How can we know the Good?

How can we know the Good?

Like many of us, I want to be good and wise and happy. But would we recognise those things if we were given them?

Like many of us, I want to be good and wise and happy.

Like many of us, I want to live in service of love and truth and beauty. I want to live a life that is sincerely turned towards the Good.

Now, that may not be your language for these things. That's fine. But whatever your preferred words, perhaps you have your own version of those desires?

If you do, then I have a question for both of us, a question that has begun to bother me quite a lot. It's a rather simple question.

Would we recognise those things if we were given them?


About 20 years ago, I was in Amsterdam on a work trip - some kind of meeting of the world’s alumina traders. On the first evening, the the organisers rented the Rijksmuseum and engaged guides to take us on personal tours through the Rembrandt exhibition.

Now, I have to say, paintings normally bore me. I can even make a conceptual argument for this: if watching paint dry is meant to be boring, how much worse is it to watch paint that has already dried? But that night was different.

My guide was full of knowledge and love, and he was able to help me see Rembrandt's paintings through his eyes (a little). And as I did, I began to see many things that I simply was not able to see on my own.

Might it not be the same with the Good?

Might I be like a child, an infant, when it comes to the Good? Might I be someone who cannot see the Good, who simply lacks the requisite capacities, who is blind and needs their eyes opened?

If I do not see love or beauty, is that because they are absent from the world, or is it because something is absent in me?

These thoughts trouble me.

They trouble me because I sense truth in them. There is something important here, I feel, something that is necessary to confront.


It is a very old question: how can we come to know the Good?

One way, says Thomas Aquinas, is:

On account of perfect use of reason ... Thus, about matters of chastity, a man who has learnt the science of morals judges rightly through inquiry by reason.

That's pretty standard to modern minds - we come to learn about the Good by learning ideas, definitions, systems and theories, and through all this we generate a conceptual and rational knowledge of the Good. It is in this sense that we nowadays think of academic philosophers as knowing about the Good.

But, continues Aquinas, another way is also possible. We can learn about the Good, he says,

On account of a kind of connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge ... Thus, about matters of chastity, a man who has the habit of chastity judges rightly of such matters by a kind of connaturality.

But what exactly is this strange thing called "connaturality" and how can it be a way of knowing something?

Here's a simple way of putting it: by being a thing, you come to know it.

When a chaste person wants to know something about chastity, she doesn't consult books - she simply consults her being, and because it incorporates chastity, she is able to find out what she wants to.

Might it be, then, that instead of coming to know the Good by thinking about it, we could come to know it by trying to incorporate the Good?

If we want to come to know the Good, maybe we have to start trying to be good.

But how can we try when we don't already know what it is? Don't we need to conceptually and rationally understand the Good before we can work out how to instantiate it?

No, says Aquinas! That is precisely the point of connatural knowledge. It suggests that there are ways of knowing and modes of understanding the Good that are not conceptual and rational.

It is a strange idea, almost a spooky idea - but can you feel your way into making some kind of sense of it?

And then we come back to the challenge that troubles me.

If there is a way of knowing the Good that requires something of our being, could it be that we are currently incapable of knowing the Good?