The Metaphysics of Qualitative Judgment
What are goodness and beauty, really?
This is a continuation of my defense of qualitative judgment in response to White Tom. If you want to see the previous two posts in this series, read here and here. Previously, I established that, if qualitative judgments are useful for anything, then they can only be so because goodness and beauty are real features of the world and not mind-dependent constructs. The first of these essays defined goodness and beauty as real features that cause objects to become inherently attractive to sentient beings, either by kindling desire for the object in the case of goodness or by giving off a pleasant feeling through mere experience in the case of beauty.
These are definitions of causes by their effects. They’re all well and good, but they leave open the question of what goodness and beauty are in themselves? What about them makes them attractive to sentient creatures? In this essay, I seek to answer these questions by laying out the metaphysics of qualitative judgment according to medieval Scholastics. Then, I will connect this metaphysical understanding to our ordinary uses of “good” and “beautiful,” demonstrating in the process how it is that these features have the effects they do.
Where else should we start defining something as broad as goodness or beauty but metaphysics? The reason metaphysics is considered the science of first principles is that, while other sciences examine this or that particular being or group of beings, metaphysics studies being as such, and being qua being is intimately related to the goodness and beauty of things, as we’ll see.
The concept of being is complicated. In a sense, being is “that which can exist,” which is a very broad category. As the Neo-Scholastic philosopher Edward Feser once put it, being is “above every genus, common to all and thus not restricted to any category or individual” (Scholastic Metaphysics, p. 154). Being is not a genus because there is nothing that exists that isn’t being in some way. When we look at the species within a genus, we can usually pick out some trait particular to a given species that separates it from others within the same genus. For example, gold is a type of metal, and it is different from other metals because it has the atomic number seventy-nine. My mind can grasp the concept of having atomic number seventy-nine without grasping being a metal. By contrast, there is nothing that can serve as a specific difference to mark out something as a species within being-as-purported-genus. The only thing extrinsic to being is non-being or nothing, and nothing cannot differentiate anything. Any given difference that would separate a species of being will only be another being.
Does this mean that the concept of being is incoherent? Not necessarily. However, it does mean that it cannot be understood as a univocal term. When I say “I am a person” and “James is a person,” I’m using the term “person” univocally or in the same sense. This is usually contrasted with equivocal language, such as when I say “The bat flew through the night sky” and “I swung the bat at it.” I’m using the term “bat” equivocally or in different, unrelated senses. However, being cannot be described this way either, since a flying bat’s being and a baseball bat’s being, while different, are not unrelated either. The necessary middle ground between univocal and equivocal language is analogical language.
There are three ways to use analogical language. The first kind of analogical language is exemplified when I say “I have a healthy body” and “This wine is healthy.” In this case, we can say that term “healthy” used in these statements is an analogy of attribution. My body is the “primary analogate” because health exists intrinsically in it, and the wine is the “secondary analogate” since health is only attributed to it because it causes my body to be healthy when I consume it.
In an analogy of proper proportionality, by contrast, the shared term is intrinsic to the natures of the analogates. An example of this would be saying “plants have life” and “human beings have life.” The life of a plant is different from the life of a person, but one can justly say that life is an intrinsic part of what they are.
The final type of analogy is an analogy of improper proportionality, otherwise known as a metaphor. An example of this would be saying (of an animal in a zoo) “That is a lion” and (of a person) “John is a lion.” The term “lion” in both cases refers to some intrinsic characteristic of the zoo animal and John, but it exists only figuratively in John’s nature. John has some intrinsic quality (his courage, say) that leads us to call him a lion, but he is not a lion by nature in the same way both plants and human beings are both alive by their nature.
Being as a term is best applied to different existing things by an analogy of proper proportionality. Using being this way avoids the pitfalls of describing it univocally. We can apply being to every existing thing without positing being as a kind of genus. We must recognize, therefore, that when we apply the term “being” to gods and men, to actualities and potentials, to substances and their properties, it is applied to all the analogates in an indistinct and indeterminate way based on some similarity they bear to one another. In this case, things that have being are like each other in the fact that they exist or are present in some way.
