The Concept of the Good

The good is a fundamental concept in ethics, morality and religion. In most cultures, the opposite of bad is good, and the idea that one may be rewarded for doing something well and punished for doing something wrong is prevalent throughout history. The word has also been used to describe things that are wholesome, healthy and beneficial.

The concept of the good is a crucial subject for philosophical debate and it has been the source of many ethical theories. Some of the most popular theories include utilitarianism, deontological ethics and metaethics. The concept of the good is a central topic in religions as well, particularly Christianity and Islam.

In ancient philosophy, the good was generally defined as that which leads to a wholesome life, in other words the opposite of bad. Aristotle emphasized the virtues of moderation, balance and temperance as the keys to a good life. He also emphasized that rational thought is the distinguishing feature of human beings and that humans must therefore exercise their reason in order to achieve a genuinely human good life.

Later, philosophers began to split the meaning of good into two distinct elements. In the early modern period, most of this was done by Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers who divided the good into ends (things valued in their own right) and means (things valued for the sake of the ends they promote). In the twentieth century, the largely Moorean approach to focusing on the meaning of particular evaluative notions went out of fashion. Most of the subsequent work in this area has been devoted to the analysis of which things actually are good.

Some philosophers have tried to reconcile this distinction between the notions of meaning and which things are actually good by arguing that the former must involve some kind of consideration of the latter. However, this is difficult to do. Most notably, Geach himself pointed out that a distinction between attributive and predicative uses of the word – such as “that is a good knife” vs. “that is a good event” – would break down because predicative goodness would still have a connection to value, but attributive goodness is a different sort of thing altogether.

For example, a long walk through a crowded city might be a good experience for someone who likes people-watching but would not be good for a misanthrope. Further, even if a certain thing is good for someone, that does not necessarily mean that it is a good experience for everyone or even all living things.

Other philosophers have suggested resolving this problem by focusing on the properties that a normative concept causally tracks, rather than what it is that it refers to. This has been referred to as Cornell realism and its proponents have included David Brink and Alan Foot. However, this is a challenging project since it requires that an important part of our practical knowledge of the world be able to be analyzed in terms of its causal trackability.