Philosophical accounts of "the good" are, broadly speaking, accounts of what it is to be an object of value —especially of moral value. A systematic study of these accounts is aided by such distinctions as the following.
Moral versus Nonmoral Good
There is an important difference between "moral" and other types of value (e.g., aesthetic, economic, or informational). One might say, broadly, that the nonmoral good is what we find "attractive," what is apt to serve as enjoyment; whereas the moral good is that which pertains more narrowly to moral virtue or moral rules. Hence at the very beginning of his Foundation of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) distinguishes "the good will" (the will that acts on the basis of the moral law) as what possesses the highest moral value. In comparison, all other things—even such good qualities as courage and intelligence—have, in Kant's doctrine, at best a kind of relative moral goodness: they are morally good only insofar as they are guided by a good will.
Intrinsic and Merely Instrumental Good
Another important difference, first clearly enunciated by Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), is that between what is "intrinsically good" (good in itself) and what is "instrumentally good" (good as a means to some other end). So, for instance, from the perspective of philosophical utilitarianism (the views, most prominently, of the nineteenth-century British thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), pleasure is the sole (intrinsic) good; other things, including money, health, and even such "virtues" as philosophers have traditionally recognized (honesty, generosity, integrity) are good merely as means to that end. By contrast, for Aristotle himself, the virtues would be both means to what he regards as the supreme end (eudaimonia —i.e., "happiness" or "well-being") but also part of that supreme good and thus, to that extent, ends in themselves.
Some have questioned, however (see Korsgaard), whether there might not be two differences here: good as a means versus good as an end; "intrinsic" versus "extrinsic" good. The difference between each pair is perhaps clearest in such cases as this. Someone might hold that the good of a beautiful sunset is "extrinsic," that it is grounded in something outside itself—say, human modes of perception and aesthetic response—but still resist holding that this sunset is good merely as a means to something else—for example, the enjoyment of those happening to see it.
Teleological versus Consequentialist Views of the Good
There are actually two major, competing, nondeontological traditions of the good. One, running from Aristotle to the pragmatic naturalism of American philosophers such as John Dewey (1859–1952) and Ralph Barton Perry (1876–1957) in the first half of the twentieth century, is "teleological"—that is, it construes the good in terms of the fulfillment of such ends as are natural or proper to a creature. Thus the good is conceived as internal or immanent. By contrast, the consequentialist holds that the good is some quantity to be maximized (produced in or by our acts). Against the teleological conception, the consequentialist may object that teleology stands in need of some standard of value (like that provided by utilitarianism) to distinguish between good and bad tendencies in us. Against consequentialism, the teleologist may object that a merely external standard (such as utilitarianism offers) need not provide a compelling reason or motive of action.
Subjective versus Objective Accounts
Another pervasive difference would involve "subjective" versus "objective" conceptions of the good. At its crudest, a subjective view would simply identify the good for a given person as what that person "prefers" or "desires." This appears to be the working conception of "the good" employed in economic theory. A number of views, especially in the empiricist tradition, tend toward this conception. For the "positivist" school, because value judgments are not scientifically verifiable, they can amount to no more than expressions of what one likes or desires. For an important strain in eighteenth-century British thought (the Scots Adam Smith and David Hume being perhaps its most important representatives), the good is understood in terms of one's preferences under ideal (e.g., personally disinterested, emotionally calm) circumstances.
At the other extreme, views in the tradition of Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 b.c.e.) construe "the good" as a kind of object of abstract contemplation. This object, then, is not constituted by our preferences or desires; it exists as an objective feature of the universe—according to Plato's analogy in the Republic, like the sun shedding light on all other things.
There is a related point of difference between subjective and objective views. In the former, the good is fundamentally an object of noncognitive attitudes such as desire or will. If, however, the good is conceived as an object existing independently of the human mind, it is natural to construe it as primarily an object of knowledge. Critics of the objective view—most prominently Hume—claim that it cannot account for the "action-guiding" nature of values and moral discourse generally. Mere contemplation of an object does not necessarily affect one's desires and will; but recognition that something is good surely does have this effect. For their part, defenders of an objective view have often replied that a subjective conception cannot account for genuine moral disagreement. They point out that a subjective account of a moral disagreement (in which person A says "x is good" while B says that "x is not good") will imply that it is merely a case of A saying "I desire x " and B saying "I don't desire x "—which is no real disagreement.
