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On Having a Good

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2014


In some recent papers I have been arguing that the concept ‘good-for’ is prior to the concept of ‘good’ (in the sense in which final ends are good), and exploring the implications of that claim. One of those implications is that everything that is good is good for someone. That implication seems to fall afoul of our intuitions about certain cases, such as the intuition that a world full of happy people and animals is better than a world full of miserable ones, even if the people and animals are different in the two cases, so that there is no one for whom the second world is better. Such cases tempt people to think that there must be impersonal goods, and that what it means to say that something is good for you is that you are the one who ‘has’ some impersonal good. In this paper, I argue that if we approach things in this way, it is impossible to say what the ‘having’ consists of, what relation it names. This leads me to a discussion of various things we do mean by saying that something is good for someone, how they are related to each other, and what sorts of entities can ‘have a good’. Finally, I explain why we think that a world full of happy people and animals is better than a world full of miserable ones, even if the people and animals are different in the two cases.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2014 

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1 Actually, it follows from the view I defend in this paper that it is necessarily true that doing well is good for you, or at least that you cannot achieve your good without doing well. See section 5.

2 This may be false, of course: it may be better for each and every one of us to live in a world where wealth is more equally distributed. Being wealthier than others may corrupt your character so that you are less capable of genuine happiness, for instance. Or if you are good enough to be happy, knowing that you have more than your share may make you unhappy. But in that case equal distributions would be better for individuals, and the example would not, after all, pose a challenge to the idea that things must be good or bad for someone if they are good or bad at all.

3 Many people seem to think that there are both personal and impersonal goods, and that there is no conceptual priority relation between them. I think this is a non-starter. Why do we call them both by the same name? Is it because it is impersonally good that the personal goods should be realized? If that is not always so – and presumably, it would not be – then why do we call the personal goods ‘good’ in those cases where it is not? One might adopt what Tim Scanlon calls a buck-passing theory of the good, and then try to argue that whether the good is personal or not depends on whether the reasons are personal or not. (See Scanlon, T.M., What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998)Google Scholar, Chapter 2, especially 97ff.) But in my view, the question what it means to ‘have’ a reason gives rise to problems that are parallel to those that arise from the question what it means to ‘have’ a good. Later I will explain why I think ‘having a good’ is prior to the existence of ‘goods.’ Kantians believe that you have a reason when you have made something your maxim. In that case the condition of ‘having a reason’ is also prior to the existence of ‘reasons.’ For some relevant discussion, see my ‘Valuing Our Humanity’, §2, English version forthcoming. The paper is available in Spanish translation by Dulce María Grande in Signos Filosoficos, No. 26, July-December 2011.

4 See Korsgaard, Christine M., The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, §4.3.3, 146–147

5 For another version of the argument of this section see Korsgaard, Christine M., ‘The Relational Nature of the Good’, Oxford Studies in Metaethics, Volume 8, ed. Schafer-Landau, Russ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013Google Scholar)

6 I've worded it this way because, strictly speaking, there is no property that is not someone's property, any more than there is happiness that is not someone's happiness. Property is a relational notion. But it does in a sense name a relation between two independently existing things.

7 Locke, John, Second Treatise of Government (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980)Google Scholar, Chapter V, paragraph 33, 21

8 Declining some thing that would make you happy can be a way of ensuring that it is there for someone else, of course, and if it would make that other person happy then this is a case where you can trade in your happiness to secure that of someone else. But that really is a very different point: it does not show that happiness is a good thing in itself like a piece of property that becomes good for you when you claim it for your own.

9 If someone thanks you for doing something, and you reply, ‘The pleasure is all mine’, you are not saying something crassly selfish.

10 Aristotle, Metaphysics 7.10 1035b23–25: ‘for it is not a finger in any state that is the finger of a living thing, but a dead finger is a finger only homonymously.’ Politics 1.2 1253a20–25: ‘if the whole body be destroyed, there will be no foot or hand, except homonymously, as we might speak of a stone hand; for when destroyed the hand will be no better than that.’ On the Soul 2.1 412b20–22: ‘when seeing is removed, the eye is no longer an eye, except in name – no more than the eye of a statue or a painted figure.’ The translations are from The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Barnes, Jonathan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

11 ‘For it is not a hand in any state that is a part of man, but the hand which can fulfill its work, which therefore must be alive; if it is not alive, it is not a part.’ Aristotle, Metaphysics 7.10, 1036b30–32

12 ‘Final’ is a slightly misleading name, since it turns out that both ends and means can be good in the way that I am trying to identify here. As will become clear, I mean goods that seem or can seem worthy of pursuit from the agent's point of view, whether for their own sake or for the sake of something else, something that is a final good in the more ordinary sense. Nevertheless, in what follows I will sometimes use ‘final’ in the more ordinary sense, to refer to goods sought for their own sake. I don't think this will cause any confusion.

