Defending a Eudaemonist Account of Virtue Ethics.

Part 1: The Grammar of Goodness.

John Fisher 2.0
10 min readFeb 14, 2022

Eudaemonist account of goodness consists of doing what is good for us because through it we learn to flourish and live lives of happiness. This requires further fleshing out, but before I do, the word “good” first needs to be fleshed out grammatically. This is the first topic I will address in a series of posts. It is necessary to begin here so that, later on, issues won’t arise with a lack of clarity.

The word “good” has a lot of issues with clarity in everyday usage, as the Catholic Apologist G.K. Chesterton writes,

The word “good” has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of 500 yards I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man (Dale, 2005 p. 26–27).

The word has both moral and non-moral connotations, and we can speak about being “good to” or “good for” or “the good of” a person, so giving the word meaning is not enough but we must also explore the various uses of the word as well. Following the late analytic philosopher Peter Geach, we will stipulate that goodness is an attributive, not a predictive, adjective (1956, p.33–34).

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun or verb. “A big man” is different from “a man” in general; since “good” picks out a subset of men. To use another example, “a brown man” is different from “a man” in general: “brown” picks out a subset of men.

Some (like “big”) are attributive, while others (like “brown”) are predicative. According to Geach, an attributive adjective has the following two properties to function

  1. The noun and adjective cannot be split in such a way as it preserves the meaning of both.
  2. It does not guarantee truth-preservation through categorical inference.

Predicative Adjective.

To use an example of a word we do not know the meaning of, let us use the word ‘Maki’. As of yet, we do not know what Maki is. However, we do know what it would mean for Maki to be white.

It would mean (assuming colors are real qualities) Maki — whatever he is — typically reflects light containing all wavelengths from about 390 nm to 700 nm. Furthermore, suppose Maki is the kind of thing that belongs to a subset of things x, contained in a greater set y.

P1. Maki is a white x

P2. All x’s are y’s

C1. Therefore, Maki is a white y.

If P1. and P2. are sound, then the conclusion follows and we can be assured Maki is a white y.

Furthermore, if Maki is a white k (as in kind), then k and white are guaranteed to have their meanings preserved through inference.

Attributive Adjective

Again, we wish to stipulate that we do not know what Maki is, for the sake of demonstration. If someone claimed, “Maki is average-sized”, we wouldn’t know what to make of them having that attribute. We need to know what kind of thing Maki is, before we can consider the nature of the claim. After all, an average-sized elephant differs from an average-sized mouse.

Again, suppose Maki is the kind of thing that belongs to a subset of things x, contained in a greater set y.

P1. Maki is an average-sized x

P2. All x’s are y’s

C1. Therefore, Maki is an average-sized y

We do not know if the conclusion follows, and we also do not know if the average-sized has the same range meaning.

What or who is Macki?

Maki is a dog. Being a dog means while he is average-sized for a dog, it does not mean he is average-sized for a mammal. However, being a dog means he is white when considering him as a mammal. We did not need to know he was a dog to make sense of him being white, but we did in order to make sense of what it would mean for him to be average-sized.

Is the Good predicative or Attributive?

Given the quote above from Chesterton, we know that the term good is ambiguous when we don’t know the sort of thing we are saying “is good”. However, the same is true when it comes to propositions. Does this argument preserve the validity of the inference?

P1. X is good.

P2. All x are y

C1. Y is good.

Not necessarily,

P1. Ron is a good athlete

P2. All Athletes are citizens.

C1. Ron is a good citizen.

Goodness and its Grammatical Function

To help us understand how the word “good” functions, compare it to how “square-of” functions in Math. In Math, “square-of”, takes numbers as arguments and yields their values, but alone, is incomplete. The Square of…100 is 10. Likewise, “x is good” on its own is incomplete and requires we know what kind of thing x is (Alexander, 2012, p. 50).

To say, “x is good”, is to say something along the lines of, “x is an instance of a kind “K” such that it has the relevant properties required for K-hood to such a such a degree” (Alexander, 2012, p. 50).

Type 1 Objections— Non-Attributive uses of the word ‘Good’.

