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"Good" is one of those primary ideas which cannot be strictly defined. In order to fix its philosophical significance we may begin by observing that the word is employed firstly as an adjective and secondly as a substantive. This distinction which is clearly marked in French by the two different terms, bon and le bien , may be preserved in English by prefixing an article to the term when it is employed substantively. We call a tool or instrument good, if it serves the purpose for which it is intended. That is to say, it is good because it is an efficient means to obtain a desired result. The result, in turn, may be desired for itself, or it may be sought as a means to some ulterior end. If it is sought for itself, it is or it is estimated by us to be a good, and therefore desirable on its own account. When we take some step to obtain it, it is the end of our action. The series of means and ends either stretches out indefinitely, or it must terminate in some desired object or objects which are ends in themselves. Again we sometimes call a thing good because it possesses completely, or in a high degree, the perfections proper to its nature, as a good painting, good respiration. Sometimes, too, things are termed good because they are of a nature to produce something desirable; that is, they are good casually. Finally, we speak of good conduct, a good man, a good intention, and here the adjective has for us a sense different from any of the foregoing, unless indeed, we are utilitarian philosophers, to whom morally good is but another term for useful.

Now in all these locutions the word conveys directly or indirectly the idea of desirability. The merely useful is desired for the end towards which it is employed; the end is desired on its own account. The latter is conceived as possessing some character, quality, power, which renders it an object of desire. Two questions now arise:

  • What is it which, in the nature or being of any object, constitutes it desirable? Or, in more technical phrase, what, metaphsically speaking, constitutes the good or goodness in a thing, absolutely considered?
  • What is the relationship existing between the good thus absolutely constituted and the subject to which it is desirable? Or what is implied by good, relatively considered?
These two questions may be combined in one: "What is the good in the ontological order?" In exposing the reply to this question we shall come across the moral good, and the ethical aspect of the problem, which shall be treated in the second place.


In Greek philosophy no topic receives more attention than the nature of the good. The speculations of Plato and Aristotle, especially have had a notable influence on Christian thought; they were adopted, in eclectic fashion, by the early Fathers, who combined many of the ancient philosophic ideas with revealed truth, by correcting some and amplifying others. The synthesis was carried on by the earlier Scholastics, and took definitive form from the hand of St. Thomas. Some of his predecessors, as well as some of his followers, disagree with him on a few minor points, most of which, however, are of a character too subtle to call for attention in this article. We shall, therefore, present the doctrine of St. Thomas in outline as the approved teaching of our schools.


According to Plato, in the objective order corresponding to our thought, there are two different worlds: the world of things, and the incomparably higher, nobler world of ideas, which transcends the world of things. The objects corresponding directly to our universal concepts are not things, but ideas. The objective idea is not indwelling in the essences of those things which fall within the scope of our corresponding universal concept, but the thing borrows or derives something from the idea. While the being or existence proper to the world of things is imperfect, unstable, essentially transitory, and therefore not truly deserving of the name of being, whcih implies permanence, ideas on the contrary are incorruptible, unchangeable, and truly existence. Now, among ideas the noblest and highest is the idea good: it is the supreme and sovereign idea. Whatever things possess goodness have it only because they participate in or draw from, the Sovereign Good. Their goodness then, is something distinct from, and added to, their proper essences or being. What, in Plato's mind, is the nature of this participation we need not explain further than that he makes it consist in this, that the thing is a copy or imitation of the idea. This sovereign idea, the Good, is identical with God. It is not a synthesis of all other ideas but is unique, transcendent, and individual. Whether Plato held that other ideas exist in God as in their proper dwelling-place is not quite clear. Aristotle so interpreted Plato ; and it is very likely that Aristotle was better qualified to understand Plato's meaning than were subsequent philosophers who have disputed his interpretation. The Supreme Good imparts to the intellect the power to perceive, and gives intelligibility to the intelligible. It is, therefore, the source of truth. God, the essential and supreme Good, can impart nothing that is not good. This view leads to the inference that the origin of evil lies beyond the control of God. The theory leans, therefore, to dualism, and its influence may be traced through the early Gnostic and Manichaean heresies, and, in a minor degree, in the doctrines of the Priscillanists and Albigenses.


