The Fundamental Value Universal

Albert P. Brogan

IN the history of ethics and of the theory of value it has usually been assumed that good or goodness is the fundamental value category. Occasionally right or ought has been taken as fundamental. The object of this paper is to prove that the relation "better" is a sufficient fundamental universal for the theory of value and that it is the only value universal which can be taken as fundamental. In other words, all value facts are facts about betterness.

Our problem must be dealt with by definition and analysis. We wish to prove that whenever we think or speak about any value characteristic, we are at bottom dealing with the relation better. To prove this, we must construct a system in which betterness is taken as the starting point; this means that betterness will be undefined in this system. Then all other value terms must be defined by means of "better" and of such general terms as are common to all systems. No attention will be given to the question whether betterness can be defined in non-value terms. That is a subsequent problem.

The importance attached to such a system of definitions will depend upon the importance attached to the value experiences and beliefs of human ,beings. But it should be obvious that the importance of value experiences and beliefs can hardly be settled until after an accurate analysis of value has been made. Moreover this is not the place to answer those who dislike any accurate analysis.


Although we are not concerned to define "better" in any non-value terms, yet we must distinguish different meanings of the term and point out the sense intended. There are at least three different uses of "better," but only the first use given below is important for our present discussion. (1)In comparing two entities, say A and B, we may consider A alone and B alone, and so judge that A is intrinsically better than B. Here the effects or consequences of A and of B have been temporarily disregarded. (2) We may compare the effects of A and the effects of B. Then A may be called extrinsically better than B, because its effects are intrinsically better. (3) We may compare the totality of A and its effects with the totality of B and its effects. Then we may say that A is completely better than B, because the one totality is intrinsically better than the other.

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It has been necessary to distinguish these different meanings of betterness only in order to fasten attention on the first use as intrinsic betterness. The other uses are obviously indirect ways of dealing with intrinsic betterness and are definable by it. So when the word "better" is used by itself, it is to be understood as meaning intrinsic betterness. As most of the other general value terms have the same plurality of meaning, their use without qualification will denote their "intrinsic" meaning. All of these distinctions may seem obvious, but the neglect of them vitiates a large amount of recent discussion on the theory of value.


The term "worse" is defined as the logical converse of better. "A is worse than B" means "B is better than A." Every two-term relation has a logical converse, and it is plain that worse is the converse of better. Some will object here that in comparing two good things, we speak of A being better than B rather than of B being worse than A. So when dealing with two bad things we use worse rather than better for the comparison. The explanation of these verbal usages may be interesting, but it could hardly be thought that they denote any important differences in the values. Worse is the converse of better, and any verbal idiosyncrasies must be disregarded. If this is true, it may be suggested, then worse could have been taken as the fundamental value term instead of better. This is quite true. Such a plan would involve no objective difference from our present plan. But as human beings dislike to look on the dark side, it is more convenient to start with better as fundamental.

Value equality is to be defined by the negation of both better and worse. "A is equal in value to B" means "A is not better than B, and A is not worse than B." Here it is presupposed that both A and B are in the value scale, that is, that each is better or worse than something. We would not wish to say that two things outside of the value scale are equal in value.

The terms "best" and "worst" have meaning only when they are limited in their application. There is no reason to suppose that there is an absolute worst or an absolute best.[1] "A is the best member of class X" means "A is better than every other member of class X." "A is the worst member of class X" means "every other member of class X is better than A."

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The definitions given above are simple and obvious. The important definitions are those of goodness and. badness. Here we must distinguish intrinsic goodness or badness not only from extrinsic goodness or badness, but also from "moral" goodness or badness. Moral goodness or badness applies only to voluntary or intentional conduct, but many things besides this may be judged intrinsically good or had. Our question then is, can intrinsic goodness and badness be defined by betterness? The following definitions are attempts to do so.