I will list the kinds of objections in the say Alexander does. The first sorts of objection to this sort of grammar is to deny that attributive uses of the word good are the only uses, and that there can be predicative uses as well. The issue with this sort of objection is that predicative uses license invalid arguments, which should at least cause us to be suspicious of such uses.

David Alexander goes into some alleged counterexamples. The first one by Alfred MacKay argues,

‘X is bad’ is not grammatically deviant, and a bad argument, a movie are, respectively, an argument, a driver think, I even think, contrary to Geach, that bad food is food (1970, p. 117)

However, Alexander responds by noting what Geach only holds that ‘X is bad’ is incomplete or elliptical, not that it is ‘grammatically deviant’. While we know bad food is food, we cannot infer that because food typically supports human life, bad food typically supports human life (2012, p. 37).

MacKay anticipates this sort of objection and writes,

But this is a trivial restriction shared by ‘red’ and ‘sweet’, because likewise we cannot predicate of a red lemon anything incompatible with its being red or of a sweet lemon anything incompatible with it being sweet. But this doesn’t have the slightest tendency to show that ‘red’ and ‘sweet’ are attributive adjectives. In fact they are Geach’ examples of “ordinary predicative adjectives (1970, p. 117)

But, I would imagine the response Alexander and Geach would give here is that a red lemon does logically split into ‘red’ and ‘lemon’ since we still have an idea of what the speaker means by both the words ‘sweet’ and ‘yellow’ doesn’t seem to be essential, but common to, what a lemon is, while ‘bad’ still requires us to know what kind of this x is to make sense of it being bad. Whereas, if we split ‘food’ and ‘bad’, we have an idea of it being food, but no idea of what to make of it being ‘bad’, since a lot of other things we think of as good, don’t typically support human life. For example, angels, if they exist, are good or bad angels insofar as they obey God. A task that came prior to human life.

Another counter-example from the philosopher Charles R. Pigden goes as follows,

Reverting to my (nuclear-armed) ICBM, I may think it bad (indeed evil in the highest degree) without believing that it falls short as an ICBM or lacks the characteristics one associates with ICBM’s. It is both bad and an honest-togoodness full-blown ICBM. Hence the ‘bad’ is not alienans or quasi-alienans. Of course, the ‘bad’ is not being used attributively here (or at least it does not seem to be) since the missile need not be a bad ICBM (indeed, it may be a very good one). But this merely confirms the existence of the predicative ‘bad’ — the very point at issue (1990, pp.3–4).

Alexander refutes this by noting that there are good-bad kind interactions. While an ICBM might be good if it was designed to destroy cities, it is bad for us. A fast gazelle is, all else being equal, a good kind of gazelle. But that sort of gazelle is bad for the lion since it prevents them from eating their food. An ICBM is bad for us because it prevents us from exercising our good qualities to any degree (2012, pp.38–39).

Objection 2 — Attributive Adjective Uses of the Word “Good” are Themselves Incomplete for Something Else.

Alexander writes that an expressivist — that is, someone who takes ‘good’ to be a pro-attitude that is more akin to an expression like “Boo!” or “Yeah!” — could take Geach’s point and use it to argue for their own thesis.

The expressivist argues that in order to avoid rampant ambiguity it is necessary to give “good” something other than a descriptive meaning. The function of “good” is not to describe whatever it modifies but to praise it or endorse it or express some attitude of approval. The expressivist argues that if “good” is primarily descriptive, as Geach claims, then it is hopelessly ambiguous. “Good” is ambiguous because ascriptions of good to knives, trucks, people, and other kinds of things must mean different things since the things that make these various kinds good are all different.35 For example, a knife is good if it is UVW and a truck is good if is XYZ. Hence, “good knife” means UVW and “good truck” means XYZ. Since “good” cannot be ambiguous in this way, the expressivist argues that “good” is not primarily descriptive. Rather “good” is primarily expressive of some pro-attitude (2012, p. 40).

But the response here is that ‘good’ need not be treated as ambiguous, since its use can have other functions that are clear and complete when given something to modify.

