Everything is getting better. Or so the numbers tell us. Such, from quick perusal, seems to be the burden of a number of ‘optimistic’ books that have come out in the last few years by authors like Matt Ridley, Steve Pinker and Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling. And there are some seriously impressive facts optimists can appeal to. Incomes have increased hugely – perhaps by a factor of eight per capita in real terms – over the last two hundred years, and life expectancy at birth has more than doubled. Modern science is a colossal advance on what went before; much modern technology would have been unimaginable until recently; freedom of speech and electoral institutions are more widespread than they were; and there seems to be less physical violence (though the comparison with the simplest human societies is not so clear).
Our age’s zeal for denunciation sometimes seems to be greeted by a corresponding zest for martyrdom. Some optimistic authors like to present themselves as heretics, but the basis of their optimism is the common currency of much of the political and policy establishment and of whole academic disciplines including most mainstream economics and public health. Pessimists may have more prominence in parts of academia, but they have less power (sometimes it seems that’s the way they like it).
When I worked as an economist on poverty reduction, I experienced a number of tensions. One was a nagging sense that the very actions that were effective in reducing poverty might destroy some of what I instinctively liked in the countries I was working in. The modernity we were promoting might come at a cost that was hard to articulate and seemed almost impertinent even to consider given the urgency of people’s material needs. I remember reading D.H Lawrence in Vanuatu, where I was working in the Central Bank, and wondering what he would make of it. Compared with other ‘least developed’ countries, Vanuatu was a relatively fortunate and gentle place, with abundant soil and relatively limited internal conflict, though it did suffer from cyclones and eruptions. But later, working in Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda – in each of which people were suffering from increasing pressure on land, endemic and pandemic disease, and the aftermath or continuation of catastrophic conflict or genocide- these concerns did not altogether leave me.
Ambivalence about progress can take different forms. There may be an anxiety that the goods of modernity are unequally distributed ((true and important) and that the economic systems of modernity, or capitalism in particular, make inequality increase over time (much more complex)). There may be a concern that certain salient populations are doing badly, like much of the bottom half in the US. There is a suspicion that the whole show is going to collapse in due course anyway: a concern currently dominated by global warming, though soil erosion, biodiversity loss and nuclear weapons are also plausible sources of catastrophic risk. And there is a certain instinctive aversion from the optimists’ glibness; maybe the term ‘better’ seems presumptuous in the first place. (Some of these concerns are nicely presented in a recent essay by Jeremy Lenz on Steven Pinker).
My own ambivalence was different. It was that the goods that the modern world delivers are less valuable than we like to think; and that their delivery might come at a greater cost than we had wanted to recognise. It is of some relevance that I have written poetry throughout my life since adolescence: the poet in me could never quite see the world with the same eyes as the economist. Philosophy is for me a way of integration.
One day, after spending some time looking at household expenditure surveys – which are used as the basis for the measurement of poverty in many countries – I found myself drafting a questionnaire which I felt got closer to what I would really like to know about people’s lives, if I was going to be confident that they were getting better. Later, I came to realise that what I was doing was philosophy – a point that initially eluded me despite my undergraduate studies in that discipline. What I was doing, that day when I sketched the questionnaire, was starting to develop an account of the human good.
An account deals with content – what things are good ? A definition deals with meaning – what is it for something to be good ? A definition of a term in ethics fixes a target for the account to aim at. Definitions are not always useful, but in the case of the good they matter a lot, because ‘good’ can mean many different things and this can cause real confusion. So before discussing accounts of the good I need to sketch a definition.
G.E. Moore suggested that ‘good’ could not be defined but that ‘the good’ might be; in my terminology, this amounts to saying that a definition is impossible but an account is possible. Moore’s resistance to definition here depends, I think, on two misconceptions: that a definition needs to take the form of an analysis into simpler concepts: and that such a definition would in practice need to be in terms of ‘naturalistic’ i.e. non-evaluative terms. To serve to identify the target of enquiry, it is not necessary for a definition to be like that. To locate a node in a net by reference to proximate nodes is not to claim differences in status or kind between the identifying and identified nodes.
