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” (Wohl) or “moral good” (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.

However, it would be underestimating the ambiguity of the concept of good to identify in it only two distinct meanings. An ambiguity that splits a concept into two meanings is not a real ambiguity; it is only a slight equivocation, quickly removed, a simple delay in reflection, which does not even need to be corrected explicitly - the context is enough for that.

No less than six meanings may be attributed to “good” in the expression “It is good”. Good may refer to:
- 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”.

The concept of good is therefore undermined by all these different meanings, and when we use it to pose the problem of values, we run the risk of sinking into the greatest confusion and nonsense, since we never know what it means precisely.
To use the concept of "good" to pose the axiological problem (by asking, classically, "What is the supreme good?") is therefore to make the task infinitely more difficult from the outset, in a search that is itself fraught with the greatest difficulties.

In short, to avoid any ambiguity, we must abandon the concept of good, or rather use it in a single sense: the moral good (and be careful to always specify "moral good"). The word 'good' will therefore never be used - by us - on its own, but always be followed by the adjective 'moral'. Alone, it is always misleading, because its solitude is illusory; it is always secretly accompanied by six different meanings that it blithely mixes.
Building an axiology on the word 'good' therefore necessarily means loading it with the burden of an auxiliary discipline: hermeneutics, which will have the task of determining the exact meaning of each axiological judgement, by trying to trace the author's intention according to the context.

This ambiguity can also be found in the ancestor of our concept of good: the Greek word "agathon".
There is one problem: we cannot find a Greek equivalent for our English word “value”. We only find in Plato and Aristotle, 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 nowadays that we ask ourselves if an independent science of values called axiology may be constituted. However, the enquiry into values is as old as reflection 1.

Nevertheless, 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 esteem" 2. However, in ancient thought, the concept of agathon (good) was used to question values rather than axion: the search was for the "sovereign good", not the "supreme value".

Furthermore, the concept of agathon is marked by the same ambiguity that characterises the concept of good. This ambiguity is deplored by Plato himself: some people, he notes in Republic, say that the good consists in the intelligence... of the good. But what do they mean by this? 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' 3.

1. Traité des valeurs, I, 1
2. Ibid.
3. Republic, 505b-c