What is the best way to understand the relationship between human well-being and morality?  

There is no single "best way" to understand the relationship between human well-being and morality.  The very meaning of the concept "human well-being" in the context of a discussion of morality, is going to depend on the theory of morality from within which one approaches the concept.  Given the kinds of widespread debates in contemporary ethics, and the multitude of differing concepts of morality proposed, each of these terms -- "human well-being" and "morality" -- is open to multiple, incompatible, interpretations.  Any relationship between them, therefore, is going to depend on just how the two concepts are understood.  In other words, one cannot talk about the "best way" to understand the relationship between these two concepts until one has landed on some particular meaning for the concepts, and a scale of measure for the concept of "best"..

That being said, the term "well-being" is commonly used in philosophical discussions to describe what is "good for a person".  Well-being is thus a kind of value, distinct from aesthetic value, and possibly distinct from moral value.  It remains an open question, subject to much debate, whether something that is "good for me" is also "morally good".  G.E. Moore, for example, is one prominent critic of the notion of "good for".  In his Principia Ethica, he defined "goodness" as a property only of states of affairs and did not accept the idea that there is a distinct concept of "good for" a person.  Moore did not distinguish between moral and non-moral goodness.  He maintained that moral goodness is just ordinary goodness when possessed by certain things.  Instead of accepting a concept of "good for a person", he defined a person's good as what is simply or ultimately good and located in his life.(1) 

Whether this notion of "good for me" is intended to be understood in a pragmatic, non-instrumentally, or ultimate sense (and just how those terms are to be cashed out), again also depends on the concept of morality from which one starts.  But in answer to the question "what does well-being consist in", the standard approach is to group theories into either hedonist theories, objective list theories, or desire theories(2).  Hedonist theories view well-being in terms of happiness or pleasure.  The most noted examples of this are the varieties of Utilitarianism.  The objective-list theories view well-being in terms of some laundry list of suggested "good" things.  The most noted example of this is the Aristotelian concept of eudemonia.  The greatest difference between the hedonist and the objective-list theories is that for the hedonist theories, the pleasure or happiness has to be experienced to count.  Whereas the objective-list theories maintain that the suggested list of "goods" count as good, whether anyone is aware of them or not. 

The desire theories are a response to a primary criticism of hedonist theories.  Roger Nozick, in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia(3), suggested that if hedonist theories were correct, then everyone would choose to plug themselves into his "experience machine" -- a machine, like the Matrix(4), that provides a complete perceptual experience of whatever one regarded as pleasant or happiness producing.  Since most people would not plug themselves into such a machine, Nozick concluded that hedonist theories could not be correct.  In response to this criticism, desire theories argue that what people want is not the perceptual sensation of happiness or pleasure, but the satisfaction of the preferences or desires that result in such happiness or pleasure.  Since preference or desire satisfaction requires some true factual propositions about reality, simply having the simulated experience is not acceptable.

But the main problem with discussing these theories of well-being, is that the devil is in the details.  How one is going to cash out one's hedonist, objective-list, or desire satisfaction theory of "well-being", and how consequently, one is going to understand the relationship between morality and well-being, depends intimately on the concept of morality that one chooses to adopt.  Some moral theories, in fact, do not recognize any relationship with well-being.

Consider, for example, that most regular (i.e. non-philosopher) people's concept of "morality" is an Authoritative Rule code of right or wrong behavior -- either provided by one's religious affiliation, or specifically adopted by a particular social group (as in a medical code of ethics, or a business code of ethics), or socially accepted "mores" or social habits.  There are also, of course, philosophical theories that would fall into this group -  the contractualism of T. M. Scanlon(5) and the moral relativism of Gilbert Harman and David B. Wong(6) are just two examples.  Such a code of morality is couched in "Commandments" -- rules of conduct that are prescribed or proscribed.  In other words, these concepts of "morality" are non-consequentialist.  Philippa Foot was right(7) -- the average person's Authoritative Rule concept of "morality" is very much like etiquette -- this is done, that is not done, period.  The notion of "human well-being" is not the primary concern.  The justification for the rules is not in the consequences of following the rules, so it is not a justification of Authoritative Rule morality that it will lead to better human well-being.  

