I came to philosophy motivated by a long-standing sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we live, a sentiment well expressed in a gorgeous 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi, Hopi for “life out of balance” or “crazy life.” I had experienced ways of living that made sense to me and ways, depicted in the film, that did not. I wanted better to understand this worry. It was surprising, then, that my first ethics course persuaded me that it was probably not worth taking another. The readings sometimes claimed to be talking about the good life, but for the most part they just talked about this or that fragment of a good life: being morally good or being happy, for instance. The fragments made sense, but seemed simplistic and never really added up to anything very compelling. At least, I could never connect them with my original unease at contemporary living. Though not religious, I found more of relevance in religious studies classes, especially on East Asian thought. A later course on MacIntyre brought a deeper appreciation of Aristotle’s insights. But nothing quite hit the mark.

Part of what draws so many students to ancient philosophy, including non-Western thought, is that it seems clearly to address our fundamental concern to lead good lives. What we get from Aristotle and the Stoics, for instance, are comprehensive visions of the sorts of lives we should want. For Aristotle, a good life is a full and active life involving many sorts of excellence, not just moral virtue. It is a deeply pleasant and meaningful life, and includes some element of fortune in things like health and wealth. This is what we should aim at, for ourselves and our children, and the measure by which we should assess our lives in our deathbed reckonings. In broad outline, it is an attractive and reasonably commonsensical picture of the good life.

But it is also wrong, I think, mostly because it tries to cram all that stuff into just one value: well-being. (Aristotle used the ancient Greek word for this, ‘eudaimonia’, which is usually translated to cause varying degrees of confusion as ‘flourishing’ or ‘happiness’, because ‘well-being’ is an awful word. Well-being has to do with what benefits us or is in our interest.) In the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and many other ancient Greeks, it was just assumed that whatever matters in life must connect with your own well-being. If you should be moral or otherwise admirable, that can only be because it’s in your interest. So excellence or virtue only makes its way into the theory because it’s supposed to be good for you.

This view has much to recommend it, and should not be lightly dismissed. But it runs against the grain of most commonsense thinking about the good life today, which seems quite comfortable with the thought that well-being and virtue are just different things. (I am using ‘virtue’ loosely, so that it encompasses various ways of being good or admirable, both moral and nonmoral.) No doubt, cultivating good character and other excellences in your children is generally going to serve their interests. By and large, clods, slackers and jerks seem not to have the happiest lives by any standard. But it also seems plausible that an important part of living well is navigating the tradeoffs we often must make between happiness and excellence, or doing what is morally best and what is in our interests. A person can lead an unhappy life and be no less admirable for it. And a ruthless warrior might well flourish, indeed exemplify one form human flourishing, trading on our talent for out-group cruelty. (If you don’t agree, that’s ok—it shouldn’t affect my larger point.)

Those with Aristotelian leanings might object: but a life of cruelty isn’t a good life. This is actually quite a common complaint. Conversely, many seem drawn to such theories because they allow us to say that virtue is essential to a good life. That is indeed something we should want to say. Excellence matters in our lives, and Aristotle allows us to say that.

But here’s the thing: nearly everyone’s theory allows us to say that. Virtually of the major ethical theorists, including Kant and the utilitarians, take the good life to essentially involve virtue. Indeed, they agree with Aristotle that virtue is the most important thing in deciding how to live, and take it a step further: for Kantians and utilitarians, morality trumps all other values, including your own well-being.

Now suppose you think well-being can’t be defined in terms of virtue. Instead you think that what’s good for a person is just to get what she wants: you hold a desire-fulfillment theory of well-being. (This is roughly the standard view among economists, much of the public, and arguably Kant. It is not my view, but close enough for present purposes.) You step into the ring and publish a paper defending this account. An Aristotelian writes a reply: this is a terrible view, because a horrible degenerate pig could get what they want, and that isn’t a good life. Yours is a Philistine view, discounting the role of virtue in human life. What say you?

