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Theories of moral goodness inquire into what sorts of things are good, and what the word "good" really means in the abstract. As a philosophical concept, goodness might represent a hope that natural love be continuous, expansive, and all-inclusive. In a monotheistic religious context, it is by this hope that an important concept of God is derived —as an infinite projection of love, manifest as goodness in the lives of people. In other contexts, the good is viewed to be whatever produces the best consequences upon the lives of people, especially with regard to their states of well being.


Origin of the concept

Every language has a word expressing good in the sense of "having the right or desirable quality" (ἀρετή) and bad in the sense "undesirable". A sense of moral judgement and a distinction "right and wrong, good and bad" are cultural universals.[1] The notion of "good and evil" in an absolute moral or religious sense, however, is not ancient, but emerges out of notions of ritual purity and impurity. The basic meanings of κακός and ἀγαθός are "bad, cowardly" and "good, brave, capable", and their absolute sense emerges only around 400 BC, with Pre-Socratic philosophy, in particular Democritus.[2] Morality in this absolute sense solidifies in the dialogues of Plato, together with the emergence of monotheistic thought (notably in Euthyphro which ponders the concept of piety (τὸ ὅσιον) as a moral absolute). The idea is further developed in Late Antiquity by Neoplatonists, Gnostics, and Church Fathers.

This development from the relative or habitual to the absolute is also evident in the terms ethics and morality both being derived from terms for "regional custom", Greek ήθος and Latin mores, respectively (see also siðr).

Descriptive, meta-ethical, and normative fields

It is possible to treat the essential theories of value by the use of a philosophical and academic approach. In properly analyzing theories of value, everyday beliefs are not only carefully catalogued and described, but also rigorously analyzed and judged.

There are at least two basic ways of presenting a theory of value, based on two different kinds of questions which people ask:

  • What do people find good, and what do they despise?
  • What really is good, and what really is bad?

The two questions are subtly different. One may answer the first question by researching the world by use of social science, and examining the preferences that people assert. However, one may answer the second question by use of reasoning, introspection, prescription, and generalization. The former kind of method of analysis is called "descriptive", because it attempts to describe what people actually view as good or evil; while the latter is called "normative", because it tries to actively prohibit evils and cherish goods. These descriptive and normative approaches can be complementary. For example, tracking the decline of the popularity of slavery across cultures is the work of descriptive ethics, while advising that slavery be avoided is normative.

Meta-ethics is the study of the fundamental questions concerning the nature and origins of the good and the vile, including inquiry into the nature of good and evil, as well as the meaning of evaluative language. In this respect, meta-ethics is not necessarily tied to investigations into how others see the good, or of asserting what is good.

Theories of the intrinsically good

A satisfying formulation of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritization. One could answer the ancient question, "How then should we live?", among many other important related questions. It has long been thought that this question can best be answered by examining what it is that necessarily makes a thing valuable, or in what the source of value consists.


Transcendental realism

One attempt to define goodness describes it as a property of the world. According to this claim, to talk about the good is to talk about something real within the object itself which exists independently of the perception of it. Plato was one advocate of this view, in his expression that there is such a thing as an eternal realm of forms or ideas, and that the greatest of the ideas and the essence of being was goodness, or The good. The good was defined by many ancient Greeks and other ancient philosophers as a perfect and eternal idea, or blueprint. The good is the right relation between all that exists, and this exists in the mind of the Divine, or some heavenly realm. The good is the harmony of a just political community, love, friendship, the ordered human soul of virtues, and the right relation to the Divine and to Nature. The characters in Plato's dialogues mention the many virtues of a philosopher, or a lover of wisdom.

Many people are theists, who support the idea that God (or gods) created the universe. Such persons may, therefore, claim that the universe has a purpose and value according to the will of such creator(s), and which lies partially beyond human understanding. For instance, Thomas Aquinas was a proponent of this view, and believed to have proven arguments for the existence of God, and the right relations that humans ought to have to the divine first cause.