In discussing the definitions of good and bad we must notice that these qualities, like all intrinsic value universals, apply only to "facts." This has been observed by many writers, so a detailed discussion of it may be omitted here.[2] What is good or bad is a fact, and a fact is whatever can be denoted by a complete judgment. We may symbolize these facts by such expressions as "that so-and-so is the case," "that so-and-so exists (or does not exist)," or "the existence (or the non-existence) of so-and-so."

Another consideration to be noted is that good or bad facts are always positive or existential. This is because all of the negative or non-existential facts in the value scale are indifferent or neither good nor bad. The proof of this statement will require separate discussion. Here it is asserted merely in order to explain the following definitions :

"A is good" means "the existence of A is good" or "that A exists is good." Now this is to be defined as meaning "the existence of A is better than the non-existence of A," or "that A exists is better than that A does not exist."

"A is bad" means "the existence of A is bad" or "that A exists is bad." This is to be defined as meaning "the non-existence of A is better than the existence of A" or "that A does not exist is better than that A does exist." By the use of worse the definition will be "the existence of A is worse than the non-existence of A."

It should be noticed that these definitions treat goodness and badness as being complex, relational characteristics. Goodness and badness are not simple qualities. This relational complexity may seem strange at first thought, but reflection will show that the equivalences stated in these definitions are correct. There may be other ways of stating the same facts, but the method used here is sufficient for present purposes.

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These definitions of good and bad contradict the letter of Mr. G. B. Moore's assertion that good is indefinable.[3] They do not necessarily contradict the spirit of his doctrine which is that the fundamental value term is not definable by any non-value term. Betterness may or may not be definable or analyzable, but goodness and badness are certainly definable by betterness.

Do these definitions give an answer to the world-old problem as to the relation between good and bad? Where better occurs in the definition of good, there worse occurs in the definition of bad. So good and bad are converses in the precise sense of the modern logic of relations. Neither good nor bad depends on the other,. but both good and bad depend on better.


With the term "indifferent" we must distinguish two usages. It always applies to what can not be called either good or bad. But this is ambiguous. "Indifferent" is sometimes applied to what is not on the value scale at all. This usage is unimportant here. In the other sense "indifferent" is applied to what is on the value scale but is neither good nor bad. In this sense "A is indifferent" means "the existence (or the non-existence) of A is indifferent" or "that A exists (or does not exist) is indifferent." Here we must give separate definitions. "The existence of A is indifferent" or "that A exists is indifferent" means "the existence of A is better or worse than something, but is neither better nor worse than the non-existence of A." Or we may use the notion of value equality already defined, and say that "the existence of A is indifferent" means "the existence of A is equal in value to the non-existence of A."

Since all negative facts which are on the value scale are equal in value,[4] we may define indifference for them by the symmetrical transitive relation of being all "equal in value." "The non-existence of A is indifferent" means simply "the non-existence of A is equal in value to the non-existence of anything."

The phrase "as good as" obviously means "not worse than," though it is usually assumed that both of the objects compared are good. "As bad as" means "not better than," though here it is assumed that both objects are bad. Such phrases as "very good"

( 100) or "very bad" are usually rather vague in assuming a somewhat indefinite standard with reference to which something is "as good as" or "as bad as."

There are many vague value terms, such as natural, reasonable, and ideal, which hardly call for discussion here. But the term "value"and similar terms may be explained.

"Value" as a noun may refer either to a universal or to that of which the universal is predicated. It is clearest to use "value" merely to denote a universal. Then "value" means goodness or badness or indifference. In the ultimate analysis, value means betterness. A value universal is a universal determined by betterness. A value symbol or a value term is a symbol or term which refers to a value universal.

A "value object" or a "value relatum" is whatever is better or worse than anything.[5] To have value or to be "a value" is to be better or worse than anything. To be on the value scale means to be better or worse than anything. To have positive value means to be good, and to have negative value means to be bad.

A "value fact" is a fact which has betterness or something de-pending on betterness as one of its main relations. A "value judgment" is a judgment asserting a value fact. Similar definitions may be given to "valuations" and "value feelings."

