The Good – What Is It?

Good is one of the most contested concepts in ethics. While a variety of philosophical traditions have emphasized different aspects of the good life, all share an idea that there is some kind of standard of value for human existence that must be met in order to make our lives worthwhile. The two most prominent traditions are hedonism and perfectionism. Hedonism emphasizes pleasure and gratification of desires, while perfectionism holds that human beings are capable of reaching a standard of excellence that will bring us closer to our full potential.

It is not obvious what exactly the good is, or even whether it is possible to identify a single underlying concept of the good. Philosophers have often tended to use the term attributively, interpreting it as referring to any desirable feature of a situation or an action. This approach has held the promise of naturalizing the good and rendering it less mysterious, and it has led some philosophers to formulate their ethical theories in terms of attributive uses of the word.

Other philosophers have tended to interpret the good as a property that some things are intrinsically (rather than just aesthetically) worth having. These are often referred to as “naturalistic” or “relativistic” views of the good. The hedonistic utilitarians and the desire-satisfaction utilitarians are examples of this type of philosophy. These views of the good have the advantage of making it easy to show that their proposals are in accord with the demands of a rational morality.

Still other philosophers have sought to analyze the good as a kind of property that is a fitting object of a pro-attitude. This analysis was pioneered by Franz Brentano, who developed a theory of the good that occupied a halfway point between Moore and naturalism. Various other philosophers, such as Thomas Scanlon with his buck-passing analysis of goodness, have followed in Brentano’s footsteps, although none has been completely successful in elucidating the notion of fittingness.

Ultimately, the good is an idea that will continue to be debated and interpreted as new situations and values arise. There will always be a need to make sure that our theories of the good are relevant and up-to-date in order to address the challenges that face our societies.

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