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The Right And The Good

Modern ethical theory is defined largely by its distinction between "the good" as a morally positive goal to be achieved through our acts, and "the right" as a set of rules or moral norms constraining our pursuit of the good. In contemporary parlance, the "consequentialist" takes the good as primary, treating "right acts" as those productive of the most good. The contrasting view, that of deontology, takes the right as primary, as defined independently of the good, and as forbidding even acts productive of the most good when these violate such fundamental moral rules as the prohibitions against killing, theft, and lying.

A consequentialist may be a utilitarian (identifying pleasure as the sole good; pain as the sole evil), may advocate some other form of naturalism (e.g., equating the good with evolutionary fitness, as did such nineteenth-century Social Darwinists as Herbert Spencer), or (like G. E. Moore) may reject a naturalistic account of the good altogether. Deontologists, in turn, may be distinguished according to whether they take the aforementioned constraints to be absolute (as does Kant, who treats lying, for instance, as wrong even to save a life) or merely having some independent force—that is, sometimes able to override considerations of doing good (as does W. D. Ross [1877–1971], an early twentieth-century British moral theorist).

In philosophy since the mid–twentieth century, perhaps the most significant employment and development of these ideas is in John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971). In Rawls's view, the principles of justice state norms capable of overriding merely utilitarian considerations. These norms, as in the contract tradition of such early modern political philosophers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are conceived as being chosen by appropriately situated individuals out of their own self-interest. But clearly such individuals must have some notion of "what is good" (beyond the bare abstraction of "my good"). Accordingly, Rawls distinguishes a "thin conception" of the good required in the "original position" (the situation of choice) from a fuller conception, one resulting from the choices they make.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Glucagon to HabitatGood - Moral Versus Nonmoral Good, Intrinsic And Merely Instrumental Good, Teleological Versus Consequentialist Views Of The Good