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Happiness, the Self and Human Flourishing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2008

Saint Louis


The psychological condition of happiness is normally considered a paradigm subjective good, and is closely associated with subjectivist accounts of well-being. This article argues that the value of happiness is best accounted for by a non-subjectivist approach to welfare: a eudaimonistic account that grounds well-being in the fulfillment of our natures, specifically in self-fulfillment. And self-fulfillment consists partly in authentic happiness. A major reason for this is that happiness, conceived in terms of emotional state, bears a special relationship to the self. These arguments also point to a more sentimentalist approach to well-being than one finds in most contemporary accounts, particularly among Aristotelian forms of eudaimonism.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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1 Nicomachean Ethics 1178a2-7, trans. H. Rackham.

2 Robert Nozick's experience-machine example is the best-known case along these lines (Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York, 1974)). Though the specifics of his argument can be disputed (see e.g. Silverstein, Matthew, ‘In Defense of Happiness: A Response to the Experience Machine’, Social Theory and Practice 26 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar), I think the basic point is clearly correct.

3 See Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (New York, 1993).Google Scholar

4 Sumner, L. W., Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (New York, 1996).Google Scholar See also Scanlon, T. M., ‘Value, Desire, and Quality of Life’, The Quality of Life, ed. Sen, A. and Nussbaum, M. (New York, 1993)Google Scholar and Arneson, Richard J., ‘Human Flourishing Versus Desire Satisfaction’, Human Flourishing, ed. Paul, E. F., Miller, F. D. Jr. and Paul, J. (New York, 1999).Google Scholar Sumner's precise characterization of subjectivism is not without difficulties; see e.g. Sobel, David, ‘On the Subjectivity of Welfare’, Ethics 107 (1997).Google Scholar But those concerns do not impact the broad distinction discussed here.

5 Rosati, Connie, ‘Internalism and the Good for a Person’, Ethics 106 (1996)Google Scholar; Railton, Peter, ‘Facts and Values’, Philosophical Topics 14 (1986).Google Scholar The italics are mine. The term ‘internalist intuition’ hails from Don Loeb, ‘Full-Information Theories of Individual Good’, Social Theory and Practice 21 (1995). For a compelling argument against this putative desideratum, see Darwall, Stephen, Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton, 2002).Google Scholar Rosati observes that the autonomy argument may itself be used to defend the internalist intuition.

6 See also Almeder, Robert, Human Happiness and Morality (Buffalo, NY, 2000)Google Scholar; Kekes, John, ‘Happiness’, Mind 91 (1982)Google Scholar; McFall, Lynne, Happiness (New York, 1989)Google Scholar; Meynell, H., ‘Human Flourishing’, Religious Studies 5 (1969)Google Scholar; Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw, Analysis of Happiness, trans. Rothert, E. and Zielinska, D. (The Hague, 1976)Google Scholar; and Thomas, D. A. Lloyd, ‘Happiness’, Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1968)Google Scholar, among others. A nice statement of the contemporary subjectivist outlook appears in Kraut, Richard, ‘Two Conceptions of Happiness’, The Philosophical Review 138 (1979).Google Scholar

7 Such theories and their close relatives include e.g. those of Brandt, R. B., A Theory of the Good and the Right (New York, 1979)Google Scholar; Carson, Thomas L., Value and the Good Life (Notre Dame, Ind., 2000)Google Scholar; Darwall, Stephen, Impartial Reason (Ithaca, NY, 1983)Google Scholar; Griffin, James, Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance (Oxford, 1986)Google Scholar; and ‘Replies’, Well-Being and Morality, ed. R. Crisp and B. Hooker (New York, 2000); Hare, R. M., Moral Thinking (Oxford, 1981)Google Scholar; Harsanyi, John, ‘Morality And The Theory Of Rational Behaviour’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, A. and Williams, B. (Cambridge, 1982)Google Scholar; Railton, Peter, ‘Facts and Values’ and ‘Moral Realism’, Philosophical Review 95 (1986)Google Scholar; Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971)Google Scholar; and Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (New York, 1966).Google Scholar