What does this have to do with goodness and beauty? Well, the medieval Scholastics posited the existence of transcendentals, attributes common to all categories and individuals. The transcendentals they identified were being, thing, something, unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. Furthermore, they posited that these transcendentals were each a different way of saying the same thing. Being, goodness, and beauty are related to each other the same way “Clark Kent,” “Kal-El of Krypton,” and “Superman” are related to one another. To borrow a Fregean point, the transcendentals differ in sense while sharing the same reference.
We see this most clearly in the cases of thing and something. “Thing” means a being of some kind or another and “something” means either a particular being as opposed to another being or being as opposed to non-being or nothing. Unity is just an emphasis on the former sense of “something,” on the oneness of a particular being distinct from other beings. It is truth, goodness, and beauty that are the most difficult for a modern to understand. This essay will focus primarily on the nature of goodness and beauty, but first, let’s briefly examine the concept of “truth” to better understand how they all can be convertible with each other and being.
To understand how something like truth can be another word for “being,” it’s important to appreciate that the Scholastics operated under a correspondence theory of truth whereby truth was understood as “the equation of thing and intellect.” Modern language still uses this understanding of truth when we use “true” to mean “real” or “genuine.” As Edward Feser explains in chapter two of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide:
A thing is true to the extent that it conforms to the ideal defined by the essence of the kind it belongs to. Hence a triangle drawn sloppily on the cracked plastic seat of a moving school bus is not as true a triangle as one drawn slowly and carefully on paper with a Rapidograph pen and a ruler, for since its sides will be less straight it will less perfectly instantiate the essence of triangularity; a squirrel which due to injury or genetic defect has lost its tail or its desire to gather nuts for the winter is not as true a squirrel as one who still has its tail, its normal desires, and whatever other features flow from the essence of squirrels; and so forth. Now as we have seen, for Aquinas such essences, when considered as universals, exist only in the intellect; and following St. Augustine, Aquinas regards these universals as existing first and foremost in the divine intellect, as the archetypes according to which God creates the world (ST I.15.1). Thus, in a sense, “the word ‘true’ … expresses the conformity of a being to intellect” (QDV 1.1), whether a human intellect which grasps a universal, or (ultimately) the divine intellect in which the universal exists eternally. Hence something has being as the kind of thing it is precisely to the extent that it is a true instance of that kind, as defined by the universal essence existing in the intellect; and in that sense being is convertible with truth.
An important thing to note is that, since being is attributed to existing things by an analogy of proper proportionality, so too are all of the transcendentals: the truth, goodness, and beauty of things vary according to “the ideal defined by the essence of the kind” things belong to. Yet the truth of the well-drawn triangle is like the truth of the well-behaved squirrel, so we say that the truth of one is analogous to the truth of the other.
If truth is the “equation of thing and thought,” then goodness is a thing considered as suitable for desire. Goodness, like truth, has been traditionally thought of “in terms of conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence.” Take the above example of the triangle. The well-drawn triangle is a better triangle than the badly-drawn triangle, in the sense that the former is a better example of triangularity than the latter. The terms “good” and “bad” in this context are much broader than the purely moral senses of these terms yet still include them, as we’ll see later on.
That the well-drawn triangle is better than the badly-drawn triangle follows from the essence or nature of what a triangle is – a closed plane figure with three straight sides. The facts of triangularity (like the angles of a triangle always adding up to 180 degrees) are objective, not matters of opinion. It’d be silly then to argue that our judgment of the goodness of a given triangle based on these facts was only an expression of our personal preference. Furthermore, the comparison of the well-drawn triangle to the badly-drawn one also shows that one can be an instance of a kind without being a perfect instantiation of that kind’s essence; the badly-drawn triangle is bad or defective qua triangularity, but it is not a non-triangle.