Starting from the Platonic definition, good is that which all desire, Aristotle, rejecting the Platonic doctrine of a transcendent world of ideas, holds that the good and being are identical; good is not something added to being, it is being. Everything that is, is good because it is; the quantity, if one may use the word loosely, of being or existence which a thing possesses, is at the same time the stock of goodness. A diminution or an increase of its being is a diminution or increase of its goodness. Being and the good are, then, objectively the same, every being is good, every good is being. Our concepts, being and good differ formally: the first simply denotes existence ; the second, existence as a perfection, or the power of contributing to the perfection of a being. It follows from this that evil is not being at all; it is, on the contrary, the privation of being. Again, while being, viewed as the object of tendency, appetite, or will, gives rise to the concept good , so, when considered as the proper object of the intellect, it is represented under the concept true or truth , and it is the beautiful, inasmuch as the knowledge of it is attended by that particular pleasurable emotion which we call asthetic.As god is the fullness of being, so, therefore, the supreme, infinite Being is also the Supreme Good from which all creatures derive their being and goodness.


The neo-Platonists perpetuated the Platonic theory, mixed with Aristotelean, Judaic, and other oriental ideas. Plotinus introduced the doctrine of a triple hypostasis, i.e. the one, the intelligence, and the universal soul, above the world of changing being, which is multiple. The intelligence is ordained to good; but, incapable of grasping it in its entirety, it breaks it up into parts, which constitute the essences. These essences by becoming united with a material principle constitute things. The Pseudo-Dionysius propagated the Platonic influence in his work "De Nominibus Divinis", the doctrine of which is based on the scriptures. God is supereminently being -- "I am who am" -- but in Him the good is anterior to being, and the ineffable name of God is above all His other names. The good is more universal than being, for it embraces the material principle which does not possess any being of its own. The bond which unites beings among themselves and to the Supreme Being is love, which has for its object the good. The trend of the Pseudo-Dionysius is away from the dualisim which admits a principle of evil, but on the other hand,it inclines towards pantheism.

The Fathers

The Fathers, in general, treated the question of good from the standpoint of hermeneneutics rather than from the philosophic. Their chief concern is to affirm that God is the Supreme Good, that He is the creator of all that exists, that creatures derive their goodness from Him, while they are distinct from Him; and that there is no supreme independent, principle of evil. St. Augustine, however (De Natura boni, P.L., XLIII), examines the topic fully and in great detail. Some of his expressions seem tinged with the Platonic notion that good is antecedent to being; but elsewhere he makes the good, and being in God fundamentally identical. Boethius distinguishes a double goodness in things created ; first, that which in them is one with their being; second, an accidental goodness added to their nature by God. In God these two elements of good, the essential and the accidental, are but one, since there are no accidents in God.

Scholastic Doctrine

St. Thomas starts from the Aristotelean principle that being and the good are objectively one. Being conceived as desirable is the good. The good differs from the true in this, that, while both are objectively nothing else than being, the good is being considered as the object of appetitie, desire, and will, the true is being a the object of the intellect. God, the Supreme Being and the source of all other being is consequently the Supreme Good, and the goodness of creatures results from the diffusion of His goodness. In a creature, considered as a subject having existence, we distinguish several elements of the goodness which it possesses:

  • Its existence or being, which is the ground of all the other elements.
  • Its powers, activities, and capacities. These are the complement of the first, and they serve it to pursue and appropriate whatever is requisite for and contributory to sustaining its existence, and developing that existence into the fullness of perfection proper to it.
  • Each perfection that is acquired is a further measure of existence for it, hence a good.
  • The totality of these various elements, forming its total good subjectively, that is, its entire being in a state of normal perfection according to its mind, is its good complete. This is the sense of the axiom: omne ens est bonum sibi (every being is a good unto itself).
The privation of any of its powers or due perfections is an evil for it, as, for instance, blindness, the loss of the power of sight, is an evil for an animal. Hence evil is not something positive and does not exist in itself; as the axiom expresses it, malum in bono fundatur (evil has its base in good).

