The concept of good is an essential part of many philosophical, moral, and religious theories. The meaning of the term varies widely depending on context and history, but its basic idea is that something is desirable or pleasing to the mind, or is healthy for the body.
Definition of Good
The word “good” is derived from the Old German root gat and can mean pleasant, favorable, or nice. It is used as an adjective or adverb, and is a general term in most contexts. It is usually associated with conduct that is preferable in a situation where two or more possible actions are presented.
Originally, the concept of good was more a subjective state than an objective one. It was generally thought to be a pleasant reaction to experience, but later theorists attributed an objective character to values and defined them as a set of interest and desire which are not merely the mere expression of preference.
Plato, for example, conceives of good as an object of contemplation which is not constituted by our preferences and desires but exists independently of the human mind. For Plato, this is a principle of the universe that is like the sun shedding light on all things, a sort of axiomatic principle that is independent of our knowledge and consciousness.
This conception was later adopted by most modern philosophers and is a common basis for their ethical theories. The term good was also used as a synonym for the virtues of reason, love, justice, temperance, and generosity.
The ontological good of man is his corporeal-spiritual being and its existent perfections and activities. However, we must distinguish between his ontological good and his moral good. The former is a natural good, but it does not represent the final end of mankind; the latter is a gift of god and consists in virtuous action.
Aristotle, on the other hand, construes the good in terms of man’s ultimate end or purpose in life. This end is happiness, or a happiness of virtuous action. It does not consist in a single act, but in the fulfillment of many virtuous acts over the course of a complete life.
St. Augustine likewise conceives of the good as an object of desire, but one which man reaches only by his assurance of Revelation. The objective Supreme Good, hinted at by Plato and considered as out of man’s reach by Aristotle, is reintegrated into the objective moral order when he adores God as his The Good, and all else as means to this.
To develop a sound understanding of the concept of good, it is helpful to explore its development throughout the centuries of philosophy. This helps to illuminate its rich diversity of meaning, and shows that the idea of good has a much deeper and wider scope than is often appreciated.