How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues

By Roger Crisp | Go to book overview
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Does Moral Virtue Constitute a Benefit to the Agent?



Something is instrumentally beneficial to someone if it is a means to some further thing that itself constitutes a benefit to that person. Being morally virtuous is often instrumentally beneficial to the agent. It can bring the agent pleasure and peace of mind and such social rewards as others' co-operation and respect.1 But as my title indicates, this essay is about constitutive benefits rather than instrumental ones. Different theories of individual welfare--of what makes a person's life go well or badly for him or her--differ over what things constitute benefits to people. What do the main theories of individual welfare say about whether moral virtue constitutes a benefit to the agent?

Theories of individual welfare fall into three main categories: hedonism, the desire-fulfilment theory (sometimes called the preference- satisfaction theory), and the list theory.2 Hedonism claims that how beneficial something is to us is entirely a matter of how much pleasure

But a long-standing dispute exists over whether having moral dispositions always has enough instrumental benefit to the agent to outweigh the costs to him or her of developing or retaining those dispositions. For an excellent discussion of this issue, see G. Sayre- McCord , "'Deception and Reasons to be Moral'", American Philosophical Quarterly 26 ( 1989), 113-122.
Though this way of dividing the theories is common, the terminology comes from D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons ( Oxford, 1984), Appendix I, except that what I call the list theory he calls 'the Objective List Theory'. I have deviated from his terminology in order to inhibit the assumption that the list theory, which is a view about what constitutes individuals' welfare, is committed to an objectivist or realist view about the nature of prudential values. As I explain in "'Theories of Welfare, Theories of Good Reasons for Action, and Ontological Naturalism'", Philosophical Papers 20 ( 1991), 25-36, the list theory of welfare is compatible with anti-realist metaphysical views (such as projectivism) and with expressivist views about the nature of evaluative judgement.


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How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues


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