Theories of Value ask 'What sorts of things are good?' Or: 'What does "good" mean?' Or: 'If we had to give the most general, catch-all description of good things, then what would that description be?'

Many people believe value theory is the most important area of philosophy. It can define "good" and "bad" for a community or society. It affects everyone's life - maybe all life on Earth.

The field of political economy is also very concerned with these decisions as they play out in politics especially in its role of economic regulator and stage-setter. When governments decide what is good, they encourage it by cutting taxes on those activities, removing regulations or laws, and providing subsidies.

Table of contents
1 Moral vs. other goods
2 Tension between views of goodness
3 Monotheistic conceptions
4 Buddhist and Hindu conceptions
5 Animist
6 Radical values environmentalism
7 Kant: Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives.
8 Goodness as a property
9 Shortcomings of Subjectivism
10 Intrinsic versus instrumental goodness
11 Pragmatism and Intrinsic goodness
12 Hedonism
13 Non-cognitivism
14 Circularity in the analysis of 'goodness'
15 The evasiveness of a definition of 'goodness'.
16 Collectivism versus Individualism: Contributory Goods
17 Transcendental value
18 Ecological transcendance
19 Empathy
20 Utilitarianism
21 Summary: Values pluralism and the grading of values.
22 Conclusion

Moral vs. other goods

Let's clarify the overlap of an ethicist's and economist's usage of the term "good." It is not a simple disambiguation:

First, the words "morally good" are different when applied to persons and actions or things. For example, when we say that "Mary's a morally good person and her honesty is good.", that's different from "good" in other senses, as when we say that "A banana split is good."

Economic "good" is challenged by such issues as addiction. Cigarettess are a "good" in the economic sense. Their production can bring economic growth for tobacco growers and doctors who treat lung cancer. But is that morally "good?"

That is the important question which has concerned philosophers and politicians down through the centuries, and they have usually focussed on the sense of "morally good," as applied to persons and actions.

Tension between views of goodness

Philosophers over the ages have worked in parallel with non-philosophers to reach an answer. Many people now believe that academic approaches to the question are inconclusive. But many people clearly believe that goodness exists, and spend a good part of their waking life pursuing it in the form they see as correct, occasionally amending their views on goodness under the influence of others.

Philosophical approaches are thus often separate from the answers which most of us live out in our everyday lives, as we pursue our goods:

Goodness, Miss West, what wonderful diamonds!
Goodness had nothing to do with it, honey!

This article is about philosophical and academic approaches to a definition of goodness, including both Eastern and Occidental approaches.

Most definitions are meaningless, circular, or long lists of cultural values. Almost all who hold such views tend to claim they are "objective" or "right." Religion and politics tend to compete to cope with social problems in part because religious views also claim to be "objective."

=Religious Theories=

These ethical systems may have very admirable goals and results, but academically, they are vulnerable to trivial skepticism by people who find historical or mystical arguments unconvincing.

Monotheistic conceptions

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam claim the perfect rationality of God in order to justify their particular moral shopping lists. Many authorities claim that their basic moral thesis is that a person should glorify God.

Buddhist and Hindu conceptions

In these the basic goal is for a human soul to become more perfected until it is suitable to reach or merge with God(s). Hindus attempt to perfect their lives toward this end. Buddhists, as reformed Hindus, attempt to perfect their lives by perfecting their detachment from a world that they believe is illusory.


Many animist religions are driven by simple personal prudence. Good and bad luck is caused by good and bad spirits. Both can be propitiated by the correct rituals, and these form a necessary traditional system to get through life.

Radical values environmentalism

Radical values environmentalism is a view that the only intrinsically good thing is a flourishing ecosystem; individuals and societies are merely instrumentally valuable, as means to having a flourishing ecosystem. The Gaia philosophy is the most detailed expression of this overall thought but it strongly influenced Deep Ecology and the modern Green Parties.

=Academic Theories=

Philosophers say that a correct definition of goodness would be valuable because it might allow one to construct a good life or society by reliable processes of deduction, elaboration or prioritisation. One could answer the ancient question, "How then should we live?"

To consider the roots of the modern conceptions of value, we must return to The Enlightenment's origins:

Kant: Hypothetical and Categorical Imperatives.