8 I shall understand ‘values’ to encompass an agent's general sense of what matters. This might be understood e.g. along the lines of higher-order desires (Frankfurt, Harry, ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971)CrossRefGoogle Scholar). I focus on agents’ values because, even though subjectivist accounts of well-being typically give weight to ‘mere’ preferences or desires, subjectivists will surely want to keep these subordinate in importance to agent's values. For instance, ‘alien’ desires for what an agent considers undesirable, such as a smoker's cravings, should not be allowed to trump the agent's best judgment.

9 It is possible for a theory outwardly to be eudaimonistic and subjectivist, for instance by identifying nature-fulfillment with the satisfaction of informed desires (some subjectivists may tacitly rely on ideals of nature-fulfillment – see §V). But the root motivations for subjectivists and eudaimonists are very different, so that if we classify theories in terms of the ideals that animate them, as I am doing, there will likely be no overlap.

10 For discussion of the notion of self-fulfillment, see Gewirth, Alan, Self-Fulfillment (Princeton, 1998)Google Scholar and Feinberg, Joel, ‘Absurd Self-Fulfillment’, Freedom and Fulfillment, ed. Feinberg, J. (Princeton, NJ, 1992).Google Scholar

11 Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics.

12 This example resembles one used by Sumner, L. W. (‘Two Theories of the Good’, The Good Life and the Human Good, ed. Paul, E. F., Miller, F. D. Jr. and Paul, J. (New York, 1992)).Google Scholar

13 Instrumentalism is an obvious candidate, but we need not commit to a particular view here. Informed desire theories may be qualified in various ways that do not materially affect the arguments here, involving references to ‘cognitive psychotherapy’, what one would want oneself to want, etc. I will ignore such niceties in what follows.

14 Readers worried that she irrationally fetishizes these goods – a claim not obviously available to the subjectivist – are free to suppose that her desires are rooted in more comprehensible values. For example, she may have ideals that center on competitive success.

15 While I am prepared to insist for the sake of argument that no amount of reflection could alter Henry's or Claudia's preferences, I think such a case unlikely. The point of stipulating that they would not change their minds is simply to make clear that their welfare doesn't wholly depend on what they do, or would, think. Subjectivists and objectivists alike believe that optimal reflection will typically lead people to the right values.

16 Thanks to Roger Crisp for bringing the latter objection to my attention.

17 Recent philosophers who appear to accept hedonism about (psychological) happiness include, among many others, Brandt, R. B., A Theory of the Good and the Right and ‘Fairness to Happiness’, Social Theory & Practice 15 (1989)Google Scholar; Carson, Thomas, ‘Happiness and the Good Life’, Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 9 (1978)Google Scholar and ‘Happiness, Contentment, and the Good Life’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 62 (1981); Davis, Wayne, ‘A Theory of Happiness’, American Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1981)Google Scholar; Griffin, James, ‘Is Unhappiness Morally More Important Than Happiness?’, Philosophical Quarterly 29 (1979)Google Scholar and Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance; and Sprigge, T. L. S., The Rational Foundations of Ethics (New York, 1987).Google Scholar I argue against hedonism in ‘Happiness and Pleasure’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62 (2001).

18 Nozick, , The Examined Life (New York, 1989)Google Scholar; Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. I discuss life-satisfaction views at length in ‘On Being Happy or Unhappy’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 71 (2005) and ‘Life Satisfaction, Ethical Reflection and the Science of Happiness’, The Journal of Happiness Studies (forthcoming).

