What Is “Good,” What Is “The Good,” and What Is “A Good Life”?



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   9-06,8-14


ABSTRACT:  Concepts of “good,” “the good,” “a good life,” and “the good life” are explored.  Basic human motives are listed, and universal human experiences and circumstances important for having a good life are offered.


KEY WORDS:  good, the good, good life, the good life, motives, life goals, ultimate goals, basic goals


Philosophy has been described as the discipline that searches to identify what is, what is right and good, and what is a good life, by identifying relevant ideas and principles.  The following is based on my personal observations of myself, others, and clients, both as an individual and as a psychologist, with an effort to glean, inductively, key generalizations and principles from those observations.

What Is “Good”?

What people consider to be “good” stems from what they view as furthering their interests, and what is “bad” is that which they view as harming them or their interests.  This stems from our isolation in our own skins as individuals and thereby having primary responsibility for ourselves.  Individuals have both a moment-to-moment sense of what is “good” and “bad” in their lives right now and, at the same time, a longer-term sense of what they think or believe is “good” and “bad” based on their socialization and learning.  Since the needs and motives of people are much the same all over the world, there is considerable agreement about what is “good,” at least at the fundamental level (having ample food, clothing, and shelter; being secure from harm by other people or from natural events; childbirth without dying; living a long and happy life; etc.).  Each society has its own special “goods” as well that are consistent with its own understanding of people (for some, great wealth; for others, honor and respect; for others, increase in family; etc.). 

This concept of what is “good” is neither altruistic nor selfish.  Each of us is “responsible” for making choices that are in his or her best interest, and many times, since we are such social animals, we include the interests of others in our calculations of what is good for us in an overall and long-term sense.  A father who lunges in front of an oncoming car in order to push his child out of harm’s way has calculated almost instantly that the child’s safety is important enough to him for him to risk his own life to save the child.  It is too simple to say that he is doing this “for the child,” since he judges that it is best for himself, too (best for how he views life, the fulfillment of his values, the legacy that he wishes to leave, etc.).  A citizen may seek office in order to benefit the town (the lives of the other citizens as well as his own) in a particular regard that is not popular but is very important for the future, when he would not have sought that office solely for his own enjoyment of being in office.  His calculus tells him that the potential benefit for all of the townspeople (including himself) of what he could do in office, plus whatever personal gratification he would get from being in that office, are worth the costs to him of holding office and working toward those goals.   When we say that someone has done something without thinking about the consequences, we mean that he or she did not think sufficiently about the consequences, since all behaviors are directly self-benefiting and are either impulsively so (pull your hand back from touching a hot stove) or thoughtfully so (trying to imagine various consequences of our actions).

When we “do things for others,” we have already checked on what the impact of the behavior will be on us and our lives and determined that this impact, in toto, is in an overall sense desirable (or acceptably desirable, or at least as desirable as some other options).  Some of these desirable impacts on ourselves of doing things that benefit others are having pleasurable feelings empathically from watching the impact of our behavior on others, storing up reciprocity “points” for the future, and knowing that we are contributing to goals for others or for the total group that we strongly believe in.

Some might claim that what is “good” and “bad” should be defined by religion or by society, but introspection would show that, as noted above, we feel within ourselves what is “good” and “bad” according to how we are benefited or harmed, and we also know what religion and society have identified as “good” and “bad,” and we live life trying to compromise or satisfy both.  For some individuals, this results in a lifetime of constant conflict.  To check out the claim that we do things in our own interest, try doing something on purpose that is bad for you.  If you say that continuing to smoke tobacco is your decision but that it is not in your best interest, I would argue that, in your judgment, the immediate benefits to you of smoking (the stimulation, the relaxation, the avoidance of stopping smoking) are simply greater than the costs that you anticipate may accrue from continuing to smoke.

What Is “The Good”?

“The good” is a phrase that identifies a conglomerate of “goods,” such as God, knowledge, or morality.  It may have considerable emotional meaning for an individual, but every individual’s conception of “the good” is different, making it not a very useful construct to analyze.

What Is “A Good Life”?

