Aristotle and the Good

Good is an important concept in moral philosophy. It can refer to an action or event that is desirable or favorable, virtuous or suitable, pleasing or pleasant, valid or efficient. It can also refer to an object or person that is of good quality, for example a beautiful sunset.

Definition of Good

In a metaphysical context, good is viewed as that which all things aim at and are desired for. For Aristotle, the good is a necessary and sufficient end, and it is this that gives meaning to every act, inquiry or pursuit in human life. This good might be something that is useful or a means to the ultimate good, but it must also be desired for its own sake.

Aristotle’s development of the idea of good suggests that there is a hierarchy of goods: some are wanted because they are useful, some because they are pleasurable, and some are hoped for simply for their own sake. There is also an ontological good, that which makes man’s being and development possible, and a moral good, that which makes human conduct good or right.

Platonic Origins of the Good

Plato sees good as the action that a man should perform, and for this reason it is one of his main virtues. This can be done through virtuous acts, such as being just and temperate or through the punishment of wrongdoers. Moreover, it can be based on the good of nature; and this is the norm of moral goodness that Plato develops.

Using Reason for the Good

In the Republic, Plato discusses a norm of conduct in which he argues that it is proper for man to act justly and virtuously as he can, and to do so in accordance with his nature, as well as in conformity with the laws of right and wrong. He goes on to enumerate the different kinds of virtuous actions, and he emphasizes that they are all a form of knowing what is good.

He explains that all these forms of knowledge are a certain synthesis, and that this synthesis involves a pattern elaborated through reason. This is because knowledge of the good implies that man knows an absolute norm, a form of action which is the basis of all virtue.

Relation of Good to Value

Another major difference in the conception of good is that some people hold that the good is “intrinsic” (i.e., it is what it is) while others think that it is merely instrumentally good, a means to other ends. This is the distinction between utilitarianism, whose view of the good is derived from the works of nineteenth-century British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and more recent “value ethics,” which is more concerned with the “good” that one’s choices should produce in one’s life.

The modern tendency to substitute the word “value” for “good” has been a major factor in this development. This is because the latter allows a more manageable and less technical way of expressing what is meant by a value judgment, rather than a simple statement of what one likes or desires.