19 I elaborate on these concerns and others in ‘Happiness and Pleasure’.

20 ‘On Being Happy or Unhappy’ and ‘Philosophy and the Science of Subjective Well-Being’, The Science of Subjective Well-Being, ed. M. Eid and R. J. Larsen (forthcoming). ‘Emotional condition’ is more accurate and I will sometimes use this expression. But calling happiness an ‘emotional condition’ makes it sound like a disorder, so I will usually stick to ‘emotional state’. The qualifier ‘sufficiently’ is necessary because a bare majority of positive affect might not suffice for happiness. I will not define ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ here, save to note that I use them in roughly the same manner that empirical researchers do in writing of positive and negative affect. They are not value terms, being more akin to ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’. In general, this conception of happiness is in no way parasitic on an account of well-being, so there should be no circularity worries. I defend the emotional state view in ‘Happiness and Ethical Inquiry: An Essay in the Psychology of Well-Being’, Ph.D. Dissertation (Rutgers University, 2001) and ‘On Being Happy or Unhappy’; see also Haybron, ‘Philosophy and the Science of Subjective Well-Being’. For more on the methodology employed in determining the nature of happiness, see my ‘What Do We Want from a Theory of Happiness?’, Metaphilosophy 34 (2003).

21 Consider also the state of ‘flow’ one experiences while lost in a challenging activity, like sailing (Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience (New York, 1990)Google Scholar). Though we aren't even aware of feeling anything at the time, this is clearly a pleasant and psychologically deep condition involving our emotional conditions.

22 The reader might think of the central/peripheral distinction as roughly a distinction in ‘mood-involvingness’.

23 The qualifier reflects the fact that our temperaments do not wholly fix our characteristic emotional dispositions. Our values, characters and habits of thought, inter alia, also have a role.

24 Elsewhere I suggest we use the term ‘thymic state’, in reference to the ancient Greek thymos (‘Happiness and Pleasure’, ‘Happiness and Ethical Inquiry’).

25 This term can also mislead, however: ‘flourishing’ is normally used as an evaluative term, whereas ascriptions of happiness in the present sense entail no value claims: ‘happiness’ is just a psychological term. Moreover, happiness could in principle be disordered, in which case we would not think of it as ‘psychic flourishing’.

26 Bob Marley, ‘Satisfy My Soul’. It is tempting to say that the domain of central affect is literally the soul or psyche.

27 The linguistic data are not unequivocal, however, since we can naturally say things like ‘I am a bit annoyed by that fly’. Perhaps they only apply to physical pleasures, as Roger Crisp has suggested to me.

28 See e.g. Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984).Google Scholar

29 On social identity, see e.g. Appiah, K. Anthony, ‘Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction’, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Taylor, C. et al. (Princeton, 1993)Google Scholar and Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2nd edn. (New York, 1998).Google Scholar Ideal identity concerns an agent's ideals and values. See Owen Flanagan and Rorty, Amélie O., ‘Introduction’, Identity, Character, and Morality, ed. Flanagan, O. and Rorty, A. O. (Cambridge, Mass., 1990)Google Scholar; Frankfurt, , ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’ and ‘Identification and Wholeheartedness’, Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions, ed. Schoeman, F. (New York, 1987)Google Scholar; Taylor, Charles, ‘What Is Human Agency?’, Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers, ed. Taylor, C., vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1985)Google Scholar and Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass., 1989); and Watson, Gary, ‘Free Agency’, Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975).Google Scholar See also Williams, Bernard, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’, Utilitarianism: For and Against, ed. Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, B. (New York, 1973)Google Scholar and ‘Persons, Character, and Morality’, Moral Luck, ed. B. Williams (New York, 1981). On practical identity, see e.g. Korsgaard, Christine M., ‘The Sources of Normativity’, The Sources of Normativity, ed. Korsgaard, C. M. (New York, 1996).Google Scholar On self-esteem identity, see David Copp, ‘Social Unity and the Identity of Persons’, Journal of Political Philosophy 10 (2002). (He defines the self in terms of the potential grounds of an individual's self-esteem.) Finally, on narrative identity, see MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (Notre Dame, 1981)Google Scholar; Dennett, Daniel, Consciousness Explained (Boston, 1991)Google Scholar; and Velleman, J. David, Self to Self (New York, 2006).Google Scholar

30 ‘Characteristically’ because happiness itself alters our emotional dispositions while it lasts.

