Page Summary

  • A being is minimally good if it realizes its potential at all and could contribute in any way to the full existence of any other being. 
  • Goodness and being are really the same thing considered in different ways.
  • Evil does not exist as a real thing, but only as a lack of being that some other thing should have.

What is “the good”?

Goodness is existence insofar as it can be sought by the will.

Ok, but what does that actually mean?

Charlotte felt as though evil was lurking around every corner like some inescapable shadow. She knew others who believed that good and evil were locked in an eternal struggle like evenly matched heavyweight boxers.

If there were no evil to fight, would that mean there would be no goodness either?

Was she good or evil herself?

Do we even ask what exactly good and evil are to begin with?

Since we’re using “good” in our core definition of love, let’s focus on that for now.

a woman sitting on the roof of a car under the night sky

Maybe “the good” is whatever feels good or pleasurable. If not, what is it? We might think we know what the good is until we have to define it, and then we realize that we typically use it to describe concrete things.

Goodness is one of at least five objective properties (called “transcendentals” because they transcend any specific qualities) that can apply to anything and everything.1 We can arrive at those big five transcendentals by thinking about the world in the most general way possible: at the level of being itself. If we consider being absolutely in itself, we can do so either affirmatively (recognizing that anything that exists is a “what”, and so we call it A) a “thing”) or we can consider being negatively (recognizing that what we can deny about anything is division: a thing cannot be divided from itself, and so we call it B) “one”).

We don’t have to consider being in an absolute way, though; it can also be considered in relation to other beings, either distinct from others or uniting with others.

The most general kind of distinction is that a thing isn’t divided from itself, but it is divided from all others, so we can call it C) an “other” (or “something”).

Now for the interesting part. We can also consider being not as distinct from, but in its relation with another by its uniting with that other.


It’s important to note that we don’t just mean combining like an H2O molecule or the ingredients of a peanut butter cup. When hydrogen combines with oxygen, they don’t remain themselves, they become a third thing (with its own distinct activity). When chocolate and peanut butter combine, they remain themselves (with their original activity), but they don’t really become one. They’re just in closer proximity. We’re looking at something which can really join with another while remaining itself.

This kind of unity can only happen in two ways: understanding and willing.

Let’s start with the unity resulting from understanding. When Charlotte knows a particular tree, there’s no change in physical distance as there is between the peanut butter and chocolate, and there’s no loss of activity as with hydrogen and oxygen. The tree can still do what trees do and Charlotte can still do what humans do. And yet, the tree’s being takes up residence in Charlotte’s intellect.

It’s not that she has a snapshot in her mind that happens to resemble the tree more or less. Rather, the same tree exists both physically in itself and also rationally in Charlotte’s understanding, which is capable of taking in the activity of any sensible thing.

This intellectual way of uniting, or knowledge, is only possible if the tree is truly existing to begin with, and so we can say that it is D) “true”. Any really existing thing has truth within it that the intellect can bring to light.

The other form of unity results from willing. Willing, also called the “rational appetite”, can be compared to non-rational “natural appetites”. The tree has a natural appetite (which we typically call “vegetation”) to take root in soil and grow. Of course, the tree has no choice in the matter, it just absorbs whatever sunlight, water, and nutrients it can get. But it does so in order that it can realize the potential that belongs to it by virtue of the sort of thing it is. The more fully it exists as a tree (instead of, say, a wooden club), the more perfect or complete it is. This is the self-contained dimension of goodness, but there is also an inherently relational dimension of goodness.

 When Charlotte, who has a rational appetite, freely seeks the tree in some way (maybe for fruit, shade, to climb, or just to appreciate it for its own sake), it exists rationally in her will to seek it. This means that the tree belongs to her well-being or fulfillment. In its own limited way, the tree helps Charlotte become a more fully existing thing, especially if she’s just appreciating it for its own sake. It’s a small step toward her complete existence as a human being, which is what she ultimately desires.

This willful way of uniting, or love (in a basic sense), is only possible if the tree is desirable in some way to begin with, and so we can say that it is E) “good”. A being is minimally good if it realizes its potential at all and could contribute in any way to the full existence of any other being. Hence the saying, “good is what all seek”.

So good is what all seek, but not in a subjective way. Good isn’t whatever anyone happens to want at a given moment. An apple doesn’t have more goodness than an orange just because Charlotte likes apples more than oranges (though, all else being equal, that would make apples better for her; the subjective dimension has at least some significance). An apple couldn’t be good for her if it didn’t already have a certain goodness in itself as an objective reality. Desirability is a sign of goodness but not the cause of goodness.


The name ‘good’ expresses the agreement of being to the appetite, thus in the beginning of [Aristotle’s] Ethics it is said that the good is ‘that which all seek’.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, q. 1, a. 1

a tree in bloom
a baby on the beach with dirt on its face

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected when received with thanksgiving.

St. Paul, 1 Timothy 4:4

Goodness and being are really the same thing considered in different ways. Another way of saying this is that everything which has being is good. Everything which seems bad, or undesirable in itself, is really an incomplete good; it lacks some further good that it should have according to what it is.2

That lack, or “privation”, is parasitic on the existing good thing, in that it depends on the good, but at the same time is fighting against its host’s fulfillment. If the privation had its way, it would cease to be, along with its host. This does not apply the other way around. The host actually could exist without the parasite, at least in principle.

Dirt isn’t disgusting filth through and through, it’s just ordinary matter that lacks its proper place. A papercut isn’t absolute pain and suffering, it’s just an ordinary hand that lacks wholeness. The pain alerts us to the lack of wholeness, not the evilness of the hand. There is no existing thing whose sheer existence is evil. Strictly speaking, evil does not exist. Everything that exists in itself, everything that is real, is good. Which means that it is strictly and objectively true that you are good.

So what’s the difference between our idea of “good” and our idea of existence? “Good” tells us the possibility of being united with a will. If something is evil, it isn’t possible for it to be united with someone’s will, because it doesn’t exist. If our will appears to unite with an evil, it’s only ever under the appearance of some good.

If we’re good just by existing, then maybe we don’t need to do anything else. Maybe we don’t need to treat others well or even get out of bed, because hey, we’re already good, right? But the goodness of basic existence is not nearly enough to satisfy our infinite desires for perfection, for completion. It’s not an excuse to do nothing, it’s the first step towards the full existence that realizes the deepest potential of the human person and makes us truly happy.

But how do we apply this general notion of “the good” to human beings when we say love is “to will the good of the other”? Can we really impose one definition of goodness on everyone else? Isn’t all this assuming that truth is objective? Maybe it’s for each of us to define for ourselves.

More pages to come!