When we say things are getting better, what do we mean ? Start, perhaps, with the simple exclamation ‘Good !’. We say this when we are glad, or think we should be glad, or want to pretend we are glad, that something has happened. The world, or our friends’ lives, will be better for it. Or start with a simple example: a baby’s smile. Not that we are babies: not that a baby should only ever smile; but that the gladness occasioned by a baby’s smile seems something almost definitive of being human – a basis of values we can share even with people whose convictions and actions appal us. (I discover someone else has used the same exclamation in a different language for different purposes; ‘Good!’, and especially the German’Gut!‘ can also have the meaning that something is settled, and Heidegger suggests this the basis of the meaning of agathos in Plato (Gesamte Ausgabe vol. 34 p.106). Whether or not Heidegger is right about Greek etymology or Plato, that’s not what I have in mind).
To be a little more formal – not, yet, very formal – try this: the good can be roughly defined as what should make us glad that it exists.
Note, here, that I am assuming ‘we’ can observe the world more or less dispassionately. A contemplative stance is woven into this definition: a stance that does not assume any obligation on our part to change the world. For such obligations you need some account of morality, and I don’t want to impose any such account before thinking about the good itself. Some Anglo-Saxon philosophers like to talk about ‘pro attitudes’ in such contexts, a rather ugly coinage better suited to the Ministry of Truth or the management of a football team than to philosophical discussion.
Note also, here, two claims I have not made. I have not claimed to have provided ‘the’ correct definition of the good; what I have offered is merely a rough sketch of one of probably hundreds of concepts that might be developed in the territory staked out by the term ‘good’. All I claim is that it catches something that corresponds with some prevailing usage, that it is worth discussing, and that there is some chance of being more or less right or wrong about it. And I have not claimed to define an evaluative term in non-evaluative terms. Global sceptics about values will be as sceptical about the ‘should’ in my definition as of the ‘good’ I am defining. The work of establishing at least some chance of objectivity – the task of metaethics – lies beyond this essay, though the reference to a baby’s smile may give some clue how I will later seek to address it.
Many philosophers like to distinguish between the moral good and wellbeing, sometimes termed the prudential good. The good, as I have defined it is, not necessarily the same as either of these. One may think that it would be good if people were morally better than they are: or one may think it would be a disaster. (In this case, of course, one may hope that the concept of moral activity falls into disuse or disrepute). One may think that human wellbeing is all that matters: or one may think that it is not as important as most people seem to think.
Colloquial usages differ here. The good of ‘a good person’ is usually moral; that of ‘a good time’ usually prudential’; that of ‘a good life’ depends on context – one can have a good life without living a good life, and vice versa. Confusion here is easy and sometimes acrimonious. The Catholic moral and legal philosopher John Finnis was attacked in a petition for homophobia on the grounds that he had called homosexuality ‘evil’, which suggests a strong attack on the morality of active homosexuals. Now Finnis certainly seems to think (as I do not) that the only good sex is within heterosexual marriage and that all other sex is immoral. But when he uses the term ‘evil’ (in a context where he endorses it) what he does is use it not as an adjective but as a noun, for instance to write about the ‘evil of homosexual conduct’; and this, I think, is a way of saying that homosexual activity is bad for the self or others – and hence to be discouraged, though not prohibited by public policy – rather than that active homosexuals are acting wickedly or are evil people. To describe this as ‘hateful’, as the petition does, seems excessive.
Nor is the good of the exclamation ‘good!’ necessarily attributive, as some philosophers (notably Geach) have thought. We can be pleased about a state of affairs before we know how we would describe or categorise it. Even for something like a work of art, we may think something good primarily not because it satisfies any set of criteria of excellence within its genre but because it changes our sense of what that kind of work can be. ‘Don Quixote’ is not the first European novel; but it is a book which even now can change our sense of what a novel, or even what a book, can be.
