The Meaning of Good in Ethical Philosophy

As a concept, good is used in many different ways by philosophers and other people. Some philosophers, such as Philippa Foot (2001), have tried to develop ethical theories in terms of attributive good, while others, like Peter Geach (1949), have attempted to establish that it is important to distinguish between predicative and attributive uses of the word. Most philosophers, however, have tended to think of goodness as a predicative concept.

The word good is often used in different ways by different people, but most people tend to agree on what it means when it is applied to objects and events: It usually means that something fits well or is appropriate or desirable, e.g., a long walk through crowded city streets is good for someone who enjoys people-watching, but it would not be good for someone who hates crowds. The term can also mean that a person is virtuous or morally excellent, as when it is used of a person who shows kindness to strangers or is a steps on the ladder of virtue.

A common use of the word is to express positive emotion: She felt good when she finished her paper. Another use of the word is to refer to the quality of something: It is a good idea to buy a new car, but it is not a good idea to rent one. Good is also a verb, meaning to do good: I did some good deeds on my vacation.

In the context of ethics, the most common use of the word good is to describe the moral worth of an act: It is good to give blood; it is not good to steal. A defining feature of ethical philosophy is the search for a standard by which the worth of acts can be judged. Various approaches have been taken to this search, including deontological ethics, utilitarianism, and metaethics.

Among these, deontological ethics argues that certain kinds of acts are always good. This approach contrasts with utilitarianism, which argues that the right way to evaluate actions is to consider whether or not they promote human well-being and the satisfaction of our needs. A polarizing alternative to these two approaches is metaethics, which attempts to provide an objective basis for judgments about the good. This approach has been defended by such philosophers as A. C. Ewing (1947). He argued that a good could be identified by the kind of pro-attitude it fitted with, so that, for example, a knife was a good thing because it fit well with our need to cut things. However, this analysis was not without problems, and Ewing’s attempt to identify a good remained unsatisfactory. In later years, other philosophers, such as Thomas Scanlon (1998) with his buck-passing analysis of value, have pursued a similar project with varying degrees of success. In the end, it may be impossible to achieve a definitive definition of the good. However, it is possible to develop a useful framework for understanding the concepts involved in the discussion of the good.