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Richard Kraut has been thinking about what is good for human persons for a long time. In an early essay entitled "Two Conceptions of Happiness," published in 1979 in The Philosophical Review, he contrasted the traditional, robust Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia with more current ideas about happiness and well-being. More recently, in Aristotle: Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2002), he considers, among other things, the extent to which sophia, i.e., philosophical contemplation, can be -- as Aristotle suggested -- the highest good because it allows for optimal political and theoretical reasoning. And in other books and articles published over the last two and a half decades, Kraut has wrestled with the relationship between human desire, on the one hand, and that which can be called the human good, on the other.
What is Good and Why represents Kraut's most recent invitation to join him as he sorts through what he has learned during his season of sophia. In this work, he surveys and critiques Western philosophical efforts to articulate that which is ultimately good. He points to the weaknesses of various theories of the good, and gives particular attention to utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, and other Enlightenment-based efforts to objectify virtues and treat them as separate goods for their own sake (or for the sake of society as a whole). He also questions the extent to which a subjective acceptance of the value of certain virtues can possibly yield a helpful or useful approach to ethics.
Each of the four chapters of this work represents a thorough inquiry into different aspects of the question of the human good. In the first, Kraut reminds the reader of the Socrates' observation that the process of inquiry is at least as important as the subject matter itself. But the subject matter is also critical, and at the outset the inquirer must arrive at some basic conclusions about what it means to flourish as a human being. The reader is asked to consider whether the larger questions about the good of society, as raised by utilitarians, sufficiently encompasses all of that which is good for each individual. On the other hand, Kraut also lays bare the emptiness of the egoist's conclusions that that which seems (or feels) good to the individual is the highest ideal of the human good. Categorical imperatives, self-denial, self-love, and the unhelpful dichotomy of objective (agent-neutral) and subjective (agent-relative) views of virtue, are also viewed through the same questioning and critical lens.
The second of four chapters of this work provides an intense focus on the very idea of the good. Kraut leads the reader through an investigation of the distinctions between "good," "good for," "good that," and "bad that." He suggests that the most helpful formulation of the good, is the idea of "good for" the human being. That is, he returns to the suggestion that human flourishing, and the avoidance of that which is bad for human flourishing, is the most helpful and workable approach to virtue theory.
The third chapter offers a wide ranging exploration of various understandings of human flourishing. Kraut is careful to articulate a workable theoretical distinction between flourishing and un-flourishing, and then tests that distinction against the most common social, physical, psychological, economic, and spiritual indicators that signal the extent to which individuals are indeed flourishing. Social well-being, sexuality, intellectual development, engagement with art and culture, self-sacrifice, fame, wealth, and virtuous habits are all considered in the context of flourishing and un-flourishing.
The fourth chapter, finally, addresses the general idea of human flourishing -- as well as virtue understood in terms of that which is "good for" -- at the societal level. The theoretical, logical, and practical insufficiency of an egoistic approach to that which is good for some, but harmful to others, is considered. Larger ideas of retribution for crimes, cosmic justice, and social justice are examined in light of a virtue theory approach to human flourishing. Specific social issues, such as slavery, torture, lying, and stealing are examined alongside Kraut's articulation human flourishing.
What is Good and Why contains neither preface nor grand conclusion. Unlike other works written or edited by Richard Kraut, this work is not a compendium or encyclopedia of Aristotelian or Platonic ideas. It is, instead, an opportunity for the reader to pay careful attention to the author's observations about what he has come to appreciate as the best understanding of the relationship between virtue and human flourishing. The work, dedicated to the author's students, is not to be studied as a reference book. It is to be experienced. It is sophia.
© 2007 Albert D. Spalding
Albert D. Spalding, JD, is an associate professor at Wayne State University School of Business Administration. He teaches legal studies and ethics.
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