Nor, if good does not have to mean ‘good of its kind’, does it have to adopt the point of view of the creature about which it is predicated, as various philosophers including Geach and Korsgaard have argued or asserted. Korsgaard, for instance, uses this property to deny that we can compare the value or importance of people and other animals, since there is no single point of view to be adopted. I am not sure that her usage can do justice to intuitions about the badness of very unequal distributions of wealth (which she discusses here) or the goodness of human diversity. In any case, I prefer to treat such adoption or deference as a substantive (and in my opinion not entirely true) doctrine about the good rather than build it into the definition.
Another distinction here. I have slipped a little too easily from the ‘better’ with which I started to the ‘good’. But the irregular etymological distinctness of the comparative ‘better’ from the absolute ‘good’ in Germanic, Slavic, Latin, Romance and Hellenic languages (I haven’t yet found any parallels outside the Indo-European family), should give us pause. What I’m actually concerned with is mainly the better: and on this there is plenty to say. The absolute good is another matter; praise is essentially less articulate, though no less important, than evaluation. But I shall come back to this in a later essay.
In ‘The sovereignty of good‘, Iris Murdoch came up with a distinction which has been widely used, if rarely attributed to her, in Anglo-Saxon philosophy: a distinction now framed in terms of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ ethical concepts. The meanings of thin ethical concepts are more purely evaluative and float freer of cultural baggage than those of thick ones; they might include ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘just’. Thick concepts, on the other hand, are vividly imbued with description and cultural specificities – ‘chic’, ‘quixotic’, ‘rabid’, ‘unctuous’, ‘decadent’.
It turns out that ‘good’ and similar terms are very tricky; maybe nothing is entirely thin. I heard the French philosopher Catherine Audard, John Rawls’ translator, say (in a talk she gave on Rawls at the Forum for European Philosophy) that when Rawls talks of the priority of the right to the good, she was reduced to writing (in French) of the priority of the just to the good. Ancient Greek agathos is usually translated as ‘good’ and kalos as ‘beautiful’, but no good classicist should be too comfortable with the translation. These days, kalos in modern Greek means ‘good’ and agathos something between ‘good-hearted’ and ‘simple’. One need only imagine the linguistic trajectory that must have been traversed to see that there must have been times when there was no really adequate translation of ‘good’. The Russian for ‘good’ is often khoroshoi, but when one wishes someone a good day one uses dobriy. In Turgenev’s wonderful novel ‘Nest of gentry’, a German composer and music teacher is living in obscure exile. His favourite pupil has betrayed him by showing his work to a male friend who promptly patronises him about it. She asks him, twice, to forgive her. He does so on the second ask, and says ‘Ty – dobraya dyevushka’, for which ‘You are a good girl’ simply won’t do, though goodness knows what does. ‘Kind girl’ or ‘good person’, perhaps, but not quite.
Despite this I am going to claim that every significant ethical thinker has something to say that bears on the content of the good as I have defined it, even though they may not necessarily use the term (or any of its more or less problematic translations), and even though they may oppose the idea of an account.
Aristotle’s ethical enquiry in the Nicomachean Ethics starts out by asking what the overall telos, the point, of human actions is: and, having identified eudaimonia as the most plausible candidate, what eudamionia is. Eudaimonia is often translated ‘happiness’ but recent philosophers have preferred ‘flourishing’, perhaps mistakenly. ‘Happiness’ is wrong in a rather transparent way; ‘flourishing’ has faults that are easier to overlook. Flourishing is something you can do during for a short period, it is something vegetables can do, and as a noun, the word is barely English; its normal use is as a participle or adjective. In Aristotle eudaimonia is a property of a life as a whole which only men who reach adulthood can achieve; and the term is familiar Greek. What it means is that your guardian spirit, your δαιμων (our ‘demon’), is well-disposed. I remember, as a student, being nonplussed by the diversity of candidate answers Aristotle introduces at the start: pleasure (hedone), recognition (time) and excellence (arete). Being used to the Anglo-Saxon distinction of ‘moral’ and ‘prudential’ accounts I had trouble seeing what question Aristotle was asking. And this misunderstanding dogged the whole of early modern philosophy, which turned against Aristotle the philosopher as science turned against Aristotle the scientist. I won’t claim that eudaimonia coincides exactly with my concept of the good; but it is closer than most other philosophers come, and the answers Aristotle comes up are still worth taking seriously. The Aristotelian tradition in ethics loosely encompasses a very wide variety of modern thinkers – among them Marx, Agamben, Ilich, Pieper, Anscombe, Arendt, Nussbaum, Sen,, Brewer, MacIntyre , and Finnis..
