On Philosophy

May 3, 2007


Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Often people use the word good to describe what is ethical. Although I agree that ethical actions can be considered good I think describing them only as good is imprecise. Many things fall under the heading of good, not just ethics. Trying to understand ethics through an understanding of good, or “the good”, is responsible for a good deal of confusion about what ethics is. By explaining what we really mean by the use of the word good, and its relationship to several other evaluative terms, I hope to clear up some of these confusions.

In ordinary discourse the word good has four common meanings*. Two of them are philosophically uninteresting. Specifically, good can be used to describe a quantity, meaning a lot, or enough (ex: a good deal of food). And good can also be used to describe something that functions as it was intended to or evolved to function (ex: a good burglar, someone who is good at stealing). A third, and more interesting, use of the word good is to describe something that is subjectively valuable. For example, if I describe food as good then it means that I am enjoying it. Of course my use of the word doesn’t say anything about whether you will enjoy it, but that is understood and unproblematic. This meaning of the word is only interesting because it is sometimes confused with one of the other uses, especially the fourth case.

The fourth case is when good is used to describe something that is objectively or universally valuable. This is why ethical actions are often described as good, because ethical actions are supposed to be valued by all of us. Now some do not understand this fourth use as separate from the third, and think that when we describe an action as good we mean to say that it is valuable to us, or that we approve of it, but not that it necessarily merits approval. Now perhaps this position can be argued for from other premises, but I do not think it follows from the way we use language alone. Simply reflecting on how we use the word good, or on how other people use it, reveals that sometimes they intend to say that it is good, in the third sense, for everyone. When people say that giving money to the poor is good they usually mean more than that they approve of giving money to the poor.

If philosophers attempt to understand ethical action as those actions which are good they usually understand good in the fourth sense, as that which is universally, or objectively, valuable. But I object to this move, on the grounds that there is much more, in addition to ethics, which may be described as good in this sense. Of course there is nothing preventing us from coming to an understanding of what is good in general, but since, in my opinion, ethics is a sub-domain of that more general category, this will result in our failure to understand ethics specifically, because by calling this general category ethics we would fail to notice the interesting sub-category that I call ethics. The easiest way to prove that the fourth sense of good includes more than ethics is simply to provide examples. Knowledge is one such example; knowledge is good, meaning objectively valuable, but it certainly isn’t ethical. Justice, understood as the principles that hold society together, is also good, but not the same as ethics. And the kind of life I have described elsewhere as the good life (one which it is desirable to live) is again, something besides ethics that it justifiably called good in the fourth sense.

All of these things fall under the heading of good because they are, in some way, normative. Or, in other words, they are things that we describe not only factually but also by expressing our approval of them in general. To describe a belief as knowledge is to describe it as one worth having, in contrast to a falsehood, which will mislead. To describe a social structure as just is to describe a social structure that you would want your society to have. And so on.

And so we are right to describe an ethical action as good, in one sense. However, it is important to keep in mind that good is a description that can apply to many things, not just because it has different meanings, but because good in that sense can be applied to more than ethics. And so trying to understand everything described as good in this way as in some way ethical would be a mistake.

* Of course there are probably unusual cases in which it acquires meanings other than these, but I’m not trying to be a dictionary here, simply to clear up certain confusions by distinguishing different meanings of the word. Less frequent meanings of the word good are rarely considered in this context, and hence are not usually a source of confusion.


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