For many evaluative terms it is useful to distinguish, following John Rawls, between concepts and conceptions of them; for instance, on the one hand there are questions about what it means to be good, on the other there are questions about which specific things actually are good. This distinction helps explain why many evaluative terms allow much more disagreement than other terms; two people can agree about what it means to be good (concept) and still disagree entirely about which concrete things are good (conceptions), whereas people could hardly agree on what it means to be, say, a knife and still widely disagree about which objects are knives.
Although it is not a distinction drawn by all moral philosophers, this split between concept and conception does set its mark on the literature in the sense that there are two main lines of inquiry about the good: inquiry into the meaning of good and inquiry into which things actually are good. Interest in the first question became prominent in the wake of the publication of G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica in 1903; with it moral philosophy took a turn toward conceptual analysis. When it comes to conceptions of the good there have been extensive discussions ever since antiquity and there are primarily two types of goodness that have been the focus of most of them, the prudentially good and the morally good (i.e., what constitutes a good life and what it takes to be a good person).
The Meaning of Good
Moore claimed that good is indefinable, that it is a simple, nonnatural property. He accused several of his predecessors of having committed what he called the naturalistic fallacy in trying to spell out what it meant to be good. His main argument was that of the open question: For any proposed analysis of good, it would seem that one can ask "But is x good?" and the openness of that question shows that the analysis has not succeeded. It is uncertain whether the philosophers discussed by Moore really had proposed analyses of good rather than simply presented conceptions of the good and it is difficult to find unambiguous examples of theories that are naturalistic in Moore's sense of the word. Nevertheless, Moore did set the agenda for the attempts at analyzing good that have since then followed.
Moore himself is not always clear about whether he discusses the concept of good or the property to which this concept refers. This can make an important difference. If one thinks that the reference is determined by the property or properties that a concept causally tracks, then they can see that, even for normative concepts, there is the possibility that they ultimately refer to natural properties even though they cannot a priori be analyzed in such terms. This kind of naturalism, so-called Cornell realism, was developed in the 1980s by David Brink and others and according to it there is nothing peculiar about the open question being open because the identity involved is synthetic, not analytic.
But there are also other alternatives. Around the same time that Moore developed his theory of the good, Franz Brentano (1969) developed an analysis of good that occupied a halfway point between Moore and naturalism. Moore contended that good was a simple, nonnatural quality; Brentano claimed that it was a complex, nonnatural property, that to be good was to be worthy of love. This kind of position was later elaborated in more detail by A. C. Ewing (1947), who claimed that to be good was to be a fitting object of a pro-attitude. He also thought that different types of goodness could be differentiated through kinds of pro-attitudes, so it was a theory that tried to capture an essential unity of good but also make sense of the variety of uses that good is put to. It is however not an analysis without problems; above all, the key notion of fittingness was not given a satisfactory elucidation by Ewing. Later philosophers, such as Thomas Scanlon (1998) with his buck-passing analysis of value, pursue a similar project, albeit framed in terms of reasons for pro-attitudes rather than the fittingness of them.
The largely Moorean approach of focusing on the meaning of particular evaluative notions was however out of fashion from the 1930s through to the 1960s. The dominant approach to ethical language then was instead non-descriptivist. This is an approach according to which the function of ethical language is not to describe a realm of values and norms, but rather to express sentiments or, as in the best worked-out version of this approach, namely that of Richard Hare (1952), to issue prescriptions. Thus, non-descriptivist analyses of evaluative language do not really provide analyses of the meaning of notions like good, rather what they provide is analyses of what it means to say or judge that something is good. And because ethical judgments appear to have a strong connection to action and motivation, one should perhaps doubt whether predications of good really work essentially like predications of round.
However, even if non-descriptivists eschewed talk about objective evaluative properties, it should be made clear that the position was not as such nihilistic. Rather, what these theories often did was to show that ethical judgments could make sense even if there really were nothing in the world for them to be about. Hare especially argued at length that one could discuss moral matters rationally even though moral discourse was not descriptive. One problem, however, was that non-descriptivists tended to build their accounts on analyses of asserted evaluative judgments, but talk of good and similar notions does not just consist in that. Evaluative notions can also be embedded in nonevaluative claims, for instance, in conditionals such as "If Peter is good, then Mary is also good." When trying to explain how such sentences function even in very simple forms of deductive reasoning, non-descriptivists tend to be driven to suspiciously complex analyses. The popularity of non-descriptivism has waned considerably since its heyday, although new and sophisticated versions of the theory have been presented after that, most notably by Allan Gibbard.
The Unity of Good?