“A good life” typically means a life filled with what is considered desirable (“good”) by almost everyone in a given society and a life that does not contain excessive amounts of those things that are considered by almost everyone to be undesirable (“bad”).  What is desirable includes both the individual’s “good” and “bad,” the recognized “goods” of that society (including the universal experiences and circumstances below), and fads or current symbols of those “goods” (e.g., a large house symbolizing status or security; fame standing for gratifying social relationships; etc.).  What is considered a good life at any point in time in a particular society can be found by asking an appropriate sample of people in that society.  (In recent times, “the good life” is usually defined by a sample of the more hedonistic elements of “a good life.”)

As noted above, the things considered desirable and undesirable vary somewhat from society to society, although the list below of universally desirable life experiences and circumstances is applicable in every society.  The universally desirable life experiences and circumstances listed are, as a group, sufficient for having a good life in any society and in any environment (with the proviso that the derived goals of the moment in a given society, such as fame, wealth, and popularity, do not play too large a  role in an individual’s sense of what is “good”).

Some societies specify types of individuals who can hope to have a good life and those who may not, based on societal structure and status issues.  In traditional Indian society, the untouchable caste was, in the past at least, not expected (or allowed) to have a good life.  Slaves in the U. S. South would fall in the same category.

In this essay, it is assumed that our concern is whether an individual thinks and/or feels that he has or has had a good life, not whether another person would evaluate that life as “good” or not.  This means, however, that individual characteristics, such as optimism/pessimism, courage, and positive evaluation bias/negative evaluation bias enter into an individual’s assessment of his life, so that any understanding of “a good life” can only be an approximation or a framework for understanding what people consider when they reach conclusions about their lives.  This is noted in the criteria suggested below for a framework for understanding “a good life” by the presence of words such as “some,” “adequate,” and “sufficient,” as in “having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in one’s life.”  The individual is the source of deciding how much is enough and whether his or her life was “good.”   To some extent these self-evaluations will depend for some people on a comparison with their expectations or with the lives of other people around them, but it is posited that if we try, each of us can come to a conclusion about our own emotional state, our own level of satisfaction, and whether we have a “good life.”

Most individual conceptions of a good life include considerably more pleasure than pain, although some societal subgroups (typically religious subgroups) might hold that a proper life would have a different balance of pleasure and pain.

Our more abstract values (honesty, integrity, good citizenship, family unity, etc.) are a way that we identify what is important to us in an overall and somewhat abstract sense, and they imply a way of life that we believe will lead, if we live by our values, to achievement of our ultimate goals.  Virtues (frugality, patriotism, patience, etc.) are ways of being (ways of living) that we also perceive as helping us to reach those ultimate goals.

At the present time some societies are encountering the unusual situation that they are so rich that many people can have much more of the things that have been considered good or that our physical systems tells us are good, but we are discovering that those greater amounts of some of those things (fat, sugar, salt, carbohydrates, total calories, alcohol, sensory stimulation, ease in daily life) are actually not good for us.  It is difficult for us to restrain our consumption of these things because our bodies tell us they are good.  It is also difficult for us to compensate as needed—e.g., to get enough exercise, because it is not good for us long-term to have such physically easy lives, while our sensory system is telling us that the ease is good.

The following is a list of the fundamental or basic motives of human beings, which will help us to understand what we view as “good” or “bad”:

1—to have food, water, air, and a non-harmful environment,                              in order to continue existing

2—to stop or avoid physical pain/discomfort and bodily damage

3–to be in a positive emotional state (primarily through–

3a-having positive self-esteem (positive reactions to  self)

3b-having no or little emotional pain or conflict internally

3c-feeling reasonably secure (and stopping or                                                              avoiding insecurity) )

4—to have sex

5-to nurture a child

6-to defend and protect one’s primary groups (family, village,                          nation, etc.) and to help, in crisis, members of one’s primary                        groups

We seek to be in a positive emotional state by regulating our emotions, seeking pleasurable experiences, gratifying desires, moderating or eliminating stimuli that lead to negative emotional states, and contact with objects of conditioned desire such as keepsakes, amulets, money, important environments (like “home”), etc.

To be in a positive emotional state often requires avoiding or stopping emotional pain, especially fear of difference, fear of the unknown, fear of death, feeling rejected/alone, and feeling other unpleasant emotions such as shame, guilt, etc.