The essence of a thing then implies a norm inherent to what the thing is – what Michael Thompson called “Aristotelian categoricals.” According to Thompson, animal species could only be described in the following way: S’s are F, where S refers to a species and F to something predicated of the species. A particular S that is not an F does not falsify S’s are F or show that this S is not an S at all. All it proves is that this S is a defective instance of an S.
To give an example, making sense of the proposition “Pines have green leaves year-round” requires treating having green leaves year-round as a norm. To translate “Pines have green leaves year-round” as “for everything that is a pine, it has leaves that are green year-round” would be wrong because there exist pines whose leaves change color because of some rare occasion or some defect. But neither is translating it as “there is at least one pine whose leaves stay green year-round” correct either because the statement is about pines in general.
Now, some of a thing’s natural norms involve a thing’s end or purpose, something traditional philosophers called the telos. As St. Thomas once put it, “every agent acts for an end.” Now, the Aristotelian idea of teleology is often mischaracterized as the belief that inanimate objects are conscious or somehow relate to the universe as a biological organ relates to the body. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the point is that anything that can bring about a certain effect must be directed toward the production of that effect as its telos. The phosphorus in a match “points to” or is “directed at” the generation of flame and heat rather than frost and cold, or the smell of lilacs, or a nuclear explosion. It is an objective fact that this effect will naturally come about when the match is struck unless it is prevented in some way.
Notice with the example of phosphorus that an agent can pursue its end without knowing it. Inorganic objects and plants pursue their ends only executively. In the words of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, they “obey finality only in the level of execution,” that is, without knowledge of it (p. 104). Nevertheless, the important difference between non-living beings and the simplest forms of life is that only living beings exhibit both immanent and transeunt causation while non-living beings only exhibit transeunt causation. In the non-living realm, causal processes result in effects external to the cause – the phosphorus producing flame and heat, for example. Living things, by contrast, can manifest causal processes that cannot be understood except as terminating within and perfecting the cause itself. One example is a plant’s taking in water, nutrients, and sunlight for photosynthesis since the process begins and ends within the plant and serves to fulfill or perfect it by allowing it to stay alive and grow.
The powers of a plant that characterize it – the powers of taking in nutrients, growing, and reproducing itself – are all examples of immanent activity. That is to say, these actions are taken by the plant to perfect the plant. Animals also perform these activities while also having the powers of sensation and locomotion as well as the sorts of appetites associated with these powers. Animals, unlike plants, know what is their end through sense experience. An animal can use its five senses to form an inner representation of the objects and locations around it (i.e., conscious experience). Its inner impulses (or appetites) cause the animal to initiate and sustain movement toward the objects of these representations according to the animal’s environment. This gives animals a much more complex life than plants, which affects the ends they seek.
Finally, humans, being a kind of animal, possess all the powers of non-human animals while adding to them the powers of intellect and will. The human intellect grasps abstract concepts and can reason based on them to attain truth. The will then acts on this abstract knowledge as a counterpart to animal appetite. Because the human intellect is embodied, it is dependent upon conscious experience to learn about the objects around it, like non-human animals. Thus, its knowledge will be limited by experience, much like the knowledge of animals. However, the human intellect is capable of obtaining much deeper knowledge than lower animals from the same amount of experience. This gives human action a moral character because we can understand the nature of things, including the nature of goodness itself, through grasping the nature of things and abstracting it as something held in common by many. While non-human animals can only learn of the things that are their end and act on an impulse to pursue them, humans can know finality itself and pursue their ends while knowing they are their ends. The subject of the human pursuit of goodness will be covered in a future essay on natural law. For now, I suggest you read Timothy Hsiao’s “In Defense of Eating Meat” if you want further elaboration of how moral goodness differs from goodness as such.
