Welfare, Achievement, and Self-Sacrifice

By Portmore, Douglas W. | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Welfare, Achievement, and Self-Sacrifice


Portmore, Douglas W., Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


MANY PHILOSOPHERS HOLD that the achievement of one's goals can contribute to one's welfare apart from whatever independent contributions that the objects of those goals, or the processes by which they are achieved, make. (1) Call this the Achievement View, and call those who accept it achievementists. Below, I argue that achievementists should accept both (a) that one factor that affects how much the achievement of a goal contributes to one's welfare is the amount that one has invested in that goal, and (b) that the amount that one has invested in a goal is a function of how much one has personally sacrificed for its sake, not a function of how much effort one has put into achieving it. So I will, contrary to at least one achievementist (viz., Keller 2004, 36), be arguing against the view that the greater the amount of productive effort that goes into achieving a goal, the more its achievement contributes to one's welfare. Furthermore, I argue that the reason that the achievement of those goals for which one has personally sacrificed matters more to one's welfare is that, in general, the redemption of one's self-sacrifices in itself contributes to one's welfare. Lastly, I argue that the view that the redemption of one's self-sacrifices in itself contributes to one's welfare is plausible, independent of whether or not we find the Achievement View plausible.

The paper has the following structure: In section 1, I explicate the Achievement View and its many forms. In section 2, I argue that the more one has invested in a goal, the more its achievement contributes to one's welfare. In section 3, I argue against taking investment in a goal to be a function of how much effort the agent has put into achieving it. Instead, we should, as I argue in section 4, take investment in a goal to be a function of how much the agent has personally sacrificed for its sake. In section 5, I argue that, in general, the redemption of one's self-sacrifices in itself contributes to one's welfare. I then end with some concluding remarks in section 6.

1. The Achievement View

The Achievement View has many forms, but before examining them, here, again, is my official statement of the view:

   The Achievement View: The achievement of one's goals can contribute
   to one's welfare apart from whatever independent contributions that
   the objects of those goals, or the processes by which they are
   achieved, make. (2)

Even non-achievementists would accept that it is in one's self-interest to achieve a goal insofar as either the object of that goal or the process by which it is achieved is something that would, for independent reasons, contribute to one's welfare. For instance, it may be that, in the process of trying to achieve a goal, one must exercise and develop certain human excellences or higher capacities. Given a perfectionist theory of welfare, this process will itself contribute to one's welfare, apart from whether or not one actually succeeds in achieving one's goal. To take another example, suppose that one's goal is to acquire riches. Such riches would likely contribute instrumentally to one's welfare, regardless of whether they are realized as an achievement or as a windfall. So, when one achieves a goal, the independent contribution that the object of that goal makes to one's welfare is the contribution that it would have made even had it instead been realized as a windfall. Furthermore, the independent contribution that the process by which the goal was achieved makes to one's welfare is the contribution that that process would have made even had it not resulted in any achievement. The achievementist, then, holds that in addition to the independent contributions made by the object of the goal and the process by which it was achieved, the achievement of the goal can contribute to one's welfare.

Although some achievementists (e.g., Keller 2004, 27) hold that the achievement of one's goals in itself contributes to one's welfare, achievementists, as I have defined them, are not committed to this strong claim; they can take it or leave it. …

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