The Good

A pernicious notion has plagued Western philosophy ever since Plato and perhaps earlier: that the Good is something that somehow transcends the ordinary world, something that has some reality over and above the physical reality we all live in. It is pernicious because (a) there is no such thing and (b) thinking there is confuses all sorts of moral and ethical issues.

Plato (through the character of Socrates) in the Republic likens the Good to the sun. As the sun provides light so that we can see, the Good provides the medium whereby we have knowledge. The Good is not knowledge and is not truth but is something higher than both. The good is a Form, indeed the highest Form. It is something of “inconceivable beauty” that “transcends essence in dignity and power.”(1)

The Forms, according to Plato, are something immaterial but nevertheless most fundamentally real. They can be apprehended only by pure intellect. They are unchanging and give reality to all the changing things with which we are acquainted. (The Greek word is eidos, from which we get our word “eidetic.” Someone with eidetic memory remembers precisely the physical form of what they have seen or heard.)

The concept of unchanging form underlying changing reality makes some sense in mathematics. We have all seen groups of, say, four things, but we have never seen the number four or fourness itself. We have all seen triangles, but they are imperfect; if you look closely, you can see flaws in the lines. Nevertheless, we know the mathematical concept of triangularity, with its absolutely straight lines and perfect angles, and we can use that concept in geometrical proofs. Plato says that the Good is something like that. You don’t find the Good itself in the world of the senses, only good things, which are reflections, as it were, of the Form of the Good. You need an almost mystical vision to see the Good.

Much more recently the analytical philosopher G. E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica, asserts that “good” is a primary and indefinable term. When we say something is good, we mean, according to Moore, that “it ought to exist for its own sake,” that it “has intrinsic value.”(2) It does not consist in a relationship between things. The Good is simple and has no parts, and is thus a kind of ultimate concept: “‘good’ denotes a simple and indefinable quality.”(3) It is “not to be considered a natural object”.(4) If so, then how do we know what it is? Moore’s answer is that we have a kind of moral intuition such that our knowledge of the good is “self-evident.”(5)

Both Plato and Moore assert forms of ethical intuitionism, the idea that we know ethical concepts via some sort of non-sensory insight. The problem with such theories is that they are unverifiable; there is no way to adjudicate competing insights. Here is Alasdair MacIntyre on the subject, speaking of the group of intellectuals surrounding Moore:

[The question was] ‘If A was in love with B under a misapprehension of B’s qualities, was this better or worse than A’s not being in love at all?’ How were such questions to be answered? By following Moore’s prescriptions in precise fashion. Do you or do you not discern the presence or absence of the non-natural property of good in greater or lesser degree? And what if two observers disagree? Then … either the two were focusing on different subject matters, without recognizing this, or one had perceptions superior to the other. But … what was really happening was quite other [according to John Maynard Keynes, who was there]: ‘In practice, victory was with those who could speak with the greatest appearance of clear, undoubting conviction and who could best use the accents of infallibility’ and Keynes goes on to describe the effectiveness of Moore’s gasps of incredulity and head-shaking, of Strachey’s grim silences and of Lowes Dickinson’s shrugs.(6)

In other words, there is no rational way to tell what is good by appealing to intuition. So we will have to appeal to something else: careful observation of objective reality.

Far from being transcendent or perceivable only by some kind of special intuition, the good is a feature of the natural world; it has to do with benefits, which are publicly observable. Something that benefits something or someone else we call good for that thing or person. Such goodness may be instrumental or biological. Instrumentally, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and what is good for the hammer is what enables it to do so well. Biologically, air, water, and food are good for living beings.

To make sense, an instrumental usage requires reference to somebody’s purpose or intention. Thus, a hammer is good for pounding nails, and you pound nails in order to build things such as furniture or housing. Your intention is to acquire the comfort and utility these things afford you. That is your goal, or end, and the good is what helps bring it about.

The biological usage does not require reference to purpose or intention. It is expressed in terms of health and well-being. That which nourishes a living thing is good for it. The good, in this sense, is that which enables a thing to function well.

The instrumental usage intersects the biological when we consider what is good for something that is itself good for a purpose or intention. For instance, keeping a hammer clean and sheltered from the elements is good for the hammer and enables the hammer to fulfil its instrumental function. In the instrumental sense as well, the good is that which enables a thing to function well.

Just as good is defined in relation to an end (the proper functioning of a tool, the health of an organism), the value of the end is defined in relation to another end. For instance, a hammer is good for driving nails. Driving nails is good for building houses. We build houses to have shelter and warmth. And we desire shelter and warmth because they sustain our life. This chain of goods and ends stretches in both directions from wherever we arbitrarily start looking. A hammer is good for driving nails. So what is good for the hammer? Whatever enables it to perform its function. It’s not good to leave it out in the rain; it is good to handle it carefully, swing it accurately with grace and force, and put it away safely.

