The term ‘good’ is not specific to ethics in particular, although it plays an important role in morality. Good may be used to refer to anything – it is a general term that expresses positive value about something or assigns positive value to something. Nevertheless, in philosophy the term takes on special meaning and that meaning is particularly related to ethics.
Philosophers sometimes make a distinction between an intrinsic good (also referred to as a ‘good in itself,’ and an instrumental good, which serves as a means to in intrinsic good. Money, for example, is a good, but it is typically regarded as an instrumental good. Having money helps or enables a person to reach an intrinsic good (happiness, for example), but money itself is not an intrinsic good.
Philosophers also tend to shape their ethical thought according to what they take to be good, or what they take to be the ultimate good. To put it another way, the concept of good, though taken to be different things by different philosophers, is central to ethics. It is often the case, moreover, that differences between ethical theories amount to differences in the conception of goodness.
Aristotle, for example, made a distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods, and argued that eudaimonia (roughly translated as happiness or flourishing) is the intrinsic, or ultimate, good for humans. Accordingly, Aristotle’s virtue ethics is designed to be a normative ethical theory which, if properly followed, leads to eudaimonia, the ultimate good.
Likewise, hedonistic utilitarians, who view pleasure as the ultimate good, offer a normative theory that seeks to maximize pleasure and tells us to act always according to the criterion “the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Desire-satisfaction utilitarians also hold that the central criterion of right action is to act to bring about “the greatest good for the greatest number.” They differ from hedonistic utilitarians, however, because they view the ultimate good as the satisfaction of desires (which may not necessarily be reduced to pleasure, hence the distinction).
Whatever the framework within which the conception of good is developed, goodness plays a central role in ethics – perhaps more so than any other single concept.« Back to Glossary Index