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The Good

by Bill Meacham on February 14th, 2012

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.

Texas Mountain LaurelAnd 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.

From → Philosophy

  1. Kelly Bradford permalink

    You wrote “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.” So much for utilitarianism. If all goods are contextual, can’t rank goods or compare and weight them apples to apples. One way out is to have a concept of what humans are “good for” (some kind of “essentialist” definition) period and in all circumstances.

    • Right on both counts. Utilitarianism is actually just a different way of figuring out what the rules are in the Rightness paradigm. In the Goodness paradigm that I espouse rules are only rules of thumb, telling us what works most of the time. And, indeed, we need to find out what humans are good for (what our talents are, what our place in nature is) so we can find out what is good for us. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say “period and in all circumstances,” but I would say proximally and for the most part.

  2. Matt permalink

    Hi Bill,

    Nice post. I wonder if it might be clearer if you got rid of using the phrase ‘the Good’ entirely. It seems as if you want to say that Goodness is an empty term unless it has a context (it should not be hypostasized as Moore and Plato have done), unless it is meant in the sense of ‘good for.’ Would it be fair to say that really what you are doing is suggesting that some kind of consequentialism is the best moral theory going? If so, what do you do with the laundry list of classic objections to consequentialism? Why not just say that consequences are often more morally relevant, than adhering to principles, and that living a life unreflectively dedicated solely to principles can be a dangerous one? Does it seem right to say that sometimes consequences are morally salient, but sometimes it is necessary to stick to one’s principles?



    • Yes, sometimes it is best (not sure I would go so far as to say necessary) to stick to your principles. Under what circumstances? When the consequences of doing so outweigh the consequences of abandoning them. I am indeed focused on consequences, but am not a Utilitarian. What are the classic objections to consequentialism that you are familiar with?

  3. Gene Reshanov permalink

    I’m somewhat confused here, Bill. First you knock down Plato’s and Moore’s versions of realism regarding value. I’m OK with that. Then you propose a relationist concept of value and draw it up in a pretty good detail. At that point I’m offering you my full support and ready join the ranks. And then in a twist of intellectual cruelty you proclaim it’s all there in Nature. Huh? Are you back to realism? Now where I go?

    OK, that was my customary joke, to get things going. But it coveys (I hope) a sense of conflict I got from the two parts of you paper. On one hand you say it’s relational, on the other it’s in the natural world. To me the natural world is simply atoms and the void (or quarks, or vibrating strings or…) that contain no value whatsoever. So I was thinking how your seemingly contradictory statements can be reconciled. Maybe what we have here is similar to old nature vs. nurture argument. Obviously only the combination of both makes sense.

    Perhaps this is what is taking place: Your account of the Good can be interpreted as resulting from applying relational criteria to the natural world. I’m perfectly fine with that. The false argument can arise if one person (Bill) summarizes it as “it’s in Nature” and the other (Gene) as “No, it’s all relational”. But if the origin of values is though of as the interaction of both, then there is no argument.

    • Yes, I suppose you could say that I am applying relational criteria to the natural world. More accurately, I am saying that the natural world is full of relationships. Nothing exists in isolation. You say

      > To me the natural world is simply atoms and the void (or quarks, or vibrating strings or…) that contain no value whatsoever.

      Value is found in the relationships between the elements in the natural world. I do not reduce everything in the natural world to quarks and strings, etc. I think it makes a lot of sense to apply higher-level concepts as well, such as those that describe the biological world and the human world. I am a naturalist but not a reductionist.

  4. Stephen permalink

    Well! A bold post, indeed! But let’s remember that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions!

    The word natural, in the beginning, referred to the electromagnetic (hence, visible) matter of the universe. It was supposed that this was not the whole story, though, with heavens and hells also out there, but invisible. Really invisible, that is, not like ultraviolet radiation or radio waves, but not electromagnetic at all. Yet, still influential in the goings on in the visible world.

    Now, if your contextual notion of good includes these realms, many of which are hot topics in physics today, as they were of theology millenniums ago, your analysis is astute. But it would not be good to ignore these realities, if indeed they matter. Shrugging off the mystical because only the serious scientist gets to see the data that verify it does not seem good, in the sense you mean.

    In reference to “good,” we have it frequently reported that the natural good you speak of, is in fact subject to the artistic license of an “supernatural” creator, who is engaged in various activities such as we call games. That is, they have rather arbitrary rules and values, within whose contexts this or that is good or bad. As we go along with this, so good is defined. You can’t play the game if you don’t know the rules.

