A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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I/ The concept of good


A concept must be rejected if it involves an essential imperfection. The main defect of the concept of good is its ambiguity. Kant has shown that “good” may mean “agreeable” or “moral good”, viz. the “Wohl” or the “Gut”. In the following sentences “It is good to eat an ice-cream” and “It is good for you to do your homework”, the concept of good has two different meanings.

Yet it seems to me that there are more than two meanings to this concept. We must not underestimate its ambiguity, which divides a concept into two parts. However, this definition is not truly ambiguous and is only a slight equivocation, which can be quickly understood, a simple delay in thought, which does not require any explicit correction – the context is sufficient in itself.

In my opinion, no less than six meanings may be attributed to “good” in the expression “It is good”. Good may refer to:
- Moral good, e.g. in the expression “a good action”. In this context, “good” means “It is morally right” or “It is a virtue”.
- Agreeable, e.g. “Where can we eat a good ice-cream?”. In this case, “good” is referring to something which “provides a certain amount of pleasure”.
- Happiness, e.g. “It is good that you came”. In this context, “good” means “it makes me happy”.
- Usefulness, e.g. “That is a good knife”. In this case, “good” implies “It is useful” or “It serves my interests”.
- Truth, e.g. “It is a good definition”. In this context, “good” means “a true definition” or “It is true”.
- Value, e.g. “a good painting”. Here, “Good” means “a valuable painting” or “It has great value”.

Consequently, the concept of good is undermined by all these different meanings. When we use it to refer to an axiological problem by asking, such as traditionally done, “What is the supreme good?”, we complicate this task to an extreme degree, which is already complex in itself.

In short, in order to avoid any ambiguity, we are not to abandon the concept of good but are to only assign a single meaning thereto i.e. that of moral good (and it is necessary to specify “moral good” each time we refer to this concept). Therefore, we shall never use the term “good” alone as it will always be preceded by the adjective “moral”. Alone, this concept will always be fallacious because its single meaning is illusory as it will always involve six other different meanings, which are carelessly intertwined.
To base axiology on the word “good” would necessarily make it dependent on an auxiliary discipline, i.e. Hermeneutics, whose task should be to determine the exact definition of each axiological judgment by attempting to identify the author’s intention according to the context.

This ambiguity can be found in the ancestor of our “concept of good”: the Greek term ‘agathon’.
A problem arises due to the fact that we cannot find a Greek equivalent for our English word “value”. Plato and Aristotle only refer to the concept of “agathon” (αγαθόν), which has been translated as “good”.

Can we say that our ancestors had no notion of value since the word did not exist? Must we think that they had not thought about this issue? It would be absurd. For example, Plato appears to be anxious to establish hierarchies or to identify the only real hierarchy. He is one of the main philosophers whose primary purpose is to find an answer to the problem of values.
As Lavelle said It is only today that we ask ourselves if an independent science of values called axiology may be constituted. However, the enquiry into values is as old as reflection1.

However, it is to be noted that there is no Greek equivalent for our English word “value”. The Greek term “axion”, from which our science of “axiology” derives, has something to do with our value, in the contemporary sense, as it means “that which is precious, worthy of being loved”. However, the study of values in Greek philosophy was based on the concept of agathon (good) rather than that of “axion”. The “supreme good” was being sought, not the “supreme value”.

Furthermore, the concept of “agathon” is characterized by the same ambiguity as the concept of good, such as remarked by Plato himself: It is not absurd if while taunting us with our ignorance of the good they turn about and talk to us as if we knew it? For they say it is the knowledge of good, as if we understood their meaning when they utter the word ‘good'2.

1. Treatise of values, I, 1
2. Republic, 505b-c