Notice here that the four kinds of things presented above – inorganic, plant, animal, and human – are ordered hierarchically. The higher kinds can perform all the functions of the lower kinds and more. The goodness of each thing differs in complexity, with inorganic beings being the simplest and human beings being the most complex. Despite this, the goodness of each type shares the same objectivity as the goodness of triangles since the definitions of “good” and “bad” in every case flow from the natures of these things. What makes a triangle good, a tree good, a squirrel good, and a human good will differ widely, yet the goodness of each is not unrelated either. The language of goodness is analogical. It’s objectively good for the tree to take in water through its roots, and it’s objectively good for the squirrel to store nuts for the winter. Given this, there must be things that are objectively good for the human as well, and it is upon this basis that all sound moral reasoning begins.
Now, let’s return to the beginning, wherein I defined goodness as “being considered as suitable for desire.” This is not to say that everything we want is good, but that the goodness of a thing causes us to want it. Everything from inanimate objects to humans has ends toward which they point and thus tend to be attracted to these ends. This means these ends are good by an analogy of attribution. This is most easily seen in living creatures, who seek their fulfillment or perfection, but even inanimate things tend to remain in existence and resist destruction. We can say then that even plants and inanimate objects, though they are incapable of consciousness, exhibit something analogous to a desire for some end or good because they have such tendencies. So, Aquinas is justified when he says that “all who rightly define good put in its notion something about its status as an end.” Therefore, we can arrive at a twofold understanding of goodness: the first concerns the intrinsic goodness of a thing. For example, a pine tree is good if it is as pine trees should be according to the norms inherent to its nature. The second understanding of goodness is extrinsic goodness attributed to the object that instills desire (or something analogous to it) into the agent, spurring it to action. Water, nutrients, and sunlight are examples of such extrinsic goods for pine trees because they cause pine trees to pursue them as their final cause.
This view of goodness depends heavily upon an essentialist and teleological view of nature that some moderns might find implausible. However, moderns are mistaken to reject such views out of hand. To deny the metaphysical picture of the Scholastics would be to deny common sense itself. Without teleology, there would be no reason why some efficient causes would tend to produce certain effects rather than others. In a world without teleology, no action would have a goal, and such aimless acts are no more pushing than pulling, no more assimilating than dissimilating, no more seeing than hearing, etc. Anti-essentialist views similarly fail, for why should we expect the divisions we discover between natural kinds to be dependent on human conventions? If essences were mere matters of human convention, then scientific explanations of anything would be impossible. Not to mention we’d have to explain these categories in terms of the human mind, whose own essence would depend on itself, making the mind a product of the mind. Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics are simply an elaboration of common sense rather than a contradiction of it.
Okay, so we’ve seen what goodness is from an ontological perspective, but what is beauty? Beauty is a bit more complicated than goodness and truth. Some Scholastics disregard it, claiming it to be some combination of truth and goodness and not a transcendental in its own right. I think this view, while understandable, is mistaken. St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Scholastics, clearly distinguishes beauty from goodness in his works, though he never articulates the qualities of beauty in concise question format as he does with other matters like truth or goodness. Rather, the Angelic Doctor integrates the concept of beauty into the body of his work in such a way as to make a question-and-rebuttal explanation of it redundant. At one point in the Summa Theologiae, when addressing those who conflate goodness and beauty, he says:
Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally; for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently goodness is praised as beauty. But they differ logically, for goodness properly relates to the appetite (goodness being what all things desire); and therefore it has the aspect of an end (the appetite being a kind of movement towards a thing). On the other hand, beauty relates to the cognitive faculty; for beautiful things are those which please when seen. Hence beauty consists in due proportion; for the senses delight in things duly proportioned, as in what is after their own kind—because even sense is a sort of reason, just as is every cognitive faculty. Now since knowledge is by assimilation, and similarity relates to form, beauty properly belongs to the nature of a formal cause.