Let us pass now to good in the relative sense. Every being has a natural tendency to continue and to develop itself. This tendency brings its activities into play; each power has its proper object, and a conatus pushing it to action. The end to which action is directed is something that is of a nature to contribute, when obtained, to the well-being or perfection of the subject. For this reason it is needed, pursued, desired, and, because of its desirability, is designated good. For example, the plant for its existence and development requires light, air, heat, moisture, nurtriment. It has various organs adapted to appropriate these things, which are good for it, and, when by the exercise of these functions it acquires and appropriates them, it reaches its perfection and runs its course in nature. Now if we look into the cosmos, we perceive that the innumerable varieties of being in it are bound together in an indescribably complex system of mutual action and ineraction, as they obey the laws of their nature. One class contributes to the other in that orderly relationship which constitutes the harmony of the universe. True -- to change the metaphor -- with our limited powers of observation we are unable to follow the innumerable threads of this large and varied sweeps to warrant the induction that everything is good for some other thing, that everything has its proper end in the great whole. Omne ens est bonum alteri. Since this orderly correlation of things is necessary to them in order that they may obtain from one another the help which they need, it too is good for them. This order is also a good in itself, because it is a created reflection of the unity and harmony of the Divine being and goodness. When we consider the Supreme Being as the efficient cause, conserver, and director of this majestic order, we reach the conception of Divine providence . And then arises the question, what is the end towards which this xxyyyk.htm">Providence directs the universe ? The end again is the good, i.e. God Himself. Not indeed that, as in the case of creatures He may derive any advantage or perfection from the world, but that it, by participating in His goodness, may manifest it. This manifestation is what we understand by the expression, giving glory to God. God is the Alpha and the Omega of the good; the source from which it flows, the end to which it returns. I am the Beginning and I am the End. It must be remembered that, throughout the treatment of this subject, the term good , like all other terms which we predicate of God and of creatures is used not univocally but analogically when referred to God. (See ANALOGY.)

The defined doctrine on the good, ontologically considered, is formulated by the Vatican Council (Session III, Const. de Fide Catholica, cap.i):

This one, only, true God , of His own goodness and almighty power, not for the increase of His own happiness, not to acquire but to manifest His perfection by the blessings which He bestows on creatures, with absolute freedom of counsel created from the beginning of time both the spiritual and the corporeal creature, to wit, the angelic and the mundane; and afterwards the human creature.

In Canon 4 we read:

If anyone shall say that finite things, both corporeal and spiritual, or at least spiritual, have emanated from the Divine substance ; or that the Divine essence, by the manifestation and evolution of itself, becomes all things; or lastly, that God is universal or indefinite being, which by determining itself constitutes the universality of things distinct according to genera species, and individuals, let him be anathema.


The moral good is not a kind, distinct from the good viewed ontologically ; it is one form of perfection proper to human life, but, because of its excellence and supreme practical importance, it demands special treatment with reference to its own distinctive character which differentiates it from all other goods and perfections of man. It is again, in Greek philosophy, that we find the principles which have supplied the school with a basis for rational speculations, controlled and supplemented by revelation.


The supreme good of man is, as we have seen, the idea good , identical with God. By union with God man attains his highest subjective good, which is happiness. This assimilation is effected by knowledge and love ; the means to achieve it is to preserve in the soul a due harmony throughout its various parts in subordination to the intellect which is the highest faculty. The establishment of this harmony brings man to a participation in the Divine unity; and through this union man attains to happiness, which remains even though he suffers pain and the privation of perishable goods. To regulate our actions harmoniously we stand in need of true knowledge, i.e. wisdom. The highest duty of man, therefore, is to obtain wisdom, which leads to God.


