Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics

Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics

Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics

Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics

Synopsis

Moral philosophers agree that welfare matters. But they do not agree about what it is, or how much it matters. Wayne Sumner presents an original theory of welfare, investigating its nature and discussing its importance. He considers and rejects all notable rival theories of welfare, both objective and subjective, including hedonism and theories founded on desire or preference. His own theory connects welfare closely with happiness or life satisfaction. Professor Sumner then proceeds to defend welfarism, that is, to argue (against the value pluralism that currently dominates moral philosophy) that welfare is the only basic ethical value, the only thing which we have a moral reason to promote for its own sake. He concludes by discussing the implications of this thesis for ethical and political theory.

Excerpt

During the course of my research on this book, when I was at the stage of hunting down other treatments of its central themes, I came across a reference to a book by Bill Jordan entitled Rethinking Welfare. Since this seemed to me an apt characterization of my own project, I eagerly anticipated reading what Jordan had to say. Alas, when I got hold of the book my hopes were quickly dashed. Jordan's aim was to rethink not welfare itself but the contributions made to our well-being by the various social spheres, public and private, within which we conduct our lives. As an amateur on these matters, I thought the book quite innovative and insightful. But it mainly served to remind me of the extent to which 'welfare' has been consolidated as a social-scientific term of art. As I quickly learned, if a book written in the post-war era includes 'welfare' in its title, then it is reasonable to expect it to deal, in one way or another, with the range of social programmes which are now standard features in modern industrialized states, and whose declared purpose is to secure a fair distribution of basic goods and services or to establish a safety net for the least advantaged.

It is therefore only fair to warn the reader at the outset that this book is not another contribution to the already enormous literature on the welfare state. It has little to say about social welfare programmes, or indeed about any matters of public policy. Its interests and concerns are neither economic nor political but philosophical. Its bearing on questions of social policy pretty well comes down to this: like all other public measures, welfare programmes are justifiable only if they ultimately contribute to welfare in its deeper and more traditional sense, the sense in which welfare is the general condition of faring or doing well, and my welfare is the same as my well-being or my interest or (in one of its many meanings) my good. That does not tell us much about how such programmes should be designed, or even whether we should prefer them to other means of promoting well-being. Those interested in such questions would therefore be well advised to look to writers like Bill Jordan for answers to them.

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