To be in a positive emotional state, many people seek to rise or at least to maintain their positions in applicable status hierarchies.  (Simple survival no longer requires rising in the social hierarchy in most societies.)

In order to have positive self-esteem and no or little emotional pain or conflict, we seek to have adequate amounts of touch, love, comforting, and empathy from others.

Security is often sought through eliminating threats, achieving equilibrium or homeostasis, achieving congruence or resolution, and through seeking power over others.

To be in a positive emotional state, to feel sufficiently secure, and in response to the competition with others that everyone feels from very early in life, most human beings seek to be “special” to some others and to ensure that things are “fair” between self and others.

In order to survive in the typically difficult physical and social environments that we inhabit, we naturally make use of our emotional and cognitive abilities to imagine the future and to understand likely consequences of our various options.  When our behavior or happenings around us are consistent with or seem to exemplify our values, we feel a gratifying “sense of meaning” (which we take to mean that we are “on the right track” in life and that our lives have a point or purpose that justifies our efforts).  Questions of whether one’s life has been “good” or whether it has meaning often come up on disruptive occasions when our expectations are upended (the death of a spouse or child, a calamitous war) and we ask ourselves whether it was “all worth it” or “what was the point anyway?”  Finding meaning, in my view, is one of the many ways that we seek to be in a positive emotional state.

The motivations listed above are “fundamental” in the sense that all other motivations (to have friends, to get a job, to get married, etc.) occur to us only because they serve one or more of these fundamental motives.  When we say we want a job, we actually want a job in order to take care of other motives, such as to obtain food, shelter, good feelings about ourselves, security, status, emotional contact with others, a marriage partner, etc.  Often we don’t think about these more fundamental motives, but we can be aware of them if we think about why we are really doing what we do.  This awareness often allows us to get what we want even more successfully. 

We regulate our emotions, seek pleasurable experiences, gratify desires, moderate or eliminate stimuli that lead to negative emotional states, seek contact with objects of conditioned desire such as keepsakes, amulets, money, and important environments (like “home”), seek adequate amounts of touch, love, comforting, and empathy from others, seek equilibrium, homeostasis, congruence, and resolution, seek power over others, avoid or escape from fear, seek to rise or at least to maintain our positions in applicable status hierarchies, seek to be “special” to some others and to ensure that things are “fair” between self and others, think, imagine the future, seek to understand likely consequences of our various options, and seek a sense of meaning in our lives in order to serve or gratify one or more of the fundamental motives above.  We have learned through experience that these activities can help us to gratify or fulfill those more fundamental motives.

These fundamental motives are neither “good” nor “bad” to us; they simply “are.”  We can see, of course, that some of them sometimes have “bad” consequences (murder to gain status, great loss of life due to protecting our primary groups), but most people never seriously consider ways to avoid these negative consequences, since they stem from aspects of ourselves that are so fundamental that they seem unavoidable.

It seems clear now that all of these motives are now to some extent embedded in the hard-wiring of our brains by evolution (except that is not clear whether status hierarchy concerns are hard-wired or are completely the product of experience).  Number 4 (sex) might seem to be a part of number 3 (positive emotional state), but it has been listed separately since it is so clearly instinctual (hard-wired).

These fundamental motives can be used to develop a set of experiences and life circumstances that are proposed to be sufficient, for all human beings, for “having a good life.”  We might also note that people are likely to think that anything that assists them to achieve these experiences and life circumstances is “good,” and anything that prevents them from achieving these experiences and life circumstances is “bad.”  (The “fundamental motives” above describe how we operate, regardless of how we explain or justify our behavior and regardless of what we try to do differently, while the experiences and life circumstances that follow here are statements that everyone (or almost everyone) would agree to be desirable.)