The first thing you could do is point out that this is just a non-sequitur. You aren’t talking about the good life, but about something much more specific, well-being. And it just isn’t plausible, you argue, to think that virtue necessarily benefits us, still less that well-being just is, in large measure, virtue. It’s easy to imagine happy, thriving villains.

This is a fairly standard sort of response, but it seems to me not nearly enough. We can also suppose that you’re a Kantian and rather fond of virtue yourself, indeed half inclined to scold the Aristotelian for not taking the moral virtues seriously enough—as if being able to tell a good joke, one of the Aristotelian virtues, is remotely on the same plane as being a morally decent person. And for heaven’s sake, supposing that we’d have no reason at all to be moral if it weren’t good for us. Go Philistine yourself. Harrumph.

Aristotle’s theory of well-being isn’t entirely akin to your desire theory, because what you’re comparing is a complete ethical framework with a fragment of one. It’s like Kant went to battle with a tank and Aristotle shows up with a Panzer division. Part of what makes Aristotle’s theory of well-being seem attractive is that it charts an appealing vision of the good life. Kant’s theory of well-being is so unimportant to his vision of the good life that he can scarcely be bothered to give it a clear articulation of it.

To fully weigh the merits of a desire theory of well-being against Aristotle’s theory, we need to know what else the desire theorist takes to matter for a good life, and how it all adds up. The desire theorist needs an account of the good life. What’s needed, that is, is a theory that specifies what fundamentally matters in a person’s life, encompassing all the values that figure in determining which sorts of life are desirable or choiceworthy—whether for reasons of well-being, moral reasons, or something else. Perhaps it should also specify how good a life must be to qualify as a good life. Only armed with the desire theorist’s account of the good life can we fully assess how their theory of well-being stacks up against Aristotle’s.

For systematic ethical theorists like Kant and the utilitarians, we can extract a proto-account of the good life by drawing together the various elements of their ethics—in these cases roughly two elements, morality and well-being. The resulting view of the good life—crudely, being good and faring well—is not a weird distortion of what they’re doing, and indeed it should not seem wholly alien to the person in the street. Did Grandpa have a good life? Normal people seem able to understand this sort of question, and tend to answer it by considering what there was to admire (or deplore) in Grandpa, whether he was happy, things like that. They consider all the things that seem to them to matter in a life. And they seem to do this because the present concept of a good life is familiar enough to them that assessing a person’s life typically isn’t completely baffling. Complicated, yes, but not particularly recherché. To ask for a theory of the good life is not to impose a strange burden on ethical theorists. It seems like kind of a basic part of our job.

Question: where ‘good life’ takes the present broad meaning and isn’t just a term for well-being, how often has one come across a philosophical theory that explicitly takes the form: S has a good life iff P? Or, a good life consists in….? I suspect that for some, at least, the answer will be “never.”

Perhaps one reason we don’t see more explicit theorizing about the good life is that the most popular moral theories of our time might not in fact hold up very well under that sort of scrutiny. For classical utilitarians, a theory of the good life would boil down to something like this: a good life, a life worthy of affirmation, is one in which the individual’s actions advance the sums of utility in the world, and in which she herself is happy. For Kantians, the basic structure would be similarly austere, if quite different in content. The Koyaanisqatsi worries may not get a satisfying articulation within these frameworks, and indeed one might discern in them some of the machinery that gave rise to the off-its-gimbals world that the film depicts. The allures of the Aristotelian approach may not be much diminished even if we allow Kant and Bentham all the armor they wish to field.