Aristotle, Platonism, and Christianity
We may notice how Aristotle's conception of the good partakes of both elements of this dichotomy between objective and subject conceptions. For Aristotle, the good is identified in the first instance as what one "aims at" in any given activity—in a word, "the end" (telos ) of that activity. Thus the end of running might be health or winning races. Ultimately, though, we arrive at the aforementioned "happiness" (eudaimonia ) as the final good (end) for human beings. This end, however, is not a mere subjective preference. It depends, in Aristotle's account, ultimately on our natural purpose or function as rational creatures. At the same time, however, it is not a Platonic object, existing separate and apart from humanity or human tendencies.
Stoic and Epicurean Visions of "The Good Life"
Ancient Greek philosophy—especially in the "Hellenistic" period following Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.)—aimed to provide not merely accounts of such abstractions from life as "the good" or the "virtuous" but more concrete guidance as to how the good life was to be achieved. In this regard, two schools stand out. The Stoics taught a rigorous adherence to virtue, duty, and honor. These, they reasoned, were subject to our control and attainable through correct discipline of the will; thus attained, they would be a source of happiness regardless of one's external circumstances. The followers of Epicurus (341–270 b.c.e.), like the Stoics, warned against such emotional attachments as could easily threaten one's peace of mind but, unlike the Stoics, identified the goal of life (and the purpose for avoiding such attachments) as pleasure—not the extremes of sensual pleasure, but pleasures moderate in intensity and apt to endure (to be attained through self-sufficiency, simplicity of life, and friendship).
This difference between Aristotle's "teleological" and Plato's more "metaphysical" conception of the good is important in understanding the good as it figures in Western religious thought. One important strain in Christian thought draws on a Platonic conception of the good as residing in a distinct object accessible to human knowledge yet quite remote from ordinary, this-worldly experiences. A more "Aristotelian" strain of Christianity, most clearly represented in the thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), accepts Aristotle's conception of the good as happiness but construes this "final end" as including our spiritual as well as our physical, social, and intellectual ends as humans. So in this conception more than in the Platonic, secular and otherworldly goods are seen as complementary; the spiritual is seen as completing or "perfecting" nature—rather than as standing in stark Platonic opposition to it.
The Good of the Whole: Leibniz, Whitehead, and Spinoza
If the good is somehow objective, one will want to inquire as to the elements or proper analysis of this object. Even G. E. Moore (1873–1958), who argued that goodness was a simple, indefinable property (see below), held that we could say something about the nature of the good as a kind of "organic unity." In this vein, one finds something of a consensus among those philosophers who have addressed this particular concern (including even the diverse pair of metaphysicians Gottfried Leibniz [1646–1716], the seventeenth-century German rationalist, and Alfred North Whitehead [1861–1941], the twentieth-century British mathematician): that the good must involve a kind of maximum of both complexity and organic unity. Such a conception has an important bearing both on questions of environmental or ecological value and on the traditional theological problem of evil.
Environmentalists (especially of the more radical variety) are concerned to uphold the intrinsic (or noninstrumental) value of nature, but this raises important questions of whether or how everything in nature (for example, a solitary gnat) has such value. Here the Leibniz-Whitehead vision of unity in complexity can be helpful in understanding the value, for instance, of living organisms—indeed, of nature as a whole. Theologically, such a conception may be employed to justify apparent evil as part of a desirable ordered complex unity. In Whitehead's theodicy, all evil is the result of a lack of unity (yielding disharmony and ultimately pain) or a lack of complexity (ultimately yielding boredom).
Quite a different metaphysical vision is offered by Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), the seventeenth-century Dutch thinker. For Spinoza, such an ordered complexity is strictly neither good nor bad; thus, since he identifies this whole with God, God is beyond such attributes. Still, according to Spinoza, in the contemplation and especially in the understanding of this whole there lies a kind of supreme good for humankind.
