Goodness is Reducible to Betterness the Evil of Death is the Value of Life

In Peter Koslowski Yuichi Shionoya (ed.), The Good and the Economical: Ethical Choices in Economics and Management. Springer Verlag. pp. 70–84 (1993)
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Abstract
Most properties have comparatives, which are relations. For instance, the property of width has the comparative relation denoted by `_ is wider than _'. Let us say a property is reducible to its comparative if any statement that refers to the property has the same meaning as another statement that refers to the comparative instead. Width is not reducible to its comparative. To be sure, many statements that refer to width are reducible: for instance, `The Mississippi is wide' means the same as `The Mississippi is wider than most rivers'. But some statements that refer to width are not reducible: for instance, `Electrons have zero width' is not. A property is not reducible to its comparative if it has absolute degrees, and specifically an absolute zero. A property's comparative relation places things in an order from those that have the property least to those that have it most. If there is an absolute zero point somewhere in this ordering, the property is not reducible to its comparative. For width, there is an absolute zero at one end of the ordering, so width is not reducible. The property of goodness is reducible to its comparative, betterness. In particular, there is no absolute zero of goodness. Things are ordered by betterness – some things are better than others – but nothing is absolutely good or absolutely bad. This is an exaggeration. In certain applications, goodness does have absolute degrees of a sort, and an absolute zero. For instance, it makes sense to say an event is good, and another event bad. These are absolute degrees of a sort, but they are themselves reducible to betterness. To say an event is good simply means the event is better than what would otherwise have happened. The goodness of lives has a different sort of absolute zero. Lives are ordered by betterness; some lives are better than others. We can make sense of the question `Where in this ordering is the division between lives that are good and those that are bad?' The division between good and bad lives is again reducible to betterness. To say a person's life is good means it is better that the person should continue living, rather than that she should die. Or it may mean it is better that her life should be lived rather than that it should never have been lived at all. As it is often put: a good life is a life worth living. Derek Parfit appears to attach a different sense to the idea of a good life. He appears to mean a life that contains a preponderance of good things (such as pleasure) over bad things (such as pain). If a life contains no good things and no bad things, it has zero goodness in this sense. In this sense, absolute goodness and the absolute zero of goodness are not reducible to betterness. However, this is a naturalistic sense of goodness, and it is subject to the open-question objection. If a life contains no good things and no bad things, it is an open question whether it has zero goodness. It might, for instance, be a bad thing that this life should be lived. In discussing the evil of death, some philosophers seem to have been searching for an absolute goodness that is not reducible to betterness. Thomas Nagel speaks of an asymmetry between what is good about life and what is bad about death. But if a person's life is good, that only means it would be better that she should continue living than that she should die. And if a person's death would be bad, that only means it would be worse that she should die than that she should continue living. So there can be no asymmetry.
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