What is a Good Thing?

A good thing is something desirable or satisfying: a good meal, a good time, or a good movie. It may also refer to a person or thing that is virtuous, admirable, or praiseworthy: a good man, a good mother, a good friend, or a good teacher. The word good also carries the connotation of being fit or suitable for a purpose: a good knife, a good coat, or a good book. Finally, it can be used as an adjective to indicate approval or satisfaction: “That’s a really good idea”; “I think that’s a very good article.”

Philosophical studies of goodness are extensive and date back to antiquity. In particular, two types of the good have been at the center of many discussions: the prudentially good (e.g., what makes an action ethical or moral) and the morally good (e.g., what constitutes a good life).

Good can also be understood as the object of a person’s deliberations: “whether it is good to do p.” The nature of good is thus a fundamental issue in ethics. Several philosophers have attempted to define what it means for a thing or person to be good, but their attempts have met with mixed results.

One reason for the controversy over a definition of good is that the concept seems to be incoherent. It is impossible to make a uncontroversial statement about what it is for something to be good, because the definition of good will always depend on the perspective from which the claim is made. For example, a person might think that it is a good thing for his friend to return a wallet, but another might consider the matter from the standpoint of whether doing so is in accordance with his principles and values.

The study of goodness was important to Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers, who attempted to develop a system of philosophical inquiry based on the concepts of the good, the true, and the beautiful. However, since the emergence of naturalistic epistemology in the mid-19th century, there has been a trend toward reducing the importance of considerations of the good.

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