Early modern science, which was physical more than biological, largely did away with teleological causation; when this is applied to philosophy, there seems to be no room for such a thing as the telos or point, of a human being. And so the good gets split between happiness and morality. Happiness issues in the utilitarian tradition; morality remains a puzzle in early modern philosophy, and is often treated as obedience to divine fiat, until Smith and Kant (with some help from Hume) developed a more satisfactory characterisation of it (a process traced by Arthur Lovejoy).
Discussions of happiness are extensive in eighteenth-century European and British writing, often in philosophy that is written essayistically or suggestively rather than systematically (and in the French case carefully examined in a little-known book by Robert Mauzi). The most systematic tradition within this world is utilitarianism, which can be traced from Hutcheson and some aspects of Hume through Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick to the axiomatic formalisation of a preferentialist account of wellbeing in neoclassical economics and recent philosophical defences of hedonism by Crisp and Feldman; hedonism of a rather different flavour can be found in Onfray. And the modern discussion of ‘wellbeing’ in Anglo-Saxon philosophy inherits the questions, though not necessarily the answers, of utilitarianism; notable contributors include Griffin, Raz, Darwall, Frankfurt, Haybron (who provides a useful discussion of the terminology), as well as related developments in economics and positive psychology (Seligman, Czikszentmihalyi). Many of these authors deal with wellbeing and either say little about the human good, or identify it with wellbeing, or assume that the human good is some mixture of for instance wellbeing and morality. More importantly, many authors in this tradition seem to me to stop exactly where the questions are getting most interesting; their accounts need to be pushed a little further if they are to illuminate the kinds of dilemma I started with.
When Kant develops his account of morality in ‘Groundwork to the metaphysics of morals’, he starts by saying that only a good will is altogether or unconditionally good (was ohne Einschränkung für gut könnte gehalten werden). However, the good subsequently plays very little part in that book, which is concerned almost entirely with morality. Kant came to see – partly as a result of a challenge posed by a reviewer – that this wasn’t good enough (not enough good, perhaps). In the Critique of Practical Reason he develops the idea that the highest good requires ‘Wohl’, wellbeing as well as morality, although morality takes priority, and suggests that the existence of God may be needed to reconcile the components. This is about as far as Kant as a philosopher is willing to go, because the determinants of Wohl are for Kant an empirical question and hence not the philosopher’s business.
Vestiges of Kant’s view of the good can be found in many authors, but many Kantian philosophers largely ignore his view of the relation of morality to goodness in a broader sense. One who does not is Christine Korsgaard, who sees connections between practical rationality in something like Kant’s sense and the possession of a coherent self, and between ethical self-evaluation and the distinctiveness (not superior value or importance) of humanity. Kant’s view was also explicitly and formally developed as a lexicographic ordering in W.D.Ross’s now unfashionable but interesting ‘The right and the good’.
Utilitarianism, the Aristotelian tradition and Kant provide three of the most organised accounts of the good available in the Anglo-Saxon and European philosophical traditions. In some Anglo-Saxon treatments of the good or more narrowly, of wellbeing, answers are classified under these three heads or even fewer; Crisp’s discussion of wellbeing in the Stanford Encyclopedia gives a reasonable characterisation of the state of Anglo-American academic discussion when he says “It has become standard to distinguish theories of well-being as either hedonist theories, desire theories, or objective list theories”. Since any theory whatsoever might be described as at least partly a list of objectives (though they often have more structure and rationale than the idea of a list suggests), this classification may indeed be comprehensive, but I am not sure it is terribly illuminating even for the idea of wellbeing. In any case, for the good, it is worth compassing a wider range of thinking about the good within Anglo-Saxon and European philosophy as well as outside it.
