A central premise in the argument of my dissertation is that something has value iff it has value-for something or someone. As it is sometimes put, this is the thesis that good is good-for. According to the thesis, goodness is a relational notion. At a first approximation, it is a relation of benefit or suitability between an object, activity, state of affairs, or event, and a subject. While I offer several lines of argument to motivate this thesis in my dissertation, further lines of inquiry are open. These form the basis of a future research program.
Good-for, Reduction, and Reasons
I have come to think that the notion of good simpliciter—of something’s being valuable though it is not valuable-for anything or anyone—is incoherent. If this is right, then we should theorise about the good by theorising about good-for. In the case of artifacts, and biological organisms, there are prospects for a reduction of the notion of good-for to the notion of function, which can be explained in non-normative terms. But in the case of human beings, not all of what we want to say about the good-for us can be captured non-normatively. There is considerable pressure to adopt a normative specification of good-for as it features, for example, in the notion of a good life. The pressure stems from quite general difficulties with naturalistic reduction, and difficulties about the reduction of the notion of a good life in particular. The life of the vicious person who does well in material respects is not a good life. But if the notion of good-for is irreducibly normative, at least in cases which are of central concern in ethics, we might wonder where precisely the gain lies. For perhaps part of the appeal of the notion of good-for lay in the promise of a reduction to something non-normative—something biological. If we reject the reduction, then we seem to inherit many of the metaphysical and epistemological difficulties of good simpliciter.
In response to this worry, I consider the traditional objections to the notion of good simpliciter, and argue that they do not have the same force with respect to the notion of good-for. For example, on the epistemological side, what constitutes a good life is investigated by the non-fundamental sciences, and is the subject of ordinary observation. But I will argue that the sense in which what is good-for us is there to be discovered should not be overstated. What is good-for us may be indeterminate. Moreover, what is good-for us can be a function of what we do, so that there is at least a sense in which we can make something good-for ourselves. This is traditionally an insight of meta-ethical constructivism, but it is one I will argue is best accommodated within the framework of the kind of ethical realism I propose.
There are related further questions about the irreducible normativity of good-for. To say that good-for is irreducibly normative, at least in cases of well-being, is not yet to settle on which normative notion is primary. For example, is the notion of good-for the primary explanatory notion, or can the explanatory burden be shifted, as Tim Scanlon has argued, to the notion of a reason? I am interested in exploring the possibility, currently against the grain, that facts about what we have reason to do are value based, so that the notion of a reason is secondary.
It is sometimes argued that the notion of what is good-for someone is normatively inert, in the sense that the good-for someone gives rise to reasons for them, but not to others. If true, this would be a bad result for theories of the good-for human beings, and for prospects of making ‘welfare’ (as it is sometimes put) central to ethics. I reject this argument in my dissertation. I argue that the fact that we explain the value of something in terms of its being good-for someone, does not affect the scope of the reasons to which it gives rise. As we might put it, good as good-for gives rise to perfectly ‘agent-neutral’ reasons. But this line of reply can seem to push matters too far in the other direction, in failing to capture intuitions about reasonable partiality. We tend to think that our own good, and the good of those close to us, is a matter of special importance to us. It guides our deliberations in ways that it does not guide the deliberations of strangers. The challenge is to find a way to accommodate these reasonable forms of partiality.
I am interested in developing a proposal on which, while what is good-for someone gives rise to (at least ‘pro tanto’) reasons for everyone, we have instrumental reasons to attend to the good of those proximate to us. We have reason to attend to the good of those we are best equipped to attend to, given our competences, our knowledge of the facts, our standing with respect to them, and so on. This might seem to make the ground of our special obligations to ourselves and those close to us too weak, or of the wrong kind. To that I will argue that, while it is sufficient to capture important forms of partiality, the ground is weak. I will argue that this is so in virtue of our relatedness to all human beings, and the good of all human beings.
I am intrigued by two claims Aristotle makes about human beings and friendship. Aristotle tells us: (i) that “The virtuous person is related to his friend in the same way as he is related to himself, since a friend is another himself” (NE IX.9, 1170b6-9). And Aristotle tells us (ii) that even strangers, the people we meet in our travels in foreign lands, are friends (NE VIII.1, 1155a16-23). Together, the idea seems to be that all human beings are related to us as friends, or potential friends, and consequently, that the good of all human beings is part of our own good. This is a radical proposal. Samuel Scheffler has recently denied that we can make sense of the idea that all human beings stand in valuable relationships to one another. I will argue that Scheffler has overlooked important resources for developing such an account. In this, I am pursuing ideas in recent accounts of virtue ethics (by John Cooper, and Katja Vogt), in which Aristotle is not understood as a so-called ‘partialist’, but as someone who sees a wide range of relationships as structuring ethical lives, including a relationship between all human beings. In my view, a plausible development of this idea would shed light on what Derek Parfit has called “the profoundest problem”, the problem of seeming conflict between self-interest and morality. This problem seems to me to depend on an assumption about the separateness of human beings, and by drawing on lines of thought in Aristotle, I will argue that this assumption should be rejected.