In Peter Geach’s paper “Good and Evil” Geach draws a distinction between attributive adjectives and predicative adjectives. An adjective A, as in the phrase “is an A B,” is predicative just in case the phrase can be broken down into “is a B” and “is A.” Otherwise A is attributive. For instance, “This is a sweet pastry” can be broken down into “This is a pastry” and “This is sweet.” So “sweet” is a predicative adjective. On the other hand “This is a small elephant” cannot be broken down into “This is an elephant” and “This is small,” so “small” is an attributive adjective.
Geach wants to argue for the thesis that “’good’ and ‘bad’ are always attributive, not predicative, adjectives.” I would like to bring up three intelligible, legitimate uses of the word “good” that are not obviously attributive, and suggest that they may provide counter-examples to Geach’s thesis. The first is what I will call “comparative goodness.” The second is what I will call “relative goodness.” The third is what I will call “global goodness.”
In the first case, consider the claim that it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Or consider the claim that God is the greatest conceivable being and its apparent implication that it is even better than being a dissatisfied Socrates to be God. Both of these claims seem, on the face of it, intelligible. They may be open to dispute, but if they are open to dispute then that presupposes they are intelligible.
Now, ‘better’ and ‘greater’ are not, by themselves, the same word as ‘good’. But these claims presuppose that there is some scale of being according to which a satisfied pig is somewhere below dissatisfied Socrates, dissatisfied Socrates is presumably below satisfied Socrates, and satisfied Socrates is somewhere below God. Now, if we suppose, just for argument’s sake, that the satisfied pig is at the very bottom of the spectrum, and that God is at the very top, it seems intelligible to say that being satisfied Socrates – this being somewhere in the middle – is good. This is what I have called the “comparative sense” of goodness. But in this sentence, “Being satisfied Socrates is good,” there is not even another adjective for “good” to modify. Hence, this appears to be a case where “good” is used in a predicative sense.
The second case, which I have called “relative goodness,” is the type of goodness we have when something is good for something else. It is what we express by saying “X is good for Y.” For example, “This spaghetti is good for me,” or “my dog Paco is good for me.” It is interesting to note that both of these sentences might be true even if this spaghetti is neither good food nor good spaghetti and even if Paco is not a good dog. This spaghetti might be terribly undercooked. It might be incredibly cheap. But the relief it gives me may be enough to make it good for me. And Paco may be a crooked, maimed, and disobedient beast – hardly a good dog – but the licking he gives me at the end of the day makes him good for me still.
So things that are good in this sense can’t be likened to cases where I eat spaghetti and say “Oh, this is good!” In that case the adjective that “good” is supposed to modify is implicit (e.g., “Oh, this is good [spaghetti]!”). Whereas here it is not clear at all what the implicitly modified adjective would be; nor would it be clear what the meaning of such a construction might be (what does it mean to say “This spaghetti is good [spaghetti] for me”?); and as we’ve just shown, it is false that, in general, the F that is good for me is a good F (the spaghetti that is good for me need not be good spaghetti). So it doesn’t seem that “good” modifies any adjective in this case; so relative goodness seems predicative.
The third case is what I call “global goodness.” This is the type of goodness we attribute to whole facts or propositions. For instance: “It is good that God created the universe,” or “It is bad that animals suffer needlessly in factory farms.” Of course, these constructions could be turned into subject-predicate form too (that-p is good), in which case it will be clear that global goodness is prima facie predicative. Note that these are not just roundabout ways of saying “It is morally bad;” for even if nobody were responsible for the suffering of beasts – say, if they were harmed by some natural disaster – it would still be bad that they suffered (an objective tragedy, if you will).
But in these cases, it is not clear what the implicit adjective would be that “good” is supposed to modify. Should we say that-p is a bad proposition? This doesn’t seem to make much sense. Or that it is a bad state of affairs? This doesn’t seem to make much sense either: It’s not clear what counts as a good state of affairs or a bad one. States of affairs just are what they are. (If a state of affairs consists of an object having a property, as some philosophers say, then is a good state of affairs one where the object really has the property? Or maybe it must have the property well?). Besides, even if one did not believe there were states of affairs at all (an open question in metaphysics), one could still affirm that it is bad that animals needlessly suffer. This isn’t the case with genuinely attributive uses of “good,” since one cannot consistently believe “he is a good robber” and at the same time believe there are no robbers. Hence, this cannot be an attributive use of goodness. So this sense of “goodness,” global goodness, seems to be predicative: We can say, in a seemingly intelligible manner, “It is good that-p” or “that-p is good,” good simpliciter.