The Good in Metaethics
Especially during the first half of the twentieth century, for philosophers in the Anglo-American "tradition," metaethics (an analysis of the distinctive language of moral discourse) tended to replace direct ethical and metaphysical argument. Thus in his Principia Ethica (1903), G. E. Moore argued for the indefinability of the term good and against attempts to construe "good" naturalistically. Moore pointed out in his famous "open question test" that one might significantly ask whether, say, pleasure is good, but not whether "good is good" (thus arguing that goodness could not be defined as or identified with such natural qualities as pleasure). The next-generation Oxford moral philosopher R. M. Hare (1919–2002) explained Moore's results by claiming that that ascribing "goodness" to an object is not describing it at all but performing a different type of linguistic act, one of "commending." Still, a third highly influential British metaethicist, Philippa Foot, advanced a form of naturalism with affinities to Aristotle. Foot was especially critical of an apparent consequence of Hare's "non-descriptive" account: that one could call literally anything good as long as one was performing an act of commending it.
The Right and the Good
Modern ethical theory is defined largely by its distinction between "the good" as a morally positive goal to be achieved through our acts, and "the right" as a set of rules or moral norms constraining our pursuit of the good. In contemporary parlance, the "consequentialist" takes the good as primary, treating "right acts" as those productive of the most good. The contrasting view, that of deontology, takes the right as primary, as defined independently of the good, and as forbidding even acts productive of the most good when these violate such fundamental moral rules as the prohibitions against killing, theft, and lying.
A consequentialist may be a utilitarian (identifying pleasure as the sole good; pain as the sole evil), may advocate some other form of naturalism (e.g., equating the good with evolutionary fitness, as did such nineteenth-century Social Darwinists as Herbert Spencer), or (like G. E. Moore) may reject a naturalistic account of the good altogether. Deontologists, in turn, may be distinguished according to whether they take the aforementioned constraints to be absolute (as does Kant, who treats lying, for instance, as wrong even to save a life) or merely having some independent force—that is, sometimes able to override considerations of doing good (as does W. D. Ross [1877–1971], an early twentieth-century British moral theorist).
In philosophy since the mid–twentieth century, perhaps the most significant employment and development of these ideas is in John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971). In Rawls's view, the principles of justice state norms capable of overriding merely utilitarian considerations. These norms, as in the contract tradition of such early modern political philosophers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are conceived as being chosen by appropriately situated individuals out of their own self-interest. But clearly such individuals must have some notion of "what is good" (beyond the bare abstraction of "my good"). Accordingly, Rawls distinguishes a "thin conception" of the good required in the "original position" (the situation of choice) from a fuller conception, one resulting from the choices they make.
Virtues, Perfectionism, and the Good Life
The moral virtues might be characterized, roughly, as those qualities apt to be productive of moral good. Yet there is an important difference between consequentialist and virtue ethics. This pertains not only to the split between teleology and consequentialism just described but also to two factors distinctive of virtue ethics and going back to Aristotle. First, virtue ethics rejects the supposed distinction between the strictly "moral" in a Kantian sense and what is more broadly of personal value. The four cardinal virtues of Greek thought (courage, wisdom, temperance, justice) illustrate this, as only the last of these is "moral" in a Kantian sense. The second difference is that virtue ethics tends to focus on qualities of an agent as opposed to those of an act. Thus the right act is seen in terms of what the best sort of person (the virtuous agent) would do.
These features of virtue ethics, carried far enough, may lead to quite a different moral conception in which the good is understood in terms of the achievements of those relatively few truly good (or "great") individuals. In modern philosophy, this tendency is perhaps most clearly realized in Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844–1900) figure in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–1891) of the Übermensch ("overman," or superman), whose self-mastery, creativity, and other virtues transcend the mediocrity of the common run of humankind. It is also presaged in Aristotle's conception of the "great-souled man"—who "thinks he deserves and actually does deserve great things" (Nicomachean Ethics, book 4). More broadly, a perfectionist conception of the good understands value in terms of an individual's realization of such qualities, talents, and skills as might represent "the best in him or her." Hence, like the novelist Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, 1943), the perfectionist upholds the value of individuality and stands in extreme opposition to what is termed communitarianism in contemporary political philosophy.
See also Evil ; Moral Sense ; Virtue Ethics .
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated with an introduction by David Ross, revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Cahn, Steven, and Peter Markie, eds. Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Gibbard, Allan. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by Lewis White Beck, critical essays edited by Robert Paul Wolff. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969.
Korsgaard, Christine. "Two Distinctions in Goodness." Philosophical Review 92 (1983): 169–195.