Monotheists might also hope for infinite universal love. Such hope is often translated as "faith", and wisdom itself is largely defined within religious doctrine as a knowledge and understanding of innate goodness. The concepts of innocence, spiritual purity, and salvation are likewise related to a concept of being in, or returning to, a state of goodness —one which, according to various teachings of "enlightenment", approaches a state of holiness (or Godliness).

Another spiritual, transcendental viewpoint is that of Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy which advocated quietism and conformity to the Way, or Tao: "The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living or sentient object, as well as through the entire universe".

Singularianists believe that good is anything that increases the probability of the universe eventually reaching the Omega Point, and bad is anything that decreases that probability.


It was the belief of Aristotle that virtues consisted in the realization of potentials which were unique to humanity, such as the use of reason. This type of view, called perfectionism, has been recently defended in modern form by Thomas Hurka.

An entirely different form of perfectionism has arisen in response to rapid technological change. Some techno-optimists, especially transhumanists, avow a form of perfectionism in which the capacity to determine good and trade off fundamental values, is expressed not by humans but by software, genetic engineering of humans, artificial intelligence. Skeptics assert that rather than perfect goodness, it would be only the appearance of perfect goodness, reinforced by persuasion technology and probably brute force of violent technological escalation, which would cause people to accept such rulers or rules authored by them.

Welfarist theories

Welfarist theories of value are those which say that that which is good, and hence valuable, are due to their effects on the well-being of persons.

Subjective theories of wellbeing

It is difficult to figure out where an immaterial trait such as "goodness" could reside in the world. A counterproposal is to locate values inside people. Some philosophers go so far as to say that if some state of affairs does not tend to arouse a desirable subjective state in self-aware beings, then it cannot be good.

Most philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which they call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods. Failing to distinguish the two leads to a subject-object problem in which it is not clear who is evaluating what object.

In some theories there is no higher collective value than that of maximizing pleasure for individual(s). Some have even defined goodness and that which is intrinsically valuable as the experience of pleasure, and the bad as the experience of pain. This view is called hedonism, a monistic theory of value. It has two main varieties: simple, and Epicurean.

Simple hedonism is the view that physical pleasure is the ultimate good. However, the ancient philosopher Epicurus used the word 'pleasure' in a more general sense which encompassed a range of states from bliss to contentment to relief. Contrary to popular caricature, he valued pleasures of the mind to bodily pleasures, and advocated moderation as the surest path to happiness.

Jeremy Bentham's book The Principles of Morals and Legislation prioritized goods by considering pleasure, pain and consequences. This theory had a wide effect on public affairs, up to and including the present day. A similar system was later named Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill. More broadly, utilitarian theories are examples of Consequentialism. All utilitarian theories are based upon the maxim of utility, which states that that which is good is that which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It follows from this principle that that which brings happiness to the greatest number of people, is a good.

One of the benefits of tracing good to pleasure and pain is that both things seem to be easily understandable, both in oneself and to an extent in others. For the hedonist, the explanation for helping behavior may come in the form of empathy—the ability of a being to "feel" another's pain. People tend to value the lives of gorillas more than those of mosquitoes because the gorilla lives and feels, making it easier to empathize with them. This idea is carried forward in the ethical relationship view and has given rise to the animal rights movement and parts of the peace movement. The impact of sympathy on human behavior is compatible with Enlightenment views, including David Hume's stances that the idea of a self with unique identity is illusory, and that morality ultimately comes down to sympathy and fellow feeling for others, or the exercise of approval underlying moral judgements.

A view adopted by James Griffin attempts to find a subjective alternative to hedonism as an intrinsic value. He argues that it is the satisfaction of one's informed desires which constitutes wellbeing, and not necessarily whether or not said desires actually cause the agent to experience happiness. Moreover, these preferences must be life-relevant, that is, contributing to the success of a person's life overall.

Desire satisfaction may occur without the agent's awareness of the satisfaction of the desire. For example, if a man wishes for his legal will to be enacted after his death, and it is, then his desire has been satisfied despite the fact that he will never experience or know of it.

