Virtue and the Good Life: Introducing Well‐Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life
Living well requires autonomy and reality‐orientation.
In my book Well‐Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life (Oxford University Press, 2010), I offer a modest defense of the ancient view that virtue is necessary for eudaimonia, or well‐being. My defense is modest in that I take into account the lessons of psychology regarding the limitations of human virtue and our vulnerability to conditions beyond our control. This is not to say that ancient philosophers were completely unaware of these limitations or this vulnerability. Aristotle presents us with an ideal of the virtuous individual, but he also has quite a bit to say about how two virtuous friends should deal with their own and each other’s moral shortcomings. In other words, as many scholars now recognize, he presents us with two pictures of virtue: virtue as an ideal and virtue as it exists in virtuous people. Aristotle is also quite clear that great misfortune(s) can rob even the most virtuous person of eudaimonia, leaving only his virtue intact. But neither of these realistic elements goes far enough in my view, because psychology—social, evolutionary, and Freudian—has made us aware of many elements of our nature that were heretofore hidden from us, elements that are a further barrier to full virtue. Moreover, I think that some great misfortune(s) can rob even the most virtuous person not only of eudaimonia but also his agency, and thus his virtue.
According to most contemporary philosophers who write about well‐being, virtue is not a constitutive part of well‐being: it is possible to have well‐being without virtue. Now I would agree with this if being virtuous meant being a goody‐two‐shoes who constantly sacrifices her own interests for the sake of other people, or who thinks that no one should be happy till everyone is happy. But this is not my conception of virtue. I would also agree that virtue would not be a constitutive part of well‐being if well‐being were simply a matter of satisfying our desires or being successful in our goals. For desires and goals can be vicious. So how we define virtue and well‐being makes a big difference to how we conceive of their relationship. This doesn’t mean that we can define them any‐old‐how in order to reach the conclusion we want: our philosophical concepts have to capture the coherent conceptual core of everyday ways of thinking and speaking about virtue and well‐being. But more on this in a moment.
Some philosophers concede that if you find that being virtuous is necessary for your happiness and sense of worth, then it is necessary for your well‐being. But if you find that it isn’t necessary for your happiness and sense of worth, then you can have well‐being without virtue. There are significant exceptions to this trend, especially among scholars of ancient philosophy, such as Julia Annas, Martha Nussbaum, and Daniel C. Russell, but it is the trend. Of course, most philosophers who deny that well‐being requires objective values don’t deny that morality is objective. Wayne Sumner, who jumpstarted the contemporary philosophical interest in well‐being, and Daniel Haybron, who jumpstarted the contemporary philosophical interest in happiness, both fall into this category.
You may be wondering about the difference between happiness and well‐being. Some people use the two terms interchangeably, but I follow most contemporary philosophers in distinguishing between happiness as a psychological concept and well‐being as a normative one. Happiness in ordinary parlance has many different meanings: pleasure, passing feelings of joy or delight, contentment, and so on. What I mean by happiness is a long‐term sense of fulfillment, a deep, ongoing sense of satisfaction with one’s life, with little pain, sorrow, or regret. Well‐being requires more than happiness. As many philosophers understand it, well‐being is the highest prudential (personal) good, the best kind of life for an individual. This last bit is important: the life must be good for the individual living it, and a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of it being good for him is that he think and feel that it is good for him. Borrowing from Aristotle, I explicate the idea of the highest prudential good (HPG) in terms of the most complete life for the individual as a human being, a life that lacks no fundamental important good. I think this is the right way to conceive of well‐being as an ideal, because when we think about our HPG, we think in terms of the best life for ourselves, not a so‐so life, much less a life that’s barely worth living. I argue that this ideal of well‐being is quite widespread, even if most people don’t articulate it explicitly. Also widespread is the view that this ideal can be realized only in a life that is both happy and objectively worthwhile.
This last claim might be met with some skepticism, so let me give you some evidence. Robert Nozick’s famous experience‐machine thought experiment asks us to imagine a machine that can give us pleasurable experiences of all kinds, and even the experience of leading a fulfilling and worthwhile life, if we hook ourselves to it. The question is, which would you choose: a lifetime of perfect happiness in the illusion of leading a worthwhile life while hooked to the machine, or a lifetime of imperfect happiness in an imperfectly worthwhile life in the real world? I’ve tried this experiment with several groups of students; practically every student opts for the latter. They want to live in touch with reality. The only time I got a lot of people opting for the illusory life is when I tried the thought‐experiment in a retirement home with a group of old and frail people, people who had lost their spouses and many of their friends, and were coping rather than really living. But this supports rather than undermining my claim that most people regard happiness and an objectively worthwhile life as essential to well‐being. When neither is possible there can be no reason not to “leave” the world, so to speak, in favor of a machine‐induced happiness and worth. Again, in happiness or well‐being studies, people often say that they are happiest when they’re doing something worthwhile with their lives.
Of course, none of this should be taken to mean that most people consistently live up to their ideals. I’m just giving some evidence to show that most people do regard a worthwhile life as being good for them and not only for other people.
