A Platonic Kind-Based Account of Goodness


Robert Adams defends a platonic account of goodness, understood as excellence, claiming that there exists a platonic good that all other good things must resemble, identifying the Good with God. Mark Murphy agrees, but argues that this platonic account is in need of Aristotelian supplementation, as resemblance must take into account a thing’s kind-membership. While this article will accept something like Murphy’s account of goodness (but without claiming the platonic good is God), it will further develop its details and support. Without relying on theistic premises, I show that the metaphysical status of an individual’s goodness consists in resemblance with the platonic good. As for the distinct question of what that goodness holds in virtue of, I conclude it holds in virtue of exactly: the thing’s own properties, those properties being such as to satisfy its kind-based standards (K-standards), and those K-standards resembling the platonic good. I then develop an account of how K-standards resemble the platonic good: The K-standards resemble it firstly with respect to requiring activities, as the platonic good will be posited to be active, and must resemble it secondly also at the level of what teleology those activities are directed towards. I also motivate the need for a third respect of resemblance, to be developed in future work. The article ends with a discussion of the nature of the platonic good.

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  1. 1.

    It is usual to distinguish theories of well-being as either hedonist theories, desire theories, or objective list theories (which can be broadly Aristotelian). Regardless, Adams is not interested in what is good for something, but what is lovely or admirable about it.

  2. 2.

    Murphy’s platonism about goodness is also a theistic one, in that the platonic good is God, as we shall see later.

  3. 3.

    There, I point to work by Alasdair MacIntyre (1999) citing research that play, for instance, is a characteristic activity of humans and even other creatures such as dolphins.

  4. 4.

    Further, I argue there (ms) that if an Aristotelian offers an exhaustive account of goodness (goodness is only kind-based), and I show there that neo-Aristotelians like Philippa Foot do, then their account claims that satisfying kind-based standards is the sole determinant of a member’s goodness.

  5. 5.

    See Dancy (1993: 73–7) and Dancy (2004: 232)

  6. 6.

    Fitzpatrick also sometimes calls this fact simply about “standards”. See, also for example: “It consists rather in that fact [about the individual possessing XYZ] together with the facts that there are appropriate standards of goodness S for human behavior and that actions that exhibit the features in the resultance base in question [....] violate those standards” (Fitzpatrick 2008: 187–8).

  7. 7.

    In Section 4.1 we will even see that an actual kind of living thing (bottlenose dolphin) cannot be correctly evaluated without this kind-independent determinant.

  8. 8.

    Following Aryeh Kosman (2013: 122) , I argue (Chan 2021) that what something is, that is what is included in a lifeform’s representation of life, is a positive work (ergon). Thus, the categoricals should express activities, and features (e.g. the squirrel’s four-leggedness) should be understood as categoricals in adverbial form, e.g. the squirrel gathers acorns four-leggedly (Chan 2021).

  9. 9.

    For instance, a stylized sculpture of some Hollywood actor is a representation of that actor, and it is plausible that the sculpture can resemble some other object, such as one of the actor’s own parents. It is stylized and thus does not provide all the details beyond the simplest ones, but enough to constitute a representation of that actor. The view of a sculpture being a kind of representation is what Peter van Inwagen (1986) calls pictorial abstractionism, in his discussion of abstractionist possible worlds (van Inwagen 1986: 201). I agree with Van Inwagen that pictorial abstractionism will not adequately represent a maximal (possible) world, as it will leave out details of the way that world is. However, a representation of a lifeform conception will be simpler than that of a member of the kind, much less a world. After all, a lifeform conception expresses the types of activities characteristic to it, not particular tokens of it. So, the proposition the squirrel gathers acorns will be a representation that is not as precise as any token acorn-gatherings done by any individual squirrel. In addition, the lifeform conception expresses only the most basic types of activities of the K.

  10. 10.

    Even apart from this absurdity, even though it should be recognized that such a “platonic good” would at least do the theoretical work needed to assess the goodness or badness of individual squirrels, it would nonetheless fail to work for individuals of other lifeforms, unless there were a multitude of platonic goods. But it is more plausible that the platonic good is a unity because if the platonic good were a multitude of platonic goods, this would really be to posit merely kind-based standards instead of a single kind-independent standard, which is also required by F.

  11. 11.