Plato, for instance, provides a rather messy and detailed exploration of the good (‘αγαθος) in “Philebus” (which, it may or may not be worth noticing, was the subject of Donald Davidson’s doctorate). But anyone inquiring into Plato’s conception of the good can hardly stop there; they need to have a look at least at the accounts of justice in the Republic and love in the Symposium, and they will probably end up reading most of the dialogues. There is a general point here: the fact that I can find the term ‘good’ in any given thinker does not imply that it plays the same role in the structure of their thought as it does in mine, and that role may in come cases have been partially entrusted to other terms (truth in Badiou; creativity in Winnicott; meaning in Wiggins, Wolf and Eagleton; the vie réussie in Luc Ferry).
The work of Iris Murdoch, who was deeply influenced by Plato, sheds some light. Her use of the term ‘good’ seems like an ethical conception in which the goodness of the person comes before, rather than simply being a function of, the rightness of the acts they perform. This is arguably intermediate between my usage and the moral good (and it also suggests ways other than the Kantian by which the ethical may come to feature in an account of the human good).
Nietzsche, as is well known, was concerned to escape the dichotomy between ‘good’, gut and ‘evil’, böse, but he has much more time for that between good and bad, schlecht. In particular, he quite often talks about the ‘natural’ good. But he never settles; even health, he reminds us, may not always be good (Frohliche Wissenschaft 120). Nietzsche’s preference for the epigram was deep and and he would, I think, have resisted any organised account of the good, perhaps even any definition; but he did not think, as I read him, that he could simply do away with, or do without, the concept entirely. In any case, the values scattered through his work provide a variety of starting points for someone who does want to construct an account, and it’s not unreasonable to read his attack on morality as arguing that it is (or is capable of becoming) the enemy of the good. Similar things might be said about a modern Nietzschean like Gilles Deleuze.
Heidegger’s conceptions of ‘resolution’ and ‘authenticity’ are clearly not part of morality (perhaps just as well given the man’s own behaviour). But that is not to say they have nothing to do with the good. It is hard to read Sein und Zeit, if one is interested in accounts of the good, without seeing in these concepts an embryonic potential account of the good or of an aspect of the good. One very simple aspect is that Heidegger suggests, in a way no philosopher in the European tradition had done (though Unamuno had tried) that the good life can only be lived in recognition of one’s mortality: and that the attempt to to evade this recognition is possible but mutilating. And the thinkers who have written in dialogue with Heidegger – Arendt, Sartre, Levinas, Patocka, Karl Rahner and many others – can each be thought of the same way.
Something of the same applies to Buddhist and Chinese traditions. What Buddhism offers is an end to certain kinds of suffering; this privative understanding of the good may well have flowed into the Greek tradition via Pyrrho and Epicurus (as was argued by the German scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, who had a strong European humanist background, and more recently by Beckwith. From my own reading I believe the similarities of the fragments of Pyrrho to Indian texts, combined with the evidence of Diogenes Laertius, is too strong to ignore though I cannot tell whether the links are specifically with Buddhism).
But there is a strong urge within the Buddhist tradition, as with the Chinese Taoist tradition and the synthesis of the two in Zen, to escape evaluation altogether, just as the Mahayana tradition tends to broaden the Theravada tradition’s scepticism about the reality of the self into a broader rejection of absolute conceptual distinctions in general, something seen with particular force in the shattering negatives of the Chinese version of the Heart Sutra:
what appears is no other than void,
void is no other than what appears.
What appears just is void,
void just is what appears.
What is perceived, what is apprehended,
what is willed, what is known:
all just the same.
all method corresponds and is void:
no birth no extinction
no filth no clean
no adding no taking away.