Beauty is, then, that “which please when seen.” It’s important to note that “seen” here does not merely mean with the eyes but with the mind. What Aquinas means by “seen” in this context is an act of understanding. While good things please by being obtained, beautiful things please simply by being understood as beautiful. Because the human capacity to understand exceeds that of non-rational animals, so too does our ability to appreciate the things around us as they are. We have senses “not only for the purpose of procuring the necessaries of life, which they are bestowed on other animals, but also for the purpose of knowledge,” said the Angelic Doctor. While other animals “take delight in the objects of the senses only as ordered to food and sex,” humans, as rational animals, can take “pleasure in the beauty of sensible objects for its own sake.”
Similar to how goodness causes an agent to desire it, beauty causes an agent to delight in it when the agent apprehends, contemplates, and appreciates it. But what is it that makes a thing beautiful? And how do they relate to a thing’s being? Again, the Angelic Doctor has the answer. Upon reflection, whenever we call a thing “beautiful,” we generally point to three different aspects of the thing. The first is a thing’s integrity or wholeness, which conveys the perfection of a thing as it is. The second is proportion or harmony, which can be both quantitative (mathematical) and qualitative (agreement, analogy, or mutual reference; e.g., cause to effect, creator to created). The third is clarity or brightness, the illuminative quality of a thing. Each of these aspects is linked not only to the common understanding of beauty but to being itself.
The integrity of a thing is simple enough to understand. Generally speaking, things that are broken, compromised, or unfitting are not as beautiful as those things that are whole, perfected, and fitting. Returning to an earlier example, the well-drawn triangle is a more perfect triangle than the badly-drawn triangle and thus exhibits integrity that the latter doesn’t. The well-drawn triangle better approaches the perfection of the ideal represented by its nature or essence. The badly-drawn triangle lacks this perfection since it lacks some essential traits to being a triangle, such as straight sides.
Proportion is well-understood in the art world as well. Proportion concerns things like the ratio between the sizes of body parts, something very important for any artist or art critic. A well-proportioned body, for example, will have parts whose sizes relate to each other according to an exact ratio. If the ratio between the parts is too big or too small, the body appears deformed and ugly. This kind of proportion is that of a mathematical or quantitative kind. A lesser-known kind of proportion is qualitative, having to do with the real relationships that exist between things by their very nature, such as an effect related to a cause. In either case, proportion exhibits the order and unity within a given thing, as well as the order and unity it exhibits towards its end, so it too relates to the essence or nature of a thing. The well-drawn triangle would be proportioned such that e.g., a line parallel to one side of a triangle that intersects the other two sides would always divide those two sides proportionally.
Finally, there’s clarity or brightness. Our common experience tells us that we tend to call things with brighter colors “beautiful” more than things with dull palettes because they better grab our attention. Clarity is also found in how a work portrays its message – think of how we say a confused and garbled message is “unclear” and a message that we can understand comes through “loud and clear.” In each case, clarity is the ability of a thing to impress upon the mind its reality. The clarity of a thing illuminates the mind to the thing’s essence like a bright light illuminates objects of a dark room. For example, a well-drawn triangle conveys what a triangle should look like, so it has greater clarity than a badly-drawn triangle.
Beauty, then, is not in the eye of the beholder, but in these three aspects present together in the same object. Since all three are understood “in terms of conformity to the ideal represented by a thing’s nature or essence,” so too is beauty as a whole. Beauty is thus as objective as truth, goodness, and the like.
A problem might arise, then, for the Scholastic: if goodness and beauty are being, and the opposite of being is non-being or nothing, then wouldn’t badness and ugliness, being the opposites of goodness and beauty respectively, also be nothing? If so, then how could we say that anything was bad or ugly?
The traditional answer is to say that badness and ugliness are privation. Privation is a kind of absence, like how darkness is the absence of light or cold is the absence of heat. Specifically, it is the absence of something that should be present given the nature of the thing. For example, blindness would be a privation in a man (since an adult man can naturally see) but not in an embryo (since an embryo, though it may share the man’s human nature, would not naturally have the ability to see at that stage of development).