Of course, there is still a second-level relationship involved.  Religious morality, for example, will see the relationship as benefiting the well-being of the moral actor ("human" in a personal rather than a global sense), as measured in spiritual terms -- sometimes in the here-now, and sometimes in the indefinite future (heaven?).  Conventionalist or Contractualist morality will see the relationship as benefiting everyone, as measured in economic well-being, in the here-now.  And so forth.  But even within the general category of etiquette-like non-consequentialist morality, one cannot talk about the "best way" to understand the relationship between morality and human well-being in any more specific terms without establishing which concept of morality is to frame the basis (define the terms) of the discussion.

By comparison with the Authoritative Rule kind of morality, the Non-Cognitive theories of morality all reject the notion that moral language expresses propositions about the world that can be true in a sense independent of our thoughts about the topic.  Hence, to one extent or another, they all interpret moral language as expressive of emotions or prescriptions/commands.  In such an approach, there is no direct connection between morality and human well-being -- they are concepts that exist in two separate realms -- the non-factual (non-propositional) and the factual (propositional).  There simply is no relationship between human well-being and morality to understand.

Kantian "duty ethics" is another example of a non-consequentialist moral system(8).  Kant derived a series of rules (Categorical Imperatives) that a reasonable person (in order to be reasonable) must follow.  Kant argued that these rules are dictated by reason, not justified by their consequences.  For Kant, like the others mentioned above, there is no explicit first-level relationship between human well-being and morality.  Like with the Non-Cognitivist theories, the two concepts are in different realms.  Although, at a second level, Kant did think that a rational moral agent, obeying the dictates of reason, would end up with a better life.  But this was not a justification of the rules or a motivation to be moral.  According to Kant, being rational not only leads to the rules of morality, but also leads to human well-being.  And, as befitting a second-level relationship, Kant was not specific in how he viewed the "well-being" of his moral agents.

Aristotelian forms of "virtue ethics" provide an example of a differing concept of the relationship between human well-being and morality.  "Virtue Ethics" views morality as the result of living a virtuous life.(9)  The beneficiary of living a virtuous life is the person being virtuous, so the "human" in "human well-being" is understood on a personal level, rather than on a global level.  However, the benefits of being moral (the well-being involved) are not achieved as the consequences of any specific example of acting morally.  Instead, the well-being accrues to the virtuous agent as a result of having lived a virtuous life.  In other words, the well-being resulting from having lived a virtuous life is not (entirely) achieved in the here-now, but is realized more completely in the indefinite future.  The term eudemonia (from Aristotle) is used by modern virtue ethics theorists as a standard synonym for the well-being that is supposed to result from living virtuously.  It is standardly translated as "happiness" or "flourishing."  But the trouble comes when trying to interpret the concept in measureable terms.  So again, just what those benefits actually are -- just how to understand the concept of "human well-being" involved -- will vary depending on the details of system of morality underlying the discussion. 

Utilitarianism is the one theory of morality that has an apparently straight forward link between the notion of "human well-being" and "morality".  The Utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number" guarantees that link as long as "human well-being" is understood as a synonym for "greatest good for the greatest number".  But of course, that synonymy does not have to hold.  There is nothing in standard Mill/Bentham Utilitarianism that mandates that synonymy.  Mill/Bentham Utilitarianism speaks in terms of "happiness" and sometimes "utility" without providing a particular interpretation of how those concepts are to be measured.  It remains a widely debated open question whether "greatest happiness/utility" is really synonymous with "human well-being".   