Objective theories of wellbeing

The idea that the ultimate good exists and is not orderable but is globally measurable is reflected in various ways in classical economics, green economics, welfare economics and the Gross National Happiness and measuring well-being theories, all of which focus on various ways of assessing progress towards that goal, a so-called Genuine Progress Indicator. Modern economics thus reflects very ancient philosophy, but a calculation or quantitative or other process based on cardinality and statistics replaces the simple ordering of values.

For example, in both economics and in folk wisdom, the value of a thing seems to rise so long as it is relatively scarce. However, if it becomes too scarce, it leads often to a conflict, and can reduce collective value. See the separate analysis of wealth.

In the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and in its critique by Karl Marx, human labor is seen as the ultimate source of all new economic value. This is an objective theory of value (see value theory which attributes value to real production-costs, and ultimately expenditures of human labor-time (see also law of value. It contrasts with marginal utility theory, which argues that the value of labor depends on subjective preferences by consumers, which may however also be objectively studied.

The economic value of labor may be assessed technically in terms of its use-value or utility or commercially in terms of its exchange-value, price or production cost (see also labor power. But its value may also be socially assessed in terms of its contribution to the wealth and well-being of a society.

In non-market societies, labor may be valued primarily in terms of skill, time, and output, as well as moral or social criteria and legal obligations. In market societies, labor is valued economically primarily through the labor market. The price of labor may then be set by supply and demand, by strike action or legislation, or by legal or professional entry-requirements into occupations.

Mid-range theories

Conceptual metaphor theories argue against both subjective and objective conceptions of value and meaning, and focus on the relationships between body and other essential elements of human life. In effect, conceptual metaphor theories treat ethics as an ontology problem and the issue of how to work-out values as a negotiation of these metaphors, not the application of some abstraction or a strict standoff between parties who have no way to understand each other's views.

Goodness and agency

Agent-centered theories

One more recent philosophical proposal has defined good as "That which increases the quality and quantity of choices available overall." These approaches have been called choice optimization theories. This maxim might be countered by the phenomenon of opportunity costs observed by social scientists. Opportunity cost is when people who are confronted with a greater number of choices also experience greater dismay at their choices after the fact, because of the missed opportunities.

In his Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen asserted free time as the most fundamental good and systems of organizing which enabled it as the most fundamental value in civilization. He refuted the common claim that Asian value theorists had devalued freedom and was clear that a marketplace (creating unity via pricing) valuing free time could be created. Marilyn Waring took a similar view from a feminist perspective, arguing women's time was undervalued and especially the free time they used to raise and teach children. Waring also strongly denied that military hardware or activities were of any value, and attempted to reconcile peace or welfare views of good with the ecological values.

Oher agent-centered theories amongst contemporary thinkers such as Bernard Williams seek to revive the old concept (associated for example with Aristotle and Confucius, that the right action is the action that a person of good character (the "great-souled man" as Aristotle said) will perform.

A Good Will

John Rawls' book A Theory of Justice prioritized social arrangements and goods based on their contribution to justice. Rawls defined justice as fairness, especially in distributing social goods, defined fairness in terms of procedures, and attempted to prove that just institutions and lives are good, if rational individuals' goods are considered fairly. Rawls's crucial invention was the original position, a procedure in which one tries to make objective moral decisions by refusing to let personal facts about oneself enter one's moral calculations.

One problem with the thinkings of Rawls is that it is overly procedural. Procedurally fair processes of the type used by Rawls may not leave enough room for judgment, and therefore, reduce the totality of goodness. For example, if two people are found to own an orange, the standard fair procedure is to cut it in two and give half to each. However, if one wants to eat it while the other wants the rind to flavor a cake, cutting it in two is clearly less good than giving the peel to the baker and feeding the core to the eater.

Applying procedural fairness to an entire society therefore seems certain to create recognizable inefficiencies[citation needed], and therefore be unfair, and (by the equivalence of justice with fairness) unjust.

