What is Good?

How do we define what is good? Is it good because I desire it? Or because I say it is good? Or because we vote and most of us say it is good? Thomas Aquinas gives us an answer in the Summa Theologica.

Good is good because it has perfection. Evil is a lack of perfection, as a man is said to be evil because he lacks some perfection, such as a lack of virtue. A man who was completely virtuous would be good, for then he would have the perfection of virtue. Good, then, is defined as being (act), in the sense that a being (thing) is perfected for its purpose. When a being has total perfection, total being, it is perfect and good.

As Thomas states, “Every being, as being, is good. For all being, as being, has actuality and is in some way perfect; since every act implies some sort of perfection; and perfection implies desirability and goodness, as is clear from Article [1]. Hence it follows that every being as such is good.” (I.5.3)  In the reply to the objection that some things are evil, he says “No being can be spoken of as evil, formally as being, but only so far as it lacks being. Thus a man is said to be evil, because he lacks some virtue . . .” (I.5.3.R2)

Note that Thomas is not saying that evil is good, but rather saying that the things which have perfected their form have, in that sense, goodness. He explains, “Everything is said to be good so far as it is perfect; for in that way only is it desirable (as shown above Articles [1],3). Now a thing is said to be perfect if it lacks nothing according to the mode of its perfection. But since everything is what it is by its form (and since the form presupposes certain things, and from the form certain things necessarily follow), in order for a thing to be perfect and good it must have a form, together with all that precedes and follows upon that form.” (I.5.5)

We also know that all contingent beings (things) need a necessary being as their cause, and that composed beings cannot cause their own existence. Thus goodness, as perfected being (act), requires a necessary being as the first cause of form and being (act). I believe this is included when he states that “form presupposes certain things.” Further, all this does not take away the act of secondary or proximate causes, such as humans.

We therefore cannot have good without a first necessary being, which we call God.

It is much easier to merely say that good is what God makes to be good, but many ask for a more detailed explanation.

About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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6 Responses to What is Good?

  1. Mike says:

    Now you have to define what is perfection, because your definition of “good” allows the devil to be “perfect and good”. You define “good” as ” being (act), in the sense that a being (thing) is perfected for its purpose.” Isn’t the devil’s purpose to create evil, and hasn’t the devil perfected this purpose? Then the devil would be good according to your definition. So, I suggest you try again and do a better job at defining “good”.

    • Paul says:

      “Isn’t the devil’s purpose to create evil, and hasn’t the devil perfected this purpose?”
      Actually, no. The devil was created as Lucifer, a Cherub (angelic being) whose purpose was to glorify God – some scholars suggest he was a sort of worship leader. Lucifer became evil when he defied his purpose and attempted to glorify himself. The point of the definition given is that evil does not exist on its own, it is a deduction from, or a perversion of something that is otherwise good. Ravi Zacharias often makes the point that evil cannot be usefully defined without a reference to purpose.

      • Mike says:

        Not all Christians see it that way. If you’re a Calvinist then god created the devil and made him “evil”. And your definition of evil is interesting. Evil according to you is when someone “defied his purpose and attempted to glorify himself.” What kind of self-loathing masochist are you? It is evil to demand to be worshiped by others and to torture them if they don’t – that’s evil. Worshiping one’s self, although not something good, certainly isn’t evil so long as you do not force others to worship yourself as you do and it does no other unnecessary harm.

        • humblesmith says:

          As Paul pointed out Lucifer was created to fulfill the purpose for which God created him. This purpose included virtue and honesty. God made Lucifer (and humans, too) with a good thing called free will. Lucifer used this free will in a way that lacked virtue and honesty. Evil is a lack in something, as rot to a tree. Therefore evil cannot exist except as a lack of something good. Rot cannot exist except as a lack in something that ought to be complete, like a tree. Aquinas used the example of sight to the eyes: the eyes are good when they see, fulfilling their purpose. An eye with a lack of sight is not good, for it does not fulfill it’s purpose.

          Perhaps a better example is something like manure. Insofar as it fulfills it’s purpose, the definition of good would hold it as good. We would commonly not call manure good. It is this common definition that this post was aimed at correcting. By contrast evil is a lack of good. Contrary to what your comment says, the devil does not have the purpose of evil, but the evil exists because he lacks honesty and lacks righteousness. .

          Actually, only a minority of Calvinists teach that God created evil. Most Calvinists believe that God created the devil but the devil rebelled. Most Calvinists hold that out of all the beings that exercised evil and rebelled against God of their own accord, God declared some as being His elect. Only a minority of Calvinists hold to what is commonly called double predestination, that God created evil beings for the purpose of damning them. I know of no non-Calvinists who teach double predestination. People that hold to double predestination are incorrect.

          Your implications also have several errors. First, it is not evil for God to demand worship since He is deserving of it. It would not be evil for the president to demand to be treated like the president, but it would be evil of me to demand to be treated as such, since I am not the president. Second, God does not torture anyone by allowing them to go to hell. The Bible says that people in hell are in torment, but it never says God or anyone else is torturing them. Drug addicts are in torment but freely continue their habit; they are not being tortured by another person. I have posted on this extensively, including a six part series explaining how hell is just. To find it, search for hell in my search box.

          Third, It is evil to worship any being that is not deserving of worship, including one’s self, for doing so denies the worship of the person who deserves it, God, and gives it to a sinful being.

          But of course, the criticisms of this post are an avoidance of the point made in the post. They throw in off-topic criticisms instead of dealing with the issue at hand. This tactic is increasingly common amongst modern atheists.

          • Mike says:

            When i said the devil has the purpose of evil I meant that the devil subjectively wants to do evil, not that god made him to do evil, but that the devil chooses evil as his purpose. If he perfects that subjective purpose, then he would be good for perfecting his purpose.

            I’m not going to argue what various Christians do and do not believe. In the past week week I have debated two Christians, and one says evolution is false, the other says god had to use evolution to create us because using his magic would not teach us anything scientific. So Christians are all over the map on everything and as far as I can see, many simply just make up their own theology as they see fit.

            Yahweh is not worthy of worship, that is your opinion. That’s like a North Korean saying Kim Jung-Un is worthy of worship – it’s their opinion. There is no argument you can successfully make to demonstrate Yahweh is objectively worthy of worship, you just assert it. Demanding to be worshiped under the threat of torment is not a positive attribute, it is a negative one. If you want to worship Yahweh, go ahead. It doesn’t harm me. But don’t tell me your god is the only thing worthy of worship, when I’ve got a half-dozen other theists making the same claim about their god, and none of you can put forth a good reason to think such a thing.

  2. gelo says:

    ‘Good’ is what God is.

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