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities                                           and goal attainment to enable one to take care of oneself                             and those legitimately dependent on one, and meeting                                   one’s basic needs at least adequately)

2-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of physical pain and                 bodily damage

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in one’s life                                (including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and                      ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of                                        satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment)

3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings toward                           oneself (which may include loving oneself,  respecting                                     oneself, accepting oneself, and treating oneself well, and                               which in large measure arises    from being loved, respected,                       and accepted by others and from creating good outcomes                           for oneself)

3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional pain                     and internal conflict (though recognizing that some degree                         of conflict and pain is inherent in being human)

3c-feeling an adequate level of security

4-having some and to some degree gratifying relationships  with                  others, including most importantly, a secure place in one’s family             and basic acceptance in one’s community

What is “adequate,” “reasonable,” “sufficient,” “tolerable, and “minimal” in these motive and “good life” statements will vary somewhat with our individual differences (both physically and emotionally) and with differences between societies (particularly values and economic situation).  An adequate level of happiness and a tolerable level of pain are probably not specifiable in measures available to us currently, but each of us can report at any given time which side of that vague standard we are on.  Some societies promote more self-abnegation than others, and some put relationships with others above one’s relationship with oneself, but all people would naturally seek a positive relationship with the self and fulfilling relationships with others if they were permitted to do so.  To promote self-denial and self-injury as a method of controlling behavior leads to greater unhappiness in a society.

Many lives involve periods in which one or more of the experiences and circumstances listed are absent—having serious physical pain for four years but not after that, suffering from poor self-esteem but gaining better self-esteem through psychotherapy, living through a starvation period until more food was reliably available, etc.  Such persons might certainly toward the end of their lives still conclude that they had had a good life, but while going through that period they would almost certainly not say that their lives were good currently.

It might be argued that some people reject or deny that having relationships with others is desirable, but an adequate explanation of that is that while unfortunate and traumatic experiences may lead us to deny one or more of these universal life goals, if the denier could freely and completely imagine achieving them comfortably, then he or she would agree that they were in fact desirable.  Some also might say that a good relationship with self is not important, but that would be only if they did not understand the tremendous influence that their own relationships with themselves were having on their lives.  It is very unlikely that anyone would deny that having adequate resources to maintain life, minimize pain, or have some positive experience in life were desirable (except for those who happen to be suicidal at the moment).

The confirmation that these experiences and circumstances are in fact universally desirable would presumably be found in what is asserted would be almost universal agreement among all human beings that they are desirable and that together they are sufficient for having a good life, despite variations in societies, environments, and other life outcomes.  It is possible to identify a differently stated list of goals using level of individual functioning in various areas (marriage, job, health, etc.), but it is difficult to state these as universals, since the emotional and gratification roles that they play in individual lives are somewhat different in different societies.  Ultimately universal life goals will have to be justified by the experiences they produce in us, since our experience is in the end all we have to judge from.

A complication in confirming that these basic-level life experiences and circumstances are valued by and important to virtually everyone is that some individuals become attached to derived goals in their societies in their day and age and do not recognize that these derived goals are attempts to fulfill more basic goals, as when a person loves and needs money and fails to realize that the purpose of money is to allow him or her to fulfill other, more basic and fundamental goals.  Some might be overly attached to being respected and might even kill another person over being disrespected, not realizing that the purpose of being respected is really to support gaining adequate self-esteem and fulfilling relationships and that these fundamental goals can be achieved despite occasional disrespect.

Religions and governments tend to encourage people to accept the views of what is “good” that are believed or assumed by those religions and governments, with varying degrees of forcefulness.  These views are always at a more abstract level than the fundamental motives above, but all derive their motive power from their furthering of our interests in terms of these fundamental motives (patriotism and love of country are “good” because they serve our interests in terms of protecting our primary groups).  Individuals can still have their own personal views on what is “good,” even when they publicly espouse or live by what religion, government, family, or other groups have decreed.  Accepting the view of another person or institution of what is good still fits the premise that what we view as good is what we view as furthering our own interests, since if we understand a view of another or an institution as neither furthering nor harming our interests, our commitment and conformance to it will be lukewarm and superficial, and if we understand that view of another or an institution as working against our interests, we will oppose that view or say publicly that we accept it while actually not following it or actively opposing it.

If a given choice of a “good” seems “good” to a fairly large number of people, we can be reasonably certain that it is to some degree “good,” even though those in other societies might not rank it as highly.  There are exceptions, however, so not every cultural element is necessarily “good” when viewed in comparison to other possibilities.  A society might consider it “good” that it forces all of its members to have the same religious beliefs, without making clear that this is done in order to ensure the degree of uniformity and conformity that all societies need in order to function in an organized way without excessive violence (and therefore to minimize the insecurity that we inevitably feel when some of the people around us are different or see the world differently). 

