragmatic theory of truth and the pragmatic theory of goodness converge, since truth is also the property of working—getting us to where we want to be in life. Truth is usefulness, but so is goodness; so truth is a kind of goodness, i.e. a route to human wellbeing.

            We also have the simple property theory of goodness, associated with G.E. Moore: goodness is a primitive non-natural property that inheres in things but is not subject to analysis or conceptual breakdown. It is a very special property, one that is logically irreducible yet conceptually sophisticated. Just as truth is supposed by some theorists to be primitive, so goodness is regarded as primitive—it is what it is and no other thing. We have a basic intuitive grasp of these simple properties, rather like our grasp of colors; they form conceptual bedrock. Yet they characterize our highest level of thought and discourse, out of cognitive reach for animals, despite their inner simplicity. We perceive them with our minds (by intellectual intuition) as fundamental constituents of reality—as logically irreducible qualities of things.

            This kind of talk repels another type of philosopher who wants nothing to do with the metaphysics and epistemology of irreducible non-natural qualities. Such a philosopher favors a deflationary and dismissive attitude to goodness: there is just no such property as goodness. When we use the word “good” we are not describing things as having a certain property, whether substantive, relative, instrumental, or primitive: for we are not describing at all. Instead, we are expressing our emotions, performing acts of endorsement, issuing imperatives, or just mouthing off—hence the doctrines of emotivism, prescriptivism, nihilism, and the like. Just as “true” is not a descriptive word but a device we use to express agreement, so “good” is not a descriptive word but a device we use to make our attitudes known. When I say that a statement is true I don’t describe the statement as having some special sort of property; I merely express my agreement with it. And when I call an action good I don’t assign to it a special sort of evaluative property; I merely indicate my approval of the action. If saying “good” is like saying “hurrah!”, then saying “true” is like saying “indeed!”: neither act is logically predicative. In both cases the model of subject and predicate is spurned.

It is less easy to trace these analogies in the case of theories of beauty, probably because the subject has received less analytical attention, but it is not difficult to construct parallel theories of beauty to those we have discerned for truth and goodness. First, we can have substantive analyses of beauty—ranging from what reflects the gods, to the idea of harmonious wholes, to notions of symmetry and proportion. Second, we have relativist theories of beauty analogous to relativist theories of goodness: beauty is what a given society or group findsbeautiful, and this in turn is a matter of convergence of aesthetic response within that community. Beauty is relative, as goodness is, and as truth is (according to the coherence theory of truth). Third, we have pragmatic theories of beauty: there is no property of beauty over and above what has utility, where utility is here understood to involve aesthetic pleasure—what works for the viewer in his or her aesthetic pleasure centers. If perceiving certain objects leads to aesthetic pleasure, that is all that can or should be meant by describing them as beautiful; it doesn’t matter how they are intrinsically or objectively—all that matters is that they promote pleasure. The value of beauty is a purely practical value. Fourth, we can regard beauty as a simple indefinable property: something has this property or not, as a matter of objective fact, and it can be perceived or not. This property is denoted by the word “beautiful”, as “true” denotes a primitive property, and ditto for “goodness”. Beauty consists in nothing but itself, though it may supervene on other properties (such as harmony and proportion); it is a fundamental feature of the perceived world, like color or shape, to which we are sensitive. Fifth, there will be some philosophers who recoil at such talk and who would prefer to rid the world of beauty as an objective quality: for them when we use the word “beautiful” we are merely expressing our visual and other preferences, or trying to sound superior, or just mouthing off—we are not talking about anything (except perhaps ourselves). We are not describing or asserting or fact-stating. Our talk of beauty is like our sighs of appreciation when we experience works or art or nature, or the happy humming that can result from hearing music we like.

Truth, goodness, and beauty should all be classified as normative concepts: we ought to believe what is true, we ought to promote what is good, and we ought to take pleasure in what is beautiful. No doubt that is why Plato grouped them together—they encapsulate what we should aspire to, seek, and foster. They constitute a large part of what gives value to human life. But in addition they each invite the kind of theorizing I have described—they each invite a certain pattern of theoretical options. There is no name for this pattern but we might venture, unimaginatively, “the TGB pattern”—the shape in the theoretical landscape traced by truth, goodness, and beauty. We can either try to give a substantive theory of these things, or we can lapse into a kind of coherence-based relativism, or we can go pragmatic, or we can insist on irreducibility, or we can abandon the whole model of descriptive predication. If anyone is inclined to hold one of these options for a single member of the trinity, she should ask herself whether she wants to take the same view for the other two members.  [1]


Colin McGinn      

  [1] If we could unite the three members under a common concept, we would be able to understand why the theoretical options should be shared. Thus suppose we postulate a genus of which truth, goodness, and beauty count as species—call it “worthiness” or “excellence”. Then there could be substantive analyses of this more abstract property (conformity to the mind of God, some sort of “organic unity”); relativist theories (excellence is what is deemed excellent by a suitable population); pragmatic theories (excellence is whatever is useful in obtaining our goals); simple property theories (excellence is an indefinable property that we have to accept as primitive); and deflationist theories (talk of excellence is just a way to vent one’s positive feelings or demonstrate solidarity). But this attempt at unification, though theoretically appealing, looks contrived; so we must rest content with three separate concepts that invite similar theoretical responses. 

2 replies
  1. Ahmadi
    Ahmadi says:

    Very nice philosophical axiology in five pages ! I enjoy and benefit from it very much . it is similar to your DIME formula ! Thank you .
    I guess your view is that these three intrinsic values are genuion substantive analyzable irreducible concepts . is it true ?


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