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Enlarged ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Edited by Roger Crisp. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Naess, Arne. "Self-Realization in Mixed Communities of Humans, Bears, Sheep, and Wolves." Inquiry 22 (1979): 231–242.
Pepper, Stephen C. The Sources of Value. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.
Ralston, Holmes, III. Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
Scanlon, T. M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Scheffler, Samuel. The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference, 1991.
James A. Montmarquet
"Good." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good
"Good." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good
good / goŏd/ • adj. (bet·ter / ˈbetər/ , best / best/ ) 1. to be desired or approved of: we live at peace with each other, which is good a good quality of life. ∎ pleasing and welcome: she was pleased to hear good news about him. ∎ expressing approval: the play had good reviews. 2. having the qualities required for a particular role: the schools here are good. ∎ functioning or performed well: good health either she was feeling chastened or she was doing a good act. ∎ appropriate to a particular purpose: this is a good month for planting seeds. ∎ (of language) with correct grammar and pronunciation: she speaks good English. ∎ strictly adhering to or fulfilling all the principles of a particular cause, religion, or party: a good Catholic girl. ∎ (of a ticket) valid: the ticket is good for travel from May to September. 3. possessing or displaying moral virtue: I've met many good people who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings| [as pl. n.] (the good) the rich and the good shared the same fate as the poor and the bad. ∎ showing kindness: you are good—thank you. ∎ obedient to rules or conventions: accustom the child to being rewarded for good behavior. ∎ used to address or refer to people, esp. in a patronizing or humorous way: the good people of the city were disconcerted. ∎ commanding respect: he was concerned with establishing and maintaining his good name. ∎ belonging or relating to a high social class: he comes from a good family. 4. giving pleasure; enjoyable or satisfying: the streets fill up with people looking for a good time. ∎ pleasant to look at; attractive: you're looking pretty good. ∎ (of food and drink) having a pleasant taste: the scampi was very good. ∎ (of clothes) smart and suitable for formal wear: he went upstairs to change out of his good suit. 5. thorough: the attic needed a good cleaning have a good look around. ∎ used to emphasize that a number is at least as great as one claims: they're a good twenty years younger. ∎ used to emphasize a following adjective: we had a good long hug. ∎ fairly large: a good crowd | fig. there's a good chance that we may be able to help you. 6. used in conjunction with the name of God or a related expression as an exclamation of extreme surprise or anger: good heavens! • n. 1. that which is morally right; righteousness: a mysterious balance of good and evil. 2. benefit or advantage to someone or something: he is too clever for his own good. 3. (goods) merchandise or possessions: imports of luxury goods. ∎ Brit. things to be transported, as distinct from passengers: a means of transporting passengers as well as goods | [as adj.] a goods train. ∎ (the goods) inf. the genuine article. • adv. inf. well: my mother could never cook this good. PHRASES: all to the good to be welcomed without qualification: as good as —— very nearly ——: she's as good as here. ∎ used of a result which will inevitably follow: if we pass on the information, he's as good as dead. be any (or no or much) good have some (or none or much) merit: tell me whether that picture is any good. ∎ be of some (or none or much) help in dealing with a situation: it was no good trying to ward things off. be so good as (or be good enough) to do something used to make a polite request: would you be so good as to answer. be —— to the good have a specified net profit or advantage: I came out $7 to the good. come up with (or deliver) the goods inf. do what is expected or required of one. do good 1. act virtuously, esp. by helping others. 2. make a helpful contribution to a situation: could the discussion do any good? do someone good be beneficial to someone, esp. to their health: the walk will do you good. for good (and all) forever; definitively: the experience almost frightened me away for good. get (or have) the goods on inf. obtain (or possess) information about (someone) that may be used to their detriment. good and —— inf. used as an intensifier before an adjective or adverb: it'll be good and dark by then. (as) good as gold (esp. of a child) extremely well behaved. (as) good as new in a very good condition or state, close to the original state again after damage, injury, or illness: the skirt looked as good as new. the Good Book the Bible. good for 1. having a beneficial effect on: smoking is not good for the lungs. 2. reliably providing: they found him good for a laugh. ∎ sufficient to pay for: his money was good for a bottle of whiskey. good for (or him, her, etc.) ! used as an exclamation of approval toward a person, esp. for something that they have achieved: “I'm taking my driving test next month.” “Good for you!” the Good Shepherd a name for Jesus. good wine needs no bushsee wine. a good word words in recommendation or defense of a person: I hoped you might put in a good word for me with your friends. have a good mind to do somethingsee mind. in someone's good bookssee book. in good time 1. with no risk of being late: I arrived in good time. 2. (also all in good time) in due course but without haste: you shall have a puppy all in good time. make good be successful: a college friend who made good in Hollywood. make something good 1. compensate for loss, damage, or expense: if I scratched the table, I'd make good the damage. ∎ repair or restore after damage: make good the wall where you have buried the cable. 2. fulfill a promise or claim: I challenged him to make good his boast. one good turn deserves anothersee turn. put a good face on somethingsee face. take something in good part not be offended by something: he took her abruptness in good part. up to no good doing something wrong.
