The Definition of Good

Good is a complex concept that encompasses a variety of meanings. It can be used to describe the good of a person, an object, or a social group; or it can refer to the general state of affairs.

The definition of good is a key element in the analysis of ethical theories and practices. It provides a basis for the development of morality, which in turn determines how we live our lives and what choices we make.

A good act is one that conforms to a norm of morality, such as the golden mean of virtue or a community’s general rules of conduct. It is also a good practice in an ethical system to avoid harming others and to strive to promote the welfare of the whole society.

Historically, various systems have held different norms of goodness. The hedonist pronounced an act good by its ability to give pleasure; the utilitarian judged it good on the basis of its utility to serve the greatest number of people.

For many philosophers, a good act is a good choice or action that follows a right reason and is befitting to the individual’s nature. This idea is based on the concept of man’s natural motive for action, as set forth by Aristotle and St. Thomas.

Some philosophical approaches to the notion of good, especially contemporary ones such as Bergson and Sartre, emphasize the creative and evolutionary character of human action. These theories see reality from a dynamic, evolving perspective and stress the importance of the “elan vital,” or the spontaneous impulse within the self.

Another approach, often referred to as Plotinian philosophy, is based on a distinction between the ontological good and the moral good. For Plotinus, the ontological good consists in the full perfection of being; all other things are emanations of that good. The moral good, however, is not a mere emanation but is itself an embodied and transcendent good; namely, it is the product of God’s goodness, in which all other beings are only part.

Other metaphysical and moral good explanations abound; the most important are those of Spinoza and Kant. For Spinoza, the moral good is the progressive effort to realize Spirit, and for Kant it is the result of the synthesis of a rational understanding and a spiritual life that seeks to comprehend the Ultimate Good or Reason.

Saint Augustine synthesizes these ideas in the teaching of his church. Unlike the ontological good, the moral good is a personal good, a good that can be sought by man’s understanding and free choice. It is not a purely mechanical or deterministic good, but rather is a spiritual synthesis of the person’s personality and its love of God and His creation.

Aristotle, for his part, argues that a good end is something that is desired for its own sake and that cannot be grasped by a mere mechanical relationship of the end to the thing being done. The good end is the goal of a specific act, inquiry, or pursuit; it is a product of the activity, and it may be either a higher or lower good that man wishes for itself.