When Brentano proposed his analysis of good it was with the intent of showing the essential unity of good. Many other philosophers have simply taken it for granted. However, even if there is one word that is used in a variety of contexts, that does not necessarily mean that a single concept is being dealt with. Some philosophers, such as Peter Geach (1956), have suggested that one needs to distinguish between a predicative and an attributive use of good. Take a sentence such as "X is an A B." If A is used predicatively, then this sentence can be split into "X is A" and "X is a B"; if this is not possible, then A is used attributively. The sentence "Jill is a dark-haired woman" can be split into "Jill is dark-haired" and "Jill is a woman," whereas "Jill is a tall woman" cannot be split that way. The difference is that there is no way of ascertaining whether Jill is tall without taking into account that she is a woman; it is qua woman that she is tall.
When it comes to goodness, judgments such as "that is a good knife" are clearly attributive, whereas judgments such as "that was a good event" seem predicative. Both uses of good have been prominent in the history of ethics, although some (like Aristotle) have leaned toward the attributive and others (like Moore) toward the predicative. Geach himself contended that, when it makes sense, good is always an attributive adjective; nothing is ever simply good. Relatively few philosophers have followed Geach in taking this stance although the distinction still highlights an important disunity of good. This can be seen if one compares good to valuable. The predicative use of good roughly corresponds to valuable, whereas attributive goodness has a much looser connection to value. For instance, if Jill shoots Jack in the head from a long distance, one might think that it was a good shot without finding the event valuable in any sense.
Although the distinction between the attributive and the predicative concerns good as a concept, it is also the case that when it comes to conceptions of the good, philosophers have tended to take different positions depending on how they have tended to use good. The advantage with attributive uses of good is that they hold the promise of naturalizing the good, thereby rendering its place in the world less mysterious, and this has led some, such as Philippa Foot (2001), to develop ethical theories in terms of the attributive good. The problem with such an approach is just that when it comes to the particular natural kind that is of most interest for ethical matters, namely that of human beings, it is very unclear whether there is any ideal way of leading a human life that one can simply distill from an understanding of what it is to be a human being similar to how one can know what is to be a good knife through an understanding of what is to be a knife.
Conceptions of the Prudentially Good
The question of what is involved in leading a good life is one of the oldest in philosophy. And although there are many different theories about what is good for people, there are two main traditions of thought on the issue running through the history of ethics. The first is hedonism, the theory that what ultimately makes up a good life is pleasure or enjoyment. The second is perfectionism, that what ultimately is good for a person is to flourish as a human being. Of course, these two traditions do not exhaust the possibilities, but they stand apart in sharing an important strength, namely that they do not simply list a handful of things that are supposed to be good; they also provide an underlying idea about the point of it all. In the case of hedonism there is the appealing thought that if something is to be good for people, then it must feel good to them. In the case of perfectionism, there is another appealing thought, namely that as a human being, one has certain potentials and that it is a waste of one's life if one does not realize them. These two lines of thought do however pull in opposite directions, the first in a subjective one and the second in an objective.
Although there were philosophical schools during antiquity that tended toward hedonism (the Epicureans and, more clearly, the Cyrenaics), perfectionism dominated ethics during that time. As already noted, there was a tendency during antiquity to use good attributively: To lead a good life is to excel at being a human being. Thus, to understand what the good life consists in, one must understand what lies at the heart of a distinctly human existence. The standard answer was that the exercise of reason was what lifted humans above the level of animals. For instance, Aristotle argued that rational thought was the function, or characteristic activity, of human beings and that, therefore, it must define wherein our good lies.
There are certainly problems with perfectionism having to do with its objectivist slant (what if one really does not want to achieve their potential but do other things instead, where does their good lie?), but the most significant worry is a metaphysical one. Does not perfectionism require a teleological conception of human nature and has not such a conception been put to rest by science? There are modern attempts to address this issue, one of the more interesting being Alasdair MacIntyre's (1984) attempt to understand humans as social beings and partly derive the contents of a good life from the social practices in which humans are embedded; but this remains a difficult issue for perfectionists.
Hedonism, by contrast, had its most prominent exponents in British moral philosophy of the 1700s and the 1800s. Its most emphatic proponent was Jeremy Bentham, although the version that has generated most discussion is that of John Stuart Mill (1998), who argued that there is a qualitative dimension to be considered when judging the value of pleasures: The pleasures of poetry are superior to the pleasures of pushpins. This can thus be seen as an attempt at a hybrid theory, introducing perfectionist elements into hedonism. Hedonism of all forms is however plagued by problems that are rooted in its subjectivist nature.