"good." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good-1
"good." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good-1
a good beginning makes a good ending getting things right at the outset is likely to ensure success; saying recorded from the early 14th century.
the good die young proverbial saying, late 17th century, often used ironically. (Compare whom the gods love die young.)
good fences make good neighbours this reduces the possibility of disputes over adjoining land. The saying is recorded from the mid 17th century, and was famously used by the American poet Robert Frost in his poem ‘Mending Wall’ (1914).
Good Friday is the Friday before Easter Sunday, on which the Crucifixion of Christ is commemorated in the Christian Church. It is traditionally a day of fasting and penance.
The Good Friday agreement is an agreement between the British and Irish governments and the main political parties of Northern Ireland, reached at Stormont Castle, Belfast, on Good Friday (10 April) 1998, and passed by public referenda in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic on 22 May 1998, setting out proposals for the securing of peace in Northern Ireland.
a good horse cannot be of a bad colour colour is not an indicator of a horse's quality; saying recorded from the early 17th century.
the good is the enemy of the best the best is not achieved if one is ready to settle for what is good, but still of the second rank. (Compare the reverse saying, the best is the enemy of the good.) The saying is recorded from the early 20th century.
a good Jack makes a good Jill used of the effect of a husband on his wife; saying recorded from the early 17th century.
good men are scarce often used as a humorous commendation; saying recorded from the early 17th century.
good ol' boy in the US, a (typically white) male from the Southern States of America, regarded as one of a group conforming to a social and cultural masculine stereotype.
Good Shepherd a name for Jesus Christ, with allusion to John 10:16 (see also shepherd).
good wine needs no bush there is no need to advertise or boast about something of good quality as people will always discover its merits; the expression refers to the fact that a bunch of ivy was formerly the sign of a vintner's shop. The saying is recorded from the early 15th century.
he is a good dog who goes to church good character is shown by moral custom and practice; the saying is recorded from the early 19th century.
if you can't be good, be careful proverbial saying, early 20th century, often used as a humorous warning. The same idea is found in 11th-century Latin, si non caste tamen caute, and Robert Brunne's Handlyng Synne (1303) has, ‘The apostle seyth thys autoryte [dictum], ‘.Gyf thou be nat chaste, be thou pryue [secret].’. ’
no good deed goes unpunished modern humorous saying, sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde but not traced in his writings.
the only good Indian is a dead Indian originally with reference to North American Indians, and later used deprecatorily of members of various nationalities or other groups. The saying is recorded from the mid 19th century
there's many a good cock come out of a tattered bag something good may emerge from unpromising surroundings (the reference is to cockfighting). The saying is recorded from the late 19th century; a comparable Scottish proverb of the early 18th century is, an ill cow may have a good calf.
See also bad money drives out good, the good old cause, you've never had it so good, good Samaritan, one good turn deserves another, the great and the good, there's many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
"good." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good
"good." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good
Hence goodly comely, fair OE.; notable in size XIII; excellent, proper XIV; kindly XIV. goodman (i) male head of a house XIV (house-holder, husband XVI); (ii) †prefixed to designations, names of yeomen, etc., (hence) yeoman, Scottish laird XVI. Similarly (dial.) goodwife XIV; cf. GOODY1. goodwill †virtuous disposition; favourable regard, benevolence OE.; cheerful acquiescence XIII; privilege granted by the seller of a business to the purchaser of trading as his successor XVI.
"good." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good-2
"good." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good-2
"good." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good-0
"good." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/good-0