Both the instrumental and the biological usage give meaning to the term “good” by referring to the consequences or effects of an action or event. That fresh vegetables are good for humans means that the effect of eating them is healthful. That a hammer is good for pounding nails means that using it for that purpose is likely to have the effect you want, namely that the nails go in easily and straight. Some synonyms for “good” are “helpful,” “nourishing,” “beneficial,” “useful” and “effective.” Some synonyms for “bad” are their opposites: “unhelpful,” “unhealthy,” “damaging,” “useless” and “ineffective.”

There are degrees of goodness and its opposite, badness. That some plants need full sunlight to thrive and others need shade means that full sunlight is good for the former and not so good for the latter.

There is no end to the chains of goods and ends, no summum bonum (highest good) in which all chains culminate or from which all goods are derived. The world is a web, not a hierarchy. The only ultimate good would be the good of the entire universe and all that is within it, not an abstract entity or concept apart from it.

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And all this is publicly observable. Last summer Texas experienced extreme drought and days on end of blisteringly hot weather. Lots of plants were withered and dried out. But not the Texas Mountain Laurels. They were big, full-bodied and blooming in profusion. Anybody could see that the hot, dry weather was good for them, although not good for many other plants. But if you were to plant Texas Mountain Laurel in some other bioregion, say the East Coast or the Pacific Northwest, they would do poorly there. And anybody could see that as well.

So is hot, dry weather good? In the abstract, apart from context, the question makes no sense. It is good for Texas Mountain Laurels and not good for many other plants.

Is it good to be honest? Again, we cannot answer out of context. If you are compassionately hiding a Jewish family from the Nazis, then it is not good to be honest, for you or for your hidden guests. If you are a merchant and you want repeat business, or if you just want self-respect and friends, then it is good to be honest.

There is nothing that is good in itself. When you are asking about goodness, you must always ask “Good for whom? Good for what and under what circumstances?” If not, you risk mystification.

Confusion about this topic is rampant. The great philosopher Hans Jonas seeks “knowledge of the Good, of what man ought to be.”(7) What man (meaning human beings generally) ought to be is not at all the same as what nourishes or benefits us. Jonas is importing concepts of duty and obligation from the Rightness paradigm, a whole different way of speaking about ethics, but using the term “good” to do so.(8) He speaks of “what the human Good is, what human beings should be, what we are all about, and what is advantageous for us.”(9) Of these three things the first, “what human beings should be,” has nothing to do with goodness as I am defining it; the last, “what is advantageous for us,” has everything to do with it; and the second, “what we are all about,” is a factual inquiry, the results of which would have great bearing on what is advantageous for us.

A reader complains that I am “naturalizing the Good.” Of course I am. That’s where the Good resides, in the natural world, in the web of relations among things and people. It does not lie in some transcendent realm, accessible only to an unverifiable faculty of intuition. Many of those who believe it does have an unfortunate habit of trying to impose their view of morality on the rest of us. It would be better for all concerned if we got over this philosophical muddle and started paying attention to the real world.



(1) Plato, Republic, 509a – 509b, in Hamilton and Cairns, p. 744.

(2) Moore, Principia Ethica, Preface, ¶2.

(3) Moore, Principia Ethica, §10, ¶1.

(4) Moore, Principia Ethica, §12, ¶1.

(5) Moore, Principia Ethica, Preface, ¶3.

(6) MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 17.

(7) Jonas, “Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future.” p. 104. Emphasis in original.

(8) See my “The Good and the Right” for a discussion of the Rightness paradigm.

(9) Jonas, “Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future.” p. 104. Emphasis in original.


Jonas, Hans. “Toward an Ontological Grounding of an Ethics for the Future.” In Mortality and Morality: A Search of the Good after Auschwitz, ed. Vogel, Lawrence. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

MacIntye, Alasdair. After Virtue, Third Edition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” On-line publication, URL =

Moore, G. E. Principia Ethica. Online publication, URL = as of 7 February 2012.

Plato, Collected Dialogues. Ed. Hamilton, Edith and Cairns, Huntington. New York: Pantheon Books, Bollingen Foundation, 1963.

Rodriguez, David. “Texas Mountain Laurel.” Online publication, URL = as of 7 February 2012.

Wikipedia, “Form of the Good.” Online publication, URL = as of 7 February 2012.

Wikipedia, “G. E. Moore.” Online publication, URL = as of 7 February 2012.

Wikipedia, “Theory of Forms.” Online publication, URL = as of 7 February 2012.

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