The question arises whether the problem really lies with the moderns’ theories of well-being. I’m roughly on their side here, equating well-being more or less with some composite of happiness and value-fulfillment. But why limit our conception of the good life to just the values of morality and well-being? It is not crazy to think that, say, excellence has noninstrumental value in its own right, apart from either morality or well-being. I’m not sure Wittgenstein’s brilliance did him much good, but it certainly gave us something to admire; his was a better life for it—perhaps even “wonderful,” as he put it—whether he profited or not. Perhaps there are other basic values, like beauty, and our lives are made better by engaging appropriately with them. Such moves would bring us a lot closer to Aristotle’s picture of the good life, perhaps even improve on it, but without saddling our notions of well-being with more freight than they can plausibly bear. Ironically, reflection on the debates over well-being might vindicate moderns on one of the points where Aristotelians most like to bludgeon them, while leaving Aristotelians approximately victorious on the questions that really matter, like how we ought to live.


Dan Haybron is a philosophy professor at St. Louis University focusing in ethics, moral psychology, and political philosophy.

16 Replies to “Dan Haybron: Not Well-Being, But a Good Life

  1. Feels like “a good life” is ambiguous and would be well understood in a context but is ambiguous without one. Good in which way or for who, I want to ask. Perhaps, for me, a “wonderful life” gets at what you have in mind. We would not call a life wonderful if the person was indecent, I assume. You want an assessment, I think, not just from within a standard like well being or morality but one that speaks to how well the person did in combining the important sorts of values there are. Is that in the neighborhood?

  2. Thanks, Dave–yes, that’s right, there’s a variety of meanings ‘good life’ could take, including just being a synonym for ‘well-being’. That itself is actually a fairly substantial discussion and I was afraid I’d not said enough in this post about it, but I’m glad you got the idea. What you say is, I think, the meaning I have in mind. But I’d clarify that “how well the person did in combining…” needn’t be limited to the person’s actions (though it could be depending on one’s substantive account of the values that matter), so one could instead say something like “how well the important values came together in the person’s life”.

    Here’s a working (doubtless not quite right) definition of the concept I’m interested in:

    Good life =df a life that is choiceworthy or desirable on the whole, taking account of all values—moral, prudential, etc.—that are normative for the individual whose life it is.

    Even this could be further disambiguated, and I’m not aware of a wholly unproblematic term where I have “choiceworthy or desirable”, but hopefully it is enough to get an initial fix on the concept at issue. I take the examples of Kantian/utilitarian/Aristotelian views of the good life to be illustrative of what I’m after.

  3. Great, do you think we want a notion of well being as something that feeds into such an overall assessment?

  4. Thanks for the stimulating post Dan! On your reply to Dave’s comment: I wonder if “choiceworthy” really captures everything that is important for a good or excellent life. I can imagine a person who sacrifices herself for a great cause (maybe a monk who is fighting for peace) and that life seems choiceworthy for that individual, but would it be a good life? Perhaps it depends on what we want to use the notion of a good life for – as an account of what we owe to others, a choiceworthy life seems too minimal because people should have other options besides self-sacrifice. That is, it wouldn’t be enough to ensure every person can live a single choiceworthy life. I’m supposing, though, that you could agree with this and appeal to the nice distinction you draw in your book to say that you are interested in when it is “reasonable to affirm” that someone lives a good life, not what they have a “justified aspiration” to attain. In getting clearer on *why* we want an account of the good life, though, I wonder if we will find that we need multiple accounts for different purposes (personal and political). So what it is reasonable to affirm qualifies as a good life might depend on who it is who is doing the affirming. Thoughts?

  5. Dave (Nicole, I’ll reply to your helpful comment in a bit)–I do think the notion of well-being feeds into a plausible conception of the good life (though some folks like Hurka would argue that we don’t need it). In fact one motivation for this project is to defend a theory of well-being, esp. against criticisms from Aristotelians and the like. The idea is to support the account of well-being by situating it in a broader account of the good life, showing that you can get most of what Aristotelians want–and more!–without building stuff like virtue into the theory of well-being.

    This is not to say that we can’t defend theories of well-being at all without getting into the broader notion of the good life–that’d be too much for journal articles etc. Just that we can get a better sense of the merits of the view by fitting it into a broader framework.