Say that two people lead lives containing equal amounts of pleasure or enjoyment, but in one of them the pleasures are all based in the subject's delusions; in that case it seems fair to say that the other life is at least somewhat better. So even if pleasure is a very important good, it can reasonably be doubted whether it really is, as hedonists would have it, the only one. Although there are later hedonists, a good example being Fred Feldman (2004), trying to address these problems, the second half of the twentieth century has seen those philosophers who are drawn to subjectivist conceptions of the good life largely abandoning hedonism for theories that emphasize the fulfillment of our preferences instead: One leads a good life when what one wants is realized. This has the advantage of involving the way things really are, but it is accomplished at the cost of moving away from the emphasis on how things feel that provided such an attractive rationale for subjectivist theories to begin with.
Conceptions of the Morally Good
In antiquity the standard conception of being a good person was to have the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Philosophers tended to conform roughly to this view. Aristotle was a notable exception and presented an extensive list of virtues. His theory is also original in that while many place virtue and vice as opposite poles on a moral spectrum, Aristotle conceived of virtue as a mean lying between two vices, one of deficiency and one of excess. It should, however, be pointed out that even if the ancients tended to list a number of traits as constituents of moral goodness, a common idea among them was that of the unity of the virtues, that one either has all the virtues or none. This is a controversial idea because many would say that it is quite possible, for instance, to be courageous without being just. Adherents of the unity thesis would respond that persons cannot really be deemed courageous if they do not have a fair appreciation of what is at stake—and for that they need to have all the virtues. Terrorists might be prepared to sacrifice their lives, but that alone does not make them courageous.
Although there was a renewed interest in the virtues, particularly in Aristotelian virtue theory, toward the end of the twentieth century, modern philosophers have focused more on the question of which actions are right than on what constitutes a good person. Kantianism is probably the modern moral theory with the best articulated vision of moral goodness. For Kant it is the will rather than character that is the potential bearer of moral goodness. And whereas for Aristotle one cannot be a good person unless acting well comes naturally to them—indeed, he even thinks that it is a mark of good persons that they take pleasure in acting well—for Kant virtue is essentially about self-control, about having moral determination.
This does not preclude that one takes pleasure in acting well, but the true test of virtue occurs when things do not come naturally: Does one then still put morality above their own inclinations? Kant also sharply distinguished between the moral and the prudential. This is very common among modern philosophers, whereas ancient philosophers often saw the virtues as constitutive parts of the good life. This tendency has led some philosophers, such as Bernard Williams (1985), to question whether the idea of a sui generis category of the moral is not a modern artifice, thus partially echoing Friedrich Nietzsche's complaints about how the evolution of morality has involved a turn from a positive striving after excellence to a negative, prohibitive ethic of self-diminishment.
Ethical Theories and the Good
A common way of distinguishing ethical theories (i.e., theories of what one ought to do) with respect to the role played by the good in them is into teleological and deontological. This distinction was introduced by J. H. Muirhead (1932). In teleological theories actions are right because of the way that they contribute to the good, either, as is the case in utilitarianism, because it contributes to the common good or, as is the case in self-realization theories like those of ancient virtue theorists or Hegelians such as F. H. Bradley (1927), because it contributes, or is at least ultimately connected to, the agent's flourishing. Deontologists reject this direct link between the right and the good. In its simplest form, exemplified by W. D. Ross (1930), a deontological theory simply consists in a set of moral rules that are to be obeyed. Indeed, one main worry, voiced by Muirhead as well as others such as J. J. C. Smart (1973), about deontological theories is precisely that they inculcate almost a form of blind rule worship: One just obeys certain rules because they are the rules one should obey.
As a general charge against deontological theories, this is unfair. There can still be an underlying rationale in terms of the good; it is just that it does not take such a direct form. The most sophisticated form of deontology is probably Kantian ethics and while it is true that moral rules are given another kind of justification in Kant (in terms of what reason demands of one as an agent), he does still provide a picture of the place of morality in the life of a human agent, namely that it is a condition of the value of one's well-being: If one is not moral, one cannot reasonably view one's self as worthy of happiness. And in liberal rights theory it is a common idea that the rationale for the basic principles of right is provided at least in part by the fact that there is such widespread disagreement about the good: In the face of such disagreement certain principles of right make sense because they enable people to live together and pursue their own private conceptions of the good. It might even be seen as a weakness of teleological theories that they require that a conception of the good be spelled out in order to make it possible to tell right actions from wrong ones. A variety of teleologists, especially in the utilitarian tradition, have of course proposed a number of such conceptions, but none of them have won wide assent and there seems to be little reason to see such assent as forthcoming. In light of that, some might see deontology as a more viable approach.
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Johan Brännmark (2005)