    Metaphysically, how can a standard, requiring activities directed at ends, resemble the platonic good? My answer: The K-standard has teleological attributes, and on that basis the K-standards can resemble the platonic good. How can it bear attributes? A K-standard is a conjunction of propositions (Aristotelian categoricals). Every true Aristotelian categorical must be directed towards at least one species-telos (end, such as self-maintenance, etc.), and so teleology is indeed an attribute of each categorical, and in this way, of the K-standard. How exactly? A proposition such as the rabbit eats dandelions could bear the following property: represents an activity directed at self-maintenance.

  12. 12.

    An objector might complain that the microbe’s activities do not undermine its own continued activity, but others’. Thus, so the objection goes, the end (telos) of the microbe’s activities is not inconsistent with anything in the platonic good’s nature, as the latter’s activities are self-continuing. It could be responded, however, that it is the telos (e.g. continued activity, cessation of activity, etc.) and whether that corresponding state resembles the platonic good that is relevant, rather than whose state is concerned (e.g. the microbe, its victims, or etc.) After all, it is plausible that a Good-resembling K-standard has activity directed towards a telos like continued activity, regardless of whether the corresponding state concerns the same individual (in the case of self-maintenance), another member of the kind (e.g. in the case of reproduction), or hypothetically that of some other kind. By the same token, if the K-standard of some K has activity directed towards the cessation of activity for its own sake, it is plausible the standard would not resemble the platonic good whether this destruction is directed towards the cessation of activity of self, other members of the kind, or of other kinds.

  13. 13.

    Nothing I have posited so far about the platonic good’s nature, that it is an active, concrete exemplar, indicates (nor precludes) that it could destroy something else for destruction’s sake. Supposing it could, then it would not destroy for the sake of self-preservation. But then the question arises as to why its nature should not also be applied to itself, and so destroy itself for destruction’s sake. Such an account of the platonic good would be a non-starter. Perhaps, however (strangely), it possessed the causal powers to destroy others but not itself. Or, it could harm itself without ever completely destroying itself, though always tending to it without achieving it.

  14. 14.

    Or at least we don’t know whether being material or immaterial is better. After all, one might have first considered the K-standards of immaterial beings and saw they were all non-physical activities, concluding that being immaterial (or spirit-like) should be the general feature to resemble the platonic good. So, we have no argument to prefer material or immaterial beings, and so have no grounds to list either being physical or being spirit-like as the basis of resemblance with the platonic good.

  15. 15.

    To avoid having to make the “third move”, one could a) deny that the bottlenose K-standard really requires coercive copulation, or b) deny that the practice is bad. (Incidentally, an Aristotelian would face precisely this dilemma [Chan 2021], but accepting my platonic kind-based account provides a way out — the bottlenose’s K-standard fails to resemble the platonic good.) Even accepting (a), without making a “third move” we could not explain why a hypothetical, closely related kind of dolphin whose K-standard required coercive copulation fails to resemble the platonic good. Accepting (b) would come with the heavy cost of rejecting a plausible intuition. Also, implications for the nature of the platonic good may prevent it from playing the role given by the concept of good.

  16. 16.

    My preference is to posit that the K-standards resembling the platonic good must also require activities that are voluntary, or in accord with the individual’s desire or disposition (so as to include lower animals and plants). Now, human parents may need to coerce their child to eat their vegetables, and a K-standard requiring it could plausibly resemble the platonic good. Thus, we should further qualify that in order for K-standards to resemble the platonic good, their activities must be in accord with the individual’s dispositions with regard to those activities that establish relationships. The human parent making their child eat vegetables would go against the will of the child, but is not an activity that establishes a relationship, while the coercive copulation of bottlenoses are activities clearly establishing a relationship (contrary to the will of the female). Accordingly, we make the companion posit about the platonic good that any of its activity having to do with establishing relationships is voluntary. More would need to be said to develop my preferred “third move”, such as to specify what counts as a relationship and so explain why the following candidates would/wouldn’t count: host - parasite, predator - prey, human - service animal, human - pet, symbiont organisms, etc.

  17. 17.

    Here I am speaking for myself and not Foot.

  18. 18.

    For instance, a cherry instantiates redness. This latter property instantiates the higher-order property being a colour. However, the cherry does not instantiate being a colour.


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Correspondence to Berman Chan.

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Chan, B. A Platonic Kind-Based Account of Goodness. Philosophia (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-020-00309-z

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  • Goodness
  • Excellence
  • Platonic
  • Resemblance
  • Teleology
  • Robert Adams
  • Mark Murphy