The Concept of Goodness in Philosophy


Good is a word that can have multiple meanings, ranging from the purely practical to the essentially metaphysical. A common meaning is the right or proper thing to do; for example, to “do good” means to act in a way that is morally correct. It can also refer to something that is inherently valuable or worthwhile, as in the phrase “a good education” or, more generally, “a good life.” A purely ethical sense of “good” focuses on the character and virtues of a person or organization, and thus tends toward a form of perfection or excellence.

The concept of goodness in philosophical thought has a complex history, and is influenced by the various philosophical traditions that precede it. Some of these are:

Aristotelian Development

Aristotle, in his ethics, defines “good” as that toward which human activity aims. He distinguishes between lower and higher ends in the context of human action; he notes that some lower ends are desired for their own sakes, while others are wanted as a means to something else (for example, pleasure, health, and rest). Aristotle identifies happiness with a strictly human good. He argues that it is the result of virtuous actions undertaken over the course of a full life, and thus he equates it with a virtuous life.

Platonic Origins

Plato likewise stresses the importance of the good, but in a different manner. For him, the good is what a man ought to do. This includes both the pleasurable and useful; but, he adds, it does not exclude the unpleasant, for example, punishment, which can be a good thing if it corrects vices such as injustice or intemperance.

Hegelian Development

The philosophy of Hegel reflects a similar metaphysical-ethical view of the good. For Hegel, the ultimate good is Spirit, which embodies all reality; and the moral life is a process of striving consciously to realize this. This explains why, for Hegel, both a metaphysical explanation and an ethical view of reality are required.

Augustinian Teaching

St. Augustine synthesizes Plotinian philosophy with Christian revelation to formulate a doctrine of the good as being and a degree of perfection. He argues that God creates being, making it of this or that nature; hence the goodness of a given thing lies in its having a particular kind of being.

In contrast, Kraut argues that goodness of the third sort enjoys a privileged justificatory status in practical reasoning. All good practical arguments ultimately rest on claims that something is good for someone or another; and it is these reasons, he contends, that make the claim valid. Nonetheless, his claim is weakened by the fact that most of the time these reasons bottom out in the simple facts that the thing in question is either pleasant or useful. In addition, he notes that the distinction between good and bad is often blurred in actual practical life. See also eudaimonia; utilitarianism; Hegelianism; existentialism.