- The Metaphysics of Relative Goodness: Or, Recovery of the Axiological Measure
one of the challenges of commenting on this book is deciding what to say in praise of it. This is, after all, the ritual we typically follow in reviewing new books, especially when the author is present. And I want to be clear: there is a lot to praise in this book; it is written with great precision and subtlety and yet is one of the more broadly accessible of Neville’s academic texts. He brings together philosophical peers as diverse as Plato, Confucius, Leibniz, and Whitehead with an apparent ease and with thought-provoking results. And his critical engagement with Whitehead is arguably the best it has ever been, Creativity and God notwithstanding. But these aren’t the things I want to focus on in this paper.
For me, the most noteworthy feature of Metaphysics of Goodness has been the productive challenge I have had in wrestling with it. There is something about this book that I find problematic, but the process of trying to frame that problem has been plagued by having misunderstandings resolved, objections responded to, and concerns addressed throughout the course of reading it. These are all good things, of course, and precisely what a good argument should do. I will not rehearse the many turns that struggle has taken; the book can address those for itself. What I present here is the remains of my disagreement, which I believe is sufficient to merit serious consideration.
My argument is that Metaphysics of Goodness has a conflicted relationship with the problem of evil, and that its inability to resolve this leads to an inconsistent treatment of the issue. On the one hand, it is clear—as much from the title as from the book’s content—that his metaphysics takes goodness as a basic characteristic, and that there will necessarily be an asymmetry between goodness and evil. On the other hand, evil remains a significant problem, insofar as it compromises the achievement of goodness in most if not all respects. Although both good and evil are acknowledged and accounted for in great subtlety and eloquence in the text, they are never really squared [End Page 27] with one another, and as a result, evil ultimately fades from metaphysical relevance. Effectively, Neville wants to have his cake and evil, too, but in this book, goodness gets both the first and final word.
To make this case, I will first provide a brief outline of Neville’s position as laid out in the text at hand. Because my concerns pertain to the basic framing for goodness in its relation to evil, I will focus on Part I of the book, which addresses “Goodness in Harmony and Form.” Because Neville has taken great pains in the book to respond to potential critiques regarding the problem of evil, I will review his responses to show that they do not address the critique I am making. Following this, I will articulate the problem with the relationship between goodness and evil as it is described in the book, which I argue only provides a proximal account of evil. However, because I agree with most of the basic commitments laid out in the book—including the asymmetry between goodness and evil—I will suggest an alternate rendering of that relationship, drawn from materials laid out in the book, that can provide a more substantive account of evil. That account, I will argue, is best understood as a metaphysics of relative goodness, distinguished by the unrelenting relevance of evil.
The most basic claim of this book is that “anything with form has goodness by virtue of that form” (Neville, Metaphysics 3). While Neville provides an array of arguments to support this claim, the most prominent one is experiential: as he puts it, “we experience everything as having some good or other” (Metaphysics 3). Indeed, the entire book can be understood as an attempt to provide a metaphysical account that makes sense of this feature of experience. To develop this account of goodness as form, Neville draws on Leibniz’s account of goodness whereby the relative goodness of things is determined by the...