  6. Thanks for the post Dan. I am curious why you say that the desire theorist needs a theory of the good life. Is the idea that we cannot evaluate a desire fulfillment theory of well-being, as a theory of well-being, in the absence of a theory about everything else that might be involved in a good life and how those things come together to make a life good? This seems like a radical kind of holism.

  7. Maybe your answer to Dave’s last comment that just popped up answers my question. You are not committed to the radical kind of holism I was worried about.

  8. Dan writes (about the Greeks): “If you should be moral or otherwise admirable, that can only be because it’s in your interest. So excellence or virtue only makes its way into the theory because it’s supposed to be good for you.”

    At the risk of coming off as an Aristotle crank…

    I’m intrigued that you’re willing to give Aristotle (or whomever) a rich palette of excellences with which to build a life, but you won’t go along with the correspondingly pre-modern conception of a social self that it presupposes.

    If we give up the idea of the modern, social atom, will-cum-autonomy-based notion of a self, and instead think of selves as constituted by their social relations, and if we further apply the palette of excellences you describe, then the idea of ‘well-being’ does not seem so narrowly self-interested as it might in a modern context. A good human being is one who is good at being human, with all that doing so entails.

    With the whole picture, my goal of being generous and kind to my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances won’t look quite so (narrowly) self-serving. Aristotle’s own conception of eudaimonia is after all first articulated not in the Ethics but in the Politics (first in the order of explanation): my individual eudaimonia is intelligible only as a constituent of that of my polis.

    That might of course make things worse rather than better for those who are otherwise attracted to a Greek view, as it might be rather late in the day to revert to ancient conceptions of the self. But it seems awkward and a bit unfair to entertain only part of the vision and then declare it wanting (because narrowly self-interested).

  9. Thanks all for these great comments! Nicole: yes, that’s right–I think one variant of the good life concept, with a higher threshold, makes sense when thinking about what we should aspire to (the “justified aspiration” concept), and in policy settings, whereas a different threshold seems warranted (“justified affirmation”) when assessing lives in retrospect. Plausibly, one shouldn’t aspire to the monk’s life, but having led it, could reasonably affirm it. This is one reason ‘choiceworthy’ is tricky. Another issue (that also complicates thinking about this in terms of choiceworthiness) is that one can’t truly choose a life, because part of it is what you’re born into and happens to you. In this case, the monk’s actions might be choiceworthy, but one would not choose to be in that situation in the first place. So perhaps that aspect of his life isn’t choiceworthy. ‘Desirable’ might be better, but also isn’t ideal.

    Ben: that’s right, so I think people can still write papers defending a theory of well-being without solving all the other issues about the good life. Similarly, one could just defend a partial account of well-being (as I have). There will always be loose ends. But in the Aristotle vs. the “subjectivists” debates, I think there’s a lot to be gained from the wider perspective.

    Michael: while the argument here is motivated partly by my wish to defend views of well-being on which the Aristotelian approach is wanting, the broader point about the need for theorizing about the good life and distinguishing that from well-being theory is compatible I think with what you’re suggesting. That said, I’m not sure it makes much difference what view of the self we attribute to Aristotle: as I read him–and I think this is a fairly standard reading of the eudaimonists though I’m no expert in the history–goods that matter in a life need somehow to relate to the agent’s well-being. I’m happy to understand that more broadly than narrow, individualistic self-interest, say in terms of a social self (though I haven’t thought too much about that). It still needs to relate to your (collectivist say) well-being, it’s just that your well-being is essentially bound with others, because who you are is. I actually find that fairly plausible. But one might still worry that (say) moral duties shouldn’t be grounded in the (social or asocial) individual’s well-being at all. In practice this might play out in duties to out-group members–unless the self is so broad that you are one with all humanity (and animals, maybe ecosystems…), it can still make sense to wonder if self-interest is the right basis for such duties. (Indeed, maybe a social self will yield a more parochial ethics.) I’m not saying it’s a crazy view–I think it has merit, even if in my view mistaken. And I would emphasize that I don’t take Aristotle to be advocating a life of pursuing self-interest–clearly, he thinks we should care about others for their own sake, etc. He’s def not Ayn Rand. The worry is at a more theoretical, foundational level, which others have articulated better than I have here. It just doesn’t strike me as a plausible way to ground moral (and probably many other) virtues.

