"Creation of Adam" (detail) by Michelangelo

“Creation of Adam” (detail) by Michelangelo

In my last article, I penned a story about Johnny and Sara that was meant to help make concrete the metaphysical and anthropological concepts that we have been discussing so far. Without further ado, let me provide an answer key to see if we’re on the same page. This key is NOT exhaustive. I could write a volume on the different aspects of “the good” contained in that short story; however a few brief, or not so brief, comments should be enough.

Ontological Goodness

Ontological goodness is the goodness found in “being” itself. As St. Thomas put it “whatever is, insofar as it exists, is good.”

Therefore, in our story every NOUN is an ontological good. Starting from the beginning, our list would run: alarm clock, music, Johnny, bed, mirror, dresser, t-shirt, shorts, socks, door, runners, air, sun, cloud, driveway, sidewalk, neighbour, dog and finger rosary.

Now that is just the first two paragraphs. We can even recognize other “ontological goods” by a process of simple reflection and deduction. There is the house itself and all its contents, all the trees in the neighbourhood, and the leaves on those trees. To this we can add every bird, every blade of grass, every insect, and so on.

As we go through each paragraph, we will be able to recognize additional ontological goods: Coach Magee, field, picture, food, school bag, Camaro, seat, etc.

In short, we are SURROUNDED by goodness!!!! It ABOUNDS! Every thing that IS (exists) is good, and there is an entire UNIVERSE that is filled with this goodness! If we were able to truly comprehend the ABUNDANCE of ontological goodness around us we would be overwhelmed by awe!

Natural or Essential Goodness

Natural goodness, or rather goodness that is found in the essence of a thing, takes many forms. On the metaphysical level it consists of those causes that allow something “to be,” to actualize its potential and to achieve its principle of finality (purpose).

Therefore, we can see that Johnny has a “good radio” because it fulfills its purpose well; it receives and tanslates radio signals, it keeps time accurately, it sets off its alarm as programmed.

We can examine the natural goodness of clothing, the appliances that allow for the cooking of breakfast, the car, the engine, and so on. We can even determine a scale of “good” in that after working on the car it was “better” than new. In short, insofar as each thing acts according to its nature and purpose, it is said to be “good.”

Natural goodness as it applies to human nature can be seen either intrinsically (acting within the person) or extrinsically (acting in aid to the person). Therefore sleeping, eating, running, studying are all intrinsic human goods while clothing, runners, food and bedding are external human goods insofar as they aid us in actualizing our natural goods.

We can even see specific goods in relation to those universal elements that all people share.

  • Reason: Johnny reflecting on Coach Magee’s phone call, Sara’s reflection on the same issue, their intellectual activity in school, the thought that went into fixing the car and so on.
  • Will: Johnny desiring the good insofar as it can be known and choosing it as seen in his driving carefully, his helping his mother with feeding the family, his father’s decision to give him the car, Johnny’s decision to take Sara’s advice regarding the team, Sara’s decision to help Peggy after seeing her in distress and so on.
  • Spiritual: Here we see not just Johnny and Sara’s prayers, but also their expression of sympathy, empathy, compassion, love, contemplation, reflection and so on. Sara’s insistence on the Sacrament of Confession recognized the spiritual element and consequences of Peggy’s actions. All these are non-material human realities, though they are often expressed in corporeal acts and those most perfectly in the Sacraments.
  • Corporeal: The intrinsic good here encompasses all that is physical: eating, running, exercising, muscle tone, crying, hugging, kissing, driving and so on. The extrinsic good is all that makes corporeal life possible, from the air we breathe to food, clothing, shelter, transportation and so on.
  • Social: These goods stem from our social nature. Family, first and foremost, from which all of our social nature stems; Organizations and institutions such as businesses, schools or football teams; positions of authority such as shop owner, coach or captain; relationships such as parent or sibling, boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife. We see this especially when good is absent, such as the impact to the community as a result of the bad behaviour of certain members of the football team. This social aspect of human nature is what gives rise to the reality of “the common good.” Both Johnny and Sara were trying to determine what course of action would bring about the “common good.” Sara’s appeal to the honor, dignity and sense of pride of the individual team members will then lead to achieving the “common good” of the team and community. (The movie Remember the Titans is a good one to display the impact of individual choice upon the common good.)
  • Sexual: These goods stem from both our corporeal and social nature. We interact with reality and others AS male or female. We see this in the romantic relationship between Johnny and Sara, with how Sara responds to Peggy’s situation and with how Johnny deals with the football team. Had Johnny come across Peggy (hopefully somewhere other than the girl’s washroom) he would have responded in the only way he could, as a man, with all the advantages and disadvantages that sex possesses.

Moral Goodness

Here we come to the crux of what makes human beings unique. Reality as understood metaphysically, logically leads to an understandable Moral Order. Human beings, insofar as they exercise their Reason and Will, have the capacity to conform themselves and their actions to that Moral Order.

Therefore, we see that Johnny and Sara consistently make choices that conform to the Moral Order, or in other words, they make choices for “a good” or “the good.” They choose their individual good when they wear their seat belts, eat a healthy lunch or when they go to class on time.

However, since we are not isolated actors completely disconnected from others, all our actions have an interpersonal impact.

When he turns off the alarm before it wakes others, when he aids his mother in the morning, or drives slowly down the street so as to not disturb the neighbours—all these are acts of the Will in pursuing and conforming to “the good.” Even Sara’s choice to wait outside was the result of a desire for what was good for Johnny since he was running late—she could just as easily have waited inside until he arrived.