But even within the confines of a Utilitarianism that does equate "human well-being" with "happiness", "utility" and "greatest good", the problem comes in how to measure these things.  Particular Utilitarian theories diverge on how to measure "utility".  Is it the net sum, the minimum negative total, the average, or John Rawl's maximin(10).  Is it pleasure/pain, happiness, preferences or desires, rational preferences of fully informed agents, ideal preferences of omniscient agents, etc.  And is what is being evaluated the consequences of actions (Act Utilitarianism), versus rules (Rule Utilitarianism) or policies.  Different variations of Utilitarianism employ concepts of well-being that fall into all three of the hedonistic, objective-list, and desire theories mentioned above.  So initially the relationship between human well-being and morality might seem straight forward -- well-being defining the moral.  But to explore below that initial definition -- when trying to find the "best way" to understand the relationship between human well-being and Utilitarian morality -- one has to determine just what notion of well-being is intended.

A somewhat easier example to discuss is that of Evolutionary Ethics(11).  A consequentialist theory of morality, the moral principle is provided by the Darwinian principle of "greatest inclusive fitness".  Unlike the philosophical debates about measuring "utility", any debates about measuring "greatest inclusive fitness" turn into scientific debates within the science of population genetics.  Although initially, the "human" involved must be understood in terms of the genes of the acting moral agent rather than globally, at a second level Evolutionary Ethics argues that humans in general will be better off (in terms of inclusive fitness) if each individual pursues their own inclusive fitness -- somewhat akin to the "invisible hand" economic argument of Adam Smith(12).

Some philosophers have argued that morality, and moral contemplation, is the domain of concerns for the well-being or flourishing (in the sense of happiness and/or health, the amount to which one is thriving, prospering, succeeding).  They view morality as an expression of the desire for happiness and a good life.  In their view, people promote their moral views because they want to live in what they think is a fair and civil society, for the benefit of themselves and their family.  But this view of morality, and the apparent moral-prudential conflicts that it engenders, will be hotly disputed by any non-consequentialist moral philosopher.  It also seems an inevitable component of the concept of morality that morality sometimes asks us to do things that require sacrifice of this concept of well-being or flourishing.  Should we go out of our way to help a stranger in distress or hurry on our way to an important business meeting?  Should we give a certain percentage of our income to charity or fund our own nest egg?  If the prudential (well-being) sometimes conflicts with the moral, why be moral?

There is thus simply no "best" way to understand the relationship between human well-being and morality until one has landed on a concept of morality from which to approach the discussion.  Each differing concept of morality will define the concept of "human well being" in terms of its own vocabulary.  Some will render the relationship as irrelevant -- conceiving morality as having little to do with human well-being.  Others will render the relationship as central -- conceiving morality as depending on some concept of human well being.  Any further discussion must wait for a specific concept of morality to give the terms of the dicussion meaning.

 

Notes & References

(1)  Hurka, Thomas, "Moore's Moral Philosophy" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/moore-moral/>.

(2)  Crisp, Roger, "Well-Being" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2008/entries/well-being/>.

(3)  Nozick, R.;  Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, Inc. New York, New York, 1974. ISBN 978-0-465-09720-3.

(4)  Wikipedia contributors, "The Matrix" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Matrix&oldid=472483564>.

(5) Scanlon, T.M.;  What We Owe Each Other, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000, ISBN 978-0-674-00423-8.

(6)  Gowans, Chris, "Moral Relativism" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/moral-relativism/>.

(7)  Philippa Foot, "Morality As a System of Hypothetical Imperatives," in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fifth edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1998), pp. 302-308.  The essay originally appeared in Philosophical Review v. 84 (1972), pp. 305-316.

(8)  Johnson, Robert, "Kant's Moral Philosophy" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/kant-moral/>.

(9)  Hursthouse, Rosalind, "Virtue Ethics" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/ethics-virtue/>.

(10)  Oyeshile, Olatunji A.;  "A Critique of the Maximin Principle in Rawls' Theory of Justice" in Humanity & Social Sciences Journal, Vol 3, No 1 (2008), Pgs 65-69.

(11)  James, Scott M.;  An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, Wiley-Blackwell, John Wiley & Sons, 2010. ISBN 978-1-405-19396-2.

(12)  Wikipedia contributors, "The Wealth of Nations" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, URL=<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Wealth_of_Nations&oldid=473228128>.

 

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