Well-Being and Virtue

Article excerpt

Happiness lies in conquering one's enemies, in driving them in front of oneself, in taking their property, in savoring their despair, in outraging their wives and daughters.

Genghis Khan (1)


Conventional wisdom once held that well-being is an objective affair, something that the masses should not be expected to have a great deal of authority about. Among the more noteworthy ideas in those days was the perfectionist notion that well-being consists, at least partly, in excellence or virtue. The coming of modernity brought a more optimistic view of the individual's authority regarding matters of personal welfare, and the old objectivist orthodoxy yielded to the present age of subjectivism, where common opinion has it that what's good for people is, more or less, whatever they say it is. Crudely, nothing benefits a person, virtue included, unless it somehow answers to her wants or likes. Discontent with subjectivism has been brewing for some years now, driven by a more nuanced understanding of the considerable merits of some objectivist accounts, notably Aristotelian theories, as well as a barrage of criticism aimed at subjectivist views like the desire theory. (2) Indeed, Aristotelian views are now among the chief competitors in discussions of well-being--or, equivalently, welfare or flourishing. (3) This is a welcome development, for such work has greatly enriched contemporary reflection on well-being, helping to counter what some of us see as the trivialization of philosophical thought about the good life in the modern era. Whatever the merits of non-subjectivist accounts of well-being, however, it is less clear that the perfectionism espoused in much of this literature can be sustained. I will argue that it cannot, using the best-known example of a perfectionist theory, Aristotelianism, to show why. The discussion should concern even those with little interest in perfectionist theories, for a better understanding of the problems confronting Aristotelian perfectionism will illuminate some important points about the nature of well-being and related values.

We can usefully think of Aristotelian theories as centering on three claims. Our inquiry will focus on the first, welfare perfectionism, which maintains that well-being consists, non-derivatively, at least partly in perfection: excellence or virtue--or, in the Aristotelian case, excellent or virtuous activity. The perfection in question includes, but certainly is not limited to, moral virtue. Perfection, that is, is a fundamental or ultimate constituent of well-being (non-perfectionists might grant that it can constitute well-being derivatively, say by being desired). Perfection is typically regarded as the perfection of one's nature: being a good specimen of one's kind, for instance, or fulfilling one's capacities well. (4) But I will understand perfectionism broadly enough to include any theory that takes well-being to consist at least partly in excellence or virtue (or the exercise thereof). Some contend that Aristotle counted external goods as an additional part of flourishing, distinct from perfection. I have no wish to debate the fine points of Aristotle exegesis here, as I am less interested in the historical Aristotle than in whether a perfectionist view of well-being can be defended. But it seems to me that his view is most plausibly and charitably read as counting external goods only insofar as they facilitate good functioning, and not as distinct contributors to well-being. (5) Roughly, well-being consists in a life of excellent or virtuous activity, or "well-functioning." But the difference should not seriously affect the arguments to follow, for all Aristotelians take well-being to consist at least primarily in virtuous activity. My arguments should apply as well to weaker forms of perfectionism.

The second claim, externalism, is the denial of internalism about well-being. A weaker cousin of subjectivism, which grounds well-being in the person's attitudes, internalism roughly maintains that the constituents of an agent's well-being are ultimately determined wholly by the particulars of the individual's makeup qua individual (vs. …