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Good, The


GOOD, THE . A distinction has to be made between two sets of questions related to the concept of the good. There are ethical problems about how to elaborate reasonable criteria of goodness, where goodness is conceived as a characteristic of human actions and of things or properties that are directly or indirectly relevant to human life. And there are questions concerning the goodness of God or of existence as such, apart from God's benevolence and love for the human race. I shall concentrate upon the latter question.

In archaic and polytheistic religions, gods are not necessarily good either in the sense of caring about human well-being or in the sense of providing humanity with a model of moral conduct; some are, some are not, and many combine good and evil characteristics in both respects. Yet in the myths of origin, the evil of gods has been connected, as a rule, with destruction and disorder, and goodness with creation and harmony, whether or not any one of the gods was invariably and systematically good or evil. In Iranian dualist mythology good and evil were attributed respectively to one and another mutually hostile divine beings. In all monotheistic religions God is totally good in an absolute and unqualified sense, and his goodness consists not only in that he loves his creatures: It is his intrinsic, nonrelative property; God would be good even if he had not created the universe. So conceived, goodness acquires a metaphysical meaning that probably cannot be further analyzed, cannot be reduced to other concepts, and has an axiomatic character.

Philosophical reflection on this kind of goodness is Plato's legacy; he discovered the idea of the good, which is, of course, desirable and therefore good for humankind, as well as the source of all goodness; but the good is not good because desirable, but desirable because intrinsically good. This topic was taken up and elaborated by later Platonists, including, in particular, Plotinus; to him the One is good both in terms of human needs and happiness and good in itself, apart from this relationship. Other Platonists, however, denied that the characteristics of goodness could be meaningfully attributed to the first principle: Speusippus, Plato's successor in the academy, made the point, and so did the last pagan philosopher, Damascius, to whom the first principle, being utterly ineffable, could not possibly have any properties, whether relative or even absolute; having no name (even the word principle is not appropriate) and no relationship with other realities or even with itself, it cannot be called good in any sense.

Christian philosophy, which assimilated many Platonic categories, has always stressed all the meanings of divine goodness: God is good in himself, he is the creator of all goodness, he is benevolent, and he is the source of criteria whereby one's acts are called morally good or evil. Whatever else is good is such derivatively and by participation in the goodness of God. And, apart from a few dualistic sects, all creation was, in Christian thinking, attributed to God; because no existence is conceivable apart from God, whatever exists is good by definition. Evil has no positive ontological characteristics and is to be defined as pure negativity, privatio, lack of being: evil comes from the ill-will of human or diabolic creatures endowed with freedom of choice and abusing this freedom; yet even the devil, insofar as he exists, is good, even though his will is incurably and totally corrupt. This doctrine has been elaborated in detail by Augustine. In Thomas Aquinas's idiom it is summed up in saying that being and goodness are coextensive (esse et bonum convertuntur ). Some Christian philosophers and theologians discussed the question (broached already by Plato): Are the criteria of good and evil, given by God, arbitrary or intrinsically valid? In other words, is the good good because God has decreed it to be good (as some nominalists and Descartes believed), or has God said that it is good because it is good in itself (as Leibniz argued)? If the former, moral rules appear to humans as arbitrary and contingent as, say, the rules of traffic; God could have decreed other norms of conduct and said, for instance, that adultery is good and loving one's neighbor wronga conclusion that sounds outrageous to common sense; yet, if God orders what is intrinsically good, apart from his decrees, he appears to be bound by laws that do not depend on him, which makes his omnipotence doubtful. The question can be invalidated, however, by sayingin conformity with Thomist metaphysicsthat God is what he decrees and that there are no rules of goodness different from his essence, therefore he neither obeys a foreign law nor issues arbitrary decrees of which the content is contingent upon his essence.

If God is good in himself, and not only benevolent to his creatures, it is essential, in Christian terms, that one should love him not only as a benefactor and savior but because he is who he is. The point was strongly stressed by many Christian mystics and other "theocentrically" oriented writers. They argued that God is not only the highest good but the only good proper, therefore humankind is for God, rather than he for humans; individuals should admire him utterly oblivious of all favors and graces received from him; indeed their love should be the same even if they knew that he condemned them to hell, and they should be happy to accept his will unconditionally, whatever it means to them; they ought only to want God to be God, whereas to love God in reciprocity for his benevolence is unworthy or perhaps sinful. The standard Christian teaching, while stressing the value of the disinterested love of God, never goes so far as to say that worshiping God in connection with his gifts and graces is a sin or to deny that one's salvation is an intrinsic good and not only an instrument whereby God's glory is augmented; indeed, the last two statements sound heretical. The theory of "pure love" was hotly debated in the Catholic church in the seventeenth century.

The idea of divine goodness as a nonrelative property does not seem to be a product of pure philosophical speculation. It is rooted in, and makes explicit, the old tenet of many religions: Creation as such is good, and therefore the creator is good as such.

The distinction between autotelic (or intrinsic) and instrumental goods has been almost universally admitted by philosophers since Plato and Aristotle, yet there has never been an agreement about how to draw the line between them and how to define what is good in itself; many philosophers have denied that a collection of properties can be found that would be common to all the things and experiences people have called good. In the conflict between utilitarians and Kantians, and between utilitarians and pragmatists, these problems are among the most often debated.


A comprehensive listing of bibliographic references to the concept of the good would include works by most Western philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, Hobbes, Hume, and Kant. The following twentieth-century works can be recommended:

Dewey, John. Theory of Valuation. Chicago, 1939.

Ewing, A. C. The Definition of Good. New York, 1947.

Hartmann, Nicolai. Ethics. 3 vols. Translated by Stanton Colt. London, 1932.

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, U.K., 1903.

Rice, P. B. On the Knowledge of Good and Evil. New York, 1955.

Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Oxford, 1930.

Stevenson, Charles. Facts and Values. New Haven, 1963.

Westermarck, Edvard A. The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. 2d ed. 2 vols. London, 1924.

Wright, Georg H. von. The Varieties of Goodness. London, 1963.

New Sources

Dorter, Kenneth. Form and Good in Plato's Eleatic Dialogues: The Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman. Berkeley, 1994.

Keenan, James E. Goodness and Rightness in Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae. Washington, D.C., 1992.

MacDonald, Scott. Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophy. Albany, N.Y., 1996.

Ross, Stephen David. The Gift of Beauty: The Good as Art. Albany, N.Y., 1996.

Ross, W. D. The Right and the Good. Edited by Philip Stratton-Lake. New York, 2002.

Leszek Kolakowski (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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