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The Three Faces of Flourishing*

  • Thomas Hurka (a1)


To my knowledge, the term “flourishing” was introduced into contemporary philosophy in Elizabeth Anscombe's 1958 article “Modern Moral Philosophy.” In this article and in much of the writing subsequent to it, the concept of flourishing seems to have three principal facets, or to be associated with three philosophical views.



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1 Anscombe, G. E. M., “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy, vol. 33 (1958), pp. 119.

2 Many contemporary philosophers distinguish between claims about what is simply a “good in” someone, that is, a state that is simply good and is also a state of him, and what is “good for” him, or constitutes his “well-being.” In this essay I will ignore this distinction and speak indiscriminately of a person's “good” and of theories of it.

3 For recent discussions of this three-part understanding of flourishing, see Conly, Sarah, “Flourishing and the Failure of the Ethics of Virtue,” in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Volume XIII, Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue, ed. French, Peter A., Uehling, Theodore E. Jr., and Wettstein, Howard K. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 8396; Taylor, Richard, Virtue Ethics: An Introduction (Interlaken, NY: Linden Books, 1991); and Oakley, Justin, “Varieties of Virtue Ethics,” Ratio, vol. 9, no. 2 (09 1996), pp. 133–34.

4 For a fuller discussion of this view, and of many of the ideas in this section, see my Perfectionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

5 Metaethical naturalism is the view that evaluative (and a fortiori moral) claims are either equivalent to or follow from nonevaluative ones. In the present context this means that claims about the human good are equivalent to or follow from ones about human nature.

6 Butler, Joseph, Five Sermons, ed. Darwall, Stephen L. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983).

7 For an especially explicit version of this claim, see Whiting, Jennifer, “Aristotle's Function Argument: A Defense,” Ancient Philosophy, vol. 8 (1988), p. 44. That desire is always for the good is also a claim of Anscombe, 's; see her Intention, 2d ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976), pp. 7072, 7678.

8 Kripke, Saul, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980); and Putnam, Hilary, “Is Semantics Possible?” and “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’,” in Putnam, , Mind, Language, and Reality: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

9 In Aristotle's First Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), Terence Irwin both ascribes to Aristotle and defends a version of the human-nature view focused on practical rationality as an essential property of humans. (He somehow ignores theoretical rationality.) Irwin connects practical rationality to other-regarding virtues such as friendship and justice by saying that these virtues “extend” a person's exercise of practical rationality, and in particular extend “his practical reason and deliberation beyond his own life and activities” (p. 401; see also pp. 394–95, 405–6, 409–10, 415, 431, 433). But if “extent” here means what it seems to, our two questions arise. If extent is not the only measure of rational development, why cannot purely self-regarding activities such as research and chess develop the agent's own rationality more, on balance, than other-regarding virtue? Even considering only extent, why is rationality not increased just as much in a malicious attempt to cause others pain?

10 See Anscombe, , Intention, p. 76; and de Sousa, Ronald, “The Good and the True,” Mind, vol. 83 (1974), pp. 534–51.

11 Irwin might press this alternative understanding of practical rationality; see Aristotle's First Principles, ch. 15.

12 It is sometimes argued that those who hold the human-nature view should not understand the concept of human nature descriptively, as involving properties identified by descriptive criteria such as those drawn from scientific explanations. They should instead understand the concept as partly evaluative, so that its content is partly determined by claims about the human good (see, e.g., Whiting, , “Aristotle's Function Argument: A Defense,” pp. 35, 3839; and Nussbaum, Martha C., “Aristotle on Human Nature and the Foundations of Ethics,” in World, Mind, and Ethics: Essays on the Ethical Philosophy of Bernard Williams, ed. Altham, J. E. J. and Harrison, Ross [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995], pp. 9395, 100102). As several critics have pointed out, however, this proposal robs the human-nature view of its explanatory point. If we include certain properties in human nature only because we think their development is good, how can we explain that goodness by saying they make up human nature?

