Defining the Good


Defining the Good


It is not easy to define the good. It is not easy to say what such a definition would even look like—what form it should take. Plato talks about the form of the good: is this form composed of other forms or is it a simple form unrelated to other forms? It seems clear that the good is linked to other things; it has conceptual partners. But what is the exact relation between the good and these partners? Is the good simply the conjunction of these related things (or possibly the disjunction)? I propose that we borrow from chemistry: the good is a compound of elements each with a characteristic nature. What are the elements? This itself is controversial but I think something like the following would be on the right lines: (i) compassion, empathy, and love; (ii) justice or fairness; and (iii) reason, rationality, and knowledge. These are all good things—they fall into the extension of the concept good—and they are the elements that compose the good.  As we say that water is H2O, so we could say that good is CJR (compassion, justice, and reason). It doesn’t much matter for present purposes whether this list is complete or even necessary; my question concerns the form of the definition. The point is that the good is a combination of elements, as substances are combinations of elements. We don’t have to say the combination is reducible to the elements, just that these elements play a compositional role. This kind of view rejects two other ideas about the definition of the good: that the good is simple and indefinable, or that it is definable by reference to a single thing. The former view (Moore and possibly Plato) holds that the good has no compositional structure; it is not a compound of anything else. The latter view holds that the good is something like pleasure or knowledge or obedience to the will of God—a single attribute. No, the good is a compound of other things; it has internal compositional structure (more like a phrase than a word). No one could know what the good is without grasping this structure—without knowing the elements that enter into it. So the concept is complex, not the name of a simple quality or object. And the elements that compose it are themselves complex, bringing in concepts of emotion, action, and thought; we have a whole conceptual system here (“holism”). You can’t just be acquainted with the simple quality GOOD. You have to grasp the whole picture.

            Two questions are raised by this conception, neither of them easy. First, what do the composing elements have in common? Aren’t they all good? But then we are helping ourselves to the concept of the good not defining it. Agreed: no classic conceptual analysis is provided by the “definition” proposed. But the same is true of chemical analysis: the concept of water is not analyzed in terms of the molecules that compose water.[1] Second, what is the manner of combination? This is deeply obscure: it certainly isn’t just logical product. In fact, it is natural to assume that the combined elements are modified in the process of combination, since each singly is not necessarily good. Love and compassion need to be disciplined by reason and justice; justice needs to be informed by mercy and empathy; reason requires input from emotion and justice. The good results when and only when the elements combine in a good way—which brings the circularity back. But that is not fatal to the definition, since it was never proposed as a definition in that sense, only as a theory of the component structure of the good. What the good is remains mysterious, but at least we have some idea of what kind of structure it has—a tripartite structure involving compassion, justice, and reason. We are not speechless in the face of the question “What is the good?”

            Reverting to the simile of the sun, we can ask what elements compose the sun: the answer is hydrogen and helium with the former constituting most of the solar mass (and some 67 other elements in small quantities). We are not trying to define the sun by answering this question, but we are saying something informative about it. Similarly, we can say that the good is composed of the elements listed above without intending to define the good thereby. We can thus avoid the problems besetting other approaches to elucidating the nature of the good, which tend to be too reductive or not reductive enough.[2]


[1] Nor need the property of water be so analyzed: it could be emergent on the molecules that compose it. Compositional analysis is not the same as property reduction.

[2] The good has more structure than the true and the beautiful. Truth is uniformly a correspondence to reality (or some such) not an amalgam of disparate elements like the good. Beauty is (roughly) a way of appearing that pleases; it isn’t a tripartite thing comprising distinct species of appearing (as it might be, shape, color, and musical harmony). Thus the good is more conceptually demanding than the true and the beautiful; there is more packed into it. Accordingly, it is more trouble theoretically. By way of approximate analogy, the good is like meaning according to Frege: a combination of the three elements of sense, reference, and tone. As we have three-dimensional semantics, so we have three-dimensional ethics. One might also think of double-aspect theories of the mental (or even triple-aspect theories if we include functional role as well as phenomenal quality and brain state).

2 replies
  1. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    Doesn’t Moore have a pluralist and compositional understanding of the good? He is careful to distinguish the concepts ‘good’ and ‘the good’. For him ‘good’ refers to the primitive quality of being good; ‘the good’ refers to every possibly or actually existing thing which has the quality of being good. His understanding of ‘the good’ recognizes a very large number of things as being parts of the good.


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