- The Aims of Intensity and Agreement: A Response to Robert C. Neville’s Metaphysics of Goodness
in the context of neville’s other work, the first thing to say about this book is that its main topic, the metaphysics of goodness, carries forward one of the major themes of his entire philosophical corpus, starting with his first article “Man’s Ends,” published in 1962. Together with his ontological theory of creation ex nihilo, Neville’s axiological-relational metaphysics—his metaphysics of harmony—is what most distinguishes his thought and unifies it as a system. Moreover, for Neville, axiology and ontology are integrally related topics. My focus here, however, will be on his axiology.
Within the context of modern thought, Neville’s insistence on the reality of goodness is enough to mark him as an outlier, but that’s just a start. Whereas many other modern realists attempt to save the reality of goodness by separating it from the natural world, Neville is just as insistent about the naturalness of goodness. But here again he is different: whereas most naturalistic theories try to find a special place within nature for goodness (or rather, for value), Neville makes goodness into a “transcendental feature” (Metaphysics 7–8), in the medieval scholastic sense, of all things actual and possible. For Neville, goodness coincides with determinateness, and the goodness of every single thing coincides with the fullness of its determinate nature, which, in his system, is a very complex kind of relational nature.
This view of goodness is disorienting for those who are accustomed to thinking about goodness as a contrasting term. Strictly speaking, there is no inherent badness in Neville’s universe, although he is ready to account for our many experiences and judgments of badness and evil. Neville’s axiology does not support a Pollyannaish view of the world. Still, it is hard to get your head around the thesis that all things are good simply by being just what they are: phrased this way, it sounds like Mister Rogers on steroids. Maybe every person is good, but every thing? For instance, is a dangerous and highly [End Page 8] contagious disease a good thing? Yes, Neville would say, though not for its victims.
To alleviate some of this disorientation, I want to make two quick clarifications with respect to how this thesis about the goodness of all things relates to experience. First, although the thesis is not something we can easily test against experience, it is supposed to be testable (see Neville, ch. 1 of Metaphysics: “Goodness in Experience¨). However, experience of the goodness of reality in the fullest and deepest sense might be available only in experiences that involve a contrast of being with nothingness. According to Neville, such experiences are essential to religion, but may not be widely available outside of the religious cultures that have developed sign systems for this purpose (see Neville, Defining Religion). I will not discuss this religious side of Neville’s axiology any further, but it has to be mentioned as a critical dimension of experience through which some of his most important claims are supposed be tested.
Secondly, there is an important respect in which Neville’s thesis accords with experience in general, although in a rather subtle way that usually escapes our notice: although it does not seem this way, there is no special sphere or feature or quality of experience that corresponds to goodness. This is not to deny that some things feel good while others feel bad. But closer inspection reveals that all discriminations of goodness are not based in any special quality. The absence of any special quality of goodness is an important feature of experience that deserves further consideration, but for now I simply want to point out its compatibility with Neville’s thesis that goodness coincides with determinateness. Many theories of goodness, both realist and subjectivist, presume that it corresponds to a distinct feature or quality within experience. Neville’s theory does not have this problem.
Now, I move on to the main part of my response, which situates Neville’s theory of goodness in relation to the views of his most important influences, especially...