Throughout the history of philosophy, the word good has come to mean many things. The basic definition is that it is a thing that fills a need, is desirable, or is something that can be sold. It can also be viewed as a pleasurable experience.
In the past, people have tried to prove that the world as a whole is good, but the result usually has been a purely subjective view. Those who try to make the case usually adopt the perspective that all evil is simply the absence of something.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, there is an element of truth to the claim. It is possible to know that something is good or not, but it is not possible to know what that something is.
There are two main traditions of nondeontological thinking. One tradition has its roots in Aristotle and the early scholastics, and the other has its roots in the twentieth century. Each tradition aims to define good in its own way.
Plato’s tradition construes the good as an objective feature of the universe, like a sun shedding light on everything. This idea is similar to what Spinoza dubbed the’reality’ or ‘perfect’, or even Kant’s ‘perfect’.
On the other hand, the perfectionist conception of good is based on the notion that what matters most to an individual is the realization of their best talents and skills. This view also holds that value is more than just a matter of choosing good choices; it is an exercise of the human soul.
A further variant is the perfectionist’s conception of the ‘necessary’. Unlike the ontological good, the necessary good is something that is required for the human body to thrive.
For example, a child is shown a red ball and told that it is red. But it is not possible to say that the red ball is the perfect colour. That would be like saying that a car is the perfect colour.
Another variation is the subjective or ‘non-descriptive’ account of good. While this approach may seem incongruous, it does offer a useful perspective. As an example, it shows that an act that allows an individual to experience more being is more preferred than an act that provides less being.
Finally, there is the “positivist” school of thought, which rejects the idea of value judgments as scientifically verifiable. Good can be said to be the “subjective” or the ‘non-descriptive’ property of an action, although it can also be said to be the ‘objective’ property of a concept.
So what exactly is the good? To the Stoics, good was a rational and passionless nature that lived a natural and rational life. Other philosophers have refined good in different ways, but there is no single definition that can be embraced by everyone.
Clearly, tracing the history of the term “good” and its various meanings can be revealing. What started out as a simple concept has now been refashioned in several different ways, each with its own merits.