13 For recent discussions of virtue and flourishing that do not seem to connect the latter to human nature, see Larmore, Charles E., Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 3034; Casey, John, Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. v; Hursthouse, Rosalind, “Virtue Theory and Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 20, no. 3 (Summer 1991), pp. 223–46; Oakley, Justin, Morality and the Emotions (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 39, 78, 87, 163, 177; Annas, Julia, “The Good Life and the Good Lives of Others,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 1992), pp. 133–48; and Annas, , The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). (Annas uses “happiness” to translate the Greek “eudaimonia” that others translate as “flourishing.”) Formal egoism is more explicit in some of these discussions, e.g., Oakley and Annas, than in others, but as I have said, the insistence on connecting the virtues to the agent's good seems to presuppose egoism.

14 See, e.g., Foot, Philippa, “Virtues and Vices,” in her Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 118; and Wallace, James D., Virtues and Vices (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

15 Anscombe, , “Modern Moral Philosophy,” p. 18.

16 I again assume that if the virtues are defined by reference to some state x, it must be because x has some special rational importance.

17 See Swanton, Christine, “Satisficing and Virtue,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 90 (1993), pp. 3348; and Oakley, , “Varieties of Virtue Ethics,” pp. 143–44.

18 On this, see McKerlie, Dennis, “Aristotle and Egoism,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 36, no. 4 (Winter 1998).

19 Hursthouse, , “Virtue Theory and Abortion,” p. 226.

20 Ibid., p. 227. One question about Hursthouse's view is how it relates the concepts of flourishing (on the one hand) and a person's good or what is worthwhile (on the other). Are these the same concepts, so that in caring benevolently about another's good I am caring about his flourishing? If so, Hursthouse's view is close to the nonegoistic recursive view I sketch below. If not, can I also care about another's flourishing, and is it virtuous of me to do so? Does caring about another affect my good as well as my flourishing?

21 See my “Virtue as Loving the Good,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 1992), pp. 149–68.

22 Hursthouse, , “Virtue Theory and Abortion,” p. 229.

23 The most explicitly formal account is that of Annas; see “The Good Life and the Good Lives of Others,” and The Morality of Happiness. Annas does not use the virtue view to identify the virtues; rather, she assumes we know independently what they are. But she does use claims about the place of virtue in an agent's good to derive, within an egoistic framework, normative reasons to act virtuously.

24 Anscombe, , “Modern Moral Philosophy,” p. 18.

25 Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), pp. 150, 152; and Ross, , The Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), p. 275. See also Cardinal Newman's frequently quoted remark that it would be less evil for all humankind to die “in extremest agony” than that “one soul … should commit one venial sin” (Henry, John Newman, Cardinal, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, vol. 1 [London: Longmans, 1901], p. 240); see also Garcia, J. L. A., “The Primacy of the Virtuous,” Philosophia, vol. 20 (1990), pp. 7879. Annas discusses a priority claim that, though not strictly infinite, is so strong as to be effectively equivalent to infinite priority; see The Morality of Happiness, pp. 122–23, 393–94.

26 For a fuller discussion of this issue, see my “How Great a Good Is Virtue?” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 95, no. 4 (03 1998), pp. 181203.

27 See Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), p. 219. Some philosophers distinguish between the “moral” goodness of compassion and other virtues and the “nonmoral” goodness of pleasure and evil of pain. In my view this is not a substantive distinction: moral goodness is just goodness—the very same property—when had by certain objects, namely, attitudes when evaluated in terms of their objects.

28 Lemos, Noah M., Intrinsic Value: Concept and Warrant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 4344; Slote, Michael, “The Virtue in Self-Interest,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 14, no. 1 (Winter 1997), pp. 273–74; and Audi, Robert, “Intrinsic Value and Moral Obligation,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 35, no. 2 (Summer 1997), p. 140.

29 This claim is attributed to Aristotle b y Broadie, Sarah in Ethics with Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 376; and Broadie, , “Aristotle's Elusive Summum Bonum,” elsewhere in this volume; the claim is attributed to Kant by Korsgaard, Christine M. in “Two Distinctions in Goodness,” Philosophical Review, vol. 92 (1983), p. 179; and to Ross and Kant by Lemos in Intrinsic Value, pp. 4142.