Kant's (1724-1804) thinking was influential in moral philosophy. He pursued the idea of moral value as a unique and universally identifiable property. He showed that many practical goods are good only in states-of-affairs described by a sentence containing an "if" clause. Further, the "if" clause often described the category in which the judgment was made (Art,science, etc.). Kant described these as "hypothetical goods," and tried to find a "categorical" good that would operate across all categories of judgment.

An influential result of Kant's search was the idea of a good will as being the only good in itself.

He saw a good will as acting in accordance with a moral command, the "Categorical Imperative": "Act according to those maxims that you could will to be universal law." From this, and a few other axioms, Kant developed a moral system that would apply to any "praiseworthy person." (See Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, third section, [446]-[447].)

It's clear that any general definition of goodness must define goods that are categorical in the sense that Kant intended. Returning to the ecology issue, the Ecological Footprint is a fairly straightforward application of Kant's principle to the issue of over-consumption - how many Planet Earths would it take to support all people living just like you? This perspective views every act of consumption or use of space or resource as a moral act.

Goodness as a property

One problem is that 'goodness' seems not to be definable, and therefore it is sometimes thought not to be a real property of the world.

Attempted definitions of goodness fail in known ways. Definitions generally either describe traits or properties of a real object or set of objects, or divide the concept into other, subsidiary concepts. Both approaches have failed to define goodness. Either the definition provided is circular, or we are left without any substantial or meaningful definition at all.

As a result, philosophers have tried desperate expedients to get some of the value that such a definition would provide.

Problems with definitions using traits or properties:

Most philosophers find that the traits or properties that would justify calling a thing good are different for different categories of judgment. For example, the criteria by which we judge art to be good are different from those by which we judge people to be good. A famous early discussion of this problem is by Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics (at 1096a5).

Many judgments of goodness translate to prices, but this appears to be a summary or effect of judgment, not a cause. For example, a piece of art found in an attic may be sold for the price of a meal. A collector may then recognise it as a lost work of a famous artist, and sell it for more than the price of a house. The price changed because the collector had better judgment than the owner who kept it in an attic.

If goodness were a common trait or property, we should be able to abstract it, but no one has succeeded. Thus goodness is widely believed not to be a property of any natural thing or state of affairs.

Of course, this belief is open to trivial skepticism: Perhaps philosophers just haven't stumbled across the right definition. However, after several thousand years, the prospect is bleak.

One wonders where such an immaterial trait as goodness could reside. An obvious answer is "Inside people." Some philosophers go so far as to say that if some state of affairs does not tend to arouse a desirable subjective state in self-aware beings, then it cannot be good.

Although the elusive definition of external "objective" goodness could be used to construct rational morals and legislation, a subjective definition of goodness could be useful to help one live a good life.

Shortcomings of Subjectivism

In this connection it is useful to discuss relativism, or subjectivism, about intrinsic goods. Values subjectivism states that to answer the question, "What things are intrinsically good?" we need only answer a further question, "Well, what do I, or what does my group, want not merely as a means to something else, but for itself?"

But there are clear problems with this theory. We can be wrong about what is good for us. A clear example is where people derive pleasure from imprisoning and then torturing people. Most people want to say that this practice is criminal, and that the pleasure taken torturing people is not at all valuable or good in any sense. That, in fact, the pleasure is so bad that it is a very great evil .

For this and other reasons, the conceptual metaphor theories argue against both the subjective and objective conceptions of value and meaning, and focus on the relationships between body and other essential elements of our existing. In effect, it treats ethics as an ontology problem and the issue of how to work out values, as a negotiation of these metaphors, not the application of some abstraction or a strict standoff between parties who have no way to understand each other's view.

Intrinsic versus instrumental goodness

A fundamental distinction is between instrumental and intrinsic goodness. This was discussed by Aristotle: an intrinsically good thing, even if it doesn't help you get anything else that's good, is still worth having for itself.

First, some instrumental goods: a hammer, or a radio. So hammers and radios, are instrumentally good.

Some plausible examples of things which are often held to be intrinsically good: the pleasure we get from listening to a great piece of music, or understanding philosophy.

Take understanding: the people who like such subjects as Science and Philosophy will often swear that understanding is something that is worthwhile in itself.

But it's not always an either-or proposition. Some things are both good in themselves, and good for getting other things that are good. They are both intrinsically and instrumentally good, for example understanding.

The important question was: "What sorts of things are good, or valuable?" And now that question can be made more precise. Ultimately we want to know what things are intrinsically valuable. What things are good in themselves?

