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Correct me if I'm wrong, but Peter Geach used the infelicity of statements like, "A good singer is thusly a good person," to try to show that G. E. Moore's sense of the word "good" was misguided. However, can't Moore's standpoint be restored, to some extent, just by going to, "A morally good singer is thusly a morally good person," or, "An intrinsically good singer is an intrinsically good person,"S etc.?

Now, I doubt all such qualifications would go through, although I'm having trouble coming up with a qualifier that sounds off when plugged into the indicated template ("A _______ good _______ is a _______ good person"). (I tried out "agent-relatively" in the first slot, for example, and it still sounds correct, to me at least, and if only for now!) (Putting things like "evildoer" or "murderer" in the second slot just comes off as insane, or in the case of "murderer" dependent on unknown conditions, if any there be, in which aggressive/non-defensive killing is somehow good.)


SOne might take the intrinsic goodness of a singer for an intrinsic talent that lends itself to singing, or an automatic and eager disposition to sing well, or something along that line. It is unclear to me, from reading through the SEP article that pertains the most to the concept of intrinsic value, that the word "intrinsic" there is meant to do double-duty with the same word as used in the phrase "intrinsic property," however.


Alternative formulation of the question: while reviewing the relevant section of the relevant SEP article again, I noticed this:

[Geach's objection] is a charge that has been rebutted by Michael Zimmerman, who argues that Geach’s tests are less straightforward than they may seem and fail after all to reveal a significant distinction between the ways in which “good” and “yellow” operate (Zimmerman 2001, ch. 2). He argues further that Thomson mischaracterizes Moore’s conception of intrinsic value. According to Moore, he claims, what is intrinsically good is not “just plain good”; rather, it is good in a particular way, in keeping with Thomson’s thesis that all goodness is goodness in a way. He maintains that, for Moore and other proponents of intrinsic value, such value is a particular kind of moral value.

Is Zimmerman's line of thought equivalent to the one I've brought up, here?

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  • "Morally good" is not the same term as "good". Geach only needs one example to show that Moore is wrong. How would a different example that does not show he is wrong possibly have relevance to the example that does show he is wrong? Nov 1, 2023 at 21:48
  • @DavidGudeman but what is Zimmerman's own argument, here? I found that he wrote the quoted SEP article, so hopefully he replies to my email to him, but until then, I don't know if he was trying to make a similar point (a point about how frivolous Geach's reasoning is, I suppose). Nov 1, 2023 at 23:16
  • How does "a morally good singer is thusly a morally good person" go through? One can be morally good as a singer, i.e. sing moralizing songs and even be moral in all other aspects of singing, while doing reprehensible things off duty. "A morally good singer can be a murderer" does not sound insane at all. Geach's example relies on the noun shifting the interpretation context for the adjective, and it still shifts when an adverb attaches to that adjective. But even if "morally good" did split off conjunctively, like "yellow", the qualifier defeats Moore's purpose of getting unqualified good.
    – Conifold
    Nov 2, 2023 at 0:18
  • @Conifold a morally good murderer sounds insane, that's when slot 2 is wrongly filled in; you have "murderer" in slot 3, but it doesn't fit there (that would give "murderer good person," which is mostly ungrammatical). But overall Geach seems to have been overblowing the usefulness of ordinary-language philosophy in this case (it's useful sometimes, but not here). Or so it seems to me, although my main concern is really whether Zimmerman's argument is equivalent to mine. Nov 2, 2023 at 0:44
  • Geach's good is more like instrumental final value as some means to something else as an end which always has value in a certain way in its own right due to its conspicuity such as your currently typing computer assuming it's your last allowed one, while Moore's good is more like intrinsic value in its own right as its own end, not unlike a fixed point of its own valuation, and since it's a fixed point it's ensured to become good upon goodness indefinitely which itself is pure goodness without an iota of muddy cloudy is-ought like doubt, regret or any other queerness... Nov 2, 2023 at 5:44

2 Answers 2

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No, it does not. Consider 'an occasional singer'. You cannot say 'an occasional singer is a person, therefore an occasional singer is an occasional person'. That is because the target of the adjective 'occasional' is the person's singing, not the person. Likewise there is an important difference between a good singer and a morally good singer. The normal interpretation of the first expression is a singer who sings well, while that of the second is a good person who sings, well or badly. The target of the adjective 'good' in the first expression is the singing, while the target of good in the second is the person, and that is the cause of the problem. By introducing 'morally' you are changing the target of 'good' from the singing to the person, and hence 'a morally good singer is a morally good person' makes sense, while 'a very occasional singer is a very occasional person' does not.