30 The difficulty about pleasures in great evils derives from the comparative claim that virtue and vice are lesser values, with less positive or negative value than their objects. This claim implies that a sadist's pleasure in another person's pain is less evil than that pain is evil, which in itself seems right. But if equal units of pleasure and pain have equal value, it also implies that if the sadist's pleasure is sufficiently intense, its goodness as pleasure can outweigh its evil as vice, so that it is on balance good. We can avoid this implication if we deny that equal units of pleasure and pain always have equal value. More specifically, if we hold that there is an upper limit on the goodness of any pleasure whatever its intensity, but no upper limit on the evil of any pain, there will be some pains such that pleasure in them can never be on balance good. (For a fuller discussion, see my “How Great a Good Is Virtue?”)

31 In “The Virtue in Self-Interest,” Slote defends a weaker conditionality claim, saying that states other than virtue are good only when accompanied by a particular virtue appropriate to them. Thus, pleasure is good only when accompanied by moderation, knowledge only when accompanied by courage, and so on (pp. 274–83). This weaker claim of Slote's still seems exaggerated. Pleasure without moderation may be less good than pleasure with moderation, but it still strikes me as good to some degree. More importantly, however, Slote's claim is too weak to serve the virtue view's needs. As Slote recognizes (p. 275), his claim allows that a pleasure in an overwhelmingly vicious person's life can be good so long as it is accompanied by the one virtue of moderation. The claim therefore by no means guarantees that a person always has more reason to act virtuously than to pursue his own pleasure.

32 For the original of these conditions, see Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105a31–34. My own view is that the second condition, about a stable disposition, should be rejected. If it is to make more than a verbal point about the word “virtue,” this condition must imply that actions done from a stable disposition are better, or contribute more to flourishing, than actions done from a similar motive but in a manner that is out of character. Since I see no reason to accept this, that is, no reason to hold that a genuinely benevolent act is less good if not connected to a benevolent disposition, I would dispense with Aristotle's second condition. His first condition, however, is vital to any account of virtue.

33 See, e.g., Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 5657.

34 This problem is even greater for those versions of the two-part understanding that take a person's flourishing to be not just good but “good for” him, or to constitute his “wellbeing” (see note 2 above). For however dubious it is that virtue is simply better than other elements of well-being, it is even more dubious that it is better for its possessor. Not surprisingly, even those philosophers who associate flourishing with well-being rarely argue, as their assumptions require them to, that virtue is better for its possessor than anything else. Instead, they retreat to the easier claim that virtue is simply better; see Sher, George, “Knowing about Virtue,” NOMOS XXXIV: Virtue, ed. Chapman, John W. and Galston, William A. (New York: New York University Press, 1992), p. 113, n. 7. But even that easier claim, I have argued, is false.

35 See, e.g., Williams, Bernard, “Utilitarianism and Moral Self-Indulgence,” in his Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 4053; Williams, , Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 1011; and Lemos, Noah M., “High-Minded Egoism and the Problem of Priggishness,” Mind, vol. 93 (1984), pp. 542–58.

36 Annas, , The Morality of Happiness, pp. 118, 127–28; see also Swanton, , “Satisficing and Virtue,” pp. 4243.

37 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 24. This feature of Annas's view is pointed out in Swanton, Christine, “Virtue Ethics and the Problem of Indirection: A Pluralistic Value-Centred Approach,” Utilitas, vol. 9, no. 2 (07 1997), pp. 168–70; and McKerlie, , “Aristotle and Egoism.”

38 Annas thinks two-level versions of utilitarianism are highly objectionable (see The Morality of Happiness, pp. 234–35, 240–42, 299301, 342). But she claims that the same feature in her own view is not objectionable because in this case the agent's two motivating thoughts do not conflict (p. 260, n. 49). This claim, however, is unpersuasive. To benefit others only because one cares about their good is one thing; to benefit them because one believes that caring about their good will contribute to one's own flourishing is entirely another. Since only one of these can be a person's dominant motive, they do conflict.

39 See my “Self-Interest, Altruism, and Virtue,” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 14, no. 1 (Winter 1997), pp. 296–97.

40 Annas, , “The Good Life and the Good Lives of Others,” p. 137.

41 See, e.g., Williams, Bernard, “Internal and External Reasons,” in his Moral Luck, pp. 101–13.

* For helpful comments and discussion I am grateful to Dennis McKerlie, Ellen Frankel Paul, Michael Slote, Christine Swanton, and the other contributors to this volume.

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