We all know very well that we have to pursue some instrumentally good things in order to get the intrinsically good things. For example, most people pursue money as merely an instrumentally good thing, so that they can afford what they call "the finer things in life," and those things, like concerts, vacations, and of course a happy family, are supposed to be good in themselves, or intrinsically good. But it's ultimately, in any case, the things we believe to be intrinsically good that we want. So up at the top of the hierarchy of goods that we aim at, there are the intrinsic goods. And the question is: What are they? Which things are intrinsically good?

Pragmatism and Intrinsic goodness

John Dewey (1859-1952) in his book Theory of Valuation saw goodness as the outcome of valuation. Valuation is a continuous balancing of ends in view, i.e. of objectives which we contingently adopt, which we then refine or reject based on their (or their precondition's) consistency with other objectives or means to objectives, held by ourselves or others.

Intrinsic goodness then would only be accepted by him as a transitory property which depends on the situational context, being mainly based on facts about things other than the thing which is judged intrinsically good.

In short his empirical approach did not accept intrinsic value as an inherent or enduring property of things. He saw it as an illusory product of our continuous valuing activity as purposive beings. In his view, all goodness is best understood as instrumental, with no contrasting intrinsic goodness.


Epicurus made the first known attempt to define goodness as subjective pleasure, and its opposite as pain. This is called Hedonism. (See Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius)

However, simple hedonism is rejected even by most hedonists because there seem to be pleasures that are bad (e.g. eating too much) and pains that are good (e.g. going to the dentist).

There are other problems with identifying goodness as pleasure. It's strange to say that carrying out one's duty (which is obviously good) has anything to do with pleasure. Also, the sense of achievement following completion of one's work is rarely considered pleasure, although it is clearly good to finish one's work.

Aristotle even distinguished genuine happiness from amusement, and virtuous from base pleasures. This makes some sense because useful work (like the Wikipedia) is seen as better than mere amusement (such as a chat room).

The usual fix of Hedonism is to consider consequences, as well as pleasure and pain. For example. going to a dentist has a small amount of pain now, but avoids a great deal more later. However, even consequentialism is strained when considering duty.

Happiness or pleasure can often be recognized, which solves many problems for Hedonism. But there are more problems with Hedonism. No known definitions of happiness or pleasure have met objections similar to those of a definition of goodness: The situations producing the happiness or pleasure are different in different categories of action.

Furthermore, the conditions and consequences of pleasure, or pain, can seem to be either good or bad, and thus undermine our judgement about that pleasure or pain.

Neither happiness nor pleasure has been conceptually divided (analyzed) in a way that permits deductive choices of real-world alternatives.

So consider that the only intrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures. But then aren't we giving a circular account of "good" -- if we are saying that the good things are good pleasures, then we're using the word "good" to define itself.

Alternatively, we try to find out which pleasures will result in the most other pleasures. Then we call those pleasures "intrinsically good," and only then do we say: "the only instrinsically good things in the world are good pleasures." That allows us to get around the circularity problem.

But this is flawed. Imagine a nation of sadists. The public torture of one person in such a nation may produce more pleasure than any other event, since everyone's basic (not to say base) urges would be satisfied vicariously. But of course such an action would not be good.

So pleasure seems a poor candidate as a criteria of goodness.


Some philosophers, in the face of apparently intransigent undefinability or circularity, pursued the line that goodness was a special property which was not empirically verifiable, like 'redness' or 'circular'.

For example, G.E. Moore blamed this circularity on what he called "The Naturalistic Fallacy". He believed that people had a sort of nonphysical intuition that could sense goodness, which was then falsely projected onto things and fallaciously treated as a natural property. Few people believe in this intuitionism, but the term has stuck because goodness is so widely thought nonphysical, or no physical basis can be found for it.

Others described a theory called Emotivism, simplistically referred to as the 'Boo-Hurray' theory of morality. It was thought by emotivists that to call something wrong, or good, was either to express a feeling of disapproval or approval, or to simply state that one disapproved or approved.

Emotivism did not bear up well as an explanation of goodness. For example, people's emotions vary according to situation, person or circumstance. But goodness is usually conceived as being constant across all situations. Also torture, for example does not become good because it is approved: and public disapproval does not always mean that an action is wrong. Therefore emotions are an inconsistent and inaccurate, guide to goodness.

Circularity in the analysis of 'goodness'

The other form of definitions of goodness is to try to divide the concept of goodness into smaller, more understandable concepts.