The end of man, his highest subjective good, is happiness or well-being. Happiness is not pleasure; for pleasure is a feeling consequent upon action, while happiness is a state of activity. Happiness consists in perfect action, i.e. the actual exercise by man of his faculties -- especially of his highest faculty, the speculative intellect -- in perfect correspondence, with the norm which his nature itself prescribes. Action may deviate from this norm either by excess or defect. The golden mean is to be preserved, and in this consists virtue. The various faculties, higher and lower, are regulated by their respective virtures to carry on their activites in due order. Pleasure follows action duly performed, even the highest form of activity, i.e. speculative contemplation of truth ; but, as has been noted, happiness consists in the very operation itself. A life of contemplation, however, cannot be enjoyed unless a man possesses enough goods of the lower orders to relieve him from the toils and the cares of life. hence happiness is beyond the reach of many. It is to be observed therefore that, while both Plato and Aristotle, as well as the Scholatics, hold that happiness is the end of man, their conception of happiness is quite different from the hedonistic idea of happiness as presented in English utiltarianism. For the utilitarian happiness is the sum total of pleasurable feelings, from whatever source they may be derived. On the other hand, in our sense, happiness -- eudaimonia , beatitudo -- is a distinct state or condition of consciousness accompanying and dependent on the realizaion in conduct of one definite good or perfection, the nature of which is objectively fixed and not dependent on our individual preferences. ( See UTILITARIANISM ).


The supreme good of man according to Aristippus is pleasure or the enjoyment of the moment, and pleasure is essentially gentle motion. Pleasure can never be bad, and the primary form of it is bodily pleasure. But, in order to secure the maximum of pleasure, prudent self-control is necessary ; and this is virtue. Epicurus held that pleasure is the chief good; but pleasure is rest, not motion; and the highest form of pleasure is freedom from pain and the absence of all desires or needs that we cannot satisfy. Hence an important means towards happiness is the control of our desires, and the extinction of those that we cannot gratify, which is brought about by virtue. (See CYRENAIC SCHOOL OF PHILOSOPHY; HEDONISM, HAPPINESS.)

The Stoics

Everything in the universe is regulated by law. Man's highest good, or happiness, is to conform his conduct to universal law, which is Divine in its origin. To pursue this end is virtue. Virtue is to be cultivated in scorn of consequences, whether pleasurable or painful. The Stoic principle, " duty for duty's sake alone", reappears in Kant, with the modification that the norm of right action is not to be regarded as imposed by a Divine will; its original source is the human mind, or the free spirit itself.

St. Thomas

The radical difference which distinguishes the nobler forms of ancient ethics from Christian ethics is that, whereas the former identifies virtuous life with happiness, that is, with the possession and enjoyment of the highest good, the Christian conception is that a virtuous life, while it is, indeed, the proximate end and good of man, is not, in itself, his ultimate end and supreme good. A life of virtue, the moral good, leads him to the acquisition of an ulterior and ultimate end. Furthermore the happiness, which in an imperfect measure attends the virtuous life, may be accompanied with pain, sorrow, and the privation of terrestrial goods; complete happiness ( beatitudo ) is not to be found in earthly existence, but in the life to come, and will consist in union with God, the Supreme Good.

(A) The Proximate End and Good (Bonum Morale)

Like all creatures involved in the cosmic system, man requires and seeks for the conservation and perfection of his being a variety of things and conditions, all of which are, therefore, good for him. A composite being, partly corporeal and partly spiritual, he possesses two sets of tendencies and appetites. Rational, he employs contrivance in order to obtain goods not immediately within his reach. That he may attain the perfection of this highly complex nature, he must observe an order in the pursuit of different kinds of goods, lest the enjoyment of a good of lower value may cause him to lose or forfeit a higher one, in which case the former would be no true benefit to him at all. Besides, with a hierarchy of activities, capacities, and needs, he is a unity, an individual, a person ; hence there exists for him a good in which all is other goods focus in harmonious correlation; and they are to be viewed and valued through the medium of this paramount good, not merely in isolated relation to their respective corresponding appetites.