31 For this reason the term ‘emotional self’ might be clearer, but it is more awkward and alien to ordinary usage.

32 At least non-derivatively. Exceptions would involve people whose self-conception is tied to these things – a ‘health nut’, for instance. In such cases matters like health are important to who we are, but only derivatively.

33 Note that, while identity is not the only part of the self, it is plausible that major changes in the self should often have implications for one's identity: if who one is changes, one's sense of who one is is liable to change as well.

34 Although some of my claims presuppose that our emotional natures do not always track our desires or values. Thanks to Martha Nussbaum for bringing this worry to my attention.

35 Another sort of case involves changing the way one thinks about things, say by adopting a more optimistic explanatory style (see e.g. Seligman, Martin, Authentic Happiness (New York, 2002)Google Scholar). It may seem odd to think of this as a way of changing one's emotional nature or emotional self. But when such efforts succeed we do often describe them as altering the self – not just changing what I think or do, say, but changing myself. Admittedly the change in one's emotional propensities is cognitively grounded, but it is not at all clear that who we are, emotionally speaking, must be definable independently of how we think. Again, we are not simply talking about temperament.

36 Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. Interestingly, this expression has recently turned up in the title of a book by psychologist Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness). The usage appears to be independent.

37 The authenticity constraint does not seem limited to the happiness-related aspect of self-fulfillment. Insofar as self-fulfillment has other dimensions, it is plausible that they too will need to meet an authenticity requirement.

38 Rawls, A Theory of Justice.

39 Sumner goes further into the details in his book (Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics).

40 Korsgaard, ‘The Sources of Normativity’.

41 This is not to deny that he might be living in accordance with some aspects of who he is. But in this case the conflict outweighs the agreement.

42 See Pigou, A. C., The Economics of Welfare, 4th edn. (London, 1932).Google Scholar Sumner has a good discussion of this move in Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics.

43 To be fair, no view of pleasure is especially attractive. Pleasure is an elephantine problem for virtually any non-hedonistic axiology: neither desire nor anything else seems capable of explaining its value. Its value just seems brute. Perhaps pleasure can be understood as a kind of subjective fulfillment: an aspect of nature-fulfillment that is essentially tied to the subjective point of view. (A further type of ‘subjectivism’ centers not on agent sovereignty but on the subjective point of view more broadly – the agent's experience. In this sense pleasure is a subjective good. But this sort of subjectivism has very different allures from the type that concerns this article.) On the objective value of pleasure, see Goldstein, Irwin, ‘Pleasure and Pain: Unconditional, Intrinsic Values’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Carson, Value and the Good Life; and Scanlon, ‘Value, Desire and Quality of Life’. For an excellent discussion of pleasure's value, see Roger Crisp, ‘Hedonism Reconsidered’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (forthcoming).

44 For a related but independent discussion of Sumner's views see an excellent article by Mark LeBar (‘Good for You’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 85 (2004)).

45 See also LeBar, ‘Good for You’.

46 Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics, p. 160.

47 At least, it does on a plausible reading of ‘own best judgment’.

48 Cf. e.g. Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, Four Essays on Liberty, ed. Berlin, I. (New York, 1969).Google Scholar

49 Loeb, ‘Full-Information Theories of Individual Good’; Connie Rosati, ‘Persons, Perspectives, and Full Information Accounts of the Good’, Ethics 105 (1995). Such worries seem significantly worse here than for Sumner.