It has been thought that if some conception of goodness were divided, or causally regressed far enough, the process would eventually come to a logical stopping place, an "ultimate good." However all known forms of such regressions appear to be either circular, or open to skepticism.

Attempts to translate, divide or causally regress the concept of goodness usually fail in a particular way. Every such attempt seems to end up with one or more subconcepts prefixed with the word "good" or related words like "pleasure," "dutiful," "praiseworthy", or "virtuous." Such definitions appear to be circular, and therefore are believed invalid.

The circularity of causal regression hits scientific definitions of goodness especially hard, because it seems to indicate that science cannot study goodness. Some philosophers have gone so far as to say that science can only study "what is", not "what should be." They claim that there is an unsurmountable gap between facts and values, the "fact -value distinction"

The clearest proponent of this viewpoint was David Hume in A Treatise Concerning Human Understanding, who famously said that there is no logical way to move from statements about facts to statements about what ought to be. It is not illogical for a person to prefer the destruction of the world rather than suffer a small injury to their finger.

The evasiveness of a definition of 'goodness'.

Many philosophers tried to end the regressions by applying an auxiliary evaluation that helps the general regression to a stopping place. This auxiliary evaluation is often open to skepticism.

For example, Aristotle considered "The supreme element of happiness" to be theoretical study, because it "ruled all others." (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a15) In this case, supremity was the auxiliary evaluation that could be doubted.

He also supported the ancient Greek view which said that it was not happiness , which is a mental state over time, which is intrinsically good -- it is, instead, something like happiness, but eudaimonia, for which there is no word in English, except perhaps the word "flourishing" or "well-being." Eudaimonia is more than simply happiness; it is a happy life that is well -lived .

Happiness is a subjective state. Eudaimonia is an objective state; literally, it means something like "having a good spirit." Thus this line of argument ends in circularity also.

Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) appproached the problem by asserting that everything sensed was an effect, with an earlier cause. Each immediate (proximal) cause was less diluted in goodness, and therefore, the first cause would have to be perfectly good. In this case, the concept of dilution might be doubted as an inaccurate metaphor, or that the dilution necessarily scales back to perfection (maybe the first cause was very good, instead of perfect). One might also doubt that the causal regression ends: It might be circular, for instance.

Another improvement is to distinguish contributory goods. These have the same qualities as the good thing, but need some emergent property of a whole state-of-affairs in order to be good. For example salt is food, but is usually good only as part of a prepared meal. Other exampless come from music and language.

Most philosophers that think goods have to create desirable mental states also say that goods are experiences of self-aware beings. These philosophers often distinguish the experience, which thay call an intrinsic good, from the things that seem to cause the experience, which they call "inherent" goods.

Collectivism versus Individualism: Contributory Goods

We may want to go beyond eudamonia by saying that an individual person's flourishing is valuable only as a means to the flourishing of society as a whole. In other words, a single person's life is, ultimately, not important or worthwhile in itself, but is good only as a means to the success of society as a whole.

Some elements of Confucianism are an example of this, encouraging the view that people ought to conform as individuals to the demands of a peaceful and ordered society.

So the question at issue now is: Is an individual's life intrinsically good, or is it merely instrumentally good? Is an individual's life, well-lived, something that is desirable for its own sake, or is it desirable, ultimately, only as a means to having a happy society?

We can use the terms "values individualism" and "values collectivism" to mark the dispute. Here are some definitions:

Values individualism is the view that only individual lives (or their eudaimonia ) are intrinsically valuable; and so they are valuable not merely as a means to the flourishing of society.

Values collectivism is the view that individual lives (or their eudaimonia) are only instrumentally valuable, i.e., good only as a means to, or as an outcome of the flourishing of society; the flourishing of society (whatever this might be) is the only intrinsically good thing.

We are then faced with the problem of how to choose, and on what basis, between values collectivism and values individualism.

Returning to the ecology question, which its advocates see as beyond the collective/individualist duality, one can now view radical values environmentalism as the view that the value of Earth and value of life must constantly be increasing - green economics for instance is concerned with ensuring that values are quantified and prices set by means which respect the actual trades that ordinary people would make. Electoral reform and accounting reform and even monetary reform all proceed directly from the desire to make the economic and social relation accurately reflect values decisions made by at least the wiser individuals. This is a very concrete and material view, that bears little relationship to Animism or the Gaia philosophy.

