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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Editor's 1-Minute Essay:

Good and Evil 



return to "Evil" main-page


The following represents a distillation of Dr. Adler's Syntopicon Essay plus my own thoughts.




The term "good," generally speaking, is used for things we desire, that which offers the possibility of pleasure.


  • What we call "good" is an object of our desires.


We use the word "good" in different contexts:

(1) Economics: goods are commodities, things bought and sold having "use" or "exchange value."

(2) Politics: we speak of a "good society" or a "good government," by which we often mean to say that they are "just."

(3) Ethics: in this field of morality and human conduct, we say a "good life" is a "happy life"; a "good man" is a "virtuous man" (while the term "good" can apply to man, it can also be used to describe anything in the universe; however, the terms "right" and "wrong" properly apply only to human actions).

(4) Metaphysics [an investigation of ultimate reality]: here, we use good to describe degrees of perfection. We do this in a general way, in effect, constantly rating everything "good," "better," or "best." When we say "good coffee," "good weather," or "good movie," we imply that we have known "bad" or "less good" versions of all of these. This rating system can be used for everything from the quark particle, the lowliest essence of reality, on up the goodness-scale to God himself, one of ultimate and infinite being and perfection. (God is also referred to as "good" in terms of "virtue," # 3, above.)

Further, the "good" may also be seen as that object of desire which we want to possess, do, or become. Ontological goodness, becoming the good, intrinsic perfection, is goodness at its highest, the grandest expression of which is God himself. (The English term, "God," is not etymologically related to "good" but, nevertheless, in common usage, suggests "Infinite Goodness.")

Evil may be viewed as the negative counterpart of each of the above three states of goodness. It is common to see evil in terms of untoward actions, as the good left undone; but evil can also be construed as a failure to possess the good and to become the good. This distinction is seen in the biblical Lucifer who, while maintaining his (good) exalted state of being and ontological perfection of existence, became Satan, one who performs (evil) not the good.


  • Is "the good" just a matter of opinion? -- or is it related to truth, that which is objectively real?


Many say that "the good" is something subjective, something based on opinion that changes with the times; is it true, as Hamlet said, that only our thinking makes something good -- but to the next person it may be bad?

Some of the great teachers assert that "the good" is something objective, that is, something in the object itself, apart from how we may feel about it; that "the good" does not change with the times nor with the shifting opinions of people.

Socrates said that, because of man's nature (predisposed toward "the good"), no one ever willfully seeks evil; that man always seeks "the good"; that, even when he does evil, he finds a way to justify his actions, convincing himself (if no one else) that he has performed "the good."

  • If man always seeks "the good" -- yet does evil -- obviously he is, at times, mistaken regarding the nature of "the good."

When we say that man desires "the good" we mean that the object of his desire, he believes, will offer to him some form of pleasure and satisfaction.

  • But if he can be mistaken in this regard, "the good" he desires may be, in fact, only apparent and not real.

"Apparent goods" are those things we consciously desire, things we deem to be desirable, that is, things we believe will offer us satisfaction -- but are, in fact, things that will harm us or, at best, may distract us from the real good. "Apparent goods" represent our wants, are subjective in nature, vary according to individual tastes and are a matter of opinion. Not all "apparent goods" are harmful and the well-ordered life allows for a measure of them, as long as "real goods" are not neglected.

"Real goods" are those things that we may or may not consciously desire -- but ought to or should desire. They represent our true needs as human beings -- even if we haven't yet learned to want them. "Real goods" conform to our natural desires, needs common to all human beings. "Real goods" are objective in nature and do not vary with time or culture.

The concept of "real goods" is based on Aristotle's comment on "right desire"; that is, desires that we either have or should have because we are human beings.

For example, knowledge is a "real good" because humans are rational creatures and have the capacity to be educated; as such, they require knowledge and education -- for them it is a natural "right" and is a natural "desire" -- and even if an individual, because of disadvantaged environment or other circumstance, does not consciously desire education, he or she ought to desire it because it relates to his or her capacity and potential as a human being.

  • Mortimer Adler says that there are not a great number of "real goods" -- possibly less than a dozen -- but these are common to all people of all times and all cultures; they are not a matter of taste or opinion but conform to the essence of what it means to be human.

According to Dr. Adler, "real goods," relating to man's needs, are found in four categories:

(1) External goods: a measure of economic wealth and "goods."

(2) Bodily goods: those goods relating to the sustaining of physical life; food, shelter, clothing, health, pleasure, sleep.

(3) Social goods: a social creature, man requires friends; also, a safe, just, and free society in which to live.

(4) Goods of the soul: knowledge, virtue, wisdom, truth, God.

  • A person can want too much -- more than he or she needs. And one can want things that one should not have. But no one ever needs too much -- or needs that which is harmful!

Dr. Adler points out that, of the above categories, it is only #4 over which we have any true control in this world.

In fact, #4, those moral goods relating to character and inner freedom, must be sought and claimed before the first three categories -- called "goods of fortune (or circumstance)" -- may be won, if at all. The possession of the first three are largely a matter of chance or luck and can be, and often are, lost. Only the "goods of the soul" are truly our own and under our control.

  • Of these four categories of "real goods," what is the greatest good in life? This "good" will not just be a means to something else but is the goal or the end of human striving!

History's philosophers have had a special word for the "greatest good" in life -- the Summum Bonum. The "greatest good" is what we call happiness. In fact, true happiness is not to be viewed simply as a good, not just a means to another good, but something sought for its own sake; it may even be seen as the sum total of all satisfactions.

For example, if one is asked, "Why do you want ... wealth ... friends ... health?" (or anything else that could be mentioned), the answer will always be something that means "because I want to be happy!"

But if one asks the question "Why do you want to be happy?" there is no response other than "because I want to be happy!" In other words, there is no goal beyond happiness for which we strive because happiness includes all other satisfactions.

In a sense, all of the lesser goods are sought for their "exchange value"; we don't really want them for their own sake, but only for their ability to gain for us something else!

  • Happiness is the only good we seek as an end in itself, not merely as a means to get something else -- it is the ultimate good.

When Jefferson wrote of "the pursuit of happiness" he was not referring to a pleasant psychological state of mind; he used the term in its classic sense of all truly good things.



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