Since the establishment of cultural mores and other elements is difficult and full of conflict, and since societies are therefore loathe to allow these elements to be seriously questioned, the society that requires everyone to have the same religion does not recognize or discuss that there are other ways to ensure a sufficient degree of uniformity and conformity than to do it through enforced religious belief.  Another society might honor religious freedom, in order to promote a maximum degree of freedom in the society, but doing this will probably also result in more crime, less adherence to moral codes, and more open conflict in society.  One society might consider clitoral excision “good” (as a way of reducing adultery on the part of women), while other societies might believe that the harm done in reduction of female sexual pleasure is much more important than the amount of female adultery avoided by using this procedure. 

Most people know only one way of believing or doing things, which is the way they were brought up believing and doing.  It is quite difficult for individuals to fully appreciate more than one way of doing things and believing, and in-depth exposure to other societies that accomplish the same ends through different means is usually the only way that people gain the insight that there are more ways to accomplish those ends than the ones that they grew up with, and even with that exposure, many people never accept the insight.  On the other hand, large numbers of people in a society can gradually change their priorities for what is “good” (“culture change,” “culture shift,” “cultural evolution”), as when a society shifts its priorities from religious adherence to gaining material wealth.  These shifts occur only when economic conditions permit, and when the shift will result, in the minds of most people, in greater sufficiency in achieving one or more of the universally desirable life experiences and circumstances listed below.

Individuals are for the most part capable of judging whether the impact on themselves of every possible “good” and every “good” imposed on them by their society is truly “good,” if their judgment is allowed to be a free one.  These judgments may not be freely made, however, when there are status penalties or other social penalties for differing from those with power who believe that a particular “good” is in fact “good” (the police, the church, the patriarch of the family).  Many aspects of culture that are claimed by that culture to be “good” may still be viewed by large numbers of people in that culture as “not good.”  Societies vary, of course, in the amount of credence they place in the judgments of individuals as compared to the judgments of various authority figures.  In terms of cultural choices, all societies suffer from the common human failing of being biased toward immediate pleasures and against investment in long-term goals.

Societies also vary in how much energy they put into training members about what is to be seen as “good.”  Societal institutions (families, government, justice system, schools, churches, etc.) are used to do this training.  The more conformity and uniformity are viewed by the society as important, the greater the amount of effort that will be made to ensure that every new member sees things the same way.

An Argument Supporting the List of Universally Desirable Experiences and  Life Circumstances Above

A simple method of evaluating each item in the list of proposed universally desirable life experiences and circumstances above would be to imagine a life in which all of these were met and then to imagine that life without each one.  For example, imagine a life in which every item was met, and then imagine it including a large or intolerable amount of emotional pain.  At a practical level, no one would agree that that was desirable or that that life was a good life.  Similarly, no one would agree that it was a good life if one were constantly feeling bad about oneself.  (It might be deemed an acceptable life if one’s feelings about oneself were for the most part neutral, but it would surely be more desirable if those feelings were often positive.)  It would not be considered a good life if one did not have enough food or if one had no pleasure in life, and as noted above, some might sustain a life without gratifying relationships with others but would not consider it desirable to live that way if they truly had an alternative.

Using this imagination experiment would seem to clearly eliminate from being considered a good life, any lives that—

  • were marginal throughout in terms of semi-starvation
  • involved constant and serious physical pain throughout
  • involved very little pleasure
  • involved daily anguish over feeling worthless or rejected
  • involved daily insecurity about one’s safety
  • involved constant torment from mental illness
  • included no gratifying relationships with others

One could construct other lists of “universally desirables,” and then to determine which list was “most fundamental,” people would have to imagine a life of sufficiently meeting every item in each set of desirables and decide which was more desirable.

There is no way to prove logically that no other additional goals are necessary for a good life than the ones suggested above, but we can imagine a life with the four listed goals being met, and I suggest that most people would affirm that this is a sufficient set of goals to guarantee a good life, if met, at least in terms of the basics of living, even if it did not include cell phones or computers!