To see how this would work, let us look to the truth and its opposite, falsehood. Truth is the mind’s conformity to reality – being as it appears to the intellect. Falsehoods, by contrast, are not a thing in themselves but are instead a privation of truth, a lack of conformity to reality. A tall tale exists only as a story in the teller’s mind whereas a true story conforms to the reality of what has happened before. Because the latter is more real than the former, the latter is truer than the former. A pure falsehood does not exist because falsehood is the opposite of truth and truth is being.
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas regarded evil or badness as an absence of some good. To them, evil was not something with an essence of its own, but a defect in a thing. Take, for example, sin. The Bible defines sin as lawlessness (see 1 John 3:4), so to sin is to lack law. Now, given that humans need law and order to survive, we can (given Christian premises) say that sin is not a mere absence of a law, but an absence of law that (according to Christianity) man needs. This makes sin a privation. A privation is an example of badness here if the thing deprived is something the thing needs for the fulfillment of its end. Similarly, ugliness is a privation or lack of one or more of the three conditions necessary for beauty. Brokenness is a lack of integrity, incongruity is a lack of proportionality, dullness is a lack of clarity, and so on.
At first glance, it seems odd to speak of badness as if it weren’t real. In everyday language, we speak about how plants will die from a lack of water. If privations were pure absences, how could they cause a plant to die? This question, David S. Oderberg says, fails to see that good versus evil is not a case of real versus unreal but real versus conceptual. Evil is not real in the sense of being a thing in the world that causes things to happen because a mere absence cannot cause anything. The plant may be deprived of water, but this privation in itself is nothing real, nothing with any active or passive powers. The cause of the plant’s dying is a complex combination of a potential being – a plant’s need for some amount of water – and an actual being – some amount of water less than the amount the plant needs to survive. When we say that the plant’s death was caused by a lack of water, this is a mere turn of phrase.
Evil and ugliness are not real entities, but neither are they fictional or illusory. Rather, they are conceptual entities similar to what Aristotelians would call “pure universals.” According to Aristotle, we never come to meet a pure universal face-to-face – the essence of humanity qua essence does not walk around waiting to be discovered (think of Joseph de Maistre’s famous line that “there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world” (Considerations on France, Chapter 6)). Rather, one comes across humanity’s essence through particular men that happen to exist, and the intellect creates a pure universal as an abstraction based on reality. Similarly, evil and ugliness are the abstractions of positive states of need.
However, there’s a key difference between universals and conceptual entities like falsehood, badness, and ugliness. The pure universal may be no more real than any other thought, but it is identical to the universal instantiated in the forms of real entities. The foundation of the mind’s idea of a plant or a man is firmly rooted in the real instances of plants and men. This gives the universal a double existence – both in the mind and in reality. By contrast, the foundation for evil and ugliness is less direct, for there is not some real thing that instantiates evil or ugliness. Rather, they supervene upon the positive states I described earlier – states characterized by a combination of a norm and an insufficient amount of something necessary to following said norm.
In summary, goodness and beauty are objective, mind-independent attributes dependent on the natures of things. They are best understood as analogous terms, relative to each thing according to its kind while not being entirely unrelated to each other. Because they are so grounded in the natures of things, they are no less subjective than those very natures. This is why human flourishing – the goodness of a human being according to his nature – is not reducible to a matter of mere preference. The preferences themselves presuppose human nature having some telos toward the objects that constitute human flourishing.
Next time, I wish to focus on morality and human flourishing. I know I must have kept Tom waiting for this essay, and I apologize for that. I’ll get the next essay in this series done quicker; I promise. Until then, he’s free to DM me if he wants to have a conversation on my YouTube channel about it.
Thank you for the helpful response. I realized after posting this that St. Thomas refers to res as a transcendental in his disputed questions on truth.
Re James Nights: Because goodness, truth, and beauty are convertible with being, it is helpful to consider how they differ in thought. Truth is being as apprehended by the intellect. Goodness is being as desirable to the will. Beauty is being considered according to its proportion and causing delight or appreciation of the proportion. The transcendentals of beauty, truth, and goodness are are being as they relate to the human faculties which apprehend them.