Transcendental value

The more spiritual view, however, that all life has intrinsic value, is more reminiscent of the philosophy of Hegel(1770-1831). Hegel rejected individualism as expressed for example in both the American and the French revolutions. Individualism, he felt, runs directly contrary to the nature of humanity and reality, since the individual has value and reality only as a part of a greater and unified whole. Humans, for instance, live only as part of a living planet Earth.

Another similar viewpoint is that of Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy which advocated quietism and conformity to the Way, or Tao: "The Tao is the natural order of things. It is a force that flows through every living or sentient object, as well as through the entire universe".-Wikipedia

Ecological transcendance

This sort of holism seems an odd point of view: in our experience goodness, or value exists within an ecosystem, Earth. What kind of being could validly apply the word to an ecosystem as a whole? Who would have the power to assess and judge an ecosystem as good or bad? By what criteria? In effect, it could only judge us sentient beings within it, and dispose of us as it required.

Perhaps this view could be grounded in a Hegelian Absolute Mind, or in the concept of God, but these concepts are not accepted as providing an elucidation of everyday examples of goodness. The economic view tends to be more satisfactory since it can be directly related to the Categorical Imperative or people's documented choices to select one thing over another.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that many people get support in accepting the fact that God created the world or "the universe", and therefore that it has a purpose and value which lies beyond our understanding. This is of course true of many of those who accept the economic or material view of the human body or its similarity to other hominid bodies.


One way to resolve the issue is to focus on empathy and the ability of beings to feel each others' pain. We care more about a gorilla than a mosquito, and would protect one and kill the other, then, not because of some abstract similarity genetically measured, but, because the gorilla lives and feels just like we do. This idea is carried forward in the ethical relationship view and has given rise to the animal rights movement and peace movement.

This is compatible with Enlightenment views, expressed e.g. in David Hume's views that the idea of a self with unique identity is illusory, and that morality ultimately comes down to sympathy and fellow feeling for others, or the exercise of approval underlying moral judgements.

The question of pain comes up also in early Enlightenment theory:


Jeremy Bentham's book The Principles of Morals and Legislation prioritized goods by considering pleasure, pain and consequences. This theory had a wide effect on public affairs, up to and including the present day. A similar system was later named Utilitarianism by John Mill.

Utilitarianism succeeds in many cases. However Utilitarianism has some questionable implications.

For example, it considers all goods as interchangeable. If feeding a starving child would cause the child to feel sick, and not permanently improve his situation, a Utilitarian would prefer to spend the money on a car for a rich man.

Unhappily, the utilitarian argument to permit abortions is of the same form as this questionable type, though with changed quantities. To see this, substitute "unconscious fetus, destined for loveless poverty" for "starving, hopeless child" and "improved woman's income" for "rich man's watch."

To a humanist, who values human life above all else, the form of the judgment remains invalid, while a utilitarian might agree with the statement, based on the changed magnitudes of value.

In another widely questioned set of judgments, Utilitarians weigh the pleasures and pains of men and animals in the same scale. (See PETA, an animal rights organization based firmly on Utilitarian ideals.)

John Rawls' book A Theory of Justice prioritized social arrangements and goods based on their contribution to justice. Rawls defined justice as fairness, especially in distributing social goods, defined fairness in terms of procedures, and attempted to prove that just institutions and lives are good, if rational individuals' goods are considered fairly.

Rawls' crucial invention was "the original position," a procedure in which one tries to make objective moral decisions by refusing to let personal facts about oneself enter one's moral calculations.

A problem with both Kant's and Rawls' approach is that goodness appears to be both prior to and essential to fairness, and different for different beings. Procedurally fair processes of the type used by Kant and Rawls may reduce the totality of goodness, and thereby be unfair.

For example, if two people are found to own an orange, the standard fair procedure is to cut it in two, and give half to each. However, if one wants to eat it, while the other wants the rind to flavor a cake, cutting it in two is clearly less good than giving the peel to the baker, and feeding the meat to the eater.

Many people judge that if both procedures are known, using the first procedurally-fair procedure to mediate between a baker and an eater is unfair because it is not as good.

Applying procedural fairness to an entire society therefore seems certain to create recognizable inefficiencies, and therefore be unfair, and (by the equivalence of justice with fairness) unjust.

This strikes at the very foundation of Kantian ethics, because it shows that hypothetical goods can be better than categorical goods, and therefore be more desirable, and even more just.

