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Two Theories of the Good

  • L. W. Sumner (a1)

Suppose that the ultimate point of ethics is to make the world a better place. If it is, we must face the question: better in what respect? If the good is prior to the right — that is, if the rationale for all requirements of the right is that they serve to further the good in one way or another — then what is this good? Is there a single fundamental value capable of underlying and unifying all of our moral categories? If so, how might it defeat the claims of rival candidates for this role? If not, is there instead a plurality of basic goods, each irreducible to any of the others? In that case, how do they fit together into a unified picture of the moral life?

These are the questions I wish to address, in a necessarily limited way. To many the questions will seem hopelessly old-fashioned or misguided. Some deontologists will wish to reverse my ordering of the good and the right, holding that the right constrains acceptable conceptions of the good. For many contractarians, neither the good nor the right will seem normatively basic, since both are to be derived from a prior conception of rationality. Finally, some theorists will reject the classification of moral theories in terms of their basic normative categories, arguing that the whole foundationalist enterprise in ethics should be abandoned.

In the face of these challenges to the priority of the good, and in light of the many current varieties of moral skepticism and relativism, I cannot provide a very convincing justification for raising the questions I intend to discuss.

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1 See, for example, Finnis John, Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), chs. 3–5.

2 I have outlined my conception of the nature of consequentialism in The Moral Foundation of Rights (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), section 6.1.

3 I borrow this useful expression from Griffin James, Well-Being (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), part one.

4 The most developed contemporary account of the nature of perfectionist value is to be found in Thomas Hurka, Perfectionism (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

5 Welfare is subjective as long as the subject's attitudes or concerns are an essential ingredient in the analysis of her good; they need not be the only ingredients. In this sense, welfare is analogous to secondary qualities, which count as subjective even though an account of their nature may also refer to some nonsubjective items, such as physical properties and normal conditions of perception.

6 Thomas Hurka's account of human nature (in Perfectionism) is constructed in terms of properties essential to human beings, but not in terms of properties distinctive of them. Presumably, he would generalize this approach to other natural kinds.

7 See, for example, Attfield Robin, The Ethics of Environmental Concern (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), and Taylor Paul W., Respect for Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). Both Attfield and Taylor use this move to justify limiting moral standing to living beings.

8 Thomas Hurka has suggested that only the perfection of living things matters. Even if this scope restriction turned out to be intuitively plausible, it would still be helpful to have some account of why being alive makes this kind of difference. The line of argument explored earlier — that only organisms have a good of their own — seems unlikely to do the job.

9 It must be acknowledged that reflection on the part of some others has led them to the opposite conclusion. Amartya Sen's critique of welfarism has been particularly influential; see, for example, “Utilitarianism and Welfarism”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 76, no. 9 (September 1979), and “Well-Being, Agency and Freedom”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 82, no. 4 (April 1985).

10 The prototype of this approach is, of course, John Stuart Mill's criterion for the quality of pleasure in Utilitarianism, ch. 2. A good recent treatment may be found in Griffin, Well-Being, chs. 1 and 2.

11 They have been nicely exposed in Arthur Ripstein, “Preference”, forthcoming in Value, Welfare, and Morality, ed. R. G. Frey and C. W. Morris.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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