  10. A couple of thoughts provoked by discussions on Facebook:

    1. I think one bit invites misreading of my views about the ancient eudaimonists, namely where I wrote “it was just assumed that whatever matters in life must connect with your own well-being.” What I had in mind is that the values that matter in a person’s life must ultimately be justified in terms of their relationship to the agent’s eudaimonia or well-being. So there’s a kind of egoism, but only at the foundational level. I don’t take them to claim that I should only pay my bills if it benefits me. Rather, it’s something like: what justifies the commitment to justice in the first place is that it contributes to my well-being. I think Michael might have been responding partly to this issue. Thanks to Eric Brown for highlighting the problem (which is not to say he agrees with my reading of the ancients here).

    2. I find a split between those who think “of course” regarding the well-being/good life distinction, and those who think “what the heck are you talking about?” I suspect that among philosophers there are just deep splits in how we think about concepts like well-being and good, and how many such evaluative concepts we need. Perhaps for another blog post, but on well-being: I take the concept to concern a specific way in which things might be good, namely whether they benefit us. It’s not a trivial question whether this is different from something being good, period, but I think it is. Eg, it seems to have conceptual links to attitudes like sympathy that other kinds of value, like virtue, don’t. (See Darwall on welfare.) This is not beyond dispute, but that’s part of the background here.

    Whereas the ‘good’ in ‘good life’ is used in the blandest possible way, as a generic term of approbation (this is partly to accommodate the variety of ethical frameworks that might be used to think about good lives). Eg, “it was good that you paid your bills”, meaning nothing more than that you did the right thing. I’m ok inventing a different word if need be, but think ‘good’ works like this sometimes, including in many ordinary contexts like deathbed reflections and eulogy scenarios, raising kids…

  11. Another update from Facebook-land, to help clarify why I don’t think it suffices to just focus on well-being, or equate the concept of the good life with it. So, think about different ideals of living from around the world. Cultures likely vary a lot in the concepts they deploy to do so, and I want a concept that enables us to see the bigger picture. B/c even where exact comparisons are hard, we can still profitably compare the basic picture each recommends: for Confucius, a certain set of values including filial piety, Lao Tzu, a diff one, Buddhists another, the Hopi still another, Aristotelians, Kantians, etc. Each framework may employ a different set of ledgers, but they all articulate ways of ending up in the black. And I think we can intelligibly compare the differences in what “the black” means to them–what sort of life they recommend. I don’t think that’s possible if we employ only the concept of well-being as it figures in mainstream contemporary debates (including Aristotelians). Some cultures probably don’t even have that concept, nor have views that can be expressed in terms of it.

    So I think it’s helpful to try to step back a bit from the way we’re used to doing ethical theory and consider what concepts will actually be most helpful in thinking through the theoretical and practical problems we face. My suggestion here is that the concept of a good life, as I discuss it here, is one that we need.

  12. Fascinating discussion, addressing issues that I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

    Since there was mention of Darwall (was it here or FB though?! ) I was wondering if you thought his definition of welfare or well-being in his book (Welfare as Rational Care) as that which you want for someone insofar as you care about that person is closer to your understanding of well-being or the good life. I always l liked his construal because it seemed to be getting at something everybody, across cultures, cared deeply about. But, it seems like you would say this is about the good life, in which case, was Darwall’s entire book resting on a mistake? (After all a lot of people do want their child to be virtuous because they care bout the child.)

    Looking forward to further discussion!