Perhaps examples with two or more activities illustrate the point more clearly, such as:

She was an excellent singer but an appalling actress.

He was a good tactician but a bad leader.

In such examples, you cannot take both adjectives to be referring to the person alone, as they are contradictory.

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  • But wouldn't Moore have simply agreed that he should've added "morally" to "good" and he could've made whatever point he intended to make? For he goes on about intrinsic value, things that ought to be for their own sake, etc. at other times. I feel like Geach was being overdramatic about a linguistic oddity and not making a substantial point against Moore's view. Nov 1, 2023 at 23:14
  • If the best thing you can say about a singer is that they are morally good ...
    – user121330
    Nov 2, 2023 at 4:55
  • I don't think so. The point Geach makes is that, unlike yellow, good has the ability to apply to either the singer as a person or to their singing. Morally good doesn't have that ability, so you would be evading Geach's point instead of refuting it. Nov 2, 2023 at 6:55
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It seems quite grammatical to say "a morally good singer", though a bit odd to the ear because of the semantic distance between morality and singing, though I suppose it is quite acceptable to say that "Any good gospel singer is necessarily a morally good singer". The question remains then if is metaphysically necessary to conclude that all who sing well about good morals are necessarily morally good people, to which I would agree with Marco Ocram that it simply isn't a necessity.

I think this a natural language consideration where the absence of material logic allowing you to move from "morally good singer" to "moral person" is stymied by the way adjectives are peculiar to the nouns they modify. What I mean by that is that facts about singers, knowing for instance they are types of people, allow us to make some inferences from adjectives modifying singers to adjectives modifying people, we cannot always.

A case where it works:

A living singer is a living person.

Clearly that stands to reason.

A good singer is a good person.

Clearly that does not. It seems to me, that morally good seems to occupy an ambiguous middle ground, perhaps through lack of established convention, whether the goodness refers to the singing-ness or the singer-ness.

Your question is intriguing because it begs the question, based on what calculus can we or cannot we infer such a transference of attribute between a hyponym-hypernym pair. And I'm going to pause and think...

And what has leapt to my mind is the idea there is a difference between essential and accidental properties (SEP). Your phrase seems to have no basis to determine if the claim about the property is essential or accidental.

A "morally good singer" seems to suggest that while properties qualify entities, that in our minds, entities sometimes qualify properties through experience. These irregularities in definitions were observed by Wittgenstein in his family resemblance. In modern semantic theory, Rosch's prototype theory is a good candidate for explanatory language. And Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things probably would be good start on how the postivist notions of atomic categories is betrayed by a layer of calculations that go on with neurons under the hood in determining our categories and how they give noun phrases meaning in a way that doesn't conform with classical logic and set theory.

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  • If you want me to look in Lakoff's work for explanation, let me know. Cognitive semantics is technical stuff, and I have failed to retain no small portion of what I furiously highlighted years ago.
    – J D
    Nov 1, 2023 at 22:31
  • I didn't even remember that there are two distinct SEP articles for intrinsic/extrinsic properties vs. essential/accidental ones :P But now all I meant by "morally good singer" was not someone who sang about morality in an inspiring way, or anything like that, but just "someone who is morally good and a singer." I guess I'm thinking that Geach was making too much of the peculiarities of language, here. Nov 1, 2023 at 23:10
  • Incidentally, I saw that Zimmerman is one of the authors of the SEP article on intrinsic value, so I emailed him, we might at least get a partial answer to the question of what he meant if he replies! Nov 1, 2023 at 23:12
  • Well there's the ambiguity. Let me know what response you get. :D
    – J D
    Nov 1, 2023 at 23:15
  • It sounds like your first paragraph is talking about moral-goodness singers, rather than morally-good singers.
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 1, 2023 at 23:43

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