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What Is Good and WhyReview - What Is Good and Why
The Ethics of Well-Being
by Richard Kraut
Harvard University Press, 2007
Review by Dan Turton
Nov 3rd 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 45)

In this courageous book, Kraut continues the ancient tradition of analyzing theories and opinions about what is good for us; a task he sees as important because of its relevance for how we should live our lives. It might, at first glance, seem obvious what is good to us, but Kraut rightly notes that our common sense seems to lead us astray on this topic as often as it helps us. He also worries that some philosophers have based their theories of what is good for us on the failures of our common sense rather than the successes. Kraut correctly argues that only an understanding of what underpins goodness will allow us to discern the falsities from the truths about what is good for us and to fruitfully blend the best aspects of commonsense and philosophical theory. This book is courageous because providing a complete and satisfying account of what is good, and justifying why it is good, is a huge task; one that has been attempted by several philosophical heavyweights over the years, but never accomplished with aplomb. As we shall see, Kraut's attempt is laudable in many ways. However, it eventually falls short of a complete and satisfying answer for the same kinds of reasons as the attempts of his predecessors.

The book is coherently divided into four large chapters, each of which contains numerous headed sections that help the reader stay on track with the overall thesis. Chapter One sets the scene by meticulously explaining how to interpret 'G is good for S'. The result of this always clear but sometimes tedious explanation is that the question that this book seeks to answer is: what ultimate justification can we coherently give for why any particular thing is good for (ultimately beneficial for) any particular subject? Unlike some investigations on this topic, Kraut structures his approach so that what is good for non-human animals, and even artefacts, is to be included, although not centrally, in the account. In Chapter Two, Kraut explains and (sometimes) convincingly argues against two common types of theories of what is good for us, hedonistic and desire-satisfaction, or conation (as he calls them), theories. Chapter Three follows with a statement and endorsement of his account of what is good and why, Developmentalism, which is discussed below. Then, Chapter Four discusses lots of examples to show how Developmentalism works and to argue that it provides better justifications than the other main types of theory.

There are literally hundreds of arguments packed into this book and, as should be expected with such a large sample, they vary widely in their validity and force. Kraut is at his best when he argues against W.D. Ross' theory of well-being and desire-satisfaction theories of well-being. Ross' list of four ultimate goods (knowledge, pleasure, virtue, and correct proportion of pleasure to virtue) is an easy target, but desire-satisfaction accounts of well-being are certainly not. Desire-satisfaction accounts have maintained the title of 'most plausible' theory of well-being for a few decades now, although one wonders why considering there are some very powerful arguments against them. Kraut raises several objections to this type of theory, although his most telling objection runs along the following lines.

Desire-satisfaction accounts of well-being are based on the idea that getting what we really want is good for us. Formal definitions of what is good for us add a few qualifications to avoid obvious objections and are usually stated: something is good for us if and only if it satisfies a fully-informed and reflected-upon rational desire of ours. Kraut highlights some fundamental problems that remain, however. Consider my desire to drink a cold beer on a hot day. Desire-satisfaction accounts of what is good for us hold that the goodness I get from drinking the beer is all to do with my desire being satisfied and nothing to do with the content of the desire -- the crisp tasty beer! With the content of the desire largely ignored, desire-satisfaction theories are too narrow; they do not take into account our enjoyment of the objects of our desires. Furthermore, their reliance on the satisfaction of our deliberated-upon desires as being good for us simply because we happened to have them seems to be a particularly arbitrary way to determine what is good for us. Indeed, when we explain why something is ultimately good for us, we rarely limit our justification to the fact that we desired it. And, if we did, someone could rightly ask us why we wanted that thing; a question to which intelligible answers abound, not least of which that you expect to enjoy it.

Where Kraut's arguments are much less convincing is in the defense of his own theory against some strong objections. It is this weakness that makes Kraut's attempt to solve the problem of what is good for us fail like all of the attempts of his philosophical forebears. Kraut proposes 'Developmentalism', the thesis that what is good for something is for it to flourish, unless it is not a living thing, in which case what is good for it is anything that enables it to facilitate the flourishing of a living thing. Flourishing is cached out as the development and exercise of natural capacities and powers. For humans, this means that following "a pattern of psychological and physical growth, filled with enjoyment" is what is ultimately good for us (P140). Why? Because flourishing is doing well for a living thing and all of the things that we normally think of as good examples of life going well for a living thing can be explained by them ultimately being an aspect of flourishing.

Although intuitive in many ways, Developmentalism seems to suffer from the objection that it affirms the naturalistic fallacy -- that what is natural is always good. Kraut admits that his Developmentalism relies on facts about living things and the way that nature has endowed them, but denies committing any fallacy because he claims to have derived the importance of the natural facts from his analysis rather than holding them to be true before he began. He claims that he simply searched for the common ground in all concrete examples of things that are good for all living things and discovered that the goodness in every one of them boiled down to the enjoyable development or exercise of natural powers. The criticism of committing the naturalistic fallacy holds true however. We can be sure that Kraut has not considered all of the infinite examples of goodness for a living thing. Here is one he missed that seems instructive. If I made cybernetic wings for my cat and taught him to safely use them, then I'm sure you'll agree that flying would be good for my cat. Flying is not one of the natural capacities of cats and so cannot count as flourishing and so, according to Kraut's Developmentalism, flying cannot be good for my cat. Since what is good for a living thing, according to Developmentalism, relies only on natural facts about how living things merely happen to currently develop, then Kraut has committed the naturalistic fallacy. It is clear that flying would be good for my cat not least because he could catch more birds, which he enjoys, and because he could more easily escape my neighbor's dog, whose routine harassments he does not enjoy.

Regardless of any criticisms here, Kraut should be commended for compiling such a detailed array of arguments on a topic that has not lost any importance since people first asked themselves how they might improve their lot. His writing is dense and significant enough for philosophers familiar with this area to find a place on their cluttered shelves for it, while also being clear enough for non-philosophers to enter the debate here. It might be good for potential-non-philosopher-readers without a prior interest in well-being to avoid this book however because, for all the depth and clarity of argument here, there is very little in the way of attention-grabbing factoids, stories or diagrams. Having said that, who isn't interested in what might make our lives go better for us?

 

© 2009 Dan Turton

 

Dan Turton is a PhD student in the Philosophy Department at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently researching the possibility of pleasure underpinning a sound moral and political philosophy. His research specialty is happiness and his areas of competence include moral and political philosophy, especially normative and applied ethics. www.danturton.com


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