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 conceptEdit

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 fieldsEdit

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 goodEdit

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 Edit

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 theoriesEdit

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 wellbeingEdit

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 wellbeingEdit

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 theoriesEdit

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 agencyEdit

Agent-centered theoriesEdit

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 Edit