Hence in the void:
not what appears
not what is perceived
not what is apprehended
not what is willed
not what is known
no eye ear nose tongue body mind
no colour sound fragance taste texture method
no border of the eye
no border of the mind either
no unclear mind no end to unclear mind
no age and death either and no end to age and death
no path to extinguish the gathering of distress
no knowing and no getting.
(My translation from the Chinese; for an argument that the Chinese text of this sutra may be the original one see Jan Nattier (PDF link).
Somewhat similarly, in the great Zen master Dogen’s Shobogenzo Zuimonki we find: “To enter into the Buddha Way is to stop discriminating between good and evil and to cast aside the mind that says this is good and that is bad”. (section 2.4, trans. Reiho Masanuga) – though what we have here is not so much radical scepticism about the good as the assertion of its accessibility only through trust in the teachings and practices of a particular tradition.
So one can read Buddhism as both suggesting and subverting aspects of an account of the good. There is in either case every reason for a philosopher of the good to pay attention.
It is possible to read the Jesus of the Gospels as someone obsessed by morality to the exclusion of everything else. Possible, but wrong-headed. His unforgettable response to the protests against extravagance when a woman has tipped a bottle of posh perfume over him , ‘Why trouble ye the woman ? the poor ye have always with you ( Matthew 28 6-13: see also Mark 14 3-9, John 12.1-8)’ might be taken as mere chivalry, but is better seen as an assertion that in some cases love trumps morality. And the emphasis in much understanding of Christianity on compassion – the sharing of suffering – sometimes overlooks that the Gospels also warn against the failure to share joy – ‘We have piped unto you, and you have not danced’ (Matthew 11.17, Luke 7.32).
Christianity, of course, is another matter from the thought of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity and Islam are, I think, distinctive among major religions in the weight they place on a single, eternal divine verdict about the value of a person’s life. And so in Christianity the primacy of salvation, typically through faith, can easily be held to override everything else. It was a major achievement of mediaeval Islamic and Christian thinkers to maintain, sometimes against fierce religious opposition, that thinkers like Aristotle, whose account of the good is at least initially this-worldly, were worth engaging with. And the relation between ‘this-worldly’ evaluation and divine judgment remains something potentially destabilising (both creatively and destructively) in both religions.
Moreover, a thoroughly secular thinker about the good still has to reckon with the theological residue in our everyday concepts. Secular concerns about meaning have some connection with concerns about divine judgment and can also be difficult to assimilate with an account of the good. Attitudes to work in Britain and America, despite Weber’s critics, continue to reflect a Protestant heritage and what may prove to have been a colossal misreading of Genesis (see Ziony Zevit). The centrality of love and joy in the ethical thinking of the Old Testament and its transmission through Christianity continues to influence much of the world. The theoretical and practical work involved in re-shaping such ideas outside a theistic context is substantial.
Conversation about the good, then, has been conducted in many of the most interesting spiritual and philosophical traditions that we have. There is, of course, more to say about whether philosophy should take part in such a conversation at all, whether, if so, it should claim a dominant role, and what distinguishes philosophical contributions from others. But that’s not immediately important here.
One could of course extend the discussion to poetry and psychoanalysis and expand its geographical range; there is philosophical work to be done developing accounts of the good from the traditional values identified in anthropological work throughout the world, whether or not the societies described have themselves developed a philosophical tradition. Thought, after all, is universal, whether or not philosophical disputation is. And it would help my enquiry if I knew more of the evidence – though there are many ways, more or less conscious, in which my views have been shaped by the places I’ve lived in.
But the good remains suspect. People are often shy of writing about the good without scare quotes. A recent example by the author on technology Adam Greenfield is characteristic: “It isn’t particularly helpful to ask whether this new everyday life is “better” or “worse”; I very much doubt we’d have permitted the smartphone to supplant so many other objects and rituals in our lives if we didn’t, on balance, perceive some concrete advantage in doing so”. The second part of this sentence does not (as the semi-colon suggests) justify the claim in the first; there is something more to the rejection of the terminology of ‘good’. What Greenfield expresses so crisply here is very widely held. For many intellectuals, to say something about the good can seem an embarrassment. Why so ?
