Has any philosopher ever claimed that doing "good" things is not good?

That may sound amusingly facile. And due to disagreement between what is "good" there's definitely something to say for its facility.

But, and while I don't mean it in an analytic way, I question whether it even makes sense to say that I don't think doing "good" things is good. However that is to be cashed out in political terms. Does it make sense?

I've put 'good' in quotes to suggest that I'm not asking what is good. I think I'm asking if anyone is in practice a skeptic about what they believe is good. Perhaps this question could come up in meta-ethics, I'm not sure.

  • 1
    Good works are a theme of Catholic ethics and it came under criticism during Reformation. According to Calvin, salvation is by predestined grace alone, what a man does on Earth, including "good works", is essentially irrelevant, see also antinomianism. Modern Calvinists are usually more moderate, but at least the idea that one becomes good by "good works" alone is antithetic to Christian ethics generally.
    – Conifold
    Nov 24, 2017 at 23:57
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    @Conifold. Calvin never held that good works are irrelevant. Although salvation is by grace alone, as you say, good works must accompany salvation because, otherwise, it would be strong evidence that the salvation was never genuine. Calvin wrote, "Thus it appears how true it is that we are justified not without, and yet not by works, since in the participation of Christ, by which we are justified, is contained not less sanctification than justification."
    – user3017
    Nov 25, 2017 at 1:31
  • Someone should say "social Darwinism" here.
    – user935
    Nov 25, 2017 at 14:59

4 Answers 4


It doesn't sound 'amusingly facile at all ! You're intrigued by a topic and this is the place to ask questions about it. Good for you. Here's my contribution.

  1. It's perfectly possible for someone to believe that morality is not for them. Overall, it does not pay, they decide. So, they reason, morally good things are exactly inimical to their self-interest, and therefore (judging what is good for them purely in terms of self-interest) the (morally) good is not the (self-interested) good. From this viewpoint, 'doing "good" things is not good'.

  2. It is also, less dramatically, possible to regard what are commonly regarded as 'good things' as not really good at all. They are products of self-consciousness, careless thinking, or whatever. So if these are the 'good things' in question, doing "good" things is not good.


Well, Nietzsche comes to mind. He sort of puts different normative values - being life-affirming - above moral values while still doubting those moral values he's talking about (f.e. christian conceptions of good and evil).

But there's an issue with putting it that way: when we think that doing "good" things is not good then we're likely just shifting the term. For example, we could hold that doing what society thinks is "good" may not be actually morally good. So if we're not careful we might sound like moral nihilists while actually just having some sort of normative ethics in mind.

I think I'm asking if anyone is in practice a skeptic about what they believe is good.

Not completely sure what you mean. The issue is this: if you hint at moral nihilism then from such a position we'd rather say that there's no "good"; if you're hinting at relativism or subjectivism then we may not like using that formulation.

You could also hint towards the issue of moral motivation. If the position is externalist then we might say that "good" isn't good as in: there's no good for me from doing "good", inherently.


I don't believe that a good philosopher might have claimed so. In other words, if he claimed so he cannot be regarded as a good philosopher. (If he invalidates good) Since this world is a mixture of good and evil he should take them together and advise to go beyond duality. Otherwise his followers might misunderstand him and give up all good deeds.

If I mentioned the name of a particular philosopher only, the answer would be incomplete.

See what Vedanta says.

See this one also.


"Kind'a", if you reach unity you can understand that evil just exists because you put good on your lens. What is good or bad? What you want and don't want? Or what you like or don't like? You see that it is relative, like suffering is bad, but it is good, because it made me see things like this, beyond good or evil.

Anything can be good if you have the thought that it is good about it: You see a wall, and your ego generates the idea that the wall is pretty, so you think it is good, but it is blocking you vision beyond the wall.

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