But how does virtue come into the picture? An objectively worthwhile life must be a life that is worthwhile both in its goals and in the means it chooses to those goals. The goals needn’t be grand and needn’t have historical significance. They may be remembered only by the individual’s friends or immediate descendants after her death. They can be as modest as raising a family well, being a good friend, playing in the local band, or writing good thrillers. Any of these things if done well is valuable, and to the extent that a life is spent on valuable pursuits, it is a worthwhile life. But notice that to pursue worthwhile goals well is to pursue them not only skillfully but also honestly, with courage and integrity, and without treating others as mere means to our goals. Virtue is not something over and above one’s everyday life, a separate goal to be pursued when one has time left over from the business of making a living or raising a family or having fun with friends. Virtue is shown in our habitual choices—the way we live our everyday lives—although, of course, it can also be shown in situations calling for heroism. To be virtuous is to have the character traits that enable us to live well compatibly with other virtuous people living well. Virtuous character traits enable us to live well by recognizing and responding to what truly matters in life.
So what are these traits? The ones I focus on in my book are the non‐controversial virtues of honesty, justice, kindness, courage, and integrity. In saying that they are non‐controversial I don’t mean that people have no disagreements about what these virtues require. I mean that people agree that these are virtuous traits, and agree on their applications to a wide range of situations. In holding that virtuous traits are forms of recognition of, and responsiveness to, what truly matters in life, my view presupposes that what truly matters in life at the most fundamental level is objective, not relative to our wishes or the wishes of our society. The two main attitudes I identify as necessary for acquiring and maintaining virtue (and well‐being) are reality‐orientation and autonomy, by which I mean the disposition to stay in touch with important features of our circumstances and social world, as well as our own abilities and character, and the disposition to think for ourselves instead of blindly following the crowd or kow‐towing to authority.
These requirements are sure to ring alarm‐bells. Aren’t reality‐orientation and autonomy Western values? Cultures very different from our own have very different ideas about these traits, and hence of what virtue and well‐being require. Just consider the view in authoritarian cultures (and certain (sub)cultures in Western countries) that in important matters women should rely on their fathers’ or husbands’ judgments instead of trying to form their own judgments.
My answer to this objection from cultural relativism is two‐fold. First, these cultures don’t deny that reality‐orientation and autonomy are good traits to have. What they deny is that women should have these traits. Second, their denial is based on false metaphysical and empirical beliefs. They falsely assume that women’s perceptions and judgments are typically, if not always, defective and men’s typically, if not always, sound. Without these false assumptions, there is no argument against the claim that women, too, should be reality‐oriented and autonomous. I also deal with other objections in my book, such as that being autonomous means being a lone wolf who never relies on other people’s judgments (it doesn’t), or that psychologists have shown that somewhat self‐deluded people are happier and nicer than reality‐oriented people (they haven’t), and so on.
What should we say about disagreements over what virtues like honesty, courage, justice, and kindness require in various situations, disagreements that persist not only between cultures but even within the same cultures and subcultures? Sometimes it seems that every individual is a different culture! My hypothesis is that often the disagreements are due to one or more parties to the disagreement holding false metaphysical or empirical beliefs. Note that I’m not saying that all the false beliefs are those that clash with mainstream Western views (to the extent that there are mainstream Western views), or with my views. I’m simply saying that many misguided moral views, whatever they are, are misguided because they are based on false metaphysical or empirical beliefs. Sometimes, however, the disagreements are due to the failure to see that there is a range of right responses to the same situation. For instance, one good parent might value self‐reliance so much that she decides to raise “free‐range” kids, even though doing so makes them a tad less safe, while her neighbor might value safety so much that she decides to put certain restrictions on her children’s freedom, even though this makes them a tad less self‐reliant.
To go back to reality‐orientation and autonomy: I say that they are necessary for being virtuous but not sufficient, because they don’t guarantee success in understanding oneself or others, or in making the right choices. Consider an individual born into a slave‐holding family in antebellum America, a family that treats its slaves (relatively) humanely. He grows up to be reality‐oriented and autonomous, but he also learns that slavery is mutually beneficial, hears arguments and sees much evidence in favor of the proposition, and no evidence or argument against it. For his family’s slaves seem happy, free of all resentment against his family, and seem to posses no desire to run away even though they are left free enough to do so (this was common among slaves who belonged to (relatively) humane families). Both the reality‐oriented and autonomous young man and the slaves think that it’s not slavery as such that is evil, but inhumane treatment of slaves by inhumane slave owners. It would have been hard for this young man to see the evil of slavery in spite of his reality‐orientation and autonomy. Or in our own times, think of the politicians, ministers, and even parents who agitated for criminalizing drug use and imposing tough penalties for it. The War on Drugs became an unjust and generally disastrous war on Americans. I don’t think everyone responsible for this war was innocently mistaken, given the evidence they already had of the disastrous results of prohibiting alcohol, and given the fact that they were criminalizing peaceful activities by their fellow citizens. But there might have been some individuals who honestly believed that drugs and druggies were far worse than alcohol and alcoholics, that the only way to protect society, especially children, from druggies was to ban drugs and impose draconian penalties on sellers and users, and that society has a right to prohibit dangerous activities even if they are consensual. Had they realized that prohibiting consensual acts between adults is wrong, and that these drug policies would have disastrous results, they would have not have advocated or adopted these policies.