Several reasons. People suspect that when an account of the good is offered, what one actually gets is a specification – maybe a guide to a specific way of life, rather than a general account. (Better the Talmud, which owns its own specificity, than a shelf of philosophy spuriously claiming generality). The term ‘good’ may be associated with power: it is the vocabulary the powerful use to keep underlings in order. If statements about cultures are mooted, there is a fear that some cultures might be deemed less good than others and their wholesale elimination or subordination thereby justified. It may be assumed that a philosophical account, like a Popperian scientific hypothesis, must be exactly true or is simply false, so that it can be assassinated by a single counterexample; Bernard Williams’ attack on utilitarianism (a doctrine that has indeed often claimed exactitude) is sometimes thought a salutary deterrent to all future ethical theory. It may be suspected that any account of the good will be too objective, peremptorily overriding the quirks of individual subjectivity. It may be thought that the idea of the good implies that there is a single best kind of life, or that every possible life can be ranked against every other. Or: if there were a truth about the good we would have found it by now. Or: the exercise has excessive scope – the good in general can’t be done even if something can be offered for specific kinds of being.
These doubts may relate to the whole idea of the good as such, or to the idea of providing an account of it. The first, I think, is likely to lead to outright scepticism about almost all values. It is very hard to think seriously about freedom, equality or justice without identifying which dimensions of these things are important; and something like the good will be needed to ground what is important. Even Rawls, whose theory of justice asserts the priority of the right to the good, finds himself listing some basic goods that are needed for the construction of his account of justice. If we cannot, on occasion, say ‘Good’, or ‘Sorry’ in the nice Ugandan-English usage which implies sympathy rather than apology (just as Hebrew, for ‘congratulations’, says ‘good fortune’, ‘mazal tov’, or Italian, for sympathy, says ‘mi dispiace’) we really are all at sea.
The objections to the construction of an account of the good are mostly based, I think, on misapprehensions about what such an account must be like. In later essays I will defend the theses I here state programatically. An account of the good, or the better, need not be tied closely to a theory of moral action: it can incorporate subjectivity more subtly than preferentialist utilitarianism: it can and probably must be approximate: because it is approximate, its value will depend on historical context: the interminability of debate, which even a philosopher as historical as MacIntyre seems to see as pathological, may be the right response to the openness of history; no approximation is likely to dominate another, so we will want different accounts for different purposes and for different kinds of being (I am aiming for an account of the human good, with attention to the articles and the adjective): such accounts may use entirely different vocabularies, so there is no privileged technical vocabulary in which an account must be couched: it is therefore not a technical matter in the sense that there is no requirement to master a particular terminology before getting stuck in: it need not imply that there is a single best life or that every pair of lives can be ranked: it need not be individualistic and should not be entirely so if justice is to be done to the value of diversity; and, by the same token, it need not be used to rank different cultures if it is thought that the co-existence of different cultures is a positive good.
None of this, of course, implies that an account of the good is a useful way to organise and guide one’s thoughts about modernity or anything else. Why, then, do I think it is useful ? First, because any thought about modernity involves global changes in people’s lives across a very wide cultural range. It is easy to posit objections to modernity; it is often harder to see how much they matter. For instance, there are books by Schwartz and Salecl suggesting that the expansion of choices which modernity offers, or is thought to offer, may sometimes be harmful. But it’s not so easy to see whether this is a substantial objection to modernity or a little local difficulty that can be addressed with a little sensible nudging. An account of the good can help – at least it has helped me – to see what might be most central. Moreover, it isn’t as if the optimists – disdainful as they often are of philosophy – weren’t already using an implicit account of the good. Anyone who uses economic data on the real value of consumption over time (fundamental to the measurement of poverty and wellbeing in mainstream economics) is implicitly relying on the preferentialist assumptions built into the construction of consumer price indices. Even if all we have is an alternative approximation, by presenting it one at least widens the range of possibilities that may be considered.
