Skip to main content

‘Who are we to judge?’ – On the Proportionment of Happiness to Virtue

  • Garrath Williams (a1)

The claim that happiness and virtue ought to be proportionate to one another has often been expressed in the idea of a future world of divine justice, despite many moral difficulties with this idea. This paper argues that human efforts to enact such a proportionment are, ironically, justified by the same reasons that make the idea of divine justice seem so problematic. Moralists have often regarded our frailty and fallibility as reasons for abstaining from the judgment of others; and doubts about our deserving some proportionment of happiness or unhappiness often arise insofar as virtue and vice may be explained on a causal basis. This paper argues that our fallibility and our susceptibility to social influence render judgment and response indispensable, because – given these characteristics – our actions and responses decide the morality that we actually share with one another. In this situation, to ‘judge not’ is to abandon the field to those with no such scruples.

Hide All

1 Groundwork, 4:393, in Practical Philosophy (trans. Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 49.

2 Williams Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1985), 46.

3 The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (trans. Raymond Oliver Faulkner, ed. Carol Andrews, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 27ff, 56f.

4 Plato gives various accounts of the afterlife along these lines, including: Phaedo, 107–14; Republic, 614–17; Gorgias, 523–7.

5 Critique of Practical Reason, 5:125, 142, in Practical Philosophy, in op. cit. note 1, 241, 254.

6 Some other criticisms proceed along parallel lines, in supposing that the idea plays to moral and psychological weakness. Thus the future just order as a compensatory fantasy, perhaps for those who are not strong enough to exact justice in this world, or for those not strong enough to face up to the reality of an unjust world.

7 This self-defeatingness charge is also discussed, and this criticism offered, by Sher George, Desert (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), 138ff.

8 See his comment on the morally righteous atheist, such as Spinoza, at Critique of Judgment, §87, 5:452.

9 Genealogy of Morality, I.15, II.5.

10 I am ignoring, for the moment, all those accounts that suggest our eternal fate will be a matter of election or predestination, since – as has so often been objected – such a future world cannot be described as just in any humanly comprehensible sense.

11 I thank John O'Neill for pointing this out to me.

12 Thus the famous ‘third antinomy’ in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: the contradiction between universal causation and the very idea of a first cause, whether as a matter of human or divine agency.

13 Groundwork, 4:399; cf. Critique of Practical Reason, 5:124.

14 Such a God is also incomparable and a ‘first cause’: in the last two sections I will also consider the fact that human beings are not.

15 ‘Enlightenment as Autonomy: Kant's Vindication of Reason’ in The Enlightenment and its Shadows (eds. P. Hulme and L. Jordanova, London, Routledge, 1990), 190.

16 Although Bernard Williams charges that modern conceptions of morality do exactly this – cf. ‘Moral Luck: A Postscript’ in his Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 243.

17 Matthew, 7:1; John, 8:7. I should add that I am only concerned with the currency of the phrases, rather than their point in context, which is well-captured at Luke, 6:37: ‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.’

18 Groundwork, 4:424.

19 As Arendt Hannah observed: ‘a “good conscience” is enjoyed as a rule only by really bad people, criminals and such, while only “good people” are capable of having a bad conscience,’ The Life of the Mind (London: Secker & Warburg, 1978), Vol. I, 5.

20 Nicomachean Ethics, 1110b (trans. Roger Crisp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

21 The Theory of Good and Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1907), Vol. I, 257; quoted by George Sher, Desert, op. cit. note 7, 137.

22 Many moralists would deny that the successful wrong-doer can flourish, or even be happy. Plato, certainly, takes the point further, and sees correction and punishment as actually contributing to the wrong-doer's well-being. However this may be, it certainly departs from our usual, less moralistic uses of these terms, and still more decisively from the wrong-doer's own sense of the matter.

23 See especially the closing paragraph to Arendt's Hannah lectures, ‘Some Questions of Moral Philosophy’ (in her Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Kohn Jerome, New York: Schocken, 2003), 145f.

24 Metaphysics of Morals, 6:459.

25 Sher's Desert, op. cit. note 7, remains the single most important study of this concept. He also discusses the proportionment of happiness to virtue, and argues that it is because the virtuous are worth more, that their happiness should also be worth more to us. This seems to me to be open to Rashdall's already cited objection, quoted by Sher himself, against the case for any such proportionment: ‘why [should] superior moral goodness … be assigned a superior quantity of external goods, that is to say, the means of indulging desires which have no connection with this superior moral goodness’?

26 ‘Freedom and Resentment,’ Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962), 1–25, and variously reprinted.

27 The most succinct statement of this view is Fingarette Herbert, ‘Retributive Punishment’ in his Mapping Responsibility (Chicago: Open Court, 2004). It is also at work in Hart's H. L. A. celebrated essay, ‘Legal Responsibility and Excuses’, in his Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

28 See Schapiro Tamar, ‘Three Conceptions of Action in Moral Theory,Noûs 35 (2001), 93117 – in particular, the ‘Kantian’ account of action that she develops there. On our use of the arsenal of mutual accountability not only to reproduce but also to redefine expectations, see Cheshire Calhoun, ‘Responsibility and Reproach,’ Ethics 99 (1989), 389 – 406.

29 Herbert Fingarette, ‘Suffering,’ in his Mapping Responsibility, op. cit. note 27.

30 Cf. Hampton Jean, ‘The Moral Education Theory of Punishment,Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984), 208238.

31 Institutes 3:21:5, as quoted by Mavrodes George, ‘Predestination,’ Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (ed. Craig E., London: Routledge, 1998).

32 And this is very close to Kant's view: the idea of virtue as the ‘worthiness to be happy’ is the supposedly self-evident presupposition from which he constructs the postulates of pure practical reason, including God and immortality: Critique of Practical Reason, 5:122ff.

33 My thanks to colleagues in the Department of Philosophy, Lancaster University for their comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to an anonymous referee of another journal for especially thorough comments.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 2
Total number of PDF views: 21 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 166 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.