Summary: Values pluralism and the grading of values.

Notice that there is a succession of things which can be considered as the kind of thing which is intrinsically good: from particular events of pleasure, to an individual's happiness, to an individual's eudaimonia, to the flourishing of a society, to the flourishing of an entire ecosystem. So it can be seen that there is a rather difficult problem about the scope of the theory of value. Where do you stop, in this succession of items, in your account of what is valuable for its own sake?

If you say that an individual pleasure is valuable for its own sake, then why don't you say that an individual's entire happiness is valuable for its own sake? And so forth: and on reaching the end of this sequence, we find ourselves valuing ecosystems which is itself an activity which seems metaphysical, inexplicable.

As a values pluralist, you might say: every item in this succession of items is intrinsically good. The goodness of a particular experience, of an individual's whole life, of society, and of an ecosystem, are all worth having for their own sake, and not merely as a means to something else. So as a values pluralist you would say: I don't have to decide which of these things is intrinsically good, because they are all intrinsically good.

That position does not seem to hold up to careful scrutiny. Sometimes we have a choice , for example, to sacrifice our own pleasure, or happiness, or even our own lives, for the sake of many other people. In these cases two things are weighed: your own individual happiness, and the more general happiness of a lot of other people. And if you conclude that you should sacrifice your own happiness, in one of these ways, what does that amount to?

It could say that your own life is worthwhile in and of itself, and that it is also worthwhile as a means to the happiness of others. Remember, the same thing can be both instrumentally and intrinsically good: understanding, or knowledge, is one possible example. It is clear that a human life might be another, and in that way some people would defend values pluralism. Two different things, a life and the good of society, can both be intrinsically good, even though one could be sacrificed for the second. This does not involve a contradiction.

Indeed, existentialism faces this dilemma in an egregious way: since being precedes essence, then our choices are paramount in setting our values. It makes little sense to evaluate one action over another: if they are real choices then they are expressions of our being, and of our ultimate freedom. Jean Paul Sartre faced the famous difficulty of being unable to decide whether it was better to stay at home to care for his elderly mother, or to go to war in the defence of his country.

We are left with an unresolved issue: the issue of the relative importance of intrinsic values. If these things are to be ranked in order of importance, how would the ranking go? So a person could be a values pluralist and still be an individualist, or a collectivist, or a radical environmentalist. It would just have to be said that the most important thing, the most valuable thing, is my own flourishing; or, instead, the flourishing of society; or, perhaps, the flourishing of the environment.

But this leaves us back at the start of the argument: on what basis do we, should we, choose in cases of conflict? Why is one thing better than another? Why is anything good?


After all this, we can see why the notion or thing called 'goodness' has a claim on being the most important, yet the most puzzling area of philosophy.

We can also see why there would be temptation to reduce values to prices, and why the value of Earth or value of life might be ultimately understood by economic methods, not ethical ones. To a degree, economics and ethics compete to explain people's choices. See also law and economics on this.

So much in our day to day life involves apparent value judgements: crucial life decisions we make, the habits we develop and transmit to our children, our deepest political convictions.

Academic philosophy seems to provide no objective criteria or decision process to help us in our decision making or reflections on these matters.

Hypothetical imperatives can outweigh Categorical imperatives, as we have seen, and intrinsic goods can be outweighed by instrumental goods. For each proposed ideal candidate for being called good, we seem able to envisage a situation where that candidate is judged bad.

Further, the prospect of the quest being successful, that goodness could finally be analysed, satisfactorily defined and universally agreed is unsettling for some people. They feel that perhaps the definition could be used in a totalitarian way, perhaps the world would lose some of its ambiguity, there may be a loss of diversity in society and in ways of life. So the fact that some existing choices may be threatened, produces the paradoxical situation that ultimate, incontrovertible knowledge of what is good may to some people not seem good or desirable.

Perhaps the only certainty we can have from looking at the investigations of philosopers over the centuries is that:

  • What is good cannot be defined in abstraction from situations and our experience of them, academic approaches have so far proved infertile.

  • There seems to be no enduring thing which can be said to be absolutely good in itself.

  • Perhaps an inductive, empirical based investigation of goodness as the outcome of situations of valuation activity would be a more productive approach.

These conclusions may in the long run be more likely to give us some practical guidance in a world of multiple choice and of bewildering pluralism.

See also: Meta-ethics, Descriptive ethics, Inductive reasoning