Much anti-capitalist critique thinks it can bypass all this. Ever sine Marx, some thinkers on the left have seen no need to specify an alternative to capitalism or to articulate criteria of justice or goodness by which capitalism is found wanting: partly on the grounds that evaluative language is embedded within the social system. The struggle is then conducted by guerilla raids on the prevailing citadel, rather than by establishing an alternative citadel (though, unless I have missed the point of the Long March, even Mao wanted a base). I think this approach is defeatist and at risk of corruption. Defeatist, because the word “good” does not merely belong to our historical moment (even if, debatably, we accept the description of our social order as ‘capitalist’); prevailing accounts can be articulated and challenged and alternatives offered. And at risk of corruption, because the language of principled dissent within an oppositional movement can easily be foreclosed. The virtue of fidelity to the event, which Badiou eloquently articulates, needs qualification by the duty to warn the movement when it has going wrong and even to abandon it when it has manifestly gone bad. Nor is a high-minded pessimism any better; to say capitalism is terrible but anything else would be just as bad is reactionary whatever one’s left-wing credentials.
Go back to the simple distinction Crisp provides between desire-satisfaction and objective-list theories. Really there are two distinctions lurking here: the extent of subjectivity or objectivity in the account, and the difference of method, which is what concerns me here. Utilitarians and Kantians usually aim at a deductive or other a priori method, ever since Mill’s dubious proof by elimination, “the sole evidence that it is possible to prove that anything is desirable, is that people to actually desire it” (‘Utilitarianism’ ch.4). Many objective lists, in contrast, appear to come simply from intuition. But there is another alternative; to start with a rich description of the human condition; and to see if the description suggests any general ideas about the good.
Two traditions immediately suggest themselves: the phenomenological tradition running from Husserl through Heidegger, Arendt, Levinas, Rahner, Patocka and Sartre: and the Aristotelian tradition. One might say that Aristotle’s ethics is itself based in pheneomenology: a phenomenology centred not on consciousness or being but on activity (an idea often neglected in other traditions,with the notable exception of Joseph Raz).
When I started drafting the questionnaire all those years ago, I found myself very quickly gravitating not to what people consume but to what they do and how they feel about it. I found myself sketching a kind of phenomenology, if this is an acceptably lofty term to give to a high-level description of the human condition – a phenomenology based not on consciousness or being but on activity. On this territory, it was inevitable (though it took a chance encounter with a video at the Kennedy centre of a presidential candidate speaking philosophy to the American public – yes, reader, such things once happened) to find my way back to the Aristotelian tradition; a tradition that has the merits of being found both in mediaeval and contemporary thought (after its eclipse during the Enlightenment), thus spanning some of the changes that interest me; of spanning thinkers on left and right, of providing a space in which contemporary political differences might be articulated; and of deriving from the one philosopher whom Kant, Marx and Nietzsche all took seriously. And the account that I shall be developing in subsequent essays owes a good deal to an intense if selective reading of Aristotle.
The ambivalence I had about modernity was partly to do with the way that modernity has changed the ways in which people relate to their own activities, not always for the better. The numbers we have tend not to tell us, partly because statisticians have been less interested in activity than in consumption, and partly because the relation of a person to their activity is not so easy to quantify. (Two people’s consumption bundles can usually be ranked by their value, because people can buy what they choose; but someone may happen to be good at a job that most people like, but they hate, and if we then impute the job a hedonic premium -because most people like doing it – we overestimate this person’s welfare). All this, of course, has parallels in the Marxist critique of capitalism, but there is every reason not to assume, or even to be too quick to conclude, that the problem is simply capitalism. There are wage-slaves in public bureaucracies as well.
(A note on references: I have provided links to authors’ works but there may well be cheaper sources available and almost everything can be found in a library somewhere. In some cases these references are merely introductions to a large corpus of work. At the time of writing this website is not monetised; links are provided for readers’ interest alone.)