However, procedural processes are not always necessarily damning in this way. Kant, a great influence for Rawls, similarly applies a lot of procedural practice within the practical application of The Categorical Imperative, however, this is indeed not based solely on 'fairness'. Even though an example like the one above regarding the orange would not be something that required the practical application of The Categorical Imperative, it is important to draw distinction between Kant and Rawls, and note that Kant's Theory would not necessarily lead to the same problems Rawls' does - i.e., the cutting in half of the orange. Kant's Theory promotes acting out of Duty - acting for the Summum Bonum for him, The Good Will - and in fact encourages Judgement, too. What this would mean is that the outcome of the Orange's distribution would not be such a simple process for Kant as the reason why it would be wanted by both parties would necessarily have to be a part of the Judgement process, thus eliminating the problem that Rawls' account suffers here.

Agent-external theories

Society, life and ecology

Many views value unity as a good: to go beyond eudaimonia by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole. Some elements of Confucianism are an example of this, encouraging the view that people ought to conform as individuals to demands of a peaceful and ordered society.

According to the naturalistic view, the flourishing of society is not, or not the only, intrinsically good thing. Defenses of this notion are often formulated by reference to biology, and observations that living things compete more with their own kind than with other kinds. Rather, what is of intrinsic good is the flourishing of all sentient life; extending to those animals which have some level of similar sentience, such as Great Ape personhood. Others go farther, by declaring that life itself is of intrinsic value.

By another approach, one achieves peace and agreement by focusing, not on one's peers (who may be rivals or competitors), but on the common environment. The reasoning: As living beings it is clearly and objectively good that we are surrounded by an ecosystem that supports life. Indeed, if we weren't, we could neither discuss that good nor even recognize it. The anthropic principle in cosmology recognizes this view.[citation needed]

Under materialism or even embodiment values, or in any system that recognizes the validity of ecology as a scientific study of limits and potentials, an ecosystem is a fundamental good. To all who investigate, it seems that goodness, or value, exists within an ecosystem, Earth. Creatures within that ecosystem and wholly dependent on it, evaluate good relative to what else could be achieved there. In other words, good is situated in a particular place and one does not dismiss everything that is not available there (such as very low gravity or absolutely abundant sugar candy) as "not good enough", one works within its constraints. Transcending them and learning to be satisfied with them, is thus another sort of value, perhaps called satisfaction, or in Buddhism, enlightenment.

Values and the people that hold them seem necessarily subordinate to the ecosystem. If this is so, then what kind of being could validly apply the word "good" to an ecosystem as a whole? Who would have the power to assess and judge an ecosystem as good or bad? By what criteria? And by what criteria would ecosystems be modified, especially larger ones such as the atmosphere (climate change) or oceans (extinction) or forests (deforestation)?[3]

"Remaining on Earth" as the most basic value. While green ethicists have been most forthright about it, and have developed theories of Gaia philosophy, biophilia, bioregionalism that reflect it, the questions are now universally recognized as central in determining value, e.g. the economic "value of Earth" to humans as a whole, or the "value of life" that is neither whole-Earth nor human. Many have come to the conclusion that without assuming ecosystem continuation as a universal good, with attendant virtues like biodiversity and ecological wisdom it is impossible to justify such operational requirements as sustainability of human activity on Earth.

One response is that humans are not necessarily confined to Earth, and could use it and move on. A counter-argument is that only a tiny fraction of humans could ever do this, and those would be self-selected by ability to do technological escalation on others (for instance, the ability to create large missiles on which to flee the planet and simultaneously threaten others who sought to prevent them). Another counter-argument is that extraterrestrial life would encounter the fleeing humans and be forced to destroy them as a locust species. A third is that if there are no other worlds fit to support life (and thus no extraterrestrials competing with humans to occupy them) it is both futile to flee, and foolish to imagine that it would take less energy and skill to protect the Earth as a habitat, than it would take to construct some new habitat.

Accordingly remaining on Earth, as a living being surrounded by a working ecosystem, is a fair statement of the most basic values and goodness to any being we are able to communicate with. A moral system without this axiom seems simply not actionable.