When Johnny exercises, he chooses the good both for himself and for the good of the team, since as Captain he must set a good example to the others, and as a player, for the common good of the team.

We in turn aid others to choose the good by the example we give, such as when Johnny prevents Pete from spreading gossip (at least in his presence) even though Sara was eager to hear it. The solidarity Sara and Johnny showed to Peggy in walking with her in the hallway, or sitting with her in class, discouraged others from commenting to Peggy about the rumors.

From this innate awareness of the moral order human conscience, then can be seen operating in its awareness of what is good and bad. Sara feels shame when she realizes that she is eager for gossip; Peggy becomes aware of the evil of her actions at a weekend party and is remorseful; Johnny is at peace with his conscience when, at the end of the day, he can reflect on the events and declare, “it was a good day.”

As I said at the beginning, I cannot begin to do justice to all the good contained in just that one little story. Even I am amazed at how much there is that I was unaware of… and I wrote it!! How much more then, could be said about all the good contained in just one day of our life, let alone our entire life!!

Goodness and Love

It should come as no surprise then that “goodness” and “love” are so intricately linked. We toss around the word “love” in our society with a brazen casualness, but underlying it all is an awareness of our desire for the good. Comments like “I love pizza” or “I love my car” or “I love swimming” all display this awareness and desire to possess a good. Of course, we may be incorrect in knowing what is good or we may be unable to temper our desire for a good, for example over-eating on Thanksgiving (guilty!), but we all pursue objects and activities because somehow our intellect has recognized it as a good.

True love, both of self and of others, is defined then as the desire for the good of self or other. When I choose healthy food or good friends I “love” myself because I desire what is good for me. When I choose to give healthy food to my children or be a good friend to another I “love” them because I desire what is “good” for them. This desire is rooted in our intellectual and spiritual faculties; this is different from our emotions. I may have intense feelings of dislike or even hatred toward someone, but these feelings are separate from the intellect. In spite of my feelings, I can still choose what is good for someone I intensely dislike. This desire for the good of the other is what Jesus meant when he said: “Love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you.” Loving our friends is easy; loving our enemies makes us saints!

In their book, The Art of Living, Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand wrote the following in their chapter entitled, “Goodness.” I’ve tried to condense the main message of the chapter.

“Goodness is the very heart of the whole reign of moral values. It is by no accident that the term “good” means moral value as such, and also the specific moral quality of goodness. … Love is, as it were, flowing goodness, and goodness is the breath of love. … love is always a most outspoken response to value. When we love somebody … the beloved person always stands before us as something precious and noble in himself. … Love in its fullest and proper meaning, addresses itself always to persons, or at least to nonpersonal entities which we treat as personal (as, for example, one’s country). … In love, one spiritually hastens toward the other person in order to dwell with him, to partake in him, and, on the other hand, to cover him with a mangle of goodness, to spiritually cherish and protect him. … Goodness always presupposes a special attitude toward other persons, even to beings of a lower order possessing a certain analogy to persons, such as animals; … When we say someone is good, we mean that he continually manifests this open benevolence, that his attitude toward every man has, a priori, this loving, this generous character.” [i]

Ideas Have Consequences

When we examine the concept of “the good”, we recognize the consequences of all our philosophical endeavours. In short, we discover the purpose and meaning of human life. The line of thought goes like this.

  1. Through metaphysics we discover that there exists a First Uncaused Cause, a Designer, a Creator from whom all things come.
  2. Since we recognize goodness in things and creatures around us, we can logically conclude that the Creator must be All Good, since as a Supreme Being all that can be said of God must be infinite and perfect. Hence: All Knowing, All Powerful, All Loving, etc.
  3. All living things seek their good. Plants seek sun and rain. Animals seek food and shelter. Human Beings seek food, clothing, shelter, knowledge, wisdom, companionship, etc.
  4. Human Beings, apart from all other creatures, can knowingly and willingly choose the good of another be they human or non-human, such as a gardener, a dog owner, a parent, an employer. All these can choose the good of another, be it plant, animal or another person.
  5. Since human beings can recognize the hierarchical nature or different value of “the good” or “a good” we can categorize them in proper relation to each other. Hence, the spiritual is higher than the corporeal, family is of greater value than the stranger, humans are of greater value than animals, and so on. This, of course, does not negate the “good” of the lesser values, but places them in proper order. Feeding the homeless is a good, but not at the expense of failing to feed one’s own children. Our values are disordered and even wrong when, for example, we believe in saving the whales but yet support the abortion of human children.
  6. Since human beings desire the good of others, and want others to desire what is good for them in return, we recognize that human beings desire to love and be loved. With some reflection (and the aid of Revelation), human beings recognize that this desire to love and be loved is best achieved when it is directed to the Greatest Good (Summum Bonum, in Latin), namely God, who desires what is best for us, namely Himself.

Therefore: The purpose of human life is to know and desire the good. The greatest good is God. Therefore the purpose of human life is to know and desire God.

Our Catholic faith has aided us in understanding the nature of goodness and love with God as the Greatest Good to be desired. Plato did not have the benefit of Revelation to aid his philosophical endeavors. As a result Plato saw contemplation of “the good” and achieving our own “inner goodness” as the purpose of human existence. Yet this raises another question, one which his student Aristotle dealt with: Why do I desire goodness, both for myself and for others? Why do I even desire God? Is this an end in itself or is this another stepping stone to something else? We will examine that question next time.


[i] Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand; “The Art of Living”; Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, Il.; p41-43.

Editor’s Note: This is the seventeenth article in an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. It originally appeared on ICL in 2011. Check back next Wednesday for another article.

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