Defining virtue as "excellence in being for the good" places a heavy burden on the concept of good. Intuitively we understand good (in the context of human experience) as a conception of what is of most value in human life; what is regarded as a fully worthwhile life. Good can also be thought of as “character traits we are most likely to admire in others.”[1] Can we be more precise?

Behavior that increases human well-being is good.[2]This requires us to consider our own well-being along with the well-being of others. We can achieve both by pursing these goals for good behavior:

  1. Increase your own well-being.
  2. Do not diminish the well-being of others, and
  3. Enhance the well-being of others.

This can be accomplished by following these steps:

  1. Meeting needs of ourselves and others.
  2. Know what matters to you.
  3. Learn what matters to others.
  4. Recognize and respect reasonable limits to freedom; for yourself and others.
  5. Pursue what matters to you.
  6. Help others achieve what matters to them.

Let’s examine each of these in more detail.

Meeting Needs


It is good to have your needs met. It is good to have water when you are thirsty, it is good to have food when you are hungry and of course it is good to have air to breath.

Researcher Abraham Maslow recognized that people have many needs, and we are motivated to meet certain basic needs before turning attention to higher levels of fulfillment. His insights are often represented using a pyramid to illustrate this needs hierarchy . The physiological needs of air, water, food, shelter, sanitation, and sleep form the base of the pyramid because people seek to meet these needs before attending to safety, belonging, esteem and other higher levels of fulfillment.

By assessing needs that are met and unmet, a person can determine their current position in the hierarchy. Because people seek higher levels of fulfillment, the higher levels of the pyramid generally represent greater life satisfaction. We strive to move up the pyramid.

Satisfying more needs, moving higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of need, is good for you. In short, a measure of personal good can be represented as enjoying a higher position on the hierarchy.

What about collective good? Paraphrasing the Gospel of Matthew 25:40, Jesus of Nazareth warned we would be judged by how we treat the least among us. More recently John Rawls proposed in A Theory of Justice, that social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that “they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society”. Therefore, we maximize the collective good by maximizing the minimum position of each person on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Evaluating the Good.

Care for future generations introduces sustainability requirements.

Phrased succinctly,

good is attaining maximin over Maslow’s needs hierarchy.

This is illustrated on the right.

What matters to you


Think deeply about what matters most to you. As a starting point, you may wish to consider the topics in the Wikiversity course on what matters. Also, you can study a variety of other concepts related to your well-being. For example:

  • The term quality of life refers to the general well-being of individuals and societies. The term is used in a wide range of contexts, including the fields of international development, healthcare, and politics.
  • Eudaimonia is a Greek word commonly translated as happiness or welfare; however, "human flourishing" has been proposed as a more accurate translation.
  • In positive psychology, flourishing is “to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.”
  • Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.
  • Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology whose purpose was summed up in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities."
  • The Character Strengths and Virtues handbook of human strengths and virtues represents the first attempt on the part of the research community to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings. You may wish to acquire the various character strengths identified there.

What Matters to Others


There are several ways to learn what matters most to others. The most direct way is to ask the other person, perhaps by engaging them in a thoughtful dialogue. If that is not practical, then you can use empathy, symmetry, and the golden rule to extrapolate from your own experience to estimate their needs.

Empathy is a deep appreciation for another's situation and point of view. It provides you a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing and what they might want to have happen.

Symmetry, an apparent balance, helps you understand that what matters to others is likely to be similar to what matters to you if you were in their situation. In short, experiences similar to those that contribute to your well-being might also contribute to theirs.

These two ideas are often combined into the Golden Rule. Recent work by Harry Gensler recommends formulating the golden rule as: “Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.”

Actions that increase the survival and flourishing of individual sentient beings are good.[3]

Towards a Global Ethic: An Initial Declaration is an interfaith declaration. Drawing on many of the world's religious and spiritual traditions, it identifies four essential affirmations as shared principles essential to a global ethic. Similarly, the Charter for Compassion is a document that urges the peoples and religions of the world to embrace the core value of compassion.

Solutions to the Grand Challenges are good.

As an absolute minimum, it is certain that people want to survive and to be treated with dignity.

The Limits of Freedom


While people value their own freedom, symmetry requires that we also respect the freedom of others. It may be helpful to define the limits of your freedom using this symmetrical rule: “your freedom ends where mine begins.” This concept has been dramatized with quotes such as: "Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins."[4] This establishes important restrictions, including:

First, do no harm. Because you value freedom from the harm of others, you therefore have an obligation to protect and preserve this freedom for others. This quickly places cruelty, cheating, lying, deception, manipulation, theft, violence, insult, humiliation, abuse, and other forms of malice out of bounds. The concept of categorical imperatives developed by philosopher Immanuel Kant provides a test for determining if actions are good.

Avoid trespassing into areas that infringe on others’ property, rights, and freedoms. While the word trespass is often somewhat narrowly defined as a direct violation of another person's property, the concept can easily be extended to include violation of the rights and freedoms of others.

Morality characterizes intentions, decisions, and actions as being either good (or right) or bad (or wrong). (Note that this characterization may present a false dilemma.) Morality seeks to guide us in treating others well. The following topics, related to morality, also seek to define good and bad ways of behaving toward others.

Respect these limits to freedom of your behavior, and expect others to respect these limits to their behavior.

Read the essay Referees decide where your freedom ends and mine begins.

Good Paths


Many paths lead toward the good. These include:

Many of these paths are based on the principle of impartiality, informed by accurate empathy. For example, living the golden rule can be thought of as trading places—enacting impartiality—and then treating others as you would want to be treated—acting from empathy. Other concepts derived from impartiality include justice, fairness, compassion, good faith, and other virtues.

Increasing your well-being


Knowing what matters to you, while keeping in mind the restrictions that prevent you from diminishing the well-being of others enables you to act in ways that increase your well-being. Focus your time and energy on what matters. Completing the assignment in the What Matters course may help you Spend Your Time on What Matters.

Increasing others’ well-being


Demonstrate your genuine concern for the well-being of others. Begin by respecting the rights of others, showing them kindness, and communicating honestly with them. At the risk of creating circular logic, the virtues describe behavior that benefits others’ well-being.

Everyday Good


Be good every day in these various ways:



Decide what matters to you. Write it down. Consider completing the Wikiversity course on what matters.

Analyze how you spend your time. Are you focusing on what matters? What changes can you make to spend more time on what matters?

Make those changes and focus on what matters.

Treat others only as you consent to being treated in the same situation.



“The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.” ~ St Augustine


  1. Adams, Robert Merrihew (2009). A Theory of Virtue: Excellence in Being for the Good. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 264. ISBN 978-0199552252.  Page 19
  2. Harris, Sam (2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press. pp. 320. ISBN 978-1439171226. 
  3. Shermer, Michael (January 20, 2015). The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Henry Holt and Co. pp. 560. ISBN 978-0805096910. 
  4. Similar quotes are attributed to several sources. See:

Further Reading


Students interested in learning more about the meaning of "good" may be interested in the following materials:

I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.

  • Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
  • Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics
  • Ethics for Robots, by Derek Leben