  13. Thanks, Richard. While I haven’t committed to Darwall’s rational care analysis of the concept of well-being, my view is certainly in the ballpark, so I point to his book a lot to illustrate the way I think about the concept of well-being and the concept/conception distinction. He’s definitely talking about what I call well-being, not the good life, b/c he understands care as sympathetic concern (as I recall), and that to me is one of the hallmarks of the well-being concept. I’m not certain how wide the scope of “caring about” a person is, but “caring for” is the notion he and I have in mind, tying into what you want for the person “for her sake.” That’s welfarist concern, I think, and narrower than mere concern that she have a good life.

    As I hint in the post, parents should want (some degree of) virtue for their kids, for their sake, because it’s likely to benefit them on any view of WB. (Cynics might disagree.) But they should also (and even more so) care simply that their kids be good (for its sake?), not just for their own sake. I want my kids to flourish and be happy, but I also want them to do something independently worthwhile with their lives, whether it benefits them or not. I’d like them to be on the right side of issues like climate change and racial injustice, for instance, and to be good at what they do. That stuff isn’t unrelated to their WB, but I’m not preparing them for maximally happy lives, or maximal WB. Good lives for them, as for anyone I think, may involve trading some WB for other goods.

    I think this is a really important point. I sometimes talk to young people who seem to be seeking “permission” to do something other than what makes them happy, or more broadly is in their interest–careers in the arts, say. I think it’s helpful to understand that even under perfectly ordinary circumstances you can reasonably choose a life of lesser happiness and well-being to pursue other, more meaningful or important goals. Moral goals like justice, or the pursuit of intellectual or athletic excellence, or the creation of beauty…. I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that this thereby means that such a life is better *for* you, or benefits you, in any plausible sense of “benefit.” It gets tricky here, as I think Aristotelians *can* recommend choosing what’s not in your interest, but I don’t think these cases are plausibly explained in Aristotelian terms. But even if they can, you don’t need to follow them in building virtue into WB to say these things. In fact I think doing so just obscures what’s going on.

  14. Thanks Dan, that is helpful. I wonder though if sympathy can also be directed toward virtue. I can imagine virtuous monks who look at vicious people with pity because they lead what they see as hollow, meaningless lives. Because of their lack of compassion and moral goodness, the monks see vicious people as ignorant of their true good and the proper subject of pity. At this point, I do have a hard time distinguishing conceptually whether these monks are thinking about the good life or well-being, unless well-being just is restricted to non-moral goods (in which case this seems to just become a terminological issue).

  15. They are saying exactly what you’d expect a welfare perfectionist (= identifies WB at least partly w virtue) to say. The sympathy or pity indicates that they are focusing on prudential goods, seeing vicious people as low in WB. So they are at least talking about WB. Their judgment is also just the sort of point one might legitimately make to defend perfectionism; it’s not a totally implausible argument either, but intuitions are divided (I don’t share them). But it’s one of the moves I think Aristotelians should make. A better move, IMO, is to say, “how can you benefit from having what isn’t genuinely worth having?” Not decisive, but has some appeal. Just don’t try to establish perfectionism by saying “it isn’t a good life.” We all agree.

    Your description doesn’t settle whether they are talking about the GL (as such, and not just the prudential component of a GL), because you haven’t said enough about the concepts they’re deploying. You need to establish its conceptual role, which can be tricky for a welfare perfectionist, since WB and the GL may be coextensive on their view. (Some people might think that means WB and GL are the same concept. I can’t fathom doing ethics thinking that.)

    Suppose they use ‘blurg’ to express their disapproval of the vicious life. Is ‘blurg’ a term for WB or GL? An easy heuristic is to consider what they think a utilitarian (or Kantian if you prefer) should say. If they think the utilitarian should also consider the vicious life blurg, then blurg = GL (probably). (In this case, they should also think the utilitarian won’t share the pity, just the disapproval or generic con-attitude.) If they think the utilitarian should not deem it blurg, b/c the vicious quite enjoy it, then blurg = WB (probably).

    I wonder if these questions are generally behind a lot of the confusion/disagreement here.

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