” From the facts that “square of 2” means “double of 2” and “square of 3” means “triple of 3” it does not follow that “square of” is hopelessly ambiguous. “Square of” is a predicate-forming functor. By itself it is incomplete, in need of some argument to yield a value. That is, “square of x” is incomplete apart from some value for x. The same is true of “good.” “Good” is a predicate-forming functor.38 By itself “good” is incomplete. Just as “square of” is descriptive despite its yielding radically different values for different arguments, “good” is descriptive (2012, p. 41).

The next sort of argument provided by Judith J. Thompson is summarized by Alexander as follows,

Geach’s thesis — for all x, if x is good then x is a good K. Thomson’s objection: there exists an x such that x is good and x is not a good K (rather x is good in a way). Hence, Geach’s thesis is false. Indeed, given the charge that Geach’s story is incomplete, Thomson’s argument amounts to the following: Geach’s thesis — for all x if x is good then x is a good K. Thomson’s objection: for all x if x is good then it is not the case that x is a good K. Hence, Geach’s thesis is false (2012, p. 41).

Since Thompson’s point is that something could exist in a good way, and not be reducible to a good kind, there must be something else that is also good. Two examples Thompson puts forward include “‘That’s good for use in making cheesecake’ and ‘That’s good for Alfred’” (Alexander, 2012, p.43). But Alexander responds by saying,

The notion of kind-interactionism spelled out above in response to Pigden is also relevant here. In the case of making cheesecake we have one kind — the cheesecake kind — interacting with another kind — the utensil or ingredient or whatever kind. Presumably a good member of the latter kind may benefit the former kind. There are some problems with the proposed reconciliation. The main problem is that it seems to change Thomson’s account in order to make it fit Geach’s. In order to reconcile Thomson’s story with Geach’s we have to commit her to the claim that the most fundamental way of being good (i.e. the benefiting or being benefited way) depends on a thing’s function or nature. In other words, we get reconciliation without mutual compromise. In effect, Thomson’s story is compatible with Geach’s only if Geach’s story is more fundamental. (2012, p. 46)

Type 3 Objections — Undercutting Defeaters.

The following sorts of objections attempt to undermine the basis Geach has in making his attributive/predicative distinction. David Alexander reconstructs such an argument Michael Zimmerman offers in the following manner.

  1. Both “red” and “good” are attributive.
  2. If both “red” and “good” are attributive, then there is no essential difference between the types of properties expressed by “red” and the types of properties expressed by “good.”
  3. If there is no essential difference between the types of properties expressed by “red” and the types of properties expressed by “good,” then the fact that both “red” and “good” are attributive does not reveal anything important about the natures of these properties.
  4. Hence, the fact that both “red” and “good” are attributive does not reveal anything important about the natures of these properties (2012, p. 48).

Alexander calls into question all these premises, but I will only offer one counter response for the sake of time to premise two.

First, if “red” does not behave in the way Geach thought, it does not follow that there is no difference between attributive adjectives and predicative ones. All we need to do is find an adjective that satisfies either the splitting test or the higher-order and lower-order kind test and the difference is plain. Perhaps the adjective “even” will do, as it is used in the following statement: “4 is an even number.” (2012, p. 47)


In part 1 of this series we have discussed how exactly the word ‘good’ is to be understood grammatically. This will be indispensable for understanding the metaphysics of the good in the next installment of my series. Following that, an epistemic basis for why we ought to do the good, and lastly, provide some evidence for a shared common good.


Alexander, D. E. (2012). Goodness, God, and Evil. Continuum Studies in Philosophy of Religion. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Dale, A. S. (2005). The Outline of Sanity: A biography of G.K. Chesterton. iUniverse.

Geach, P.T. ‘Good and Evil’, Analysis, Volume 17, Issue 2, December 1956, Pages 33-42,

MacKay, A.F. ‘Attribution-Predication’, Analysis, Volume. 30, Issue 4, March 1970, pages. 113–120

Pigden, C.R. ‘Geach on Good’, Philosophical Quarterly, Volume. 40, Issue 159, 1990, pages 129–154. PhilArchive:



John Fisher 2.0

Catholic blogger, my views are not necessarily reflective of the Church’s. Please post corrections to help me avoid heresy.