These kinds of situations show that, in addition to inborn cognitive and emotional factors, there are epistemic factors that can prevent full virtue, and sometimes this is due to the luck of where we are born, how we are brought up, and what evidence is available to us. So luck can prevent or undermine full well‐being not only by preventing or undermining full happiness, but also by preventing or undermining full virtue. No one has an understanding of everything relevant to virtue, just as no one has an understanding of everything relevant to good medicine or, for that matter, to good philosophy. Like medical or philosophical expertise, moral expertise is domain‐specific. We have it in some areas of our lives and not in others. Given my domain‐specific conception of virtue, my thesis that well‐being entails virtue should best understood as saying that, to the extent we have well‐being, we must have virtue.
An important challenge for me is to explain how I deal with contrary views of well‐being. What do I say to an easy‐going guy who seems to have fun lolling around doing nothing much (he’s inherited a fortune) and who declares that he finds doing nothing much eminently satisfying and really aspires to nothing greater? He has achieved his highest good, he declares, spending his days snacking on chips and beer and watching soaps. And what do I say to someone who enjoys planning and executing elaborate heists, but doesn’t have any of the inherently unpleasant and happiness‐robbing vicious dispositions, such as anger, envy, hatred, or jealousy? He tells himself that since the people he steals from are so rich, they’ll barely notice the loss, and so he feels no guilt. He uses his mind to the full in his “work”, and is emotionally fulfilled, thanks to his warm relationships with his friends and family.
To the easy‐going guy I say: if you have normal cognitive and emotional capacities, then you can’t be fulfilled being a couch potato. You are missing out on the deep satisfaction of developing and using your capacities, even if you won’t acknowledge it. On the other hand, if your capacities are limited, then this may well be the best you can do, even if it’s not the highest good a human being can achieve. To the second I say: if you have no ill‐will towards anyone, then if you faced the fact that you are harming people by your activities, you would be unhappy rather than fulfilled because you would realize that you are failing on your own terms. So it’s only by being evasive rather than reality‐oriented that you are able to feel fulfilled in this area of your life. Well‐being as the highest prudential good requires facing the facts. Neither the easy‐going couch potato nor the clever thief are likely to agree with me, but the truth of my thesis doesn’t depend on getting everyone to agree with me. Suicide bombers do evil even if they can’t be argued into agreeing.
Subjectivists–those who deny that objective worth has any necessary connection to well-being—have to agree with the couch potato with normal cognitive and emotional capacities and the clever thief that they are achieving their highest prudential good. But then subjectivists must also agree that an individual who decides to get hooked up to the experience machine, with periodic unhookings to reconsider and renew his decision, is also achieving his highest prudential good. And this is simply implausible. But perhaps the subjectivist can avoid this implausible implication of his theory by making a distinction between a full, rich life and a virtuous life, as Daniel Haybron does in his comments on my book. He can say that the couch potato’s life is impoverished, and the experience machine-lover’s life is hardly even a life, and that is why these individuals lack well‐being. The subjectivist can also agree that even though the clever thief’s life is full and rich, he lacks well‐being because he is betraying his own values by harming people who have done him no wrong.
However, there is still an important difference between the subjectivist’s position and mine, as can be seen with a slightly different example. Suppose that the thief isn’t betraying his own values. Suppose, like before, that he uses his mind to the full and is emotionally fulfilled. But unlike before, suppose that he enjoys harming people or doesn’t care one way or the other that he’s harming them, not because he’s incapable of caring (he is not deficient cognitively or emotionally), but because he manages to evade the fact that his victims are real human beings like himself. Then the subjectivist would have to say that he has well‐being, whereas I would say that although he has happiness, he doesn’t have well‐being because his life lacks worth, and he manages to feel fulfilled only by evading an important fact. Were he to stop evading it, he would also stop feeling fulfilled.
In the final chapter of my book I address some common sources of skepticism about the view that virtue is necessary for well‐being. I think my responses go a long way to making this view more plausible, but here I’ll mention only one: the view that virtuous character traits are essential constituents of well‐being is compatible with the fact that in some circumstances, a virtuous act can destroy your happiness and thus your well‐being. I believe that the failure to acknowledge this is one of the biggest hurdles to acceptance of the thesis that I have been defending.
I’ll conclude by answering a question that readers of this website are probably asking: does my book have any political implications? The answer is that it doesn’t have any exclusively political implications, but the implications it does have are applicable to political life as they are to everyday life. For example, if you repeatedly put party or power before principle, then soon you’ll have no principles left. And if enough people in your party put party or power before principle, then soon there’ll be no party left, since a party must stand for something. Again, if you agitate for bans or mandates in order to force people to toe your ideological line when your party is in power, then soon you’ll find yourself being forced to toe others’ ideological line when their party is in power. The applicability of these remarks to the current American political scene is obvious.