There are, then, several divisions of good;

  • corporeal good is whatever contributes to the perfection of the purely animal nature ;
  • spiritual good is that which perfects the spiritual faculty-knowledge, truth ;
  • useful good is that which is desired merely as a means to something else; the delectable or pleasurable good is any good regarded merely in the light of the pleasure it produces.
The moral good ( bonum honestum ) consists in the due ordering of free action or conduct according to the norm of reason, the highest faculty, to which it is to conform. This is the good which determines the true valuation of all other goods sought by the activities which make up conduct. Any lower good acquired to the detriment of this one is really but a loss ( bonum apparens ). While all other kinds of good may, in turn, be viewed as means, the moral good is good as an end and is not a mere means to other goods. The pleasurable, though not in the order of things an independent end in itself, may be deliberately chosen as an end of action, or object of pursuit. Now let us apply these distinctions. Good being the object of any tendency, man has as many kinds of goods as he has appetites, needs, and faculties. The normal exercise of his powers and the acquisition thereby of any good is followed by satisfaction, which, when it reaches a certain degree of intensity, is the feeling of pleasure. He may and sometimes does pursue things not on account of their intrinsic worth, but simply that he may obtain pleasure from them. On the other hand, he may seek a good on account of its intrinsic power to satisfy a need or to contribute to the perfection of his nature in some respect. This may be illustrated in the case of food; for as the old adage has it, "the wise man eats to live, the epicure lives to eat."

The faculty which is distinctively human is reason ; man lives as a man properly speaking, when all his activites are directed by reason according to the law which reason reads in his very nature. This conformity of conduct to reason dictates is the highest natural perfection that his activities can possess; it is what is meant by rectitude of conduct, righteousness, or the moral good. "Those actions", says St. Thomas, "are good which are conformable to reason. Those are bad which are contrary to reason " (I-II:18:5). "The proximate rule of free action is reason, the remote is the eternal law, that is, the Divine Nature " ( I-II:21:1, I-II:19:4 ). The motive impelling us to seek the moral good is not self-interest, but the intrinsic worth of righteousness. Why does a just man pay is debts ? Ask him and he will reply, perhaps, n the first instance, "Because it is my duty ". But ask him further: "Why do you fulfill this duty ?" He will answer: "Because it is right to do so". When other goods are pursued in violation of the rational order, action is deprived of its due moral perfection and, therefore, becomes wrong or bad, though it may retain all its other ontological goodness. The good which is the object of such an action, although it retains its particular relative goodness with regard to the want which it serves, is not a good for the whole personality. For example, if, on a day when flesh meat is forbidden, a man dines on roast-beef, the food is just as good physically as it would be on any other day, but this goodness is outweighed, because his action is a violation of reason which dictates that he ought to obey the command of lawful authority.

While the moral good is fixed by the Author of nature, yet, because man is endowed with free will or the power of electing which good he shall make the goal of action, he can, if he pleases, ignore the dictates of right reason and seek his other goods in a disorderly manner. He may pursue pleasure, riches, fame, or any other desirable end, though his conscience -- that is, his reason -- tells him that the means which he takes to satisfy his desire is wrong. He thereby frustrates his rational nature and deprives himself of his highest perfection. He cannot change the law of things, and this privation of his highest good is the immediate essential punishment incurred by his violation of the moral law. Another punishment is that the loss is attended, generally speaking, by that peculiar painful feeling called remorse; but this effect may cease to be perceived when the moral impulses of reason have been habitually disregarded.