However, most religious systems acknowledge an afterlife and improving this is seen as an even more basic good. In many other moral systems, also, remaining on Earth in a state that lacks honor or power over self is less desirable - consider seppuku in bushido, kamikazes or the role of suicide attacks in Jihadi rhetoric. In all these systems, remaining on Earth is perhaps no higher than a third-place value.

Radical values environmentalism can be seen as either a very old or a very new view: that the only intrinsically good thing is a flourishing ecosystem; individuals and societies are merely instrumentally valuable, good only as means to having a flourishing ecosystem. The Gaia philosophy is the most detailed expression of this overall thought but it strongly influenced Deep Ecology and the modern Green Parties.

It is often claimed that aboriginal peoples never lost this sort of view - anthropological linguistics studies links between their languages and the ecosystems in which they lived and which gave rise to their knowledge distinctions. Very often, environmental cognition and moral cognition were not distinguished in these languages - offenses to nature were like those to other people, and Animism reinforced this by giving nature "personality" via myth. Anthropological theories of value explore these questions.

Most people in the world reject older situated ethics and localized religious views. However small-community-based and ecology-centric views have gained some popularity in recent years. In part, this has been attributed to the desire for ethical certainties. Such a deeply-rooted definition of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritisation. Ones that relied only on local referents one could verify for oneself, creating more certainty and therefore less investment in protection, hedging and insuring against consequences of loss of the value.

History and novelty

An event is often seen as being of value simply because of its novelty in fashion and art. By contrast, cultural history and other antiques are sometimes seen as of value in and of themselves due to their age. Philosopher-historians Will and Ariel Durant spoke as much with the quote, "As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of the group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction" (The Lessons of History, 72).

Assessment of the value of old or historical artifacts takes into consideration, especially but not exclusively: the value placed on having a detailed knowledge of the past, the desire to have tangible ties to ancestral history, and/or the increased market value scarce items traditionally hold.

Creativity and innovation and invention are sometimes upheld as fundamentally good especially in Western industrial society - all imply newness, and even opportunity to profit from novelty. Bertrand Russell was notably pessimistic about creativity and thought that knowledge expanding faster than wisdom necessarily was fatal.

Anti-goodness theories

Choice of lesser goods theories

Sometimes more thorough attempts will also be made to describe the origin of evil and how it might tend to come into existence as well. Those attempts will sometimes fall under the category of describing as false various forms of goodness. Among some schools of thought,[citation needed] the idea is put forth that all evil comes from the excessive pursuit of goods of lesser value, at the expense of goods of greater value. For instance, greed derives from the pursuit of gain for one's self, generally a good thing, at the expense of others, generally a bad thing. Overeating may result from the exchange of momentary pleasure derived from the eating of food, for the greater good of long-term health. In psychology similar processes might occur in the formation of various types of addictions. No particular thing is thus considered to be intrinsically bad automatically, but rather evil will come from the pursuit of various goods in excess, to the expense of other more important ones, which are then neglected.

See also


Specific references:

  1. ^ Donald Brown (1991) Human Universals. Philadelphia, Temple University Press (online summary).
  2. ^ Charles H. Kahn, Democritus and the Origins of Moral Psychology, The American Journal of Philology (1985)
  3. ^ For discussion, see debates on monoculture and permaculture.

General references:

  • Atkinson, Philip. Recognising Good And Evil from
  • Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 1998. USA: Oxford University Press. (1177a15)
  • Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. 1988. Prometheus Books.
  • Dewey, John. Theory of Valuation. 1948. University of Chicago Press.
  • Durant, Ariel and W. Durant. The Lessons of History. 1997. MJF Books. (p72)
  • Garcia, John David. The Moral Society - A Rational Alternative to Death. 2005. Whitmore Publishing.
  • Griffin, James. Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance. 1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hume, David. A Treastise of Human Nature. 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hurka, Thomas. Perfectionism. 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. 1996. Cambridge University Press. Third section, [446]-[447].
  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. 1999. Belknap Press.
  • Romero, Rhys. "Just Being a Student". 2009. Austin Student Press.


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