50 See e.g. Taylor, Shelley E. and Brown, Jonathan D., ‘Illusion and Well-Being: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Mental Health’, Psychological Bulletin 103 (1988)Google Scholar and Flanagan, , Varieties of Moral Personality (Cambridge, Mass., 1991).Google Scholar

51 See e.g. Annas, The Morality of Happiness.

52 Gewirth, Self-Fulfillment. Cf. Rosati's discussion of the intuition underlying the autonomy-based argument for internalism about a person's good (which underwrites much of subjectivism's appeal): the intuition is that ‘the good of a creature must suit its own nature’ (‘Internalism and the Good for a Person’). See also Rawls, A Theory of Justice, esp. secs. 40, 65, 79, 85–6.

53 See e.g. Annas, The Morality of Happiness.

54 See e.g. Foot, Philippa, Natural Goodness (New York, 2001)Google Scholar; Hurka, Thomas, Perfectionism (New York, 1993)Google Scholar; Hursthouse, Rosalind, On Virtue Ethics (New York, 1999)Google Scholar; Kraut, Richard, Aristotle: Political Philosophy (New York, 2002)Google Scholar; Nussbaum, Martha, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (New York, 2000)Google Scholar; and Toner, Christopher H., ‘Aristotelian Well-Being: A Response to L. W. Sumner's Critique’, Utilitas 18.3 (2006).Google Scholar The Aristotelian literature has yet to integrate fully with the contemporary literature on well-being, so it is often difficult to tell where an author stands on well-being. (Hurka e.g. rejects a ‘well-being’ interpretation of his view, yet there is considerable overlap in our concerns.) For related views, see Darwall, Welfare and Rational Care; LeBar, ‘Good for You’; Murphy, Mark C., Natural Law and Practical Rationality (New York, 2001)Google Scholar; and Sher, George, Beyond Neutrality: Perfectionism and Politics (New York, 1997).Google Scholar

55 Aristotle hardly considered affect unimportant – he thought it an essential part, and ‘completion’, of virtuous activity – but he regarded it as properly integrated with, and subordinate to, reason.

56 Termed, perhaps, ‘narrative role fulfillment’.

57 See e.g. Frankfurt on wholeheartedness (‘Identification and Wholeheartedness’) and Copp on self-esteem identity (‘Social Unity and the Identity of Persons’).

58 I am grateful to Talia Bettcher for helping me to see the importance of this point.

59 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a1–3. While such additions would not fall within the scope of self-fulfillment, the resulting view could still usefully be termed a ‘self-fulfillment’ view of well-being given the central and distinctive role self-fulfillment plays in it.

60 For a similar claim, see Scanlon, ‘Value, Desire, and Quality of Life’.

61 A similar point appears in Hooker, Brad, ‘Does Moral Virtue Constitute a Benefit to the Agent?’, How Should One Live? ed. Crisp, R. (New York, 1996).Google Scholar

62 I will not give precise definitions of welfare rationalism or sentimentalism here, and will simply discuss them as broad tendencies in thinking about well-being. These notions are not intended to mirror precisely the concepts of moral rationalism and sentimentalism, though the distinctions are not unrelated. One difference is that I am not assuming that the judgments privileged by welfare rationalism are solely the product of rational insight. We might distinguish a strong form of welfare rationalism that does make this assumption. But when thinking about well-being the more important question seems to be whether the ‘I’ that reflects, deliberates and judges enjoys a special authority.

63 I am grateful to Talia Bettcher, James Bohman, Susan Brower-Toland, Allen Buchanan, Thomas Christiano, Roger Crisp, Stephen Darwall, Alicia Finch, Lori Gruen, Douglas Husak, Colin McGinn, Elijah Millgram, Martha Nussbaum, Scott Ragland, David Schmidtz, Mark Snyder, Kent Staley, Stephen Stich, L. W. Sumner, Valerie Tiberius, Robert Woolfolk and audiences at the 2002 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association and the 2003 Minnesota Well-Being Workshop for helpful comments on earlier versions of the material in this article.

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