In order that an action mayy posses in an essential degree -- no action is absolutely perfect -- its moral perfection, it must be in conformity with the law in three respects:

  • The action, considered under the character by which it ranks as an element of conduct, must be good. The physical act of giving another person money may be either an act of justice, when one pays a debt, or it may be an act of mercy or benevolence, as it is if one give the money to relieve distress. Both, of these actions possess the fundamental element of goodness ( bonum ex objecto ).
  • The motive, if there is a motive beyond the immediate object of the act, must also be good. If one pays a man some money that one owes him with the purpose, indeed, of paying one's debts, but also with the ulterior purpose of enabling him to carry out a plot to murder one's enemy, the end is bad, and the action is thereby vitiated. The end which is the motive must also be good ( bonum ex fine ). Thus, an action, otherwise good, is spoiled if directed to an immoral end; conversely, however, an action which in its fundamental character is bad is not rendered good by directing it to a good end. The end does not justify the means.
  • The circumstances under which the action is performed should be in entire conformity with reason, otherwise it lacks something of moral completeness, though it may not be thereby rendered totally immoral. We frequently say that something which a person has done was right enough in itself, but he did not do it in the proper place or season.
This triple goodness is expressd in the axiom: bonum ex integra causa, malum ex quocumque defectu ("An action is good when good in every respect; it is wrong when wrong is any respect").

(B) The Ultimate Good -- God -- Beatitude

The perfection of life, then, is to realize the moral good. But now arises the question: "Is life its own end?" Or, in other words: "What is the ultimate end appointed for man ?" To answer this question we must consider the good first under the aspect of end. We consider the good first under the aspect of end. "We not alone act", says St. Thomas, "for an immediate end, but all our actions converge towards an ultimate end or good, otherwise the entire series would be aimless." The test by which we may determine whether any object of pursuit is the ultimate end is: "Does it satisfy all desire?" If it does not, it is not adequate to complete man's perfection and establish him in the possession of his highest good and consequent happiness. Here St. Thomas, following St. Augustine, examines the various objects of human desire -- pleasure, riches, power, fame, etc. -- and rejects them all as inadequate. What then is the highest good, the ultimate end? St. Thomas appeals to Revelation which teaches that in life to come the righteous shall possess and enjoy God himself in endless fruition. The argument is summed up in the well-known words of St. Augustine: "Thou has made us, O Lord, for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee". The moral condition necessary to this future consummation is that our wills be here conformed to the Divine will as expressed in the moral law and in His revealed positive law. Thus the attainment of the proximate good in this life leads to the possession of the Supreme Good in the next. Another condition indispensable is that our actions be vivified by Divine grace. What precisely will be the act by which the soul will apprehend the Sovereign Good is a disputed question among theologians. The Thomist theory is that it will be an act of the intellect, while the Scotist opinion is that it will be an act of the will. However this may be, one thing is dogmatically certain: the soul in this assimilation shall not lose its selfhood, nor be absorbed according to the pantheistic sense in the Divine Substance.

A word or two may be added upon a point which owing to the prevalence of kantian ideas is of actual importance. As we have seen, the moral good and the supreme good are ends in themselves; they are not means, nor are they to be pursued merely as means to pleasure or agreeable feeling. But may we make the agreeable any part of our motive? Kant answers in the negative; for to allow this to enter into our motive is to vitiate the only moral motive, "right for right's sake," by self interest. This theory does not pay due regard to the order of things. The pleasurable feeling attendant upon action, in the order of nature, established by God, served as a motive to action, and its function is to guarantee that actions necessary welfare shall not be neglected. Why, then, should it be unlawful to aim at an end which God has attached to the good? Similarly as the attainment of our supreme good will be the cause of everlasting happiness, we may resonably make this accompanying end the motive of our action, provided that we do not make it the sole or predominant motive.

In conclusion, we may now state in a word the central idea of our doctrine. God as Infinite Being is Infinite Good; creatures are good because they derive their measure of being from Him. This participation manifests His goodness, or glorifies God, which is the end for which he created man. The rational creature is destined to be united to God as the Supreme End and Good in a special manner. In order that he may attain to this consummation, it is necessary that in this life, by conforming his conduct to conscience, the interpreter of the moral law, he realizes in himself the righteousness which is the true perfection of his nature. Thus God is the Supreme Good, as principle and as end. "I am the beginning and I am the end."

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