A book on ethics and philosophy of values

(Note: this is a non-professional translation of the original text in French. Help improve this translation: please report any mistake!)


Where does the platonic confusion come from? From the fact that the Greek word “agathon” is so wide-ranging in its scope that it includes all the meanings of the word “good”. Therefore, such as the English word "good", it is an equivocal term. By way of consequence, we do not know which one of these six meanings is intended by the word “agathon” when we encounter it. However, the translation poses no problem: we translate the ambiguous term “agathon” by the ambiguous term “good”, and the difficulty is simply postponed. It is left up to the reader to guess what the author means by “good”.

Thus, if we consult the Republic alone, we shall find each of these meanings for the term “agathon”. For example:
- ‘Usefulness’: That which destroys and corrupts in every case is the evil; that which preserves and benefits is the good. 1
From this idea, Plato deducted the following question: Do we know of any greater evil for a state than the thing that distracts it and makes it many instead of one, or a greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one? 2.
-‘Morally good’: Are not they in like manner compelled to admit that there are bad pleasures? so The outcome is, I take it, that they are admitting the same things to be both good and bad, are they not? 3.
-The term ‘value’ in itself, when Plato defines good as being the sun of the intelligible world4, at the top of the hierarchy.

Now it appears that we must not use the concept of good to adequately formulate the problem of values, for the simple reason that its various meanings involve several distinct questions, combined in a single word. This imperfection does not come from a progressive historical semantic change, but has been present since the beginning, in its Greek conceptual ancestor “agathon”.

To avoid this difficulty, we should use another concept, a more adequate one, to address the axiological problem. Which one?

It appears that the different meanings of the word “good” have one thing in common: they all refer to something attractive to man, something that we can consider as a purpose. Man can try to do his duty, take pleasure in something, attain perfect happiness, choose useful objects, or else valuable ones. The concept of finality unifies all these meanings and we should finally ask ourselves if we could not give another chance to the concept of good, by considering the concept which hides behind it and which seems more important than the other concepts: that of finality or of end purpose.

Can we determine the value of a thing by the concept of finality? Two arguments may lead us to this conclusion. Firstly, it seems that we have to know what is the end purpose of such a thing in order to determine its value. For example, we can define the value of a pair of shoes only if we know their end purpose (walking) and if we can determine whether these shoes will enable us to achieve this goal (Are they comfortable? Do they have any holes?). Secondly, searching for a supreme value and for a supreme end purpose probably is the same thing. Is this true?

Nevertheless, this approach seems to be promising. We are going to study the writings of Aristotle, who provides the best representation thereof.

1. Republic, 608e
2. Ibid., 462b
3. Ibid., 505c
4. Ibid., 509a