    And, being a part of such a creation, we are in some such game whether we like it or not. Whatever context we might have for a notion of good, we are led to suspect, will work only insofar as it meshes with this divine context. The “good” hammer building a church building hoped to get people to heaven, turns out to be a devastating instrument of evil stumbling the simple (surprise, surprise!) into hell.

    Now, of all things in the whole universe, nothing is so readily, consistently evidential as intuition. It is hard to hold your hands over your eyes and ears tight enough to keep out the overwhelming impact of this evidence. Granted, the gut-based opinion of good is wickedly mystical and a bane on all our lives. You have said this well, and I thank you. But, well, did you hear of the study of train wrecks? Many report intuitive notions that it would not be good, today, to take the train, and sure enough, on days when the train is going to wreck, passenger lists are significantly (statistical sense) shorter. so, there is good intuition and the other kind.

    But we are Homo sapiens. Figuring out the difference is what we are “good” at.

    • Thought-provoking comments, as usual. Thanks.

      You say

      > nothing is so readily, consistently evidential as intuition.

      Intuition seems quite forceful (is that what you mean by “evidential”?) to the one who is having it. But if someone else has a different intuition, how do you adjudicate who (if either) is correct? If I have an intuition that people of a different skin color from mine are disgusting and you have an intuition that regardless of skin color all people are valuable, then what? I do not deny the reality of intuition, but I would certainly not want to rely on it alone. See my post “What do you do with a peak experience?” at

      My contextual notion of good includes all realms that have an influence on human life. If someone alleges that there is an invisible realm but it has no influence on us, then I say we can safely ignore it. If it does have some influence on us, then we better pay attention to it. And if it is truly invisible, then the only evidence we have for it is its effects. So we observe effects, but how do we know to what (or whom) to attribute them?

      As you know, I am sympathetic to people who have religious experience. But I insist on some rigor when thinking about it.

  5. Stephen permalink

    Now, Bill, play fair! “Then what?” That’s rhetorical and unjust.

    Surely you know that intuitive prophets in Old Testament times had to successfully predict uncanny futures (dividing the red sea, etc) with 100% success, or get stoned. Now (more grace) we do Bayesian science, which babysteps us to the same predictability, or we get adjudicated away. John MacTernan has intuitively sensed that there is this God Person with a thing for Israel, who causes hurricanes etc on America when we mess with manifest destiny Israeli style. So, we look at celebrity storms and their co-occurance with American policies that cost Israelis land.. During H.W Bush’s presidency, there were seven such storms, and three pronouncements asking Israelis to give land to Palestinians. Three of the seven storms hit on exactly the same day as the pronouncements. Odds? About one in 20,000.

    Obama’s most definitive such statement was followed by Joplin tornados in three days.

    Etc. etc, etc. There is a ton of this stuff. There is an intuitive hypothesis that something like dark matter exists and is inhabited by a very, very value conscious individual, who puts His thing on us, defining good for us what ever context we might find ourselves in. This hypothesis has been subjected to Bayesian testing so many times, with confirmations, that there is no longer room for any rational doubt. There is public doubt, of course. All easily shown to be rationalizing and hypocritical from person’s who understand Bayesian Science only well enough to throw confusing and irrelevant monkey-wrenches into it’s functioning. This disinformation campaign is in fact predicted by the hypothesis.

    Sit on the bleachers, and you will never get this. Get on the playing field, and it’s a big duh.

  6. Matt permalink

    I am thinking of cases where consequentialism would condone someone doing some pretty distasteful things. Michael Sandel has an example where he asks us to imagine a scenario where we know that if we torture a terrorist’s innocent twelve year old daughter, the terrorist will crack and then tell us where all the bombs he planted are located. There Sandel is talking about Utilitarianism, but it seems to me that any kind of conseqentialism is not well equipped to give an account of moral rights. I suppose there are all kinds of scenarios to cook up. I know that it is an extreme example, and I know that it is only a counterexample if you think there are such things as moral rights in the first place, but for me consequentialism is another ‘ism’ that I can’t commit myself to, or rather, it is not something I am already committed to. It does not help me to make sense of my moral life, where issues like integrity and love don’t really don’t fit a calculus of benefits and consequences. I guess no theory I have come across has helped me make sense of my ‘whole’ moral life, so it is not so much an issue with consequentialism, but with theories based on general principles.

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