The Good in Philosophy


The good (Aristotelian: , hodos) is any end of human action or pursuit that meets a need or desire. Philosophers have expanded the concept to include various types of goods ranging from abstract moral notions to specific goals of individual and collective action, such as happiness or health. In theological speculation, some have equated it with God’s absolute perfection.

In everyday usage, the word good describes an objective or subjective state. It can be used to indicate a person’s overall happiness or satisfaction, the suitability of an object, or the level of achievement in an activity. It is also frequently employed in judgments about others’ behavior: A naive person may be said to lack the good sense needed to understand social mores; a person who has a bad temper is often described as having poor self-control.

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In philosophy, the good has been a central concept in many discussions. It is a key element in philosophical ethics, political philosophy, and metaphysics.

Platonic Origins. The earliest concept of the good in philosophy was that of a rationally desirable end that a person should seek. Plato saw the good as an activity of the soul, and as such it could be either pleasurable or useful. He distinguished the good from the unpleasant, such as punishment or injustice.

Kant’s Notion of the Good

Immanuel Kant criticized this phenomenal idea of the good as subjective and relative. He sought a moral relation that was universally valid and based on something absolute in man, such as the good will or good intention. Hegel synthesized both views.

For Aristotle the good was the end for which all activities are undertaken. He saw a hierarchy of ends, wherein the lower ends were desired as means to the higher ones. This allowed him to identify the good with the useful, but he held that there was an ultimate good, not identified with anything else, which was desired for its own sake.

Modern philosophers have expanded the notion to include an ontological and moral good as well. The former includes all that is inherently good or desirable, such as the innate qualities of being; the latter refers to what is good for man’s development here and now. The hedonists emphasize the pleasure that an act might afford; the utilitarians stress its effectiveness in promoting a community’s welfare.

The contemporary existentialist philosophy of Bergson sees reality from a dynamic perspective and stresses the good as action begetting more action, or elan vital. This reflects his mystical conception of life as an ever-expanding, creative principle.