13 See Aristotle's discussions in the Nicomachean Ethics at 7.11–12 and 10.1–5.

14 Raz, The Practice of Value (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 16Google Scholar. Of course Raz grants that one may value health for other reasons as well. See my commentary on his remarks at 77–81 of that volume for background to the thoughts here.

15 If we generalize the instrumental relation to include the constitutive one, then there are cases where claims about means are tautologies, namely where there is a necessary constituent. It is a tautology that your vote is needed if the end is 100% voter turnout, say. Some philosophers also think that performing an action is, tautologously, a means to the performance of that action.

16 For Aristotle, see especially Nicomachean Ethics 1.7; for Plato see Republic Book I, 352d–354b.

17 I defend this claim in Aristotle's Function Argument’ in Korsgaard, Christine M., The Constitution of Agency (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 For further discussion, see Korsgaard, Christine M., Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, chapter 2.

19 In Korsgaard, The Constitution of Agency.

20 Among other things, this solves the problem about what philosophers who define justice completely differently are disagreeing about.

21 That is what Kant called ‘the paradox of method’ and Rawls called ‘the priority of the right’. For Kant, see The Critique of Practical Reason (translated by Gregor, Mary for Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5:63Google Scholar; for Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2nd ed., 1999), 2728Google Scholar.

22 The remarks that follow are borrowed from The Normative Constitution of Agency’, (forthcoming in Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman, ed. Vargas, Manual and Yaffe, Gideon (New York: Oxford University Press)), §1.3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Our self-consciousness about our agential success and failure is thus the source of the first primitive normative thoughts that leads us to the idea of well-functioning and from there to normative thought more generally. Notice the close tie this provides between normative thought and the first-person perspective. And notice too that a failure of efficacy is not the only route to the idea of a failure of one's agency; a failure of autonomy provides another such route. See Self-Constitution, §5.1. I am indebted here to discussion with Alan Code.

24 For another version of the argument of this section, see ‘The Origin of the Good and Our Animal Nature’, forthcoming in Problems of Goodness: New Essays on Metaethics, edited by Bastian Reichardt.

25 Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, especially §2.2

26 Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, §6.1.2

27 Notice an important consequence of this story: valuing is prior to value. It is because there are things that necessarily strike agents as things to go for that there are final goods.

28 I introduce the notion of practical identity in The Sources of Normativity, 101. For further discussion, see Self-Constitution, §1.4.

29 This is why ‘final’ isn't a great word here (see note 12): because this sense of good also encompasses the things that promote the things we decide to pursue for their own sakes.

30 That is, the human good is carrying out the particularly normative form of self-constitution particular to our kind, the rational kind. What gives content to ‘valuable’ here? First, in Self-Constitution I argued that morality is necessary for successful self-constitution. I also describe the way thoughts about value more generally can get a footing in Self-Constitution, §10.1.4.

31 Quoted on the Carl Sagan website at

32 Sagan's idea that we are the consciousness of the universe would explain the temptation to think that, I suppose.

33 The ‘or more properly speaking, the things that constitute it, the conditions that constitute it’ is there because I am among those who don't believe that people characteristically pursue happiness. I believe we pursue projects we think are worthwhile, and are happy when we are succeeding in promoting or realizing those projects. Saying that people pursue happiness is, at best, shorthand.

34 This is another manifestation of the fact that valuing is prior to value.

35 Parfit first introduced the Repugnant Conclusion in chapter 17 of Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984)Google Scholar. The argument in the text bears generally against puzzles arising from the ‘non-identity’ problem – cases in which we can apparently do better by producing a better state of affairs for a genetically different individual. These cases may be thought to support the idea of impersonal goods. I am arguing instead that it is not always right to identify the beneficiaries of action in terms of their genetic identities.

36 In fact, the reason why I keep using ‘more equitable’ rather than ‘equal’ is because I think a distribution according to Rawls's difference principle (the principle of choosing the distribution that is the best for the worst off) is preferable to a strictly egalitarian one. See A Theory of Justice, Chapters 2 and 3

37 See Self-Constitution, Chapter 7

38 This paper was delivered as the Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture, the Suarez Lecture at Fordham, as one of the Agnes Cumin Lectures at University College Dublin, the Merlan Lecture at the Claremont Colleges, and the Melden Lecture at Irvine, and at colloquia at Stanford, the CUNY Graduate Center, SUNY-Binghamton, Brandeis, the Georg-August University in Göttengen, Guelph University, and St. Louis University. I am grateful to all of these audiences for helpful discussion.