It has now been shown that all of the above general value terms can be defined by betterness. It remains to ask whether any other system of definition is possible. As we have admitted, worse could be used as fundamental, but this would involve no objective difference in the resulting system. It must be repeated also that we are not now raising the question whether betterness itself can be defined by any non-value term. The problem is whether or not betterness must be accepted as the unique fundamental value category.


Can anything other than betterness be taken as the fundamental value term' Only a careless thinker would take extrinsic value as fundamental, so we may confine our attention to the intrinsic value terms. Among these terms most writers have taken as fundamental either good alone or good and bad together. It can be shown that these are impassible theories.

If goodness alone is taken as fundamental, neither bad nor bet-ter can be defined by it. Bad is obviously not the contradictory of good. To say that bad is the opposite, contrary, or converse of good,

( 101) has no dear meaning unless we introduce the meaning of converse used in the logic of relations. But this would clearly be dealing with the relation better. In the next place, good alone can not be defined by better. Better means more than "more good," and even "more good" is a relational characteristic which goes beyond the mere quality that good might seem to be. At the very least, "more good" presupposes that goodness has degrees, and this means that we are dealing with a relation. This relation is clearly betterness.

If we assume both good and bad as fundamental, we shall have just as much difficulty. In the first place, what is the relation of good and bad? It is surely necessary to explain their relation, but it is to be feared that this is impossible on the present assumption. Certainly no one has ever done it. In the second place, even the use of both good and bad can not define better. One might say "A is better than B"means " (1) A is good and B is indifferent, or (2)

A is good and B is bad, or (3) A is indifferent and B is bad." But this would still leave out the cases where A and B might both be good or might both be bad. To say that betterness is "more goodness" or "less badness" would obviously be to bring betterness into the system by a verbal disguise. To speak of degrees of goodness or of badness is to speak of betterness. To say that better is the relation that holds between the union of two goods and one of them alone, would be an objectionable disregard of Mr. G. E. Moore's principle of organic unities, It does not follow that because A and B separately have a certain quality (such as good is supposed to be) , therefore the union of both will have "more" of that quality than either one alone has.

If one said that good, bad, and better are all fundamental and primitive value terms, one would have two difficulties. In the first place, there are many universal relations between these terms. For instance, take the very simple fact that the existence of a good is better than the existence of a bad. If good and bad are defined by better, this fact can be given a simple and easy explanation. But how could this fact he explained if good and bad and better are all taken as ultimates? It would have to be left as peculiar and inexplicable. So it would be with many similar facts. Only the assumption of betterness as the fundamental term can bring order into the theory of value. In the second place, it is objectionable to assume more fundamentals than necessary. The assumption of better as fundamental can account for all of the facts; therefore no additional assumptions should be made.

Is it not plain now that among the general value terms better is a sufficient fundamental term and that better is the only sufficient fundamental term?

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In addition to the general value terms with which we have been dealing, there are what may be called limited value terms. These are such terms as "duty" and "ought" which apply only to a certain kind of conduct. A limitation or restriction upon the use of these terms is implied in their very meaning. Of these terms the two most important kinds are the ethical and the esthetic value terms. We need not here consider the other kinds of limited value terms, such as legal or economic terms, because these values are generally admitted to be dependent upon the general value terms or upon the ethical value terms. So far as I know, no one has ever treated any of these other limited value terms as fundamental for the entire theory of value.

Our treatment of the ethical and esthetic value terms will be short and elementary. It will be sufficient for our present purposes to show that these terms depend upon the more general terms al-ready discussed, and that they are too limited in their application to be considered as fundamental terms for the entire value system.

For ethical value terms the most nearly correct definitions have been given by G. E. Moore, H. Rashdall, B. Russell, and C. D. Broad.[6] These terms, such as right and wrong, ought and duty, are complex in their definitions and they have different shades of meaning. But all of them are determined in the final analysis by intrinsic betterness. The following proposition indicates in an unquestionable way the connection between betterness. and one use of a moral value term : "It is always wrong knowingly to make the universe as a whole intrinsically worse than it otherwise might be." What-ever difficulties there may be about special points, there can be no serious doubt that right and wrong are determined by the total value of the universe of which the given action is a part. This total value is intrinsic value, which has been shown to be betterness. So right and wrong are determined by better and worse.

Moreover right and wrong apply only to what can be affected by our choice or intention. The same thing is true of all of the moral value terms. This point has been stated so admirably by Bertrand Russell that I shall not linger on it.[7] So moral value is too limited in application to be taken as a fundamental term in place of betterness.

It should be noticed that ethical value depends on betterness, not on goodness or badness.

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It is probable that entirely satisfactory definitions have never been given-to esthetic value terms. But the more plausible definitions treat beauty as depending upon intrinsic goodness. Thus Mr. G. E. Moore says: "The beautiful should be defined as that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself."[8] I doubt if this is quite satisfactory as a final definition, but it is certainly correct as far as it goes. Nothing can be beautiful if the admiring contemplation of it would not be intrinsically good. So beauty depends in part at least upon intrinsic goodness. Therefore beauty depends in part upon intrinsic betterness.

Not only is betterness involved m the definitions of esthetic value terms, but these terms have other dualities which make it impossible that esthetic value could be more fundamental than betterness. Esthetic value is obviously limited to objects of admiring contemplation. But there is no reason for limiting all intrinsic value in this way. Moreover esthetic value seems. to many people to be more subjective than other values. Finally esthetic value does not have the same clear comparison which is involved in better and in right. For these reasons we may conclude that esthetic value can hardly be taken as the fundamental value category.


We have now gone over all of the general value terms carefully. Betterness was shown to be the fundamental term among these.[9] Then a short examination showed that ethical and esthetic value terms depend upon the general value terms which in turn depend upon betterness. So all value facts are constituted by betterness. All value judgments are judgments about the relation better. Value is betterness.

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The conclusions given above have been reached by an attempt at logical analysis of value concepts. Perhaps this method by itself has given sufficient proof. Additional proofs can be given later by showing that the present hypothesis is more fruitful than other hypotheses, both in introducing order and system into the general science of value and also in furnishing a tool for the inductive study of human value judgments and value facts.



  1. This should be evident to any student of the logic of relations. I hope to discuss it in a separate article on the highest good.
  2. In addition to the works of Meinong and his school, see G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, London, 1903, p. 120.
  3. G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, Ch. 1.
  4. This assertion will be proved at length in a future article. Here the reader is asked to see if be ever judges as intrinsically good or had what is a negative fact or a fact about non-existence (such as et does not like B, no one likes B.) These facts may be extrinsically but not intrinsically goad or bad.
  5. The complete analysis of value relata will require a separate article.
  6. C. D. Broad, "The Doctrine of Consequences in Ethics," International Journal of Ethics, April, 1914.
  7. B. Russell, Philosophical Essays, p. 6.
  8. G. R Moore, Principia Ethica, 1-101.
  9. So far as I know the main contention of this paper is new. It was suggested by a synthesis of modern theories of value with the new logic of relations. Such a system would have been impossible before the development of the logic of relations. Yet as every theory has hints which precede it, I give a few references. In none of these is the relational analysis present in an adequate manner. Aristotle, pp. 1008, b26, 731-732; R. Price, Review of the Principle Questions and Difficulties in Morals (London, 1758), pp. 79, 112-114, 119-121; G. Santayana, Life of Reason (New York, 1906), Vol. 1, p. 46; H. Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil(London, 1907), Vol. 2, p. 351 ; G. E. Moore, Ethics(London, 1912), pp. 162-163; T. Lessing, Studien, zur Wertaxiomatik (Leipzig, 1914) , p. 21. (This last work is an astonishing example of that beclouded thinking which in former years would have won world-wide fame among scholars.) The entire theory of which the present paper is merely one part was outlined before the American Philosophical Association in December, 1914. See this Journal, Vol. XII, pp. 105-106. For more recent discussions see W. M. Urban, this JOURNAL, Vol. XIII., pp. 677-683.

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