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Good, theories of the

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L032-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Article Summary

‘Good’ is the most general term of positive evaluation, used to recommend or express approval in a wide range of contexts. It indicates that a thing is desirable or worthy of choice, so that normally, if you have reason to want a certain kind of thing, you also have reason to prefer a good thing of that kind.

A theory of the good may consist in a general account of the good, which is meant to apply to all good things; or in a definition of ‘good’, that is, an account of how the term functions in the language. Theories of the good have metaphysical implications about the relations between fact and value. Many ancient and medieval philosophers believed in the ultimate identity of the real and the good. Modern philosophers generally reject this identification, and have held a range of positions: realists, for example, hold that the good is part of reality, while certain moral-sense theorists hold that when we call something ‘good’ we are projecting human interests onto reality; and emotivists hold that we use the term ‘good’ only to signify subjective approval.

Theorists of the good also categorize different kinds of goodness and explain how they are related. Good things are standardly classified as ends, which are valued for their own sakes, or as means, valued for the sake of the ends they promote. Some philosophers also divide them into intrinsic goods, which have their value in themselves, and extrinsic goods, which get their value from their relation to something else. Various theories have been held about the relation between these two distinctions – about whether an end must be something with intrinsic value. Philosophers also distinguish subjective or agent-relative goods – things which are good for someone in particular – from objective or agent-neutral goods, which are good from everyone’s point of view. Views about how these kinds of goodness are related have important implications for moral philosophy.

Usually, a theory of the good is constructed in the hope of shedding light on more substantive questions, such as what makes a person, an action, or a human life good. These questions raise issues about the relation between ethical and other values. For example, we may ask whether moral virtue is a special sort of goodness, or just the ordinary sort applied to persons. Or, since actions are valued as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, we may ask how these values are related to the action’s goodness or badness. We may also pose the question of whether a life that is good in the sense of being happy must also be a morally good or virtuous life. This last question has occupied the attention of philosophers ever since Plato.

